The Book Where No One Eats Spaghetti

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2023-01-20 21:00:00 No comments

Some time ago I had the opportunity to read a novel written by a friend of mine, someone a good deal more worldly and well-traveled than I. The book made use of his time in the military as source material, and could have been described as a political thriller. It wasn't terrible — you should see some of the self- and indie-published "political thrillers" out there — but it had what I felt was a major, overarching flaw: Nothing happened in it.

By "nothing happened", I mean this: Everything that did happen consisted almost entirely of someone going into a room with someone else and telling them about something. All the details of the story amounted to A telling B and talking to C and C responding to B and so on. All of the actual action in the story, everything that had consequence, took place off-page. Even worse, the book failed to evoke any sense of place, physicality, character, or presence with its material. You've heard of White Room Syndrome; here's White Universe Syndrome.

I also say this knowing full well it's possible to write good fiction that is nothing but dialogue: J.R., Kiss Of The Spider Woman, etc. But those books knew it and leaned into it. This one seemed stuck in this halfway space between conventional fiction and white-room limbo. I don't believe any of this was by design. If it had been by design, the book would have reflected that as a whole, and I saw no such thing.

Most of my favorite books do in fact boil down to people talking to each other. Most of modern life consists of this activity. But my friend's book had no contextual action for this talk. Nobody ever came back in from walking their dog or ate spaghetti or had to run to the store for more yeast for the breadmaker. Ever notice how Law & Order would always have the detectives quizzing witnesses whenever they were in the middle of some daily activity, like putting antifreeze in their car's radiator or brushing the cat? It was hammy and cheap, but it gave the show the kind of texture and movement that's important for TV. A dialed-down version of it works just as well in literary fiction. Nothing like that happened in my friend's book. The closest we ever got to it was maybe people drinking in a bar.

Reading that book (and wincing at it) made me reflect on how I constructed the action in my own stories. I could think of any number of places where I felt like I was retreating into the talk-it-to-death mode of storytelling, and from then on I strove to avoid it. I later found out, after some re-reading of my own work, I wasn't as guilty of this sin as I had feared, but it was still worth avoiding.

Texture was one of those things I always liked in other people's writing. We weren't always in the same rooms over and over again. Or, if we were, the author drew attention to the things that changed — now the snow on the sill outside, now the presence of a wedding photo (or, oh dear, its absence). Such things provided the specific details around which a story needs to revolve to feel alive.

I once mulled over the idea of writing a book that would play like one of those movies starring Alain Delon, where there's barely any dialogue and everything is about what happens in front of you (Un Flic, or Le Samouraï). Or, what dialogue there is only circles the goings-on and is superfluous anyway. A fun experiment, to be sure, but I don't know if my leanings would support it.

Tags: criticism fiction storytelling