Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Simon Turner - Talk Talk

Simon and Simon decide what they’re going to read at the beach

SIMON: So, what are you bringing with you to the beach?

SIMON: Just my good self, I would have thought.

SIMON: No clothes?  No sunblock?  Nothing?

SIMON: It’s a nudist beach, isn’t it?

SIMON: Not as far as I know.

SIMON: I’m sure it’ll be fine.

SIMON: It’s broiling out.  You’ll cook like a side of bacon on the shingle.

SIMON: Look, we’ll worry about that when the time comes.  The more pertinent question is: what are you planning on taking to read?  We can’t rely on our usual tattered array of conversational gambits to propel us through the afternoon, can we ?

SIMON: I guess not.  (Rummages in bag.)  I was thinking of taking Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and maybe Susan Sontag’s early journals.

SIMON: Christ.

SIMON: I’ll ignore that.  What about you?

SIMON: I thought I’d take Talk by Linda Rosenkrantz.

SIMON: I’ve never heard of it.

SIMON: That’s because you’re a crashing ignoramus.  It was first published in the 60’s, and has recently been re-issued in typically elegant fashion by NYRB Classics.

SIMON: Those fuckers’ll bankrupt us in the long run.

SIMON: Indeed.

SIMON: So what’s the skinny on this Rosenkrantz dame?

SIMON: - the fuck?

SIMON: I’ve been reading Raymond Chandler again.  A lot.

SIMON: Between Kant and the Sontag journals?

SIMON: That’s not a contradiction. 

SIMON: I didn’t say it was a contradiction; just a surprise.

SIMON: Leaving my choice of hard-boiled nomenclature aside for the time being, what’s the book about?

SIMON: The title says it all: it’s people talking, and nothing but.  Rosenkrantz basically tape-recorded a series of conversations between herself and two friends over the period of one summer, and transcribed the resulting tapes – producing somewhere in the region of 2500 printed pages in the process – before reducing and refining the raw material down into the compact 200 pages you have before you. 

SIMON: Sounds exhausting.  And rather gimmicky.

SIMON: It’s one criticism you could level at it, I suppose, if you were feeling particularly intellectually lethargic –

SIMON: Guilty.

SIMON: – but equally, isn’t it a criticism you could level at any literature that’s trying to break new ground?  It’s just as gimmicky to write a novel that includes black pages and diagrams of its own narrative digressions; or a novel that’s set entirely during one June day in Dublin in the early 20th century; or a novel that never physically escapes the confines of a Parisian apartment building, composed according to the combined strictures of a knight’s possible moves around a chessboard, and the terms of a Greco-Latin number square, right?

SIMON: I suppose: every work has to find its own form, yes? 

SIMON: That’s true.  And the best route Rosenkrantz saw towards creating her novel – I guess we can call it that, in the absence of a better term – about her friends and their various ambitions and neuroses was to simply record and transcribe what they said.

SIMON: But it’s still one hell of a labour of love.

SIMON: Yes, without doubt.  Possibly more work, in fact, than simply writing a conventional novel – or, at the very least, a faked novel in a conversational form – would have taken. 

SIMON: So what evidence do we have that it’s true at all? 

SIMON: None, I guess.  We just have to take Rosenkrantz’s word for it.  That said, the nature of the conversations mitigates against reading Talk as an elaborate act of fictional camouflage.

SIMON: I’ve just opened it at random and there’s an extended discussion between Emily and Marsha about masturbation.


SIMON: Which is hysterical.


SIMON: The detail about the shag carpeting –

SIMON: Just has to be true, right?

SIMON: I guess so, but –

SIMON: You feel like you’ve intruded or –

SIMON: Eavesdropped unawares. 

SIMON: Right, right.  It’s uncomfortable, in some way, but it’s also the book’s great strength (do you notice that I’m avoiding calling it a novel now, in spite of previously arguing that’s what we should call it?).  I read so much contemporary fiction where the dialogue’s dead in the water.  Whatever strengths a writer might otherwise lay claim to – and those strengths may well be various and abundant – the dialogue’s often kaput from the outset.  People never talk the way characters in contemporary fiction do.  Fictional dialogue only really tends to work when it’s so removed from realism, so utterly aware of its own artifice – think of the conversations in a Don DeLillo novel, say, where everyone’s talking at cross purposes, in micro-essays, or aphoristic witticisms about the parlous state of post-post-modernity – because otherwise, you’re plagued by the verbal equivalent of the uncanny valley.  That is to say, your awareness of the gap between speech as it’s lived and speech as it’s represented on the page only serves to heighten your discomfort. 

SIMON: I can see where you’re coming from: producers of literary fiction need to watch more movies.

SIMON: Or at least get out of the house more.  But this problem doesn’t pertain with Talk, because of its compositional method.  It’s thrilling, genuinely, to see speech given centre stage like this: it’s not subordinate to the mechanics of a plot, it’s not there to play up the underlying symbolism of the piece – the speech is the only action.  A vast amount of our lives is spent talking – often about seemingly inconsequential subjects – but that fact’s often absented from fiction, or at least the actuality of speech is mangled to the point of unintentional satire.

SIMON: This feels like the kind of book that would make David Shields explode with excitement.

SIMON: Indeed, but it’s worth remembering that in this regard, Talk is very much of its period: there was a distinct preoccupation with ‘the real’ in a  great deal of the artistic production in the mid- to late-sixties: think of the non-fiction novels of Truman Capote and Norman Mailer; the various New Waves and neo-realisms in cinema (Italy, France, Britain, and later, the US); the competing conceptualisms taking centre stage in music and the art world, which strove to break down the barrier between audience and artwork – they’re all of a piece, an attempt to blur, even at times eradicate, the distinction between reality and its representations.

SIMON: So you’re saying Reality Hunger for all its bluster was thirty years behind the times?

SIMON: Not at all, and it’s in the nature of artistic movements to come in waves.  I think one of Shields’ arguments in Reality Hunger and elsewhere, in fact, is that the genreless genre of the novel-memoir-essay-whatever has always been there, lurking in the shadows cast by the Well-Made Novel, it’s just been biding its time for a cultural moment when it might come to prominence.  Talk’s republication, then, feels propitious: ‘reality’s’ back, in a big way.

SIMON: I just peeped at Stephen Koch’s introduction, and he situates Talk primarily as a precursor to Girls and Broad City. 

SIMON: Which is fair up to a point – Lena Dunham, I know, uses improvisation a great deal in her work, and Girls and Talk are both pretty unflinching portrayals of female friendship – but if that’s the sole measure of Talk’s compositional premonitions (girls talking about stuff), couldn’t we just as validly argue that Rosenkrantz’s near-novel is a precursor of The Golden Girls or Dinnerladies?

SIMON: Fair dos.

SIMON: I think it’s more interesting and productive to see where Talk’s children might be in the world of dead tree publishing. 

SIMON: Really?  We’re saying that now, are we?

SIMON: Don’t rile me.  But more seriously, are there equivalents in print?  Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be? is probably a good point of comparison, but Ben Lerner’s novels (particularly those moments, like the extended riff on John Ashbery in Leaving the Atocha Station, that are just dropped in from non-fiction he’d previously published under the guise of criticism) feel like they fit - or can be made to fit - under the same umbrella. 

SIMON: But they still don’t feel as radical as Talk, though.  There’s still a lot of structural artifice and formal play in those works.
SIMON: There’s artifice and structure in Rosenkrantz, too: even if the reality here isn’t sugar-coated or overworked, the method of compressing thousands of pages of raw transcript into 200 pages of text suggests a lot’s been left on the cutting room floor, so to speak.  Imagine if we had the Director’s Cut of Talk: it’d be a reeling, anarchic mess, borderline unreadable.

SIMON: Practically Goldsmithian in its unreadability.

SIMON: Yes, very nice: he was the obvious point of contact that I was avoiding, but it’s inescapable now.  Cheers.  But Kenny G’s useful to invoke as a kind of negative example here, because Talk is decidedly not unreadable: it’s incredibly funny, it's touching, it's eye-wateringly frank at times, but it's also very moving in its portrayal of young-ish people teetering on the brink of an adulthood they don’t feel prepared for, or they've convinced themselves they don't feel prepared for, which might be more accurate.  In fact, it captures that sense of bittersweet existential uncertainty that seems to hover over your late 20s and early 30s better than any amount of hand-wringing lyrical realism could.     

SIMON: That in itself is the best defence of Talk’s methods you could possibly ask for.

SIMON: Sure, sure.  (Looks out of the window.)  We’ve been talking now for what feels like a Neptunian year, and it’s clouding over like a son of a bitch. 

SIMON: Skip the beach?

SIMON: Absolutely.

SIMON: Firefly marathon?

SIMON: Positively.

SIMON: Ice-cream and cereal?

SIMON: Indeed.

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