Volunteer Nathan analyzes dialogue in Don DeLillo’s Underworld.
I recently attended a dialogue-focused writing workshop at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. The workshop’s suggestions and commentary reiterated the fundamentals that can be found in most conventional classes and instructional guides. As the workshop reminded me of some principles, I couldn’t help comparing them to Don DeLillo’s Underworld, which I had just finished reading.
I remember noticing DeLillo’s dialogue when I read White Noise. The characters have sharp exchanges that are simultaneously humorous and tense and that propel them through the narrative’s conflict. They speak like contemporary Americans with idioms and spliced syntax galore.
Underworld shows DeLillo at full attention with regard to speech. The novel is a non-linear narrative with a fragmented chronology. Like in White Noise, the characters talk in clipped phrases that define their demographic, setting and temperament. But Underworld is set across a much larger stage, and this breadth empowers DeLillo to strut his stuff.
Because it takes place over a fifty-year period, Underworld captures characters at different points in their lives. The protagonist, Nick Shay, has modes of speech with dynamics that range from urban Brooklyn slang to middle-aged workplace reserve to elderly reverie. Nick becomes more real and more convincing as his experiences influence his speech patterns. The dialogue is not only appropriate, it is emergent. This is not a new technique, but DeLillo executes it with bravado.
The Writer’s Center workshop followed the contemporary trend regarding dialogue. Characters are meant to speak in a believable way but not in the way people actually speak. Literal transcriptions of everyday conversations would show that the way we actually speak is insipid and boring. The dialogue is supposed to characterize, reveal setting or move the conflict forward. Petty back-and-forth conversational fluff should not be included in a story.
Underworld includes dialogue that at first appears trivial, but the characters have multiple conversations at the same time. Important information is spliced inside an exchange about the weather. These simultaneous conversations characterize and reveal the speakers’ relationships.
DeLillo’s use of idioms and slang also defines his characters. The passages devoted to 1950s Brooklyn are especially noticeable in this respect. In fact, certain catch phrases are so abundant that they teeter on caricature. Many of DeLillo’s urban youths say “forget ‘bout it.” They speak with a little hostility toward each other. They repeat what the other has said to ridicule or belittle him. DeLillo is using tedious speech patterns, breaking the convention, to define setting and character.
DeLillo doesn’t use misspellings for dialect very often. But when he does, the effect is considerable. One character addresses a group with “youse,” (which rhymes with twos) as opposed to you, you all, y’all, etc. That one use of dialect flavored the entire scene.
The workshop discussed indirect and hidden dialogue as well. Underworld is filled with long passages devoted to the inner thoughts of characters. The passages have beautiful imagery and punch-packing epiphanies, but each character is less defined in these moments and is possessed by the author’s narrative voice. The characters speak differently from each other, but they think alike.
Conventions tell us to attribute dialogue with finesse. We should be told who is speaking and then be reminded for clarity. Most of Underworld’s characters simply “said,” but every so often they whisper or growl. A large number of exchanges have little or no reporting verbs. This was frustrating. The characters are well defined and speak differently, but the differences are not enough to discern without reporting verbs. I spent time rereading dialogue to better understand who said what when I shouldn’t have had to do that. When William Gaddis writes without reporting verbs, characters speak differently enough that it’s not laborious or annoying for the reader.
For the most part, Underworld follows the workshop’s instruction. There’s nothing too unconventional, but DeLillo takes more liberties there than in some of his other work. In response to a Paris Review interview statement regarding DeLillo’s unique dialogue, the author said “Well, there are fifty-two ways to write dialogue that’s faithful to the way people speak. And then there are times when you’re not trying to be faithful.” This sentiment reflects the workshop’s ethos as well. There are rules and suggestions for help and guidance, but no rules are absolute. What works, works.