March 28, 2004

Tell Me
Mary Robison

What D'Ya Talk -- In my debut on the theatrical stage (Doesn't that sound grand? It wasn't. I was 12 years old; the stage was the big, echoing gymnasium of Jack London Junior High School), I played one of several traveling salesmen who open, "The Music Man." About a dozen of us are riding a rattling train through the Iowa countryside, talk-singing various complaints about the dastardly Harold Hill. My sole line -- "What d'ya talk? What d'ya talk? What d'ya talk?" -- was repeated over and over again at key moments to mimic the clickity-clackity rhythm of the train. The scene cleverly sets the tone for the fast-talking shenanigans that follow. The scene also teaches a great lesson about writing: The audience doesn't really care if characters don't talk like real people. Rather, readers want the spoken words to be especially catchy and, above all else, to push the story forward. (Ever read a verbatim transcript of a conversation? You'll find much more chaos than clarity. The punctuation hasn't yet been invented to describe characters conversing like real people.) All of this brings me to these stories by Mary Robison, a master of dialogue who comes the closest yet to capturing the fits-and-starts and half-thoughts of real-life conversation. Each plot has an almost invisible arc. Each story begins with a clear moment and nearly always ends in a drift, not unlike real life, of course. But Robison's dialogue is as concrete as Navy Pier.


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