Playwrights, those who write almost exclusively in dialogue, are a special and tender breed, and when they do everything right (Edward Albee, Neil LaBute, David Mamet, Harold Pinter) they create the most fantastic and etched lives through which we see ourselves -- our faults and our lingering, our fragments and our beauty. Novelists, on the other hand, use varied amounts of dialogue and to varying degrees of success, though most often it is not their dialogue but the poetic prowess surrounding it that typically sets a book on fire. 'A novel in voices' is a frightening back-cover lead-in to Terese Svoboda's Pirate Talk or Mermalade, but this book does not shiver, does not waiver, does not thin, and reading it is to see how our brightest and best writers can stretch beyond what we think realistic or probable on the page:
Don't -- scream -- so.
My eye, my eye!
It's just the one, you can do all your looking with the other.
Get away. Get away. My eye!
Hold it with your thumb to stop the bleeding.
We'll get you a patch, a lovely patch out of hide, or a black swatch. It's not like losing another leg.
What am I to do? I'm blind.
You are the one-legged brother who creeps, and now you will have to creep alongside me.
Curse Tataunga and all the Higher Powers!
It's a blessing is what you must think -- your one eye will see what comes next where two cannot, they are too busy conferring.
You dream that. What would I see?
A man with a fork rising from the sea to take out the other.
Svoboda somehow manages to avoid rampant exposition, giving us only glimpses of characters through moments of dialogue, and yet the story remains fluid in its pacing and solid in its narrative arc. There is an ease to which Pirate Talk or Mermalade moves forward and a rendering of dialogue that is at once colloquial and accessible. The language works as seepage, it spills into the reader without explication. I opened this book from the position of a giant sea-monster, ready to wrap my arms around a pirate boat and crush it to timber, pulsing over how this dialogue might go wrong, how the book might fail, how the words might not be enough to carry the story -- until I was hooked and reeled in and made to sleep underneath its deck, lulled by the roll of an ocean that I had never fully realized, massaged by the weeping gait of a wooden leg walking through mermaid dreams.
The Cape, the Cape is the way. Prizes going to the bottom of the ocean for want of pirates at the Cape.
We'll need a heap of wind to get there.
And a bit of bread or a haunch. With a spit turning right on deck, and dandyfunk, and flip in our cups to the top.
Gunpowder punch! Wait, the line be fouled there.
I'll lend you a hand. That last island we tried, there was a lad who swam out -- He looked so like yourself. A copy in black.
So they say. 'Tis a favorite island of mine, it is. I've stopped and gone down a dozen times.
Others have called it a little Boston, after you.
Once or twice, I admit, we've had to pull anchor in haste. See the dawn star off port?
That's no storm coming before it with the daylight -- a sail's upon us.
Ship ahoy! Arm yourselves!
It's a terrible moment when you thrust your head over the side, a-scrambling for purchase when they could stick your throat so easy --
Pirate Talk or Mermalade is an unexpected surprise, a testament to Svoboda's willingness to push literature and proof that Dzanc Books is committed to literary aggression. Seek this book out and read it with an open mouth, as I did, wishing for a sail to throw to the wind.