Essay on the writing of Jeff Helgeson by Arnie Bernstine, author of Hollywood on Lake Michigan.
Music, Art, Nickels and Dialog
“Dialog is really a funny to me,” says author/ playwright Jeff Helgeson. “Any writer will tell you, the way to get realistic dialog is to listen to your characters.”But Helgeson does more than just listen to his characters when writing fiction. In stories published in such journals as The Oyez Review and Tomorrow Magazine, Helgeson gives himself metaphorical models to work with, creating dialog that is based on communication forms that are not inherently associated with spoken language.
In “Prelude and Fugue,” Joanne, an amateur pianist, is asked by Tom, her college professor husband, to play for a dedication ceremony at his campus. Joanne practices diligently, constantly worrying over each note, while Tom continually badgers her about the upcoming recital. Tensions between the two grow, until Joanne finally gives a wonderful performance. What Helgeson says he was attempting to do, in part, was to document the process a pianist goes through in the difficult stages of practice before a recital. Tom, on the other hand, represents the impatient audience, expecting flawless performances without realizing how many hours of hard work go into the making of the music. Another point of story was to create, through dialog and narrative, a metaphorical representation of the music in the words. “The structure of the prelude and fugue musically, “says Helgeson, “is to large extent what I was working with. I established an idea and began to complicate that idea through more and more variations, and more and more replications, and complications intertwining, compiling developments of the theme.”
This is represented through dialog, which changes in tone and pitch as the story’s idea builds. Helgeson uses phrases to describe Joanne and Tom’s discussions with such phrases as “quietly” and “distracted dryness of her tone,” and then the story takes a sudden turn from passive to intensive as Tom begins applying pressure on Joanne early in her rehearsal process: “Tom’s voice was more demanding than persuasive. Joanne noted the tone, thought for a moment, then agreed to go.”
Helgeson returns briefly to the passive voice through Joanne’s discussions with another character. Then, in a phone conversation that comes on the heels of a tough rehearsal, the word “barked” leaps into a description of Joanne’s talk. Next, like the often sharply contrasting passages within a fugue: “Joanne felt a flood tide of words swelling up inside her, and, before she could filter them, they were out.”
This is followed by the story’s longest passage at that point, a paragraph-long tirade in which the meek Joanne suddenly lashes out at Tom. Her talk then quiets down into the former soft tones. When the day of the recital arrives, talk hits a new level, building out of Joanne’s nervousness with the approaching moment of glory. While faculty and university staff members are eager and happy, Joanne is growing increasingly anxious with her upcoming performance. Again, Helgeson uses words to describe both his characters’ speech and the reactions it invokes. After a successful recital, Joanne is asked to perform an encore. As she plays a Bach prelude and fugue, Helgeson writes: “The sounds continued, melting into a tonal continuum that wove shifting patterns in the air unceasingly until the final resonant tone that fell, not as a conclusion, but as a reassertion of the finite, universal order that had been given evidence to within the intricately patterned fabric of the music.”
At the end of the story, when the recital is actually given, Helgeson says “there was an attempt to mimic the rhythms of the narrative’s compounding themes within the language of the text so that, if read aloud, the passage would take on a kind of rhythmic-musical quality.” Finally, as much as possible, it does seem to echo a clear attempt to imitate baroque musical patterns.
Within his fiction, Helgeson likes to describe his characters’ talk as a way to give readers a sort of “visual stage direction” and comment on how the words are being said. Often, the dialog description itself is a mirror of the words said, thus reinforcing an idea. This also provides a rhythm that Helgeson feels adds further commentary to what is actually being said in the dialog.
Dialog and form are filtered through another art form in the story “Retrospective.” In this story, a couple’s relationship is looked at over a course of several years, taking the female protagonist from a naive girl to a battle-scarred woman. The central idea of the story comes from the Picasso painting “Woman in a Chair,” a work done during the artist’s cubist period. For Helgeson, “Retrospective” was an experiment in writing like a cubist, developing over the story’s bits and pieces the central theme of the work. Again, language reflects the story’s development. Upon first glance, the painting which serves as the focal point of the piece is described as showing “the bright green of an overstuffed chair, the rugs, and the other furniture in a somewhat cramped and over-crowded room, and it showed them clearly and with detail; only the figure of the woman offered any distortion – the woman – the woman who was apparently nude and who was seated in the chair.” This is followed with a description of the room where the painting itself hangs: “ . . . the room buzzed with casual conversation, people wandered and talked, moved, almost at random, pausing in front of a painting for a single moment and then slowly walking on.” The story, like the painting at its center, then unfolds in pieces. The Pieces, seeming random in the relationship between Tom (a name Helgeson inexplicably finds himself using over and over) and Ruth, show in the various paragraphs, the “cubes” of the story, “Retrospective’s” overall picture.
One of Helgeson’s attempts with this story was to use language to echo and reinforce the visual ideas that were inspired by the Picasso painting. In one sequence, a television blares in the background with a talk show about “open marriages” until Tom snaps off the program and an intensely understated discussion concerning marital fidelity ensues between himself and Ruth. “The television was a device,” says Helgeson, “to lead to this conversation.” As in the painting, a seemingly small detail causes the entire work to go off in a whole new direction. The story elements build on one another through such motifs, showing the progression of Ruth and Tom’s relationship over an extended period of time.
While “Prelude and Fugue” and “Retrospective” take their respective cues from art forms, “E Pluribus Unum” has a wholly different source of inspiration. The story, recalls Helgeson, is based on the reminiscence of long-time Chicago bookseller, Stuart Brent, who had told him that, while under anesthesia for an operation, he had become convinced that he had turned into a roll of nickels. With this notion in mind, Helgeson took a flight of fancy to explore the implications through a variety of voices, both real and imaginary.
The story opens as Milton Silver (a wonderfully obvious name) is about to undergo an appendectomy. Suddenly, he finds himself metamorphosed in mock Kafkaesque fashion into a roll of nickels. As the roll is broken and divided, getting and spending Silver throughout the city of Chicago, a variety of characters are seen and heard. In the end, of course, we learn that this was merely an anesthesia-induced hallucination and that Milton Silver’s human form is quiet intact, lest, of course, fro his appendix.
In this story, Helgeson deliberately used stereotyped characters and ways of speaking to convey characters. It was an attempt at simple metaphor to reflect the roll of nickels. Each character is stamped from an easily recognizable stereotype, but,Like eave five-cent piece in the nickel roll, all personalities in the story are singular individuals.
We have the nurse, who speaks in the brisk tones associated with nurses. We have the lackadaisical orderly who tries to shift blame elsewhere for Milton Silver’s sudden disappearance from his hospital bed, quietly pocketing the roll of nickels that he finds in the patient’s stead and beginning their random distribution. There is the Super Fly-styled newspaper dealer (whom, Helgeson claims, was based upon a real subway news vender that he had encountered on an almost daily basis for years while working in a downtown credit office). There is also the voice of Milton’s wife, an Eastern European immigrant woman who talks to Milton when he comes out of his anesthesia.
“E Pluribus Unum” is full of the visual “stage notes” that Helgeson likes to use to describe his characters’ talk. The best example comes in an exchange between the newspaper seller and the orderly who had lifted the roll of nickels from the hospital bed as a part of Milton is used to buy a Sun Times.
‘“Have-a-good-day,’ the vendor called after him, running all the sounds together into a single word of farewell.”
‘”You too,’ the man responded without looking back and then began to move down the stairs.”
The first line shows again how Helgeson uses his descriptions to reflect what a speaker says, as well as how he/she says it. “Have-a-good-day” is connected into a single word with hyphens, followed by the phrase “the vender called after him, running all the sounds together into a single word of farewell.” The spoken words have that hurried effect heightened through the use of the connecting hyphens, but the kicker comes in what follows. By employing the connecting description of the language, this single paragraph becomes an extended run-on sentence and an effective means of putting the vendor’s words into spoken context. The orderly’s response works in a similar fashion. ‘“You too,’ the man responded without looking back and then began to move down the stairs.” The dialog is delivered without thinking. “. . . the man responded without looking back” says it all. The sentence, the paragraph itself, like the vender’s, is further heightened by using the connecting “and” to move onto the new idea of descending the stairs and moving off into subway and out into the surrounding areas of the city.
“Use of dialog,” Helgeson says, “becomes an effective means of texturing the sense of character without extensive description.” It is “good dialog,” he says that “extends the daydream of a narrative and helps make it seem experiential – real in a sense.” By employing dialog in imaginative story-telling, Jeff Helgeson continues to flourish in the art of verbal daydream creation.