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In his own Alan.

Alan's prose has always interested me. Sometimes it has driven me mad. "He hugged her with an arm that weighed heavy. Though the boy was thin, his arms were strong. Now the big lad grew." As I told Alan once, it reminds me of writing a brilliant foreigner might do, one discovering the expressive possibilities of the language by writing in it, taking liberties of usage not knowing them to be liberties. "The gruesome plump thick pink boy was pushed across the bed." "She smiled and the smile was stupid, clever, educated, pleasant, true, appropriate, strange, conscious, wandering." It's like a bird going after too many worms at once. I mean, you really can't write like this, can you? In English? It's night invading day, Alananarchy, it's someone naughty undoing all the laces of all the shoes. "The long invalid was bright green. His arms were holy, the forefinger held a candle, the wax thumb stuck out, yellow hair behind." It's springy writing, subtly alliterative, a prose you can scan. It brings huge attention to the words themselves, and in that way it's self-conscious, like poetry, in the sense that poems are always, in some proportion, about their own language. (In focusing on the language of such sentences, I'm aware of ignoring the imagistic risks being taken, which are considerable.) "I wanted to get away from intelligence," Alan has said, talking about, among other things, his cut-up methods, his way of having bits and pieces of "info" all over the room, of screwing up his eyes and staring at phrases deliberately blurrily until there's some gleeful liberation of peripheral meanings out of the glum old signifiers. He does it. Such telegrammatic surges occur less often in The Day Daddy Died than in some of Alan's other books, but they are still very much a presence linguistically.

This is one kind of thing Alan does, and like nobody else. Another is the odd, not orthodox, relentlessly plain, memorably monotonous, blinkered, slagging syntax which is the main narrative style of The Day Daddy Died. It seems to suit Norah's story, she who is presented to us without any approbation or moral elaboration (the model for Norah, Alan states in an interview, was a woman he met who led an "exemplary life, having five children by five different men. Bloody hell, I say. Lucky kids"). This main narrative style is plain to the point that it could be said to resemble another scale within the music of language, a minor but not a melancholy mode, a deliberately restrictive one, that lacks the conventional intervals between notes of a so-called "major scale." This is a different mode, Alan's own. It pushes ahead without the kinds of syntactical variety you normally think of as indispensable to "serious prose." It's an arrested prose, Alan's choice, his own supremely dogged syntactical dialect.

I wonder at the relationship of the language of the letters to the rest of the prose in this book; it seems on the surface to be purely documentary in intent, giving us, simply, the written speech of uncomplicated people, which has its own poetry. "But I've been off work with a painful eye infection which is rather bad just now, on top of which I've had a letter from my bank manager about my overdraft--another worry because I won't be well enough to take on extra work over the holidays." This gives us more Norah, in the plainest way, one phrase toppling on to the next ("on top of which") awkwardly and authentically. This lies at the other end of the spectrum from the eruptive, virtuosic self-consciousness I quoted above. The main narrative prose occupies, more or less, the middle area of the spectrum. I have no fancy theory (yet!) to account for the inclusion of the letters but I like them enormously; they are familiar to me and I know these brief lives by them (a little better). And there's something about the persistence of this clipped style, as about Alan's persistence of attention to the unanalyzed Norah, that's very affecting.

There are other aspects of the language Alan uses that I'm aware of without being able or inclined to account for them fully; I have in mind the indirect speech quality in much of the allegedly direct speech between the characters, or the gorgeous comedy of Norah and Pete's dinner at the Trocadero, from the descriptiveness of "It didn't matter that she found a piece of fish in her lap, then a lump of gorgonzola, it made her laugh. The chicken on the carpet made her giggle, lovely lump of laughter on her face, there was the chicken, and a pretty woman smiling down at it" to the wholly implausible dialogue:

"Your skin is creaking," he said, "I love that creaking sound."

"Nearly everyone says I'm sexy," she replied.

Return to the table. Nothing to do but talk. Plates and knives and conversation.

"Who are your favorite people incidentally?"

"Those who live on border-lines and edges, and burst into life from time to time. Don't you feel like that?"

Who's talking here? Not Norah and Pete, eh? This seems akin to the (often) indirect quality of the direct speech, a sense of quotation superimposed without attribute; the effect is slightly distancing and supremely comic. At such times the narrative drains away and leaves the phrases stranded in their print, leaves them to fend for themselves, quite nicely indeed, as language and as attitude toward language, a kind of ironic hovering.

What I seem to care for the most, then, in Alan's books, even in The Day Daddy Died, which gives us his most distinctive protagonist in the person of Norah, is that playing upon, up and down, his own Alan-derived scale of language. And I end with that language, four of my favorite telegrammatic sentences: "The dark doors opened over her head. She blew her nose. Lost time, loose tooth, trotting hands, bad night. Then her eyes blew up and hoped to die." Well, two more. "There was nonsense in her smile, something smooth in it. Bad dreams rose and drove in her." Not forgetting: "Thinner speech was used, deeper sound was used when needed." (Yes)
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Title Annotation:author Alan Burns
Author:Browne, Michael Dennis
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Date:Jun 22, 1997
Words:1034
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