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Reading Like a Writer: Dialogue and Pattern Making in All the Names

Posted on Fri, Jan 17 2014 9:00 am by Allison Wyss


Editor's Note: One of the new features on our blog is the monthly Reading like a Writer column. The column features craft-focused book reviews by Allison Wyss.

In All the Names, José Saramago (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) subverts the conventions of grammar in ways that mirror the ideas of the book and make me understand those ideas more fully. I'm entranced by it.

The novel tells the story of a clerk, Senhor José, who accidentally encounters the name of a stranger and becomes consumed with discovering the details of her life. His obsession leads him on an odd, anxiety-ridden journey through his city. But it's an existential journey as well, one that challenges the concepts of life and death. Of course, I'm simplifying.

I'm interested, specifically, in Saramago's dialogue. Instead of using quotation marks, periods, dialogue tags (he said, she said, etc), line breaks, or even italics, he indicates a new speaker with only a comma and a capital letter.

How old was the girl when they moved, She was about eight I think, You said a little while ago it was about thirty years since you heard from her, That's right, Could you explain, Shortly after they'd moved I received a letter, From who, From her, What did she say, Nothing much,

So it's not the clearest way to render speech. (I've quoted an easy passage—commas and capitals may also appear within utterances, making some sections much more difficult.)

The first few times I encounter such dialogue, I feel anxious about who's speaking. I stop mid-sentence to parse it out. But as the novel continues, I make peace with the uncertainty. I let the words wash over me, and it stops mattering which person says which words. The speaker becomes less important than the ideas and it seems that the ideas, rather than the people, are talking to each other.

How does Saramago make this happen?

I think it happens because other parts of the book—the non-dialogue parts—use the same, or similar, patterns.

For example, Senhor José, anxious about being discovered, imagines a series of conversations with authority figures. The imaginary dialogue looks just like the real.

What problem, I suffer from giddiness, vertigo, fear of falling, whatever you want to call it, You've never complained it, No, I don't like to complain, That's very considerate of you, go on, Well, I was considering getting into bed,

It's the same pattern. And internal dialogue is certainly the interplay of ideas rather than a back-and-forth between separate people.

When I notice the matching patterns, I start to wonder whether the real conversations might also be imaginary. I don't believe they are. But I believe that Saramago means to make me ask such questions—it intensifies an already complicated relationship between the real and the imaginary. Saramago parallels the grammar in real and imaginary conversations to create a space where ideas can talk to each other the same as people and where the boundaries of realness are less easily determined.

My point here, by the way, is not to make claims about the meaning of Saramago's work. I'm just excited by how patterns in one part of the book enhance my understanding of other parts and teach me to read them differently.

Then, and even more thrilling, as dialogue becomes like ordinary descriptive narrative, narrative becomes like dialogue.

Thanks to this, and despite the steepness of the porch roof, Senhor José, with a foot here, a hand there, moaning, sighing, catching his fingernails, scuffing the toes of his shoes, managed to drag himself up.

Of course this passage describes an action: Senhor José climbs a roof. But after reading so much dialogue in which a comma signals a new speaker, my mind wants to treat every comma as a dialogue trigger. It's this habit now. I can't help it.

So I hear the first speaker: "Thanks to this." And then another voice chimes in: "and despite the steepness of the porch roof." By the time I reach the end of the sentence, "catching his fingernails" and "scuffing the toes of his shoes" are having an argument with "managed to drag himself up." The description has become a verbal exchange between the climber and the features of the roof.

So all ideas—not just the spoken ones—have become a type of dialogue. And doesn't that make a sort of sense? In a way, aren't all sentence clauses arguing with each other?

This new way of understanding the relationship of ideas builds to something glorious when I reach the end of the novel and Senhor José discusses his journey with the registrar. Miraculously, I recognize the registrar's voice. Up to this point, these men have barely spoken to each other, yet because of the patterns Saramago has instituted, I see that their ideas have been conversing for the entire novel.

All writers create meaning through patterns of language—whether or not they use quotation marks. Saramago illustrates what a writer can do by establishing unique patterns of grammar and punctuation and then carefully building on those patterns.

How have you seen patterns of language enhance a story's meaning? Have suggestions for future book reviews? Join the bookish conversation on Twitter with hashtag #ReadingLikeAWriter.


Allison Wyss is teaching "Regional Writing: The Grotesque" this winter at the Loft. She earned her MFA from the University of Maryland. She has also studied creative writing at Vanderbilt University, Breadloaf Writer's Conference, and Grub Street Independent Writing Center. Her stories have appeared or will appear in [Pank] Magazine, Metazen, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, MadHat (Mad Hatters' Review), The Golden Key, and The Southeast Review.