(New York, NY: New York Review Books, 2015)
I love eavesdropping. Who doesn’t? It may be a guilty pleasure, but as far as vices go there are plenty worse to choose from. There’s something so fascinating about sitting in a public place and feeling the eddy of other people’s lives around you, collecting fragments of their troubles and triumphs like shells on a beach. For a moment, you can sit back and quietly realize that the unfamiliar faces that pass by you every day belong to people with lives as rich and troubled as your own. Not to mention you can pick up some pretty juicy gossip.
The concept of eavesdropping is at the heart of Linda Rosencrantz’s Talk. And not just in a thematic sense; it is a story told solely in dialog, all of which is taken from real conversations recorded over one summer in 1965. Originally producing over fifteen hundred pages of transcript conversations, the book’s final form was pruned down to contain only three characters spanning about two hundred pages. Marsha, Vincent and Emily are our speakers, and they form our only point of contact with the world around them. We are a fly on the wall privy to all of the characters’ private thoughts, desires, and experiences—as long as they voice them aloud. With every new scene, it’s like we’re invisibly stepping into a room in the middle of a conversation. It is, in fact, eavesdropping in its purest form.
The result is a story which is energetic by necessity, stripped of description and narration in a format that stands up on the page and speaks like a play. And our cast is a lively bunch, composed of a writer, an actress, and an artist, all vacationing on the beach in East Hampton. Their topics of conversation cover art, sex, cooking, LSD, therapy, and of course, which famous public figures they’d rather go to bed with.
True to the title, the characters are full of witty comments. The conversations leap and divert and loop back into each other the way that real, natural speech does; it’s not the polished, deliberate dialog of a novel, but instead it attempts to capture the rhythms of authentic conversation. Often the characters stumble, get distracted, or don’t seem to listen to each other at all; at times, it feels as if the reader is the only one capable of truly hearing them.
All three characters constantly struggle towards a deeper understanding of the world and each other, but (as we all learn) the vast, philosophical sentiments they try to express tend to fall apart in faltering language when spoken aloud. The characters are constantly grasping at the heart of what they consider their “issues,” but they do so through the constraints of human speech. The result is a work that is brimming with frustration and a burning desire to be heard. And when the characters succeed in getting across what they’re trying to say, the results are often profound:
VINCENT: Actually, truth is both those things, you’ve got to accept both that huge love and the total absence. One is no more true than the other.
At the heart of the book is the friendship that Vincent, Marsha and Emily share. They all identify themselves and each other as “damaged,” and are hard at work giving advice, though rarely taking it. Throughout most of the book the three friends struggle with a sense of discontent made keener by the fact that they all recently turned 30, and must begin to face life as fully-fledged adults. But whether our band of characters is damaged or merely flawed is difficult to say. Certainly the book reveals them to be as plagued by the same vanity, shallowness, and egotism as anyone—failings that they are all very aware of. At the end of the book Marsha sums up their experience:
MARSHA: I thought I was going to go in and tell him I had such a constructive summer of working and studying myself and this and that. Instead all I did was qvetch about what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world, blablabla.
Talk was originally published in 1968, and represents that period well. But as vivid a window into the past as it may open, it is by no means a novel bound to its time. It’s remarkable to read these conversations and discover how different and how familiar they can be, simultaneously. Though separated by 50 years, the three friends share many of the same concerns that people at the turn of thirty feel to this day. It allows for a connection with the people in our not-so-distant past, and reminds us that they were not so different from us. Many of the same issues that are touched on in this book are still alive and well today: both are time periods of great change. Vincent puts it best:
VINCENT: You know why? Because they’re pioneers, we’re all pioneers going through new frontiers, new jungles, we’re breaking psychic, social land so that people following us will be able to lead better lives.
Talk is a book about communication, about love—both romantic and platonic—and about leaving youth behind. It fascinates in its ability to totally capture authentic conversation; it’s laugh-out-loud funny, and filled with moments of intense and poignant clarity. In the end, it’s a book about three people sitting down and trying to fix each other. I was glad to listen in.
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Amelia Fisher is a writer and recent graduate from Fairleigh Dickson University, living in Virginia and aspiring to Portland.