By Robert Anthony Siegel
Featured Image: Landscape with Trees and Water by James Bulwer
Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington
The world I grew up in was full of hyper-verbal people for whom talk was the medium of both ambition and feeling, the tool they used to try to shape the world around their desires. For that reason, when I began writing fiction, I found that characters were never completely real to me until they spoke: when they started talking I finally knew what they wanted. So I started writing the dialogue first. I would get two characters talking to each other and then build the scene out from their conversation. The dialogue was the trunk, and everything else branched out from it: thought, feeling, memory, sense perception, action.
In those days, when a scene worked, I thought it was because the dialogue was good. It took years for me to realize that it was the other way around, that dialogue was just helping me to uncover the underlying conflict that actually drove the story. What I know now is that dialogue doesn’t have to be fancy or quirky or unusual in order to do its job effectively. It just has to arise freely and naturally from the characters’ experience of conflict.
To illustrate this point, let me use a short segment of a scene from the marvelous novel Serve the People! by the Chinese writer Yan Lianke, translated by Julia Lovell. Serve the People! takes place on a Chinese army base in 1967, at the peak of Mao’s cult of personality. Dawang is a young peasant soldier for whom the military represents the only way out of a life of subsistence farming in a dirt-poor village. He has transformed himself into a model soldier and strict Communist, with the one small Chekhovian dream of one day winning promotion and moving his family to the city. But then he is assigned as an orderly to the Divisional Commander, whose wife, Liu Liang, pushes him into a sexual relationship. The affair is dangerous for obvious reasons—the Commander is a powerful man—but it contains psychological perils as well, because Liu Liang comes from the larger, freer world of ruling-class privilege that Dawang can’t ever hope to enter. The liaison thus threatens to destroy the pragmatic tunnel vision that has served to protect him from despair.
The moment I want to look at is a turning point in the relationship: the Commander leaves base to attend a conference and Dawang and Liu Liang use the opportunity to hole up in the house for a week, alone and free of interruption. In what follows, I have excised the small amounts of exposition between lines of dialogue. Liu Liang speaks first:
“Would you like to marry me?”
“I’d like to marry you too, but it’s impossible.”
“So you don’t want to leave the Commander?” he said.
“Of course I do. But it’s not going to happen.”
“Because he’s the Division Commander.”
“Didn’t his last wife divorce him?” he repeated.
“More fool her.”
“So you don’t want to leave him?” he repeated.
“Look, I’m not going to ask him for a divorce. I’m just happy that you want to marry me; that’s enough for me. And I’ll keep my promise: I’ll do whatever it takes to get you your promotion and have your family moved to the city. Whatever you want, I’ll make sure you get it.”
Yan’s dialogue is simple, purely functional, but it gains force from the situation. Dawang wants to marry Liu Liang but can’t: that’s the basic conflict driving the conversation forward. But notice that the interplay between the characters is actually more complicated than that. It is Liu Liang, not Dawang, who first introduces the idea of marriage, and only in order to dismiss it as impossible. She wants him to want to marry her, sure, but she also wants the affair to stay within safe bounds, and to make up for that, she promises to reward him with the promotion he’s always dreamed of. In essence, we are seeing a second, subtler, conflict layered upon the first: who controls this relationship, Dawang or Liu Liang?
Let’s continue onward with Dawang’s response:
“I don’t care whether you divorce the Commander, fix me a promotion or get my family moved to the city. Whatever happens, I’ll never forget you.”
This declaration didn’t have the impact he’d anticipated. After a pause, Liu Liang merely smiled, “Flatterer.”
Wu Dawang’s face crumpled anxiously. “Don’t you believe me?” “Of course. Like I believe Chairman Mao’s really going to live for 10,000 years,” she teased.
What’s happening here? Dawang’s reply to Liu Liang (“I don’t care whether you divorce the commander”) is something of a strategic retreat, given that he has just acknowledged that he would like to marry her. The same goes for his statement that he doesn’t care about promotion, since we’ve seen from the very beginning of the novel the single-minded drive with which he has pursued that goal, narrowing himself in the process into a sort of obedient drone. But the affair has clearly begun to change him. This most practical of men, pained by the nakedness of the payoff his lover has just offered him, tries to replace the language of practicality with that of idealized romance (“I’ll never forget you”). But Liu Liang responds by mocking him with her comment about Chairman Mao. That crack carries a little extra sting because Dawang accidentally knocked over a bust of Mao pages earlier, at the opening of the scene, and it smashed on the floor—an innocent mistake that nevertheless makes them both nervous.
Even so, Dawang can’t retreat from his point, perhaps because he has nowhere to retreat to:
“If you don’t believe me,’ he said, “you can tell Security what I did to that statue. I’ll either be shot or spend the rest of my life in prison.”
“Do you really think I’m going to forget you?”
“You’re the Division Commander’s wife, you can forget whoever you like. All I know is I’ll never forget you.”
“D’you want me to swear it?”
Glancing across at the poster of Chairman Mao stuck above the table, she walked over, ripped it off the wall, screwed it up and tore it into pieces. She then threw them on to the floor and stamped on them.
“You can report me too. Once we were both Party-faithful. Now we’re both counter-revolutionaries. But you destroyed an image of Chairman Mao by accident, while I did it deliberately. Which makes me more counter-revolutionary. Believe me now?”
For a moment he paled with shock at what she’d done. Then he walked over to the basin, pulled a quotation off the wall behind it and, like her, screwed it up and stamped on it.
“I’m more counter-revolutionary than you. I deserve two firing squads.”
For me, that is the great joy of dialogue: a moment of blunt truth (“You’re the Division Commander’s wife, you can forget whoever you like”) somehow devolves into a can-you-top-this competition about who is more likely to end up in front of a firing squad. The entirely personal struggle between the lovers is hijacked by the hyperbolic language of Chinese politics, and thus by the larger conflict between the individual and the totalitarian state—Yan’s ultimate theme. In the Communist China of 1967, their betrayal of the Commander is also a betrayal of the Party and of Chairman Mao and draws both defiant energy and an undercurrent of terror from that fact. It is a cry for freedom from two people who can’t really imagine what freedom might look like.
Thus, if we count up, there are finally three different conflicts at work in this short sequence, each fitted inside the other and all working in the same direction: the conflict within Dawang between wanting Liu Liang and knowing that he can’t really have her; the conflict between Dawang and Liu Liang for control of the relationship, in which Liu Liang clearly has the upper hand; and the conflict between the lovers and a state apparatus so far-reaching in its demands for obedience that it has monopolized all symbols of devotion, leaving nothing left over for love. Those conflicts both shape and color the speech between characters, sometimes on the literal level (“Do you want to marry me?”), sometimes on the ironic or subtextual level (“I don’t care whether you leave the Division Commander”) and sometimes on the purely metaphorical level (“I deserve two firing squads”).
The end result is dialogue that carries real emotional weight and therefore feels real, even though it is made up—the paradoxical miracle of fiction. That dialogue can be relatively terse, like Yan’s, or virtuosic, like Philip Roth’s (a writer that Yan resembles in Serve the People!, though not in other books). It can be scatologically hysterical like Sam Lipsyte’s, or craftily inarticulate like George Saunders’. The only requirement is that it must partake of our conflicted, conflictual natures, and thus express our human yearnings.
Robert Anthony Siegel is the author of a memoir, Criminals, and two novels. His work has appeared in The Paris Review, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian, The Oxford American, Ploughshares, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and other venues.
Originally appeared in NOR 17