“I see people in terms of dialogue and I believe that people are their talk.” — Roddy Doyle
Over the years, my family has developed its own code, its own unifying language. We don’t need hashtags to convey the humor or irony in a situation; we do it through speaking. As teenagers, my brother and I would often mutter an “I dunno” or “hmph” when our mom would query about school or particular events that we attended. These were simple exchanges between an attentive mother and two good kids who were just too caught up in teenage moodiness (or just really tired) to answer properly—and the same type of dialogue is unfolding every day, everywhere. In an effort to pull more information from her offspring and hopefully engage in actual conversation, Mom would continue: “Name five people who were there!” And we’d either dutifully reply in sarcastic tones or acknowledge the phrase with an eye roll and a “Mo-oooooom!” Twenty years later, “name five” has earned a respectful place in our family language, for now it is used by any of us—including my husband, who has entered the fold—as a reply when someone is relentlessly chatty or clamoring for non-existent facts or information. Me to my brother: “When will you know if you can get the time off? Have you bought your tickets? Will she be coming with you? When will you know? Have you bought all your Christmas gifts yet?” His reply, in a sing-songy voice: “Naaaaame fiiiiiiiive…” You could say that “name five” has morphed into my family’s own version of a verbal hashtag—it adds color, meaning, tone and history to the preceding statement or question.
Communication reaches beyond spoken words, of course—body language and the choices we make send a message to anyone within reach. But our words, so easily searchable and defined in a dictionary, come layered with background meaning and context. Effective dialogue—both written and spoken—relies on shared experience to sustain it beyond the black-and-white dictionary definitions.
Successful authors know this. Dave Eggers has said about one acknowledged king of the craft: “I don’t think there’s anybody alive that’s better at dialogue than Roddy Doyle.” Doyle’s dialogue is essentially the main ingredient in his first book, the one that put his name on the map: The Commitments. If one does a quick scan of the book’s pages, the sheer volume of em-dashes—how the author introduces dialogue—jumps out so dramatically, as if one is looking at a page of binary computer code. There is very little narration, as dialogue moves the plot forward.
What makes Doyle’s dialogue so smart is that the words and turns of phrases are specific to a distinct group: the Northsiders of Dublin, traditionally working class. There’s a lot of profanity and “slagging,” but instead of being offended, the reader feels drawn into what is, in a sense, a family. We are given a glimpse into the shared family language of, first, a broad community, and, more precisely, the group of individuals who comprise The Commitments, the band formed by Jimmy Rabbitte that reworks American soul classics.
And if one has any familiarity with the book (or, more realistically, the 1991 movie version, which was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe), the fact that song lyrics—their own form of dialogue—take up a great portion of speech demonstrates that something can be communicated outside of a “let’s sit down and talk” setting. When manager Jimmy reworks a version of the soul classic Night Train to include references to Dublin, a shared language comes into being. “We’ll change the words a bit to make it—more Dubliny, yeh know,” says Jimmy. The band’s first gig, where “Dublin soul was about to be born,” is a success, for after their soulful rendition of Night Train—where they’re “Startin’ off in Connolly…Movin’ on ou’ to Killester…Harmonstown Raheny…an’ don’t forget Kilbarrack…the home of the blues…Then on ou’ to Sutton where the rich folks live…Oh yeah…Nigh’ Train”—“the cheering went on for minutes.” A new sort of family is created between the performers and the listeners, and this is how they communicate.
The two following books in The Barrytown Trilogy—The Snapper and The Van—continue in this quick-witted and fast-paced vein. The latter two focus on Jimmy, the brain behind The Commitments, and his family: his Da, Mam and raucous group of siblings. The rapid verbal transactions between Jimmy’s family members pepper these books with just enough flavor for the reader to feel welcome in their bantering community, but also—if not a Dubliner—to feel enough of an outsider to understand that this is their own vernacular, their own community. This special language acts as an entry into a group—a group open to newcomers, but one with specific boundaries nonetheless. Non-Irish readers get an exceedingly detailed peek into this group, but infiltrating it and truly understanding it are nearly impossible.
Doyle’s latest novel about Jimmy Rabbitte and the Barrytown characters, The Guts, was released late January in the United States. Jimmy is now 47 and dealing with a bowel cancer diagnosis. What should be an extension of the previous trilogy feels a bit like a tacked-on afterthought, much like when the cast of a beloved television show reunites for a special twenty years after they first went off the air. That’s not to say that The Guts isn’t good. Doyle is a prolific writer—in addition to the previously noted books, he is the author of six novels, three novellas, two short-story collections as well as seven books for children—and The Guts is a well-crafted novel. Given the subject matter, the novel deftly straddles the line between boisterous craic (an Irish term meaning a good time, particularly one that involves spirited banter and conversation) and thoughtful introspection. The novel follows the arc of Ireland over the past ten or so years: the glorious rise in the economy—referred to as the Celtic Tiger, when Ireland finally felt like a force to be reckoned with, when luxury cars dotted the new motorways and mansions obscured thatched cottages—and then its disastrous fall, when a fifty percent plunge in housing prices followed the big burst.
What also happened in the last ten years was a tremendous uptick in the number of people using social media, as well as a rapid upswing in the creation of new platforms to communicate. And this change, of course, is hardly specific to Ireland. The Guts opens with Jimmy’s father, Jimmy Sr., asking his son, “D’yeh do the Facebook thing?” There are a lot of texting mishaps—sending texts to the wrong people, regretting a fired-off message—as well as a YouTube phenomenon, a music company built from a sort of online encyclopedia of Commitments-era Irish musicians, and numerous mentions of Xboxes, GPS systems and smartphones. The Guts is a novel set in a post-2010 world. And despite the “Irishness” of the novel, it boasts a universal tone. Who hasn’t accidentally sent a text to the wrong person? Aren’t Xbox gaming systems and GPS systems ubiquitous in nearly every modern culture? We live in an era where a large percentage of our thoughts are digitally communicated, and where emoji and hashtags help to add a little zing to our online comments and text messages.
I enjoyed this foray into the world of the Rabbitte family almost as much as when I first read Doyle’s books. But Jimmy’s world doesn’t seem as foreign to me as it once did. The easy explanation is that because I’ve lived in Dublin for three years, it’s not as foreign to me. But I think it’s more than that: Our communication is becoming more universal. After all, we live in a world where the “Gangnam Style” dance is a unanimous response at the first sound of those electronic beats.
What, then, makes our communication unique or specific to our own community? Everyone has the same access to these communication tools—or at the very least, the ability to view them. If Jimmy, who travels to the Electric Picnic, an annual music festival in Ireland, sends out a text to his old band buddies about joining him, would he leave a trail of icons—thumbs up, then the anxious” face and lastly a microphone surrounded by music notes—to indicate that he secured the tickets, but they’re a little nervous because they’ll be a good deal older than the typical attendees, but hey, it’s all about the music? Maybe he would (if he could figure out how to use emoji). And, unfortunately, those little icons would convey the same meaning in Ireland as they would elsewhere in the world. They add a little flair to his message, but the tone and humor can be interpreted by anyone. What happened to our shared languages between families, between small and defined groups of people?
I think a shrugging emoticon would be an appropriate answer.