A Polyphonic Spree: Dialogue & Liberation in Selby Jr's Fiction

by Brian Hamill











“You complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read – or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to.”
Samuel Beckett, Dante Bruno Vico Joyce (1929)

“These bastards think they own the language … They want to block your stories, and they will if you let them.”
James Kelman in The Guardian, 2008








The first piece of Hubert Selby Jr’s writing I encountered was non-fiction - his Afterword to the 1994 edition of Last Exit To Brooklyn. I’d heard of the book but never thought to get myself a copy, and knew nothing of Selby himself. A class regular, Frankie Gault, had brought the novel to our creative writing group, and the Afterword was photocopied and handed out, to be discussed the following week. I read it with no expectations, and found myself very affected by the honesty and insights expressed by this writer. Some of the points he made felt like a greater articulation of my own experiences and opinions:

“…never having gone to school I didn’t have to unlearn all the lies a person can learn in school about how you should write. I was unaware of the ‘rules of writing’ as proclaimed by individuals who had never written an original line in their lives. Fortunately, I had no recourse but to find my own way.”

The notion of writing without ‘rules’ was exciting. Also, this book promised a different kind of fiction to that which I was reading exclusively at the time, the American ‘Dirty Realists’ of the 70s and 80s; books and stories that were certainly well-written and enjoyable, yet conventional in terms of language, grammar, typography, etc. I was certainly not disappointed when I did read Selby’s novels. There was a multitude of ways in which his prose diverged from the ‘rules of writing’ as I knew them, but the area that dazzled most was his use of dialogue. Selby is surely one of the great innovators of literary history, both in terms of rendering speech on the page, and of the effects that can be achieved via different representations of the spoken word.

I read more of his non-fiction, interviews, and reviews of his work, trying to understand more of his methods and his philosophy as an artist. I felt in complete agreement with Irvine Welsh’s assessment of Selby as “the late twentieth-century towering colossus of American letters”, which is why it came as a surprise to learn of Selby’s marginalization as a writer. In his 2003 Bookworm interview with Michael Silverblatt, Selby discusses the problems he had getting his books published in America, and cites the fact that he “couldn’t buy a ten-thousand dollar grant with twenty-grand” despite applying for awards such as the Guggenheimer, Rockefeller, and the NEA. He even conceded: “They seem to loathe and despise me, the literary community”.

Of course Selby does retain an enduring popularity so his complaints could appear as a sort of baseless persecution complex, but I find that the more you delve into his reception and status as a writer, the more it seems his reputation rests heavily on the notoriety of Last Exit as a transgressive text, and on a degree of celebrity founded on the Hollywood adaptation of Requiem for a Dream (the 1989 movie of Last Exit did not garner the same attention). As part of the same essay quoted earlier, Irvine Welsh bemoaned the ‘cult writer’ status of Selby, calling it “ultimately marginalizing and insulting”. It is worth noting that in the library I visit most often, Glasgow University, they currently hold zero Selby Jr books among the many thousands of canonical texts and obscure works (and when I initially went looking for his novels, I did come upon a copy of ‘A Critical Companion To James Patterson’... Why?). In addition, it seems that none of his stories (from the 1986 collection Song of the Silent Snow) were anthologized in the major American compilations of that period, such as The Oxford Book of American Short Stories (1992), The Picador Book of Contemporary American Stories (1993), and The Norton Book of American Short Stories (1988). Not even A Penny for your Thoughts, a very fine short story.

I believe these forms of mainstream marginalization and lack of artistic recognition is directly related to Selby’s disregard for the ‘rules of writing’, and in this manner he calls to mind James Kelman, another novelist whose work innovated in terms of voice and perspective, and who would also (justly) draw attention to the critical disdain for his art. Indeed there is a clear parallel to be drawn between Selby’s acknowledgement that “some critics say I’m not a writer, just a typist”, and the infamously idiotic comment about Kelman’s Booker-winning novel How Late It Was, How Late that his aesthetic achievement was merely to “transcribe the rambling thoughts of a Glaswegian drunk”. These statements suggest the respective lack of critical appreciation is due to this form of writing being somehow deficient in terms of structure or sophistication or conscious artistry. Typing and transcribing have strong connotations of thoughtlessness or artlessness, and the obvious corollary to this would be that ‘good’ or ‘better’ fiction is more considered and cogent and logical. Possible reasons for such prejudice are fairly easy to proffer, such as those concerning language, class, etc. In my own opinion, Selby’s use of dialogue is a major factor in the unfair misconception of his work. What has often been interpreted as artless meandering or disjointed morass is, to my mind, technical brilliance, resulting in highly courageous and original fiction-writing. A focus on the dialogical techniques he developed and how these function within his novels is crucial to understanding how Selby shattered fictional ‘rules’ and left behind a body of work that remains bewilderingly undervalued.

An appropriate vantage-point from which to begin an analysis of Selby’s dialogue, or indeed any aspect of his fiction, is to be found in his non-fiction – firstly the illuminating discussion of his artistic intentions in the 1981 interview with John O’Brien:


“My ideal as a writer is to get to the point where the reader doesn’t even have to read the words. The story should just come right off the page. I don’t want you to read a story, I want you to experience it. I don’t want to tell you a story, I want to put you through an emotional experience.”

He elaborated on this a little further by stating that the ultimate effect of his prose should be that “it surrounds you”, much like the experience of listening to a Beethoven symphony.

This may appear as mere lofty ideal, and some could argue that Selby does not achieve this effect (or even that such an effect is not possible to accomplish via the written word as the medium itself does not allow the story to ‘come off’ the page and ‘surround’ its reader). However, I think the significant thing to take from this statement is that Selby’s ultimate aim with his writing is not, as it is with many novelists, to impart anything, nor to represent or express a particular social plight or people (at least not primarily), and nor to impress or titillate readers with the grandeur or complexity of the plot – in essence, that the surface-content of his book (the events of the story) is not what he intends to provide the value of reading. Instead, Selby wants the actual line-by-line reading experience itself to be the value and the purpose and the pleasure of the book – for the act of reading his work to be a different type of aesthetic experience, and for that to result in an emotional reaction in the reader without having to rely solely on drama. Distilled into a more concise form, Selby desires to produce writing that is not “like writing”, ie: that does not flow and function in exactly the same manner that the reader of fiction is accustomed to, and so therefore cannot be consumed and understood in the usual, purely literal fashion.

Selby elaborated on how he would try to accomplish this in his brilliant interview with Michael Silverblatt on Bookworm:


“Well, I write by ear… and you can’t separate music from life, and my typography for instance is musical notation… what I want to do is put the reader through an emotional experience – of course, what else is there? That’s the important thing… Now, what I have to do then is experience these emotions and try to project, and music is a very inherent part of that, to help somebody experience these things so I have to create… some musical notation because everybody has their own rhythm and I have to make that evident in your own vocabulary, and their vocabulary is part of that rhythm. If I perceive through my ears a certain world, my vocabulary will reflect that in how many syllables I usually use in a word, how I adjust the rhythm and beat of a line, that sort of thing. And also it’s visual, all these have to come together to produce this emotional experience, and visually I find things like quotation marks obtrusive, ridiculous, and totally unnecessary…”

The analogy with music is a valuable one, and something Selby returns to again and again in his interviews and non-fiction writing, as music (always instrumental whenever he discusses it – classical or jazz) cannot rely on lyrics or ‘plot’, which appeals on the most easily intelligible level, to engender reaction or identification in the listener. It can only be done through the form and the technique of the work – which in turn allows deeper, more intangible messages and meanings to emerge, such as the work’s honesty, its heart, and possibly its value as it relates to you and your life. In short, those qualities that make people love the art that they love.

It’s significant that again in this quotation, whereas there is an acknowledgement that the objective of his fiction is to facilitate an ‘emotional experience’, there is no mention of content, which is what anyone immediately thinks of when an ‘emotional experience’ is mentioned. For Selby, what will happen in a ‘sad story’ is not as important as how that story is told. Of course he does place his characters in fraught, often perilous and tragic situations, but he doesn’t depend on the situation alone for that tragedy to bear itself. He is concerned with all aspects of the medium in creating the most multi-faceted, nuanced effect possible, which can be viewed as Selby’s considered and concerted attempt for his book to feel like it does come off the page and surround its readers. Although the excerpt does not mention plot, it does refer to four distinct features of prose: typography, rhythm, vocabulary, and punctuation. It is evident from his statement to Michael Silverblatt that he had no interest in writing within conventional parameters, and was concerned only with finding the optimum means of expression through artful manipulation of everything available to him as a writer of fiction and a producer of books. Punctuation, specifically quotation marks as cited, is something I will return to later, but it is important to establish that all four of those qualities of prose are combined and utilized most fully and to the most wonderful effect in Selby’s dialogue. The classic way to ‘tell a story’ (as Selby expressly said he did not want to do in the quotation given from the O’Brien interview) was for a narrator to do just that, to lean in and ‘tell’ the reader things that were ‘helpful’ in explicating how a character felt or what he/she really meant, or even how the reader should be thinking of him/her at that point. In his early novels, Selby rejects this type of narration in favour of dialogue, of using character actions and interactions as the primary means of revelation in fiction. This meant innovation was a necessity for Selby, as he found conventional methods of rendering speech highly problematic:


“JOB: … In ‘Strike’, for instance, you do not permit the narrator to condescend to Harry Black, to “talk about” him, to explain him. In fact, by merging the third and first person, you make the narrator sound and think like Harry. … HS: That tendency I had to work very hard to get out, that of being the sentimental, sensitive artist. ... I am trying to give you individuals. I’m trying to give you their hearts and souls. ... To differentiate characters only by their names . . . That’s something that bugs me in fiction: “Harry said” and “Tommy said” and “Shirley said.” Who can read a book like that? “She said comically” You know? If you really know what you’re writing about, then you create individuals. And you really don’t have to go through all those gimmicks because each individual will present himself. … They should be able to communicate directly. They should not have to go through a middleman.”

It is interesting that Selby views the standard and traditional way of representing dialogue as a collection of “gimmicks”, when this is a term more usually applied to experimental prose in which a writer attempts to do something outwith the conventional frameworks of fiction. Knowledge of this singular perspective of Selby’s makes it easier to grasp the reasoning behind the choices made and ground broken by him in terms of typography, rhythm, vocabulary, punctuation, etc. In fact his aforementioned lack of knowledge of the mechanics of prose-writing enabled these developments to take place:


“I spent six years writing Last Exit when I was learning to write. I had never written anything before. But by the time I had finished Last Exit, I had learned a lot of lessons. I had learned how to utilize a lot of techniques. From what they tell me, I developed some techniques, though I don’t think “develop” is the right term. I don’t think we invent new things. Each artist just expands what exists. But it ended with techniques that weren’t around before, let’s say.”

One of the most noticeable and aesthetically significant techniques that Selby honed in Last Exit To Brooklyn (1964) was his infusion of dialogue into the narrative with absolutely no regard for demarcation, set-up, punctuation, or tense:


“The cop stepped over to the soldier and told him if he didnt shut up right now hed lock him up, and your friend along with you”

This is only a brief example, but it shows how Selby was attempting to produce writing that was not ‘like writing’, and create an effect that was much less rigid than conventional prose – trusting in the reader’s intuitive ability to appreciate the modulation between narrative and dialogue, between narrator and speaking character. The effect is that the cop’s speech is so unimportant, half-hearted, and routine, and is such a well-worn, recycled phrase only tacked on to the end of a sentence, that the utterance doesn’t merit being given in full. The reader catches such speech as the character does – barely listening, hardly interested.

This technique is used in different ways throughout Selby’s fiction, such as in the short story, A Penny For Your Thoughts:


“..he mentioned how attractive this girl was and it was a shame she didnt put her makeup on properly instead of smearing it all over. You know how these kids do it, and then they were talking about high school or something and he felt better..”

Here the central character’s consciousness dominates the narrative, and the way in which he colludes with the narrator to slot in the line of actual speech amongst other sentences (and then swiftly rush on with the story) conveys his very contrived matter-of-fact mood much more effectively than a more distant or authoritative narrator simply saying how he did so. The truth of the situation is given by the act of reading. He wants the mentions of the girl to be innocuous, fleeting, and his extrication from this onto other topics to be seamless. We feel this from the use of this technique, as opposed to having it described. Felix Hurm in his book Fragmented Urban Images described this technique perfectly, stating:


“..he renders his world with a situational immediacy unachieved before.”

This is a key term in appreciating the excellence of Selby’s writing: ‘situational immediacy’. It’s very much the sense given in these extracts – that you experience the events of the narrative as the focalizing character does, and not as a powerful narrator would drip-feed it to a reader. As in our own lives, Selby’s characters’ communications are composed of fleeting words, hurried or mumbled or screamed expressions, half-ignored responses, and so on. Speech is not static. It is not entirely separate from thought or desire, and not perfectly encased and crystalline in its transmission.

Selby’s choice of representing characters’ perceptions of communication, as opposed to capturing the actual fidelity of speech as uttered, is conveyed by his declaration:


“I’ll change tense in the middle of a sentence if that’s what necessary to get across the emotional reality.”

This dedication to experience and the lack of an anchor tied to the perspective of an author-narrator (as well as the conviction to innovate and not rely on existing tropes) calls to mind the broad principles of Bakhtin’s theory of ‘polyphony’ in the fiction of Dostoevsky:


“Dostoevsky is the creator of the polyphonic novel. He created a fundamentally new novelistic genre. Therefore his work does not fit any of the preconceived frameworks or historico-literary schemes that we usually apply to various species of the European novel … A character’s word… possesses extraordinary independence in the structure of the work; it sounds, as it were, alongside the author’s word and in a special way combines both with it and with the full and equally valid voices of other characters.”

This seminal section of Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics was interpreted and further explicated by Andrew Robinson in his article, ‘Bakhtin: Dialogism, Polyphony, and Heteroglossia’:


“The concept of ‘polyphony’ (borrowed from music) is central to this analysis. Polyphony literally means multiple voices. Bakhtin reads Dostoevsky’s work as containing many different voices, unmerged into a single perspective, and not subordinated to the voice of the author … Instead of a single objective world, held together by the author’s voice, there is a plurality of consciousnesses, each with its own world. The reader does not see a single reality presented by the author, but rather how reality appears to each character.”

If the basis of the polyphonic novel is that the reader sees multiple realities through different characters and that each of these realities carries the same weight of importance as the perspective of the third-person narrator, then virtually all of Selby’s early fiction can be considered fully polyphonic. That books like Last Exit, Requiem for a Dream, and The Willow Tree present a ‘plurality of consciousnesses’ is evident throughout, as the narratives focalize through a range of characters. Although his later work (an example being The Willow Tree) is blighted by the older, more religious Selby’s propensity for heavy narration and didacticism, leaving the novels more like artful parables, they remain polyphonic due to the continual fluctuation in language, tone and perspective. However, more interesting to analyse in this context are those novels where the narrator has either noticeably less authority (Requiem) or radically less (Last Exit), as this is where the correlations are most clear between Bakhtin’s theory of Dostoevsky’s narratives and Selby’s use of character-speech. Bakhtin states that in the polyphonic novel, the words of the character have ‘extraordinary independence’ and that they rank ‘alongside’ the author, while Andrew Robinson defined this as the character not being ‘subordinated’. A fascinating example of how this liberated position for the character operates in Selby’s fiction occurs in Requiem:


“When the word came down that the price would be doubled and you had to cop for weight, then everybody was a believer. The word came through subway, bus and Hudson tubes that the next night, at ten, in a huge area of deserted and crumbling buildings, there would be shit but you have to cop at least half a piece and it was going for five hundred dollars. Five hundred dollars for a half a fuckin piece was insane man, but what you gonna do? The man aint goin to lay no nickel bag on you, thas for damn sure. The cats in the streets were generating steam trying, desperately, to dig up the bread to cop, but how can you boose enough to be able to go for five hundred bucks? Hustlin, scufflin and boosin enough to cop a couple a bags a day was a bitch, but five hundred???? Sheeit, aint no fuckin way ah cain do that, but the race was on anyway. If they couldnt get the bread to cop from the man, maybe theyd get enough to cop from the guys who did, but the price of a bag was damn sure goin up jim.”

This excerpt is from page 160, and any reader who has reached this point is already well-acquainted with the voice of Tyrone C Love, a young man who refers to everyone as “jim” and speaks his own distinctive brand of a 1970s New York vernacular. We are by now also accustomed to the environment that Tyrone and Harry inhabit – the world of heroin addiction, of paranoid pushers and fellow small-time players, gossip and rumour, and street-smart talk. Therefore, Selby (or his narrator) seems to no longer see the need to orient and guide the reader through every movement and interaction. The section quoted is in effect a much more extreme version of what Hugh Kenner called the ‘Uncle Charles Principle’ within the fiction of James Joyce, where words from one character’s personal lexicon appears in the narrative in the proximity of that character, giving the impression of that section of narrative emanating from the character’s consciousness but without any signal to the reader that this is taking place. Selby doesn’t subtly infuse the narrative in the same way. Instead he simply allows Tyrone to take control in mid-paragraph. It is not clear whether this section is an imaginary exchange between the narrator and Tyrone or if this is an actual conversation Tyrone is having with another dealer or addict on the streets, and there is no statement from the narrator to clarify the situation for us. There is no hierarchy between narrator and character here – one is not introduced or filtered via the other. It is very much the narrator’s words initially (‘in a huge area of deserted and crumbling buildings’), then the clear and decisive swing to Tyrone which comes in the form of dialogue, of lines that resemble real speech rather than written narrative: he asks questions and states his point-of-view to a listener who is not cited but is certainly present in some form or another. The unannounced movement into a form of conversation is another of Selby’s techniques that contribute to the very fluid effect he sought. The flow of the writing, the lack of orientation and the prevalence of different speaking voices all creating a polyphonic texture that may very well have flummoxed or confounded the ‘pre-conceived frameworks’ of contemporary literary criticism, as Bakhtin believed Dostoevsky did a century earlier.

What Selby has done here is the polar opposite of how many nineteenth-century novelists treated characters’ speech, as Bronwen Thomas described in reference to an article called ‘Dickens And The Suspended Quotation’ by Mark Lambert:


“According to Lambert, character speech in Victorian fiction is privileged; he even claims that Dickens displays aggression and antagonism toward his fictional constructs for taking some of the attention and limelight away from his narrator.”

Selby has succeeded in overthrowing this balance - whereas in the Victorian era writers like Dickens were stifling characters to emphasise the authority of the narrator, Selby’s characters can now wrest control of the narrative themselves, their voices overpowering and superseding the narrator’s.

There is another instance of polyphonic narrative in the wonderful ‘The Queen Is Dead’ chapter of Last Exit, where the story of Georgette is drawing to a close:


“And they would go out together. A movie and hold hands or go for walks and he would light her cigarette… yes, he would cup his hands around the match, his cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, and I will put my hands around his and he will blow out the match and toss it away…” (p55)

“And a moon… Yes… Look. Look. Do you see there? A swan. O how beautiful. How serene. The moon follows her. See how it lights her. O such grace. O yes yes yes I do Vinnie, I do… Vincennti… See. See, she glides to us. Us. For us.” (p56)

The first excerpt contains the same freedom as exercised by Tyrone in Requiem, although here it is more overt as we go from a line of external narration (‘he would light her cigarette’), to seeing Georgie’s voice enter directly mid-sentence, ‘I will put my hands around his’, enforcing the abrupt switch from third- to first-person narrative. This ceding of power to Georgie allows the (unequivocally in this case) imaginary dialogue between her and the muted, fantasized Vinnie to take place, with the narrator exiled completely. Georgie’s consciousness has subsumed the story, such is the force of her passion. Her hope and her love are too strong and too true to be filtered by any other presence. When she speaks to/with Vinnie, answering questions never asked, imploring him to follow her gaze, this is polyphony through embedded dialogue. What Bakhtin observed in Dostoevsky’s novels is here replicated by a different means. Selby’s characters are not writers and these are not conscious accounts of their lives, but what they can do is speak, to others, to themselves, even psychically to a nebulous narrator, and it is through this speech that we can listen to and feel the character rise from the strictures of written narrative, as Selby hoped they would.

Of course, this rendering of imagined dialogue is only permitted by the stylistic and formal decisions made by Selby. A more conventional/rigid style would not permit this ambiguity over origin of speech, nor allow the flourishing of characters’ voices alongside the narrator’s. Selby’s formal choices are subjects I will return to. In terms of formal innovation, it was evident from the Bookworm transcription given earlier that Selby felt no obligation to abide by any rules of grammar or punctuation, and would manipulate whichever feature of a book he could if he felt it enhanced the empathetic experience. To this end, his typography really did become ‘musical notation’ in works such as The Room (1971) and The Demon (1976), as the actor Nick Tosches describes in the film It/ll Be Better Tomorrow:


“If you notice the way his paragraph indentations are, they’re of different sizes, there’ll be a small indentation or a long indentation, and to him that signified the length of the pause, as in music.”

An example of this technique from The Demon:


“…he pulled Linda closer to him and put his cheek against her ear and felt the softness of her dress against him and the heat of his breath as it filtered through her hair back into his face.
                                                What were all those looks about before?
What looks?
What looks? Rae and Louise looked at you as if something weird was happening and they expected you to explain it…”

The increased indentation is effective in conveying the time that passes with Harry and Linda locked in an embrace, before she breaks the silence with a question which comes suddenly to Harry, as the focalizing character. The sense here being that the question is something that had plagued her thoughts even during this tender moment, but was not anticipated by Harry who was happily enjoying the sensual pleasure of closeness with his wife.

Another technique Selby developed was to alter the presentation of dialogue depending on the mood and content of the verbal exchanges. In the short story Liebensnacht, the dialogue is all inline during a discussion between the two brothers who are the protagonists, and this changes to the more standard format of a new line for each speaker once the conversation becomes wider and more casual, involving more speakers. The change highlights the intensity of the talk between the brothers, contrasted with the easy banter of the group.

Techniques like these would of course not be possible if Selby limited himself to the confines of standard English grammar and conventional Western typography, and yet he doesn’t enjoy the widespread critical appreciation that these leaps forward in prose fiction deserve. I believe that there remains a staunch conservatism at the heart of much literary criticism, and Noah Lukeman’s book ‘A Dash of Style’ (published forty-two years after Last Exit To Brooklyn, in 2006) is typical of the sort of ill-informed reactionary ignorance that serves to marginalize artists like Selby. It is worth briefly drawing attention to the fact that on the back cover of this book, there is a section titled ‘What Writing Professors Are Saying’ composed of five short testimonies – one of which is simply the word ‘Flawless’, as contributed by an unnamed person from the Northern Michigan MFA Program. Here is an extract from the flawlessness to be found in Lukeman’s chapter called ‘Quotation Marks (The Trumpets)’:


“In some trendy works (and classic works too) you’ll find that authors opt not to use quotation marks at all… but will rather let dialogue blend with the rest of the text. Even some great authors have done this, notably James Joyce… Presumably this is done for the sake of being different, but to my mind this is just stylistic, and it makes it unnecessarily hard for the reader. Why boycott quotation marks?... It was invented in the first place because there was a need for a mark to help clearly indicate dialogue. Omitting it, or refusing to indent, or replacing it with dashes, will just confuse a reader.”

It is difficult to know how best to respond to this level of abject nonsense. Lukeman is very clearly someone whose critical faculties work within “pre-conceived frameworks”, to use Bakhtin’s phrase. His tone is indicative of the derisive prejudice that writers who are committed to voice are so often subjected to – ‘some trendy works’, ‘Even some great authors’. I have no idea why Lukeman thinks so little of the ‘reader’, that they would be confused by what presumably doesn’t confuse him.

Before considering Lukeman’s points on this issue in more detail, I should note that the engagement here is only on quotation marks as they relate to the effectiveness/expediency of written prose. I first learned of this topic at the aforementioned creative writing evening class at GU Centre for Open Studies, where the political aspect of rejecting quotation marks was stressed – something which will be familiar to anyone with a knowledge of postcolonial literature. And I do believe that the politics of such a decision are indeed the most important factor for writers like James Kelman and Junot Diaz. However, there are also stylistic/artistic reasons for doing so and for the purposes of this particular essay, this is where the focus will remain.

Hubert Selby doesn’t just reject quotation marks themselves, he doesn’t use speech-tags either so often there really is no signifier whatsoever for who is speaking. This means that in chapters where two or more characters are having prolonged discussions in which (naturally) each character’s utterances will vary in the number of sentences used, the only way to make sense of the exchange is to interpret the speaking character by voice and context, as each sentence is read:


“Harry kept shaking his head and rolling his eyes. Hey ma, ya gotta cut that stuff loose. Its no good. Who said its no good. Twenty five pounds I lost. Twenty five pounds. Big deal. Yeah, big deal. Do ya wanta be a dope fiend fa krists sake? Whats this dope fiend? Am I foaming at the mouth? Hes a nice doctor. He even has grandchildren. I saw the pictures on his desk. Harry hit himself on the forehead, Ma, Im tellin ya, this croakers no good. Ya gotta stop takin those pills. Youll get strung out fa krists sake. Strung, schmung. I almost fit in my red dress.”

I assume this passage would have left Noah Lukeman completely mystified as to what is happening and who is speaking, but I (and so many thousands of other readers) don’t encounter any confusion in such interactions. The modulations in tone, the natural and intelligible endings of sentences and responses to them, the individual verbal styles and tics - these features all contribute to an unambiguous rendering of fluid, rhythmic conversation, as produced by distinctive characters. As Selby said: “I am trying to give you individuals”. There is no need to add quotation marks and line-breaks to let the reader know in advance that in the series of three consecutive questions, the first is uttered by Harry (“Do ya wanta be a dope fiend”) and the latter two are spoken by Sara. As the lines are read, they are immediately and easily interpreted and understood, as when listening to a writer reading out his/her own work. Selby (and some of his literary predecessors such as Joyce) already proved decades before Lukeman’s insights that dialogue free of quotation marks need not be confusing.

One of the strangest points made in ‘A Dash of Style’ comes at the beginning of ‘Quotation Marks (The Trumpets)’, where Lukeman has included this quotation from a writer called Paul Cody:


“…Hemingway and Carver use quotation marks to brilliant effect; their dialogue crackles and snaps, but their quotation marks never slow the reader down, nor make the dialogue feel written. One always feels with them that you’re in the room, listening to real people talk, and you cease to see the quotation marks. That finally is the great use of this piece of punctuation – that you don’t notice it’s there.”

To which the obvious question surely is – if the result of a great use of quotation marks is that the reader doesn’t notice they’re there, then why bother using them at all? I doubt the word has the same meaning in the US as it does in Glasgow, so I feel comfortable in here calling Lukeman and Cody a pair of ‘Trumpets’.

Yet it’s this comment that is Lukeman’s most egregious, as it relates to Selby: ‘Presumably this is done for the sake of being different’. The very notion that James Joyce, who Lukeman references in that quotation, made his stylistic choices just to be ‘different’ is almost as blasphemous as it is imbecilic. The decision regarding the punctuation of speech for writers of voice, such as Joyce and Selby, was explained with great clarity by James Kelman:


“You can only distinguish dialogue from narrative by your precision really… I prefer it just to have… no mediation between the artist and the thing itself”

“…what you find in the Scottish literature tradition is an attempt to bring together the external reality and the subjective perception of it. A way of trying to pull together the external reality through the internal subjective being… that is a very difficult thing to do. Some critics… don’t get that. They don’t realize that that kind of transition has happened… This might sound absurd to you, but it cannot be done if dialogue is framed in a way that separates it from narrative… It doesn’t matter what punctuation or technical devices you use, as long as it’s separate then that transition I’m talking about, it cannot be done”

It should be patently obvious that such decisions are not made for the ‘sake of being different’ at all, regardless of whichever flawless works say so. As Kelman outlines, the desire to have ‘no mediation’ is a central factor in his stylistic decisions. This is a sentiment echoed by Selby in several of the references in this essay. Quotation marks necessitate mediation between the characters and the readers because they effectively isolate speech, and the movements into and out of encased speech can only serve to add a distinct narrative layer between “the artist and the thing itself” – the ‘thing’ being the emotions and situations of the characters, ie: the basis for all good fiction.

In the conversation between Harry and Sara quoted earlier, it is Selby’s “precision”, to use Kelman’s term, that allows the reader to follow without difficulty. Precision is something that Selby has spoken of consistently in interviews, as has Kelman, and it is a quality of this form of writing that is totally misinterpreted and overlooked – as indicated by Selby when he spoke of himself being perceived as a ‘typist’. In actual fact, Selby admits to long and pain-staking reviews of his manuscripts along with his friend, the novelist Gilbert Sorrentino, where they would dissect every use of a word, every comma, to make sure it was exactly the right presentation, the right meaning, the right musical note to hit. ‘Tralala’, a twenty-page chapter of Last Exit, took two and a half years to perfect – that being less than half of the final total of six for Selby to complete the book. The length of time taken to write Last Exit is related to the fact that grammar and punctuation are actually much more important and sophisticated in the novels of writers like Selby and Kelman than they are in more conventional, grammatically “correct” first- or third-person narratives, where simple adherence to rules of spelling and grammar as learned in high school would be sufficient. What Kelman described is far more complex and subtle - the omission of quotation marks is essential for making the transitions (between narrative and dialogue, between thought and speech) that are the foundation of his particular conception of free indirect discourse. Although he used this style somewhat differently (always a single character’s consciousness) to Selby (single consciousness in The Room, multiple consciousnesses in Last Exit and Requiem), this principle holds true for both writers. Thus, their ultimate objective of eschewing quotation marks is using free indirect discourse in a manner which elevates the characters’ thoughts and opinions to the same level as any narrator’s, as described here:


“Free indirect speech is a stylistic device… it injects into this rather colourless form the vivacity of direct speech, evoking the personal tone, the gesture, and often the idiom of the speaker or thinker reported… It has thus meant a great enrichment of narrative style, since its use permits us to see the fictional characters moving not merely against the background of the narrator’s consciousness, but within their own worlds of perception and understanding”

“The story conveys information in a manner that is neither possible in described thought nor in quoted direct thought and speech. The reader is actively involved in retrieving the meaning of the story because she has to infer the appropriate mode of semantic interpretation and thereby reconstruct sentence content as thoughts, attitudes, emotions, and comments of various acting persons”

The first quotation, from Roy Pascal’s The Dual Voice notes how this style gives narrative the “vivacity of direct speech”, which is greatly enhanced in Selby’s work by his refusal to line-break or indent dialogue, so that often the status of words as actual dialogue is not even clear. This was shown in the excerpt from Tyrone’s ‘appearance’ in the narrative of Requiem. Regina Eckhardt in the second quotation also describes the sophistication of this narrative mode, when she states that this style enables communication with a reader on different levels, such as the call to ‘reconstruct sentence content as thoughts, attitudes, emotions, and comments’; something that cannot be accomplished within a rigid separation of narrative and dialogue, or of narrator from character, where status and origin of speech are already fixed via the form itself. I think the fundamental problem at the heart of these various fallacies of ‘A Dash of Style’ is that Lukeman doesn’t seem aware of this possibility; that narrative and dialogue need not be thought of as two utterly distinct and separate realms. Indeed he not only states his position on this plainly, but reiterates it later:


“Quotation marks are also unique in that they indicate the end of one world (prose) and the beginning of another (dialogue)… Quotation marks can allow a break from prose. Every book really offers two worlds: the world of prose and the world of dialogue.”

As was demonstrated in the excerpt from ‘The Queen Is Dead’ chapter of Last Exit, and from Tyrone’s presence in the narrative of Requiem, Selby does not subscribe to this concept of division. The blurring of this boundary in fiction was something examined at length in the study ‘Fictional Dialogue’ by Bronwen Thomas:


“While the tendency in the past was to isolate frame and inset and to characterize the frame as something that is static and unchanging, recent theories have allowed for a rearticulation of the relationship between frame and dialogue so as to encompass the possibility of an ongoing interaction in which the balance of power may be less defined. We have seen how novelists have played with and in some instances openly revolted against the idea that the utterances of their characters must be subordinate to and contained within a narrative frame that is invested with authority and purports to offer the reassurance of some kind of control.”

This point can be viewed as relating directly to an interpretation of Selby’s writing in the book ‘City of Words’ by Tony Tanner:


“Selby says that his stories are about ‘loss of control’… It would not be fair to say that his work itself loses control, though it deliberately excludes some of the customary methods of organization open to fiction writers – perhaps because he feels that too much formal satisfaction would distract attention away from the plight of his hapless characters”

Tanner observes in Selby what Thomas has identified across a range of contemporary fiction: where the classic narrative/dialogue division, long prized as absolute by critics like Lukeman, is no longer being respected. Thomas believes that a narrator who moderates speech (and its relation to narrative) promotes a world of authority and control, and this is a concept that Tanner finds purposefully absent in Last Exit, where multiple voices impinge upon the story, often radically changing the perspective and verbal style.

Consider this section from the concluding ‘Landsend’ chapter of the novel:


“Mary turned back to Mr Jones when he tapped her on the shoulder and said, well? and she said WHAAA? AND YELLED AT THE KIDS TA SHADUUUUUP and Vinnie went to the kids room, WHATZAMATTA? WHY YA CRY, EH? and picked the kids up and Mary told Mr Jones SHE DIDNT KNOW NOTHIN ABOUT NO WATTA OUT THE WINDOW and he threw his arms up in the air and Mary turned and told the kids JUST A MINUTE, YEAH? and Mr Jones said dont let it happen again or hed get the cops and Mary shrugged and let the door close and the kids still YELLED AND VINNIE TOLD THEM TO BE QUIET. MARY, TAKE CAREA THE KIDS, YEAH?”

I will resist the temptation to misappropriate this (by enforcing quotation marks, line-breaks, indentations, and a narrator’s helpful speech-tags) in order to demonstrate just how dramatically different the effect would be of essentially the same content. It is easy to imagine such a re-working/re-formatting, and to then appreciate what would be lost. It is the lack of narrative control that provides the sense of this life so acutely – the chaos, the noise, the emotional reactions, and above all the particular brand of ‘situational immediacy’ where oscillations back and forth between speakers and strands of narrative within the same sentence give the impression of things happening simultaneously – Vinnie shouts at the kids while Mary deals with Mr Jones, and nobody is in control of the situation nor of anyone else. Exclamations in their various forms keep occurring spontaneously from all of the sources within this sub-chapter.

Bronwen Thomas further explored the move away from a strict narrative/dialogue dichotomy by discussing the work of another academic, Alan Palmer:


“In his study of fictional minds in the novel, Alan Palmer (2004) also critiques the speech category approach for privileging direct forms of representing thought as being more mimetic and for implying that consciousness and speech, thought and action are somehow separated by an impermeable barrier. Instead, Palmer calls for a holistic view of the social mind in action, which would allow for speech and thought to be conceived as interpenetrable rather than distinct realms. For example, he demonstrates how even where the focus is on the outward actions and utterances of characters, there may be ample suggestion of how the character experiences, reacts to, and is motivated by what is being said and by what is happening to him or her. Likewise, Palmer argues that the conception of minds as private and passive denies the extent to which thought is social and thinking is a form of social interaction”

Palmer would find Selby’s work very fertile ground for this holistic treatment of speech in the novel. With his view in mind, I quote here an earlier part of ‘The Queen Is Dead’ in which Georgette comes home injured and encounters her brother Arthur:


“Why couldnt he be out. Why did he have to be home. If only he were dead. You sonofabitch die. DIE. (Whats the matter with mommys little girl. Did ooo stub oo little toesywoesy Georgieworgit? Dont touch me you fairy. Don’t touch me. Look whos calling someone a fairy. Aint that a laugh. Ha! You freak. Freak FREAK FREAK FREAK! Why you rotten punk – Georgette leaned more heavily on Mother and swung the injured leg from side to side, groaning. Please Arthur. Please. Leave your brother alone. Hes hurt. Hes passing out from loss of blood. Brother? Thats a goodone. Please – Georgette groaned louder and started sliding from Mothers neck (if only she could get to the bed and hide the bennie. Hide the bennie. Hide the bennie); please, not again. Not now. Just call the doctor. For me. Please.) If he had stayed out. Or had gone to the kitchen… Georgie porgie puddin n pie… Why do they do this to me? Why wont they leave me alone???”

The multifarious narrative of Last Exit allows the thought/speech distinction to be more ambiguous, and forms a case-study of what Alan Palmer proposes. In this short extract, sentences that have the appearance of direct speech are given (‘You sonofabitch die. DIE.’) but which transpire to be more likely from Georgie’s inner commentary, and this makes the status of subsequent utterances equally uncertain. The first ‘Please’ comes in a conversation between Arthur and their mother; a request which cannot gain an immediate response in the text because the narrative pauses to focalize through Georgie. Then we return to this pleading, which could now be his mother making the request to Arthur while she would remain with Georgie, or it could be Georgie addressing his mother, or else just Georgie having this thought and it not being verbalized at all. The literal status of each clause is not as important as what Selby referred to earlier as the “emotional reality” of the situation, where Georgie is in need, his mother is in sympathy, his brother stands in brutal opposition, and all are speaking at once, pursuing their own agendas, thereby eliminating the ‘impermeable barrier’ as referred to by Palmer. Georgie, as focalizing character, goes further towards Palmer’s concept of a mind-speech synergy, as we know that she’s exaggerating the discomfort of her injury to create an opportunity to hide the benzedrine tablets in her room. If she can engender enough sympathy then her mother will both enable Georgie to have the privacy to hide the tablets, and will protect her from Arthur. The excerpt is tinged by Georgie’s flamboyant self-pity, her rage at Arthur, and also her calculating deceit. Each facet is manifested within the various narrative and dialogic layers and registers shown here.

Different layers of narrative are again utilized adroitly to create a particular effect during one of Sara Goldfarb’s many telephone enquiries to a TV company in Requiem:


“The voice in the stomach. LOOK OUT! She stared at the television, enjoying the show, and all of a sudden, LOOK OUT! Another cup of coffee and she felt worse. Her teeth felt like theyre going to snap. She called the McDick Corp., asking for Lyle Russel. Who? Lyle Russel. Im sorry, but I dont have his name listed on my directory. What was it in reference to? The television. What television? I dont know. I want to find out. Just a moment please. The operator took another call and Sara listened carefully to the silence. What show did you say that was? I dont know dolly. He called me and said I was going on a show and – Just a minute. I/ll connect you with the programs department. Sara waited as the phone somewhere rang and rang, until a voice asked her if she could help her. I want Lyle Russel. Lyle Russel? I dont think we have anyone here by that name. Are you sure you have the right number? The operator connected me. Well, what was this in reference to? Hes putting me on a show. A show? What show? – LOOK OUT! – Sara could feel sweat sliding down somewhere. I dont know. Hes supposed to tell me. Im afraid I dont understand, the impatience in her voice was obvious”

Here the story can be seen as surrounding the character, as Sara feels her hopes, her control, her future, and her grasp on reality all slowly starting to implode. She is trying to deal with the abrupt and frightening voice of her subconscious (‘LOOK OUT!’), the various physical manifestations of her worsening condition (her teeth, the feeling of sweat), the fractured, episodic discussion with several phone operators, and the periods of blank silence between these conversations. Selby here does something he mentioned in the O’Brien interview, modifying the tense in mid-sentence: “Her teeth felt like theyre going to snap”. This is clearly a conscious artistic decision, as Selby refuses to permanently switch the tense of the entire narrative (past) but gives one action that relates directly to Sara an immediacy that is only possible in the present-tense – we would not get the same impression of the sensation if it was given as an already past/completed action (‘felt like they were going to snap’), as this would imply they have already stopped feeling like that and did not snap. With this use of present-tense, the sensation is being felt in the narrative-present, and it is evidently the indirect causality of this sensation that prompts Sara to call and speak with the McDick Corp (the type of motivational relationship suggested by Alan Palmer).

This passage is another excellent example of ‘situational immediacy’ in Selby’s work, showing how fluid and nuanced his sections of dialogue can be. We are with Sara completely, having no more knowledge than her and no more privileged point-of-view, so we experience the same momentary surprise each time the operator tells her the call is being transferred and again when the next one suddenly speaks. We go through the same aimless, uncertain waiting, the same lack of control over how the conversations go, the same inability to be understood or to gain more understanding. There is no intrusive narrator to explicate or direct any of this, we hear what she hears and we feel her reactions.

The technique identified earlier in Last Exit is also present in this extract:


“She called the McDick Corp., asking for Lyle Russel. Who? Lyle Russel. Im sorry, but I dont have his name listed on my directory.”

There is no signpost to announce the transition from narrative to dialogue, nor from reported speech to direct. The novel constantly fluctuates between the two, another instance being: ‘Im afraid I dont understand, the impatience in her voice was obvious’. Again, this demonstrates the sophistication of Selby’s narrative method, his commitment to character experience, and a preference for perceptual immediacy over narrative frame-and-filter. In life, of course, we do not wait until someone has finished speaking to then form an opinion based on that utterance. The interpretation of speech is a process taking place continuously as a talker talks and a listener listens (and thinks). Sara’s inner voice warns her and her physical reactions occur both in the midst of a ‘real-time’ interaction, without the natural pauses that would take place in the reader’s experience if conventional punctuation and typography was used:


“Hes putting me on a show. A show? What show? – LOOK OUT! – Sara could feel sweat sliding down somewhere. I dont know.”

The lack of quotation marks and refusal to demarcate get us ever closer to the timing of ‘real life’ experience; something that critics such as Noah Lukeman do not appreciate.

In fairness to Lukeman, he is just one example of a long tradition of rigid adherence to the ‘laws’ of English grammar. Ernest Hemingway’s outlook was a little more artistically progressive, though not for new or novice writers:


“My attitude toward punctuation is that it ought to be as conventional as possible… You ought to be able to show that you can do it a good deal better than anyone else with the regular tools before you have a licence to bring in your own improvements”

This mentality is what I believe stultifies and homogenizes a lot of new writing, and has created the critical culture in which A Dash of Style is deemed ‘Flawless’ by unnamed ‘professors’. Thankfully, artists such as the poet Tom Leonard have repudiated this mass subjugation under a supreme global law of spelling and grammar. In his collected works of poetry, ‘Outside the Narrative’, Leonard has an image of a simple poster, with the wording: ‘AN OXFORD DICTIONARY OF AN ENGLISH LANGUAGE’. I believe this is the same spirit that impelled Hubert Selby to place his belief in both the validity of Brooklyn mid-20th century speech and in his own freedom to render the lives of his characters the way he felt most authentic, and most aesthetically expedient.

If the debuting Selby had been of the same mindset as Hemingway, Last Exit would have been just another conventional novel. Fortunately, he did take the considerable risk of appearing to many people to not understand the popular conventions of prose fiction. Selby acknowledged this risk:


“I also knew that if I wrote the way I was being directed to write, that I would look like a barbarian, a primitive… and if I didn’t succeed perfectly, I’d look like an idiot, but I had no choice… I had to find a means… to be loyal to these people, to be true to the nature of their lives rather than imposing my concept of how they should live.”

“So I finally realized that the major problem for me as an artist was to completely squash my ego. It has no business being there. But who wants to do that? Everybody wants to show what he knows. They don’t want to take the risk of being called ‘primitive.’ ‘The guy can’t even speak English. Untutored. Unlettered.’ You have to get rid of the ego. I have no right as an artist to interpose myself between the people in the book and the reader.”

These quotations express the great conviction and courage of Hubert Selby to write in the way he did more than fifty years ago. The characters within his work wanted to speak, and he had to facilitate this as best he could, regardless of how it may be perceived by a conservative literary establishment. His dialogue permitted these people to live their lives on the page without moderation. The literary theorist Gerard Genette said in his 1972 publication ‘Narrative Discourse’ that innovations in fictive dialogue are “one of the main paths of emancipation of the modern novel”. In this respect, Hubert Selby’s work served to liberate himself from the oppressive and reductive strictures of convention, to liberate his characters from lives under the strict authority of a narrator who would filter their speech, and to liberate us, his generations of readers, from a literary and cultural landscape of far greater uniformity and restraint (writers who have acknowledged their debt to Selby’s influence include Irvine Welsh, Anthony Burgess, Richard Price and Lou Reed. In my opinion, we would never have had Trainspotting - at least not in the form it was to take - if Welsh had never read Last Exit). Michael Silverblatt commented in 2005 that:


“Part of Selby’s place then in literary history is his absence from it. He’s the case of a writer who essentially wrote himself off the map of American literature.”

I’m sure many impassioned fans of Selby across the world hope that he can become liberated from the marginalized position he seems to occupy, as he is surely the greatest dialogical innovator in literature since Joyce. Bronwen Thomas quoted a passage from a 1994 paper by David Herman, stating that the true achievement of Joyce’s dialogue was in: “forcing us to reflect on our canons for conversational coherence”. I believe Selby’s innovations merit the same considerations, as his is also work that cannot simply be read; it must be looked at and listened to.







ENDNOTES
Primary Sources:
Selby Jr, Last Exit To Brooklyn, Penguin, 2011 [1964] // Selby Jr, Songs of the Silent Snow, Penguin, 2012 [1986]
Selby Jr, Requiem for a Dream, Penguin, 2012 [1978] // Selby Jr, The Demon, Penguin, 2011 [1976]

Secondary Sources: (in order of citation)
- Various authors, Our exagmination round his factification for incamination of Work in progress, Faber, 1972 [1936]
- In his own words, Interview by Theo Tait, The Guardian, 12/4/08
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/apr/12/featuresreviews.guardianreview22
- Hubert Selby Jr on Bookworm (Part One)
[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eE2AxI2SMTs]
- Hubert Selby Jr on Bookworm (Part Two)
[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-lmvYQLkg5c&t=730s]
- Expletive of a Winner, S.Jenkins 1994, The Times
http://www.lucyrhinnie.co.uk/uploads/2/5/6/2/25620359/james_kelman_booker_prize_speech_and_reaction.pdf
- A Conversation with Hubert Selby By John O’Brien, from “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Summer 1981, Vol. 1.2
- Hurm, F (1991) Fragmented urban images: the American city in modern fiction from Crane to Pynchon Lang: NY
- Bakhtin, M (1984) Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, University of Minnesota Press, USA
- In Theory Bakhtin: Dialogism, Polyphony and Heteroglossia by Andrew Robinson (29/7/11)
https://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/in-theory-bakhtin-1/
- Thomas, B (2012) Fictional dialogue : speech and conversation in the modern and postmodern novel, Uni.Nebraska Press
- Hubert Selby Jr: It/ll Be Better Tomorrow (2005) directed by Michael W Dean & Kenneth Shiffrin
- Lukeman, N (2006) A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation, WW Norton
- James Kelman In Conversation with Jonathan Derbyshire (23/1/13), Goldsmiths Writers Centre Podcast
- Time, Space, and Other Problems: PW Talks with James Kelman by Seth Satterlee (14/5/13), publishersweekly.com
- Pascal,R, The dual voice: free indirect speech and its functioning in the 19th-century European novel (1977) Manchester Uni Press
- Eckhardt,R., The semantics of free indirect discourse : how texts allow us to mind-read and eavesdrop (2015) Leiden
- Tanner, T., City of words: American fiction, 1950-1970 (1971) Cape: London
- Phillips,L.(ed) Ernest Hemingway On Writing (1986) Grafton: London
- Leonard, T (2009) Outside The Narrative: Poems 1965-2009, etruscan books
- Genette, G (1980, [1972]) Narrative Discourse, Basil Blackwell: Oxford


Click here for another article by this writer: 'These Permanent Shadows - A Review of James Kelman's A Lean Third'








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