While reading Kent Haruf’s last novel Our Souls at Night, I’m struck by how simple the language is and yet how much power is conveyed through a quiet, subtle novel. The story at the center of the novel is quiet itself, in that, it tells the tale of two widows that come to an agreement to meet-up at night in order to “come and sleep in the night with me. And talk.” Here you have the inciting incident in Addie Moore’s own voice. This is not a pyrotechnic plot about unreliable narrator’s covering up murders. We have a story of two lonely people trying to find their way in a world that doesn’t make much sense now that their spouses have passed away.
So here is where the choice in diction and language is so important. Raymond Carver’s was lauded for allowing his character’s to speak in their own voices, no matter how simple or how full of inarticulate rage. Haruf too, realized that these character could and should talk simply about their wants and needs, their misunderstandings of a forgotten world, and how they hope to live out the rest of their lives. Here is an example of an exchange between Addie and Louis after Addie has asked Louis to spend the night for the first time. Another writer might have used language meant to dazzle the reader and create something akin to melodrama, but Haruf has a subtle and deft hand. He allows the reader to share in the creation of tension. Haruf’s prose is so unobtrusive that he even got rid of the quotation marks. I’ve added them for citation purposes here.
“Don’t you have any faith,” she said.
“In you, I do. I can have faith in you. I see that already. But I’m not sure I can be equal to you.”
“What are you talking about? How do you mean that?”
“In courage,” he said. “Willingness to risk.”
Notice here that there is no posturing, no grandstanding, or even attempts to give stage directions. Thankfully, these characters are talking honestly, their vulnerability is front and center and this creates the tension needed to carry the reader through this scene and into the heart of the novel. Simple language sure, but the themes are universal and heart-breaking, the attempts of trying to fight back loneliness in the face of impending death.
Now not every story could handle such unadorned language. Most stories would crumble under the weight that these simple words have to carry. These characters have to be honest, have to show their fears, and risk the reader’s indifference because that’s the reason for literature. To show us how others live, so we can find solace in our own lives, our own loneliness, our own vulnerability.