‘At the heart of contemporary American fiction there is a failure of communication’

For Dorothy Allison’s River of Names – communication is a terrifying, fractured thing. The piece’s very title implies a torrent of words, a veritable outpouring of data that has merged into an incommunicable mass. This river – in its sheer speed and number of component names – has erased all sense of individuality.

This deficiency of identity is addressed from the opening paragraph as the narrator describes finding Tommy’s dead body. It is not the body the narrator finds first, but instead the body’s shadow, an ethereal remnant of a once-living person. His face too – the focal point of identity, the font of communication – is obliterated, ‘black’; a non-colour. We see the narrator deprived of the usual omnipresent powers of their privileged position, instead they can only resort to calling other characters ‘someone’ – like Tommy, they remain faceless, their names unknown. As Allison ends the paragraph, her mother is said to have ‘turned my eyes away’, depriving her of sight, removing a fundamental sensation, a means of receiving information.

This deprival of sight occurs again shortly later as the narrator lies in bed with Jesse – here though it takes on a more intimate nature. The irony though is that even in the most close, affectionate of settings, there is still a breakdown of basic communication. It is here, in the most direct manner of the entire passage that Allison addresses the issue: ‘I cannot say a word’. This juxtaposition of intimacy and failed communication is emphasised in the couple’s pillow-talk, Jesse pressing ‘her face against my ear, to whisper’ – even with this level of closeness, all that can be managed is a simple whisper, a pale, weak form of regular speech.

These juxtapositions are summed up best in the line ‘I do not want to remember and cannot forget’ – there is an awful sense of being stuck in limbo, between saying one thing and meaning another. The narrator is confined to the limitations of language, unable to fully express how they really feel. This ties in to how so many of the family members in the photos have been forgotten, they undoubtedly exist, but their names elude the tongue – as the narrator puts it: ‘The mystery is how many no one remembers’. Just as intimacy has become tainted by a failure of communication, so too has family – one by one the narration is transforming the most close of bonds into memories pierced by mystery and gaping blanks.

The awful reality of this is concluded in the finality of the sentence ‘They died and were not missed’. Here, death is the ultimate end; not just of life but of the memory of the person too – further elaborated on as she describes the deaths of various cousins, they ‘disappeared and were never found’. Any further communication regarding them fails; they become ‘multiplication tables’ – something cold, impersonal, mechanical. And just as the stories of these people are brought to a premature end, it is made clear that the narrator’s story will one day end too as she states she ‘will not have children’. There will be no one to continue her legacy, her story, communicate her life on to the next generation.

The theme of tainted intimacy again emerges in the narrator’s description of rape. The horrible intensity of the acts is summed up in one word ‘strangers’ – this most intimate of acts is perpetrated but unknowable men and the narrator is unable to offer more information; a greater number of words are even afforded to the location of the rape: ‘a parking lot’. The acts become even more terrible when dressed up in the formal reporting language of the newspapers: ‘persons unknown’. It is the overbearing weight of this unknown nature that places itself on Pammie, condemning her to ‘never [speak] again’ of the deeds. Even more terrible, this affliction of silence is contagious, spreading out to the narrator who confesses that these words in the newspapers are ‘too terrible to understand’. It is not just the act of communication that has been lost, but also comprehension.

This inability to express herself is highly ironic then when Jesse tells the narrator that ‘You’ve got a gift for words.’ In a piece that deals with problems of communicating properly, words do not feel like a gift, instead they appear as something intensely problematic, something that must be struggled with. This is addressed in the next line as the narrator seeks to actively avoid communication: ‘Don’t talk’, she says – the urgency stressed in the way this is not merely a request, but that the narrator ‘begs’. Again, communication is wrapped up in a tangled web of juxtaposition – Jesse believes the narrator is a skilled speaker, but the narrator is keen to avoid this, ending the conversation immediately. For her, true intimacy is ‘blessedly silent’. Of course, a further level of juxtaposition also exists; the fact that to express silence and end the communication, the narrator must communicate it within the text. It is perhaps only the finality of the full stop and the end of the paragraph that offers a real end to the communication.

Such is the extent to which communication fails in the piece that eventually even the narrator’s own identity is lost. Looking back over old photographs, the narrator wonders ‘Which one was I?’ – she can no longer recognise her own face. Here, even a seemingly infallible reproduction of life – a photo – has failed to communicate an image of the past. The questions continue: ‘Am I supposed to say something, do something, be something?’ – in a rapid-fire list of actions, speech is the first to fail, swiftly followed by action, and then the notion of ‘being’ entirely. Communication is not merely a process in its own right, but a component part of one’s whole, and with its removal, the narrator’s whole existence is damaged too.

This notion of communication – and more specifically language – being something highly elusive and changeable is made throughout the piece through the use of repetition. One instance of utterance is clearly not enough; phrases must be repeated twice for them to have effect: ‘Please, Daddy. Please, Daddy’, ‘Don’t talk… don’t talk’, ‘Hold Me. Hold Me’, ‘I love you. I love you.’, ’screams and screams’, We an’t no different. We an’t no different’. The repeated phrases come again and again, a river-like onslaught of words having to work doubly hard to leave an impression.

As dramatic as this constant repetition may appear on the page, it does not represent the climax of the failed communication in the piece. This comes in the usage of ‘screaming’. As the piece reaches its latter stages, the word appears more frequently; a wordless shout, no speech, just chaotic noise. We are not told what words constitute the screams, or how long they last – it is an uncontrollable sound, a raised volume of noise that washes over any other dialogue. As with the repetition, its effect is to overpower the reader, functioning like the river of the piece’s title to sweep them away.

Equally abrasive is the sheer lack of answers provided – while questions are plentiful in the piece, answers are less forthcoming. On page 20, seven questions in all are asked, but none are given a proper answer. Whether these are greeted with silence or we as readers are not privy to the answers provided is left open – not only is there are breakdown of communication between the questioner and the one being questioned, but there is a further breakdown in this information being conveyed to the reader. Even when an answer to a question is provided, it is hazy, indeterminate – Melvina talking of how many children she has: ‘Four… or eleven’.

This indeterminacy presents the scope for failed communication lapsing away into a kind of fiction. Where no accurate facts are provided, guesswork must take precedence. This is illustrated in Melvina’s answer, presenting two options – as with the unanswered questions and the ‘unknown’ rapists, we are given only half the story.

It is this elusive notion of truth that forms the crux of the piece’s final paragraph where the narrator reveals: ‘But I lie.’ Has everything written in the last few pages been completely false? Is some of it true, with some elements of fiction? It is impossible for us to know. In a cyclical manner, the first page of the piece also addresses lies, the narrator informing us there: ‘I lie to her the way I always do’ – here, communication has failed completely, every part of it is pure fabrication. But it could also be argued that if the lies are believed then this communication has actually succeeded, of sorts. Is the desire to carefully construct a fiction, a representation of truth, or is the narrator merely ‘making up words’? Does it, in fact, matter which?

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