In The Size of the World, Joan Silber relates six linked stories from the first person point of view of six different narrators. Using word choice, tone, and sentence length, Silber provides insight into the character through the distinct sounds of their voices.
Toby is an engineer in Arizona who is sent to Viet Nam to explore defects in the guidance systems of fighter planes during the war. He speaks very directly using short sentences like: “I liked getting lost in projects.” His sentences are often six or seven words long and rarely more than two linked clauses. This gives him the clipped sound of someone who works with data but who is a loner. He uses clichés: “Ernst slept like a baby” which makes him seem like an unlikely narrator—like words are unimportant to him. He works with a man named Ernst who is even more removed (someone comments that he may have Asperger’s) and has his own terse phraseology, often speaking in two or three word sentences: “‘Can’s gone’…‘as in dead.’”
Kit was Toby’s high school girlfriend. He thinks she is vacuous and dim. Her initial voice indicates that she is not a serious person and she uses alliteratively comical phrases like, “sanctimonious sharpie.” After running into Toby, she asks herself many questions: “The world wasn’t all sex, was it?” and “[a]nd what did I want from Toby anyway?” which makes her sound uncertain and lost with a bit of self-loathing peppered in. After being manhandled by the police in Mexico, her voice loses most of its brightness: “I was oozing money, and his country was a hobby to me.” And this tone follows her throughout the rest of her section as she flounders through life never really regaining the lightness she started with.
Corinna is older than Kit and Toby, though she is first presented in her youth. Her voice is prim and her phrases like: “the sort of boy” and “quite decently” sound proper like those of someone from her generation. She is actually a very free spirit who moves to Siam after losing her parents and falls for her brother’s Malay guide. But when she speaks, she is very candid about even risqué subject matter such as having premarital sex in the woods, but she is roundabout with her phrasing: “I still bled every month” instead of saying she wasn’t pregnant. She is a woman confined by her generation not by her spirit.
Mike is a professor who is divorced and meets his high school sweetheart later in life and has a second chance at love. He is full of regrets but resigned to his life as in the following passage: “I suppose I always thought I would have a family, though not so fast” and “[b]ut later I was sorry I hadn’t gone.” He uses “but” and “though” over and over as a sort of “if only…” and the reader understands that his life is not what he wanted to make of it if he had travelled, if he had slowed down, if…
Annunziata is another older woman who was born in Sicily and immigrated to the U.S. after World War II. Her voice loops back on itself as she introduces a topic, e.g. hating America when she was young and then engages in a long digression only to come back to the original point she made. This gives the reader a rich understanding of her background but it also takes on a feeling of her living in the past because she is always delving into the history of what brought about the events. She comes off as richly interesting rather than efficient and interested in moving forward.
Owen is Kit’s brother. When we first meet him, he is still living in Siam although he is starting to feel used up. His tone is caustic, even when addressing his sister either telling her about his latest adventure: “‘The whole cold-blooded enterprise’” or responding to her attempts to lighten the mood: “‘Don’t be suave and brittle, please’…‘Now is not the time.’” When he comes home he is depressed and it shows in the lack of enthusiasm in his language as he describes, “unspeakably dull dinners.” His life is unsatisfactory: “I was not what I’d once been” and he describes having “humiliated myself” during his Depression-era job search. This is a man who held himself high and above others. When he comes home he is faced with the reality of who he is. He becomes a salesman, and struggles even at that. His self-image of the independent adventurer is dashed if it even was ever true.
By giving each character a unique voice, Silber is saying more about them and in a more palatable way than if she had simply outlined the characteristics of these characters. The characters are fully realized in their narration and when they engage in dialogue. She even portrays the individual voices of more minor characters. Silber has created a very rich world of characters and at the end I felt like I understood a little of the individual natures of each of them.
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