Thursday, July 08, 2010

Atmosphere and Voice

I’m reading a book that has me thinking about the recent insightful “voice” posts. The novel is LAST CAR TO ELYSIAN FIELDS by James Lee Burke, who will surely go down as one of the greatest crime writers of all time and, for my money, is one of the best American novelists writing right now. The voice in Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels is unique, but it is something else that adds to the voice and, in my opinion, makes the works so distinct.

Atmosphere, a sense of place, is absolutely vibrant in these books.

You’ve heard Elmore Leonard’s rule Never Begin with Weather? Thankfully, Burke never got the memo. This is his drop-dead gorgeous opening line: “The first week after Labor Day, after a summer of hot wind and drought that left the cane fields dust blown and spiderwebbed with cracks, rain showers once more danced across the wetlands, the temperature dropped twenty degrees, and the sky turned the hard flawless blue of an inverted ceramic bowl.”

Leonard’s rule is a good one, one I am wise to abide by, but it is always trumped by the first rule of fiction write: There are only rules if you get caught breaking them. Burke is talented enough to break all the rules. By way of example, in this first-person novel, he routinely switches to third-person and writes scenes in which our protagonist is not present and thus of which he can have no knowledge.)

Burke’s imagery—from line number one—is breathtaking, his ability to convey a sense of place unparallel in our genre. Hell, I’ve been holed up in the only room in my house with A-C for a week to escape Connecticut’s hundred-degree temps, and even I want to go to New Orleans after reading the opening line.

So how does atmosphere relate to voice in this novel? I go back to character. The opening-line description comes from Robicheaux himself, a first-person account. It is insightful, informative, and establishes the protagonist as someone we can trust. The technical aspects of voice that my colleagues have wisely and gracefully covered this week—diction, syntax—are clearly there. For instance, “spiderwebbed” is the perfect modifier for “cracked earth” in part because it conveys a sense of dryness as well; and the “ceramic bowl” image conveys a low sky, one you could almost touch. I’ve lived in Texas, I know that southern sky well and I buy the image.

But, for me, voice always stems from character. Robicheaux clearly is born, at least in part, of Burke’s life experiences, the author’s deep understanding of regional nuances, and the diction he uses—the very basis of character—comes from that. It does for all of us. It must.

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