Most of the outrage surrounding the erosion of the English language centers on the misuse of punctuation. Lynne Truss professed the desire to carry a red marker with her everywhere so that she could correct mistakes on signs in shops. She wouldn’t be the only one to have contemplated this in fairness—so-called “grammar nazis” seem to be proliferating.
The evolution of language does not only take place on the page, however. In fact it rarely does so, which makes it strange that not so much attention seems to be paid to accent or phonetics or idiom. The human voice and the nuances of its connotations are more insidious than we perhaps realize. A jobseeker might find it very difficult to find employment if one were to come from certain parts of Dublin (or New York or Baton Rouge) and to have an accent that proclaims it, so it is not only address that gives a person away, but their very voice can provoke all manner of judgements as to their character and socio-economic status.
Carissa Halston’s The Mere Weight of Words concerns itself with the semantics of language with a gravity that makes such anecdotes relevant. The title is loaded with tacit meaning even in its three operative words. “Mere” is a diminution of the protagonist’s name by which she insists on being called; “weight” and “words” illustrate the protagonist’s concentration on and distraction by the language used both by herself and the people around her to the degree that she finds it difficult to communicate throughout the narrative.
The plot is inconsequential enough to allow the literary devices and style of writing employed to take center stage. Fundamentally it centers on the protagonist’s relationship with her father and with her lover, while she also comes to terms with the abrupt loss of control of the mechanics of her speech due to Bell’s Palsy, a nerve disorder that impacts the muscles of the face. The psychological effects of this physical setback on the aspiring linguist and pedantic phonetician are explored with deft subtlety and minimalist style.
The Mere Weight of Words is literary fiction written with a muscularity of prose that exercises the talents of the writer and the expectations of the reader. It is therefore exactly what literary fiction should be or should at least aspire to.
It should be noted that attention to semantics is more than a piece of stylistic flair. The abstruse consideration of aspects of linguistics immerses us in Mere’s thought processes and reveals more about her character than any statements about her would be capable of. I know that I am not alone in that a source of exasperation for me as regards a piece of writing lies in the telling about a character’s traits rather than the insinuation of them.
A section towards the end that features an awkward meeting illustrates this point:
In order to fill the space with trustworthy sounds, I say, “It’s just me.”
See also: It’s merely I.
See also: It’s me: Mere.
If the reader of a work like this is also a writer, it would bring the concentration of their writing sharply back to the choices of their words. Perhaps in this time of turbulence in the print publishing industry and with the immense popularity of self-publishing and e-publishing, the focus has shifted more to plot and the idea of a wild, outrageous story that will sell. With literary fiction, one generally wants to write for the love of words, and as such there is no room for flabby material.
This is a novella in Technicolor and HD and 3D all at once. It has a Cubist blending of past and present that reflects the true movements of the mind and the leaps between the different phases are done in such a way that Virginia Woolf cannot be excluded from Halston’s influences. With its full-bodied rendering of character and bold writing style The Mere Weight of Words will leave a lasting legacy in the mind of the reader.