Some novels which use the demotic (people’s) voice–Part II

Part II–The book London Fields by Martin Amis, which is discussed by Scott in his book, has a complicated sort of voyeurism as one subject (and as far as romance is concerned, an intricate satire of voyeurism is the key element in the examination of romance here).  This book is seen as a sort of “art-speech,” containing near examples of skaz and the demotic voice, while flouting a general disregard for any specific political agenda to promote them.  (But more about this book later.)

Another set of works which deserves mention because it has reached a world demotic community (in translation) is the trilogy of “the Girl” books by Stieg Larsson beginning with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  The books are not only written in the popular form of a Swedish mystery-cum-suspense series, which is demotic in its own country, but by taking up the world community topics of computer hacking, cruelty to women, espionage political, industrial, and personal, and sexual mores in a contemporary society, they also are able to reach a popular world community of such breadth as is rare.  Moreover, the books are clearly addressed, through their picaresque travelling heroine, to a democratic world community beset with these issues.  Not only have they reached a world community, but also they depict such sexual frankness and open social violence that they overtly take up the topic of cruelty at large and discovery of it by those who can take matters into their own hands, whether legally or simply justifiably by popular “vote.”  The gritty realism cuts against a simple sense of romance in the Larsson novels.  Perhaps the most one can say of these novels as potential avatars of the romance genre is to point to the unlikely degree to which the multiply challenged heroine manages in spite of all vast hurdles to overcome the challenges in her way.  And we are with her all the way in an enthusiasm for her abilities and with sympathy for her struggle.

Other contemporary authors choose to follow earlier role models by writing various kinds of regional fiction, using the culture, language, and sense of belonging special to certain communities or professions.  For instance, there is Jane Smiley’s novel A Thousand Acres, in which the subject matter (farming), settings, and character descriptions are special to the Iowa farming community.  There is not a specific dialect or idiom operating to translate the experience, except for the rueful practicality of the characters’ outlooks, and the way in which the rape of the daughters by the father, and old and forgotten secret, is made to parallel the story of the simultaneous rape of the land.  The surfacing of this secret, along with its sensational nature, and the focus on the psychological twists and turns of the plot, are surely at least tangentially related to the romance mode (it should be understood that I am using “romance” in the technical sense here).  As well, there are encyclopedic listings of Iowan native plants, flowers, and wildlife at the scene at the farm dump between Ginny and Jess (a romance in the usual sense of the word–read the book!).  Pictures of the culture also occur perhaps  in something so fleeting and elusive as the inflections in conversations which aren’t quite dialect, but which have the sense of certain speakers’ rhythms.

A really notable writer who has rung changes on the fictional particularizing skills of earlier precursors (whether the ones I named or others) is E. Annie Proulx, especially in her books The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain.  Like many contemporary novels, hers either celebrate or detail changes in contemporary life, and break forth with cataclysms directed against the past and revelations about it.  The suppression and subsequent revelation of a hidden truth or way of life is equally a sign of the romance mode and variations of the realistic mode, and is perhaps the point at which the two are branches of the same tree.  Each of these two books contains some demotic speech markers in speech rhythms and abruptions as well.  Also, there are cultural markers in the first book, such as occurs at the beginnings of many chapters, where detailed instructions for the tying of different shipping knots, or regional sayings, are in evidence.  The first book furnishes a qualified “happy ending”–“And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.”  Brokeback Mountain by contrast furnishes a bleak picture of the past and its limitations rising to choke off the present, another frequent topic of demotic literature.  In this book, a bisexual man is left alone to mourn his gay lover’s death by beating at the hands of some other men who found him out, and there is thus the frequent demotic topic of society’s punishments of transgressions made against its prejudices.

The book The Joke by Milan Kundera is one which in its native language is another book full of skaz.  The fifth edition “Author’s Note” describes the difficult course of getting an accurate English translation.  The book blurb claims that it has “fidelity…to the words and syntax” and to “the characteristic dictions and tonalities” of its multiple narrators.  This matter aside, there is an attempt at fidelity to cultural practices in the descriptions of a Bohemian wedding ceremony in Chapter Seven, complete with the ritual wedding dialogues and actions.  As well, there is in addition to the otherwise scholarly analysis of folk songs of Chapter Four a recounting of the musicians’ lives as they are seen to live with their music.  There is a doubling of the picture, with two cultures in one place:  the original Bohemian culture and the Soviet regime which is superimposed over it, as they are lived out by the main character, a member of the original culture caught up in the toils of government repression.  Conflicts between two reigns or cultures is far from unheard of in romance, and were it not for the fact that the stark realism of Kundera’s text plays against it, one could also point to the picturesque elements upon which romanticism is fed, such as the celebration of village life and tradition, here an ironic picturesque because it is threatened.

A cultural doubling similar to this one can be seen in the book The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver.  In this book, a young boy is brought up alternately by his mother in the Mexico of the 1930’s, and in close contact with the Trotskyite faction there, and then by his father in Washington, D. C. during the early years of the Communist scare.  Here, the two cultures, each of which has its own demotic voice and events, are not layered one over the other as in Kundera’s book, but are placed side by side for purposes of contrast.  The main character lives his life drawing elements first from one cultural milieu and then from the other.  There is in both cases a demotic fiction clearly in place.  In this book, the picturesque of modest living and the picturesque of artistic concerns are mingled in the (imagined) views  given of the household(s) of Diego Riviera and Frieda Kahlo; likewise, the main character’s final escape to an idyllic setting sounds a note of the romance tradition.

Another book by Barbara Kingsolver also deserves mention in any serious discussion of demotic voice.  This is the book Prodigal Summer.  There is in this book a deliberate focus on dialect and pronunciation from as early as page 4, when a mountain person recognizes an American Northerner by the sound of “y” at the end of a vowel; on page 25, a Northerner teases an American Southern speaker about the double locution “still yet,” made for emphasis.  There are examples of how skaz of the area sounds to a strange ear.  The book takes up the topics of farming, plants, animals, and insects as a world cultural knowledge practiced not only by specialists and scientists, but also by folk specialists born to the culture as a people.  The overarching topic is the stewardship of the earth, and in their conflicts over this issue, the characters make outright comparisons of their different regional dialects and customs.  They are thus sophisticated in their understandings of their own speech.  Of most interest in terms of the picturesque and/or romance tradition is the mingling of an overall appreciation of nature not only by the simpler folk who live in the midst of it, but by those of more sophisticated intellectual tradition who also enjoy it.  The “prodigal summer” to which the novel refers is in fact the main vehicle of romance and superfluity for all concerned, with its exaggerated and lush influence over the personal identities of the people involved.  Personal identity will be further explored briefly in Part III.


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4 responses to “Some novels which use the demotic (people’s) voice–Part II

  1. I haven’t read “London Fields” yet, but Amis’s “Time’s Arrow” is an ABSOLUTE MASTERPIECE. One of the stranger books I’ve ever read, and one of the most powerful Holocaust books as well.

    I love Kingsolver; I just started The Poisonwood Bible; lots of demotic voice in that one, of course! And just the other day I picked up Prodigal Summer at a library book sale (paperback, $1!)

    Jan @ TheRewildWest


    • Back in the days when there were many more Borders stores than there are now, I read a little bit from “The Poisonwood Bible” every time I went in, until I had it read. That just tells you how much cheaper pulp for books used to be, because it tells you how frequently it was possible to go in with an intent at least to be around in an area where you might potentially buy a book. About a month ago, I found a copy of “The Poisonwood Bible” for free at a free book shelf, and latched onto it, but I haven’t had a chance to re-read it yet. I have the initial impression that “Prodigal Summer” is better, though.


      • I thought Borders was completely out of business??

        Did you like Poisonwood Bible? I’m 40 pages in, loving it so far. Look forward to getting to Prodigal Summer as well =)


  2. No, I wasn’t crazy about “The Poisonwood Bible.” But I think that everything I’ve read so far of Kingsolver’s has been well-written, and rewardingly imagistic.


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