Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Blurry, Muffled of Speak

A passage from Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson:

"The peanut butter locks my jaws closed. 
Emily: 'I don't believe it. Rumors are spread by jealous people. Hi, Andy. Did you bring enough lunch for everyone?' 
It feels like the Prince of Darkness has swept his cloak over the table. The lights dim. I shiver. Andy stands behind me to flirt with Emily. I lean into the table to stay as far away from him as I can. The table saws me in half. Emily's mouth moves, the fluorescent lights glittering on her teeth. The other girls scootch toward Emily to soak up her Attractiveness Rays. Andy must be talking too, I can feel deep vibrations in my backbone, like a thudding speaker. I can't hear the words. He twirls my ponytail in his fingers. Emily's eyes narrow. I mumble something idiotic and run for the bathroom. I heave lunch into the toilet, then wash my face with the ice water that comes out of the Hot faucet. Heather does not come looking for me."

This is an especially traumatic passage in the novel. Andy is the boy that raped Melinda during the summer, and this section really creeped me out when I was reading it--it still creeps me out.

Anderson's syntax is interesting here. She usually has a good mix of short simple sentences, but also complex, compound sentences. But here, because of the action of the scene, Anderson abandons compound sentences in lieu of crisp, short ones. The scene and the description gets herky-jerky like it is all Melinda can do to let us know what is going on. I also noticed that the scene begins with Melinda able to see and describe the people around her, and then it's almost as if the camera pulls in (maybe even inside her head) and the reader's vision becomes blurry and muffled. She can't understand what people are saying anymore, she just knows that they are talking and "can feel the deep vibrations in [her] backbone." This is the only sentence that has any complexity to it as well, which I think is extremely important. This is a tipping point, as we see two sentences later when Andy begins to twirl Melinda's ponytail. Anderson signals this to us by writing a more complex sentence. You may not notice it while you are reading quickly, but your brain does.

There are three instances of figurative language in this passage. Melinda compares Andy to Satan using a simile in the third paragraph; a pretty run-of-the-mill comparison. But then she says that "[t]he table saws [her] in half." Which seems like the point in the passage where the scene really becomes muffled. Almost like her head has been separated from the rest of her body, the signals no longer reaching her brain. And then Melinda compares the "deep vibrations" of Andy's voice to a "thudding speaker." It seems like a normal enough simile, but I think there is more we could consider here. When I think of a thudding speaker, I don't think of a speaker that is working correctly. I think of a speaker where something is wrong; the speaker has ripped and it has that strange vibration sound. When the bass hits the speaker hums and those vibrations spread throughout whatever the speaker is touching. Perhaps that is what Anderson is getting at with the word thudding? Which would make sense because of the effect Andy is having on Melinda in this scene. That thudding makes Melinda remember, which is turn causes her to throw up.

The passage is indeed disturbing, but Anderson does a marvelous job of composing a scene full of details that enrich further close-readings.

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