Friday, December 21, 2012

Bill James and the dark art of verbal evasion

I was preparing a simple list of excerpts from Undercover, Book 29 in Bill James' Harpur & Iles series, when I realized that almost all the selections shared a theme: verbal evasion.

Political and criminal functionaries self-consciously use buzzwords and jargon, and undercover police slip into similar jargon when deceiving their spouses. Euphemism and deception feature in much of the dialogue and, in one section quoted below, James takes the piss out of what may be the most widely and disingenously abused English word of the last twenty-five years: community.

What's more, the characters know what they and their fellow characters are doing, and the resulting self-loathing and mutual mistrust build up and build up until they lead to verbal explosions, usually from Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Iles or from James' other favorite bullshit detectors, the wives and girlfriends of endangered cops and low-level criminals.

James told me three years ago, apropos of his notable evasive cross-talk between Harpur and Iles, that:
"I tend to get bored reading books where the dialogue is very sequential and reasonable. I like the talk to obscure at least as much as it tells. I don’t want the reader dozing off, so I introduce the seeming breaks from sense. ... Opaque dialogue can be an avoidance of a troublesome topic. The reader would spot that it’s troublesome, which means the dialogue is doing its job while appearing not to. People may be obsessed with their own concerns and will try to dominate the conversation to get these across, despite the other person’s probable wish to do the same. We get a nice helping of chaos, evasion, dead-ends, just like at home."
Undercover, whose plot revolves around another pet James theme the physical, psychological, and moral dangers of undercover police work carries the evasions and deceptions into every aspect of the narrative, and the result lends the book much of its tension as well as its humor. Here are some examples plus one bit unrelated to the matter at hand but included because it's so deliciously funny.
*
"Your replies to questions needn’t be too detailed, though: they could be ‘redacted’, to borrow a modish term."
*
"The course he’d attended had as its official, magnificently uninformative title, ‘Actual Progressive Policing’ (APP). Those selected were instructed to tell anyone outside who asked about it that the object was to improve police integration within the community. The last phrase – ‘within the community’ – should be used verbatim and with a pious tone, his tutor said, because the word ‘community’ had lately developed a kind of gorgeously holy tinge, and to be ‘within’ that blessed fold made things even holier: the curious would consider it crude to go on nosing if once blocked by this cosy, sanctified formula. He’d tried it on Iris, and she’d replied: ‘Rubbish. You’ve been learning how to spy, haven’t you, Tom?'"
*
"Iris had one hell of a down on jargon – assumed always that its purpose was concealment and evasiveness, not communication; anti-communication."
*
" ‘He was ambushed,’ Harpur said. ‘No blame on him for that, surely. Who could have dodged it?’

"Maud said: ‘Well, who? Yes. And who could have laid it on?’

"‘The Home Office loves blame – blaming, that is, not getting blamed,’ Iles said."

*
" ‘But that’s rather negative, isn’t it?’ Maud said.

"‘No. Not “rather”. It’s totally fucking negative,’ Iles replied."

*
"Tom felt it vital to go along with the half-baked nature of this conversation. It suggested geniality and friendship, beyond mere business concerns."
*
" ‘This is interesting,’ Tom said. It was the best he could come up with. He felt almost smothered by guff. He said it pretty matter-of-fact, no heavy, fascinated trill laid on, otherwise it would sound like sarcasm – apparently admiration, but really piss-taking words that stood in for the true meaning, which amounted, approximately, to, ‘Fuck off, Leo, you verbose, anti-grammatical cunt.’"
*
"They know about it, live on it, Vogue-clothe themselves on it, smart-shoe themselves on it, status themselves on it, but there needn’t be too much definition of what it actually is. That would disturb and even upset them." [On the self-deception of high-level gangsters' wives.]
*
"‘A couple of cabbages and four Jaffas give him or her a social background?’ Iles asked.

" ‘Undercover needs its methodology, Desmond,’ Maud said.

"‘Its methodology couldn’t keep him alive,’ Iles said."

*
"His trousers, socks and shoes were blood-drenched and muddy. In one sense he did well to crawl at all.’

" ‘Which sense would that be?’ Iles said."

"‘This is very high-class shooting,’ Maud replied."

*
" My mother used to cry out gleefully to me, even as a child, `Desmond, you’re such an internationalist!'”
© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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6 Comments:

Blogger Dana King said...

Peter,
I've been aware of James for several years now. (I may live in a cave, but the cave has internet.) You've convinced me I should give him a try. Can you recommend some good entry points for a James novice?

December 21, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, this link includes a numbered list of the Harpur & Iles novels. I'd suggest beginning your James reading from any book either in the first six or numbers 7 through 16.

December 21, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Peter, why the distinction: "either in the first six[,] or numbers 7 through 16." Unless I am missing something, you sound like you are saying any of the first 16. So, what am I not understanding?

December 21, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T. (and Dana): My desire for concision was misguided in this case. What I meant was that books 1 through 6 are excellent, funny, dark crime stories, and books 7 throught 16 are a kind of grand, dark social comedy of classes--a warped, much funnier version of "A Dance to the Music of Time."

December 21, 2012  
Blogger Dana King said...

Thanks, Peter. So if i choose one from Column A and one from Column B, I'll have a couple of flavors to see if i prefer one over the other.

Adding to my list now.

December 22, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't think the series really begins to fall off into unevenness until Book 20, The Girl With the Long Back, so you won't go wrong no matter where you begin there or earlier. I read the tenth book first, then read each as I could get my hands on it until 2003, when I began buying each new book as it appeared.

I broke off Books 7 through 16 only because of their thematic unity -- but it is by no means necessary to read the books in order.

December 22, 2012  

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