If you enjoy the ravishments of dialogue, Legends of the Fall will likely disappoint you.
Searching for reported speech in this finely built novella is like tracking a snow leopard in the Himalayas. One trembles in excitement at its mere appearance. It’s almost as though Harrison doesn’t deem words action. They’re simply not worthy of record. He doesn’t report motes in the air, either.
Is this a challenge to the role of dialogue in storytelling? Or collateral damage in an epic with its need for compression?
For a while I found this last idea attractive. Reading Legends is a lot like watching a Blu-ray in fast forward—scenes zip by in no time flat. But I don’t think the idea has any merit.
Examine this passage from Legends.
After dinner they played pinochle all evening with Pet and Isabel winning owning to the wine and brandy Ludlow and Decker had consumed. Ludlow announced that Decker must take tomorrow off and they would take the setters and go grouse hunting. Decker said he expected that One Stab would be back in a few days. Pet served a pudding….
What effect(s) is lost by re-writing the passage thusly?
After dinner they played pinochle all evening with Pet and Isabel winning owning to the wine and brandy Ludlow and Decker had consumed. “Take tomorrow off,” Ludlow announced to Decker. “We’ll take the setters and go grouse hunting.” “I expect One Stab to be back in a few days,” said Decker. Pet served a pudding….
Surprisingly, the second passage is slightly shorter. But something else must have changed in the passage, some semantic property or aesthetic effect. Otherwise Harrison could just as easily report direct speech. But he doesn’t—why?
At least two things change in the revised passage. In the first one, we get the gist of what Ludlow and Decker said but not the details, the exact wording of their exchange, whereas in the second passage we get the details but not the gist. There’s a telescopic specificity to reported speech that runs counter to the narrative sweep of Legends and the illusion of vast distances it creates.
Further, the first passage reads like a legend passed down from one generation to the next, with the inevitable blurring of details. Whether Ludlow said “setters” or “pointers” or “grouse” or “pheasant” is beside the point. What matters is the broad outline of the story. This gives Legends the feeling of an oral tradition whose authority is derived, not from any one author, but from a long line of narrators who have gifted the story to other future narrators who will then gift it in turn.