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Making Conversation in Modernist Fiction by Elizabeth Alsop

Cover for Making Conversation in Modernist Fiction by Elizabeth Alsop
Making Conversation in Modernist Fiction. Elizabeth Alsop. Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press, 2019. Pp. 212. $64.95 (cloth); $29.95 (paper); $29.95 (eBook).

When fiction narrates speech, who is talking? Even for those who typically understand modernist fiction as skeptical of straightforward representational uses of language, scholars tend to assume that fictional characters mean the words they speak: that Bartleby would prefer not to and that Molly Bloom says yes. Elizabeth Alsop’s Making Conversation in Modernist Fiction offers a subtle, significant provocation, challenging mimetic interpretations of dialogue in modernist fiction.

By staging “intersubjective and authorially orchestrated configurations” of speech (3), modernist writers attended to the “capacity for the very structures of talk to bear meaning” (4) in excess of any speaker. For instance, the contagious style that catches the characters of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! destabilizes “the individual as the organizing principle of the novel” (103), even—perhaps especially—when speakers attempt to differentiate themselves. Alsop develops a rich conceptual vocabulary for distinctions between such disindividuated speech, the “hypertrophic realism” of Zora Neale Hurston (27), or the “choral voice” in Jean Toomer’s Cane (140). These and other writers—Stein, James, Hemingway, Joyce—map a modernism that, rather than emphasizing private interiority, reconsiders how speech might shape the social. Alsop’s study thus speaks to recent work by Michaela Bronstein, Julie Beth Napolin, and Lisa Siraganian. While her archive might seem restrictively canonical in its Anglo-American modernist focus, her fresh readings provide tools for further study on modernity’s myriad voices.

If modernists sever the “bond between one’s self and one’s speech” (11), they emphasize, on the one hand, the presence of the author who makes the speech, and, on the other, the autonomy of discursive forms. As such, Making Conversations in Modernist Fiction helps us appreciate both the labors of its author and the value of meticulous, formalist scholarship for illuminating the discursive structures in which we work.