Reading Like a Writer: Intimacy and Dissonance in Dialogue
Bette Adriaanse's Rus Like Everyone Else is a startling novel about a set of lonely neighbors whose lives intersect in peculiar ways. It's about reality and its many forms, including dreams, soap operas, and the world that you invent for yourself.
Near the end of the novel, two characters come together. Laura has spent the entire novel trying and failing to talk to people. Ashraf has had a head filled with ideas but no one to listen. They're practically strangers, yet Laura and Ashraf take a shower together. It's probably the most intimate experience either has ever had. After the shower, the two lie on a bed and talk, grasping at intimacy, but floundering a bit before they find it in a way that is specific to them.
The scene is emotionally amped up by what has come before and what's at stake in the moment—we expect so much of it. How could it not be a sentimental mess? Yet it's not. Adriaanse avoids the mush because she gets the dialogue just right.
"When you are with someone, you can forget yourself," he said. "Your worries."
"I don't want to forget myself," she said, still looking up. "You can be happy without forgetting anything. I remember that from when I was young."
They lay together quietly for a while. Ashraf looked at her, her hair sticking to her forehead. He could see the blood pulsing through a vein in her neck, just below her ears; it pulsed with her heartbeat. He had never seen anyone's heart beat before.
"I don't know," he said, "maybe I'm just spoiled."
"You are not spoiled. You live in a van." The girl turned toward him. She looked very serious.
Ashraf squeezed her hand tight.
"Do you know there are two kinds of infinity?" he said suddenly. "There is infinity in large numbers, like the universe, that can grow endlessly. But there is also infinity between one and zero."
"Between one and zero," she echoed.
"Small parts divided endlessly into smaller parts," he said. "So infinity is in everything. You even carry it around inside yourself."
The girl did not say anything. Ashraf looked to the side. She was smiling with her eyes closed.
In the first line, Ashraf tries to compliment Laura: "When you are with someone, you can forget yourself." He means to tell her how special she is, how she makes him feel.
But Laura responds to the idea of forgetting oneself rather than her own part in it: "I don't want to forget myself." It's a willful misunderstanding, a way to parry. She's resistant to the compliment and the intimacy he's proposing. But she doesn't shut him down or laugh at him, just stalls a bit.
Still, there's something in Laura's deflection that pushes them toward intimacy. They prove capable of talking to each other about ideas. This contrasts sharply with previous conversations, in which other characters have refused to hear their odd thoughts at all. They're disagreeing, but at least they're in the same conversation.
Then we get a quiet moment.
Ashraf looked at her, her hair sticking to her forehead. He could see the blood pulsing through a vein in her neck, just below her ears; it pulsed with her heartbeat. He had never seen anyone's heart beat before.
The moment is intense, but not sentimental. Another writer might have Ashraf find Laura beautiful. Instead, Ashraf notices sticky hair and pulsing veins.
And that vein—he's near enough to see it pulse. That staging is essential because it shows Ashraf's reaction to Laura's words. He hasn't turned away or created physical distance, so we know he feels encouraged.
Laura's body is real, not romanticized. We get the simplest words for anatomy: forehead, vein, ear. A heart is often symbolic, but when observed through a neck vein, it's allowed to be an actual, functioning organ. The pulsing vein emphasizes Laura's humanity and her vulnerability. An idealized body would float in the clouds, but Laura's is within Ashraf's reach.
Yet Ashraf's astonishment is not about Laura but about himself: "He had never seen anyone's heart beat before." He's never done this before. That feels honest. Lovers often claim to be consumed by the object of their affection, but are they? Aren't they also reveling in their own feelings?
When Ashraf tells Laura he's spoiled, he's looking for evidence that his feelings aren't one way. Laura reassures him, but her words aren't in the form of a compliment: "You live in a van." It seems like an insult. After all, she's pointing out a negative aspect of Ashraf's life. But the observation proves that he is not spoiled.
Ashraf understands that and it's what he wants to hear.
Laura's meanness also serves a purpose. Ashraf is being too mushy for her. So while she accepts the closeness he's offering, she rejects his tone.
I love this! There's this subtle battle going on between the characters, even as they come together. They're sharing a very intimate moment, but they're also sparring about the appropriate way to express their feelings.
Maybe it's a sudden capitulation to Laura's ideals or maybe he's been adjusting to them all along, but Ashraf's next appeal to intimacy hits the right note for her. (She's been adjusting to him, too.) His observation about infinity feels like a non sequitur, but it's not to Ashraf—he thinks these things constantly. It's his way of revealing himself all the way.
And it works! The words must be unexpected to Laura, but she accepts and encourages Ashraf with her repetition of them. Maybe she's not entirely sure what to make of his observations, but she listens actively.
The reader understands Ashraf's communication differently than Laura does. We're not particularly surprised by what he says—we've been hearing his meditations on physics, space, infinity all along. But we're surprised by his sudden ability to share those thoughts with another character. We feel the impact of this moment and of Laura's impression on him because it has pushed him to do this brave thing.
Three people experience Ashraf's words—Ashraf, Laura, and the reader—and each has a different take. That dissonance is a powerful tool, I think, in making dialogue real. It should never feel as though characters are speaking for the benefit of the reader, and this is a way to make sure that it doesn't.
Adriaanse makes a momentous conversation both natural and illuminative through subtle disagreements and implied dissonance between the characters and even the reader. It's in these small tensions that the scene comes alive.
Allison Wyss teaches "Connecting with Your Characters: The Art of Intimacy in Fiction" this winter at the Loft. In March and April 2016, she teaches "Writing the Modern Fairy Tale", and "Watching the Clock: The Art of Time in Fiction", also at the Loft. Her stories have appeared in [PANK] Magazine, The Southeast Review, The Golden Key, Metazen, MadHat (Mad Hatters' Review), The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.