24 May 2016

Worst. Dialogue. Ever.

Over the past week, more than a couple of readers – three, in fact – have admired my ability to get through He Will Return, Helen Dickson Reynolds' 1959 girl-meets-boy, girl-loses-boy, girl-buys-boy-return-ticket novel. In truth, it wasn't such a slog. True, He Will Return spans a quarter-century – and encompasses such events as the Great Depression, the Second World War and the opening of the Vancouver Art Gallery – but it isn't so long a novel. Time moves quickly from the start, picks up momentum, begins skipping over years, then comes to a dead stop on page 256.

My pace in reading He Will Return was more measured: a chapter or two a night until the thing was done. The plot didn't interest much; what kept me going was the dialogue, which I'm certain is the very worst of the 185 novels I've read from The Dusty Bookcase. This exchange, in which girl Constance is introduced to boy Ivor, is so very bad that I can't help but repeat it:
"You know, Ivor, this pretty little girl has just been given a diploma by the Vancouver Art School. I'm afraid you're going to find this city a poor market for pictures, Connie, and this Depression doesn't help."
     "Don't be such a crape hanger [sic], John," his wife reproved.
     "Our new Art Gallery will give young artists a place to exhibit and sell their paintings."
     "Oh sure,"the doctor agreed amiably. "We're a young city, you know, Ivor. It's only forty-six years since this town was completely wiped out by fire."
     "Great Scott! It's inconceivable. The houses and gardens look so well established."
Expository dialogue, right? So much of it is, and yet for all the talking a lot is left unsaid... or isn't said until long after one would've expected. Consider this exchange, which takes place on the first Sunday after Constance and Ivor's honeymoon:
"Darling," said Constance, "you're Methodist and I'm Anglican. Shall we take turns going to each other's churches? I believe the United Church has swallowed the Methodist in North Vancouver, anyway."
     Ivor looked gloomy and stirred his coffee. Constance bit her lip.
     "Dearest, you'd probably like to sing in the choir. I'll go to eight o'clock Communion after this, and to the morning Service to your church with you."
     A deep flush mounted to Ivor's eyes. "I said I was brought up in a strict Methodist family. I didn't say I adhered to the faith. I... I regard Christ as the greatest teacher of ethics, but I have no use for organized religion.
     Constance turned white.
Whiter, anyway.

Constance gets to the church on time despite the shock, and is a regular congregant throughout the novel. Project Bookmark Canada will want to consider a plaque at the former site of Vancouver's St John's Anglican Church.

The young marrieds have barely settled into their first home when even younger marrieds Dick and Evelyn Burnett move in next door. One afternoon, between clotheslines, Evelyn tells Constance that Dick will be asking her husband to join his glee club. Just the thing to raise one's spirits in this Depression!
"A glee club sounds rather jolly," Ivor said, rolling a cigarette. He had cut down his smoking to a cigarette after lunch and one after dinner. "If I get a definite invitation from Burnett, I'll accept it."
     The words were hardly out of his mouth before the doorbell rang. Ivor jumped up eagerly to open the door and welcomed Dick Burnett in.
     "By jove, it's good to meet another man who sings, as I hear you do. Will you have this chair? D'you smoke? Afraid I have no tailormades now to offer you. I roll my own."
     "No, thanks." Dick Burnett sat down, glancing at the piano. "I only smoke mentholated cigarettes and not many of them, because of my voice. I dare say it's a superstition."
And I dare say, it isn't.

Never mind. I'm not such a prick about our forebearers as James Cameron. I quote this passage only because it points to the most curious aspect of Reynolds' dialogue. Shall, shouldn't, oughtn't, whether Canadian, Welshman, Irishman or Englishman, every character but one speaks like a proper Etonian schoolboy. The very same Etonian schoolboy. The exception is... well, I'll let him introduce himself:
"Good evening, Mrs. Owen-Jones. I'm your neighbor, Malcolm Macrae. I thought as I was passing I would just look in and see if you could use a wee bunch of radishes. They grow awfully early on my south slope. You'll maybe no care for radishes?"
     "I'm just crazy about radishes. Do come in. Mr. Macrae. It's very kind of you to call and bring us these delicious radishes. Won't you sit down? My husband will be out in a second; he's shaving."
     "I doubt I've come at the wrong time. You and your good man are going out?"
     "Oh, no, we're not thinking of going out. We have two small children, and we never leave them alone."
     "I've seen your two wee boys; they're bonnie laddies. I obsairved your vegetables coming along nicely. I have more tomato plants and cabbage and cauliflower in my hotbed than I can use; I'd be glad if you could take a few off my hands; I'm fashed to throw them away."
Whilst on the subject of hotbeds, those who made it through last week's post will remember the name Stephen Cochrane. A pipe-smoking widower, Stephen spends a chaste summer in Constance's company, only to discover that the woman he thought was a widow is actually an abandoned wife:
"Constance, I knew the children were all away and I came over with the firm intention of asking you to marry me. Now that is shot to pieces. Do you know where your husband is?"
     Her voice shook. "I haven't known for seven years and some months. You are the first person that I have told, and I am telling you because you have paid me the greatest compliment that a man can pay a woman."
     He sat very quiet for a while. "You could have him presumed dead," he said slowly, "or you could have him traced and make sure. You and I are Anglicans and we couldn't marry even if you were to get a divorce."
     "Stephen, I am sorry, I firmly believe that Ivor is alive and that in the course of time he will come back to me."
And, of course, he does... just a matter of waiting another decade, tracking him down in England, writing a pleading letter, and then paying his way back. It's somehow appropriate that the novel's final words belong to Ivor; after all, for most of the book he's not heard from. After Ivor returns, the poor man barely has a chance to speak before Constance loads him in the car for a second honeymoon on Vancouver Island:
"Oh, Ivor, we forgot that you need a driver's license. Now I'm afraid I'll have to keep the wheel."
     "You're the one to have the wheel," Ivor said humbly. "And, Connie, my sweet, from this day on Thy people shall be my people and thy God my God." 
Ivor quotes Ruth 1:16, but has he found religion? I think not. He knows the passage because he was "brought up in a strict Methodist family." What Ivor has found is a woman who will feed and keep him in neckties and socks. Constance couldn't afford to do that when they first met, but she can now, hence his return.

Ah, romance.

One last thing:

He Will Return? Shouldn't it be, oughtn't it be He Shall Return?

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