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  • Making Conversation in Modernist Fiction by Elizabeth Alsop
  • Claire Battershill (bio)
MAKING CONVERSATION IN MODERNIST FICTION, by Elizabeth Alsop. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2019. ix + 187 pp. $64.95 cloth, $19.95 ebook.

In Making Conversation in Modernist Fiction, an engaging monograph full of insightful literary readings, Elizabeth Alsop focuses on character dialogue as a feature "at once continuous with but also distinct from" narration in the works of Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Jean Toomer, and Gertrude Stein (2). From the outset, Alsop draws renewed attention to the artifice inherent in fictional dialogue and cautions against overly mimetic readings of made-up words coming out of imaginary mouths. Alsop points out, adapting and refining Gérard Genette and Mikhail Bakhtin's constructions of "represented speech" and "double-voicing," that all fictional speech is layered and polyvocal (2).1 "[E]ven at its most true-to-life and putatively transparent," she writes, "dialogue is always the product of at least two speakers—always an emanation of the author, by way of the character" (2).

Alsop goes on to analyze the diverse ways in which talk functions in Anglo-American modernist fiction, and she seeks throughout the book to present a fittingly double-sided argument: a historical contention that these modernist writers were writing conversation in "substantively new ways" distinct from their historical predecessors, and a theoretical contention that written dialogue should be read fundamentally as poesis rather than mimesis (3). While the historical grounding and context add richness throughout this volume, the theoretical and narratological reframing of dialogue is the book's stronger and more compelling argument, emerging as its dominant through-line. Through a process of what she calls "dialogic decoupling" (4), Alsop makes the convincing case that if we separate our readings of the words spoken in novels from the characters who speak them, we can apprehend dialogue as something deliberately fashioned and authorially driven rather than as a mere imitation of real speech. This narratological approach allows us to think about dialogue beyond its most intuitive and obvious function—that of conveying or communicating something about the character speaking—and to consider its art and rhetoric. Alsop's work in this respect represents a refreshing departure from a dominant focus on indirect discourse in modernist fiction to focus more specifically on what is actually being said in novels, and what that might mean about conversational rhetoric more broadly. [End Page 378] Alsop also helpfully attends to the shifting and often blurry boundaries between what is said and what is thought.

Alsop's first chapter, "Dialogue and its Discontents" (9-38), is a helpful ground-laying exploration of the critical history of studies of dialogue. In this account, as a broader critical culture, we seem basically to have fallen for the idea that dialogue "exists to express character" and that "its most meaningful analogue remains real speech" (10). Alsop points out notable exceptions (including Bronwen Thomas's excellent work2), but she maintains that studies of dialogue tend to assess character speech as though characters are actually real. What this suggests is that authors have managed through the strength of fictional illusion to pull one over even on critics and that when we read novels we tend to take dialogue at face value much more than we do other elements of fictional prose. Alsop's project is partly to suggest that any framework assuming that dialogue is primarily or dominantly a function of character does not really work for twentieth-century fiction. One of the features she highlights to illustrate this point is what she calls the "recycling" of the same phrases by different characters, which, she suggests "unsettle[s] traditional voice-body relations" (12). Here I thought immediately of Virginia Woolf's essay "On Craftsmanship," in which Woolf emphasizes the promiscuousness of words, which have "been out and about, on people's lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries."3 Woolf's discussion is not so much about fiction as about language more broadly, and it seems actually to support Alsop's desire to unsettle the idea that words or dialogue can...


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pp. 378-382
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