Language is a tool not a box

After much recommendation, I am reading a book that on the surface is about a subject (American History) that holds mostly no interest for me. But boy is it good and weird and written in a strange way.

Would you read a novel made of citations? That’s what this seems to be… a large portion of it anyway. Also, the point of view changes every paragraph almost. And each paragraph (each POV, that is) is written in a different style. Some of them with no punctuation, misspellings, or odd capitalization, and each one signing off with their name at the end.

Example of citations:

The rich notes of the Marine Band in the apartments below came to the sick-room in soft, subdued murmurs, like the wild, faint sobbing of far-off spirits.

-Keckley, op. cit.

Willie lay in the “Prince of Wales” bedroom with its dark purple wall hangings and golden tassels.

-Epstein, op. cit.

The cheeks of his handsome round face were inflamed with fever. His feet moved restlessly beneath the maroon coverlet.

-In “History Close at Hand,” edited by Renard Kent, account of Mrs. Kate O’Brien.

Example of POV changes:

The lad, overawed, followed close behind us, looking this way and that.

-hans vollman

Well now I will give you A part of, or all of, if you like it, a Song my dear husband used to sing. Cauld it Adam and Eaves wedding Song. This Song was Sung by him at my sister’s wedding. He was much in the habit of making Songs and Singing of them and— Oh no, I won’t go no closer. Good day to you, sirs.

-mrs. elizabeth crawford

We had reached the edge of an uninhabited wilderness of some several hundred yards that ended in the dreaded iron fence.

-hans vollman

And the entire novel, so far, is written this way.

‘You can’t do that!’ shouts the English teacher. Well, the point of writing is to convey ideas, and this does that well, in its own way. If it works, it is allowed!

Why should we treat language like a fence around us? Uproot that fence and use its posts to carve your message into the ground!

Language is for using, not for obeying…



Sometimes I’m reading and I think ‘I could stand you forever’, and other times I want to toss the book aside from waiting for the character to change. But each character, and narrator, should have their own unique voice. Because, the narrator isn’t ‘you’. You are an actor playing the part of the narrator–and the characters–when you put the words down on the page.

I started reading Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, which is a set of six stories from six different characters points of view, that are all related somehow. The book is described as ‘a puzzle’ in several reviews, which I found appealing.

However, the style in which the first couple sections are written, is quite daunting to deal with. The ‘old style’ of language is difficult to parse, and I really have to think about it in order to understand what is going on. It appears that each character is a bit further forward in time (I just began the second section, and it’s much easier so far), so I expect clarity will improve. But it was quite a difficult voice to start with.

I’m hoping to learn a lot from this novel, because my next project will involve several characters telling their story (six at the moment, so it happens) and I want them each to have a unique voice and way of looking at the world.