The Function of Language

This novel, much more than the others we have read this semester, seems interested in the expression of language and, more broadly, communication.  The narrator is a linguist and is inherently concerned with these concepts, but the inclusion of these themes resonates beyond the narrator.  Language is working, as far as I could tell, in three main ways:

1. Body language.  The novel, particularly toward the beginning, spends a great deal of time explaining movement.  I originally thought this was separate from language, but as I read further, it became clear that they are one and the same.  On page 31, the narrator remembers that the salsa dancer had said, “‘You can’t do this without movement,’ and at the time I believed she was coaching me… But now I wonder if she was referring to life in this city.”  Life here, though, does depend upon movement, since their communication relies just as heavily upon movement as it does what is spoken.  Later on in the novel, the narrator says, “in high Ravickian form he began to gesticulate dramatically, to ‘hide the story in the dance,’ as they say there” (76-77).  Movement complicates, obscures, and mystifies language, but this is done so purposefully.  These two are deeply intertwined, and so the statement “You can’t do this without movement” holds true.  

2. The art of hello.  There are an absurd number of greetings in this novel.  Characters say “hello” over and over, and in some instances are reintroduced moments after they have already met.  In the conversation between the narrator and Dar when they first meet, pages 43-44, they say some sort of greeting to each other seven times.  In another instance, the narrator states, “I could say ‘hello’ fifteen times to the same person and every time she would say ‘hello’ back” (112).  I am not sure of the significance of this in the novel, but because it is so present and repetitive, it must have some importance to the novel.

3. Performance of language.  We have spent lots of time discussing the nature of performance this semester, but our discussions have mostly been based on gender performance.  While there is some of that in this novel (the narrator’s gender is remarkably ambiguous with only a few moments of clarity), most of what is performed is language.  If the goal of movement is to “hide the story in the dance,” then both the dance (the body language) and the story (the verbal language) are performances.  The one communicating is doing the performing, and the one receiving the communication is the audience, or interpreter.  This leaves me with several questions: Does this type of performance relate to gender performance?  Are they in some ways related?  What is the novel trying to say about performance?

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