- Conversation - A Singular Man"
by Renata Adler
There is more to writing realistic dialogue that a good ear and a sound memory, and spontaneous conversation as recorded by tape or stenography will seldom sound authentic on the stage or in a novel. (Even in newspapers, in which quoting out of context can create on kind of distortion, quoting context may create another.) To convey the spoken word accurately in part, a novelist must paraphrase. For a time, the dialogue in fiction was more "literary" than the speech of fact. Stammerers or the inarticulate appeared less as real characters than as examples of something - paragons or caricatures of simple virtue; most characters in the novel expressed themselves more cognently and gracefully than speakers in the street. In recent years, however, the reverse has become true, and a twentieth-century novelist, trying to transcribe real conversation, may limit his dialogue to expletives, monosyllables, clichés, or even grunts. If the distortion factor for speech in novels of the past was eloquence, the new distortion factor is aphasia.
In both his novels, first "The Ginger Man" and now "A Singular Man" (Atlantic-Little, Brown), J.P. Donleavy resists a modern convention of fattened dialogue and coarsened sensibility as earmarks of realism. His characters are not Neanderthals in Yale or Greenwich Village clothing, and they express themselves with a certain rococo elegance. The hero of "The Ginger Man" behaved rudely enough, but in all his (often tedious) brawling, drinking, and philandering, he had, somehow, the air of the false primitive, and as a commentator on his own behavior he was flamboyant and amusing. Sebastian Dangerfield was a post-adolescent ne'er-do-well trying to take the world by physical storm; George Smith, the hero of "A Singular Man," is completely at the mercy of the world, and he is mild, eccentric, poetic, never dull, and often funny. In all his strangeness, he bears a resemblance to many characters actually at large, and "A Singular Man" is an attempt to see how much of the eccentric part of life - the whims and lyric flights and capers, no less real for seeming literary - a modern novel can accommodate.
George Smith is a victim. His wife, from whom he is separated, exploits him financially. He is successful in an enterprise that is never defined, but he is persecuted by threatening letters ("Dear Sir:...What are your remaining assets...P.S. We will Squeeze out what is left of your toothpaste") from a person who mysteriously signs himself "J.J.J." Smith is a formal, fastidious man, who even addresses two of his mistresses as "Miss" Tomson and "Miss" Martin. He talks to himself in the street: "Show people you're in command of the situation by not saying much, don't let them get in close, keep everyone at arm's length, stop smiling kindly." He has been told by his unadmiring wife that "the only time traffic will stop for you, George, is when you're dead." In consequence, he builds himself an enormous, traffic-stopping mausoleum. What Smith wants above all things is that
...someone with look at
me, stop, come back, see into my eyes and say I love you.
All the characters in "A Singular Man" are, in Donleavy's words, "incorrigibly strange of spirit." Smith himself - who is described as "frond-like" - takes boxing, wrestling, and fencing lessons; he is a kind of paranoid in a time and place where delinquents, drunks, journalists, and the general atmosphere of violence make paranoia seem an evidence of sanity. By his own description "a self-employed slave," Smith owns an applause machine, which roars and cheers him when he feels depressed. His host at a party has an alligator, which snaps at guests from beneath a hydrangea plant in the conservatory. His particular girl friend has a large, vicious dog named Goliath, whom she occasionally telephones just to say, "Woof, woof, sweetie." Donleavy writes of all these characters with affection, and ascribes to them some of the incongruous mixtures of idiom that often characterize the modern American post-collegiate speaker: Edwardian ("And a most merry Christmas to you Mr. Browning. And would you divide this among the men with my compliments"), comic-strip ("Lungs gasping as Smith cleverly switched to mental power to give the muscles a rest"), legalistic ("On Wednesday of the 19th ultimo...you made an unprovoked...attack upon our client, Mr. Harry Halitoid, which resulted in the knockment into the tracks of the said system where there was a sustainment of considerable head and body injury"), Dizzy Deanesque ("I do you an injustice you don't deserve"), Elizabethan, Lower East Side, and journalistic, and occasionally nonsense syllables:
"I know you, hey
aren't you George Smith..."
"Ha you're George Smith all right."
"What do you mean, beep for an old friend. We were prepsters together."
"Now wait a minute George ha ha. I know this is a funny situation."
"Gee George is there something wrong. Are they crowding you. I can take a hint if that's it. What are you saying this beep to me for. If you don't want to recognise me say so."
"I'm sorry. I didn't know anything about this George. Is it permanent..."
There are all kinds of slapstick-comedy scenes, some very good - as when Smith tries to buy an empty paper bag from a delicatessen, and manages to negotiate the purchase only by "buying the air rights within the said container" - and some not very good at all. There are serious scenes, too, and the author mixes the comic and the serious in strange proportions, delivering in unobtrusive little asides psychological insights that other novelists might extend, repeat, and flog to death for chapters. "A Singular Man" becomes by turns a love story, a melodrama, an unresolved detective story, a melodrama, a soap opera, a vaudeville routine, and a very fine light novel by a stylist who can afford to give considerable rein to his rather quirkish imagination.
To purchase books by J.P. Donleavy, go to the Buyers' Guide.