Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A failure to communicate

The Rachel Joyce novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, is a story about communication, or the lack of same. The main characters, Harold Fry and his wife, Maureen, are people who aren't very good at communicating, especially with each other. One of the few colleagues Harold ever had a real conversation with in his entire working life was Queenie Hennessy, the dying woman he is walking hundreds of miles to say goodbye to.

Joyce puts a number of notable lines in her novel, and many of them have to do with communication. Here are a few I like:

It wasn't enough to send a letter.

Nowadays, of course, most of us don't even send letters. We send e-mails or texts or perhaps greeting cards with our message, such as it is, already printed in them when we buy them. Letters are better (I surprised myself by writing two in a single day recently), but much better still is meeting face-to-face, perhaps over a meal or a beverage. That's when true communication takes place.

It was a long time since he had made a woman laugh.

For a man, there are few pleasures quite like making a woman laugh, almost any woman, in fact. The joke or witticism represents a means of communication. So does the laugh.

The hiking man continued talking. It occurred to Harold that he was one of those people who didn't require other people do have a conversation.

We all know people like that. My father, so unlike me, was one of those people. He could corner a complete stranger and tell stories for hours. On his deathbed he joked that he wanted an open casket at his funeral "so everyone can see what I look like with my mouth closed." I loved my father and felt blessed to be his audience and to hear those same stories, which I now treasure, over and over again. Of course, most such people we try to avoid and, if we can't, to escape as quickly as possible.

But for years they had been in a place where language had no significance.

That's a way of saying that Harold and Maureen no longer have anything to talk about, at least not with each other. Sadness fills this novel, but that line strikes me as among the saddest passages.

And what no on else knew was the appalling weight of the thing they were carrying inside. The inhuman effort it took sometimes to be normal, and a part of things that appeared both easy and everyday.

We all, to one degree or another, put on a show for others. We try to appear kinder, happier, smarter, and as Harold observes, more normal than we really are. This, too, is communication, even if it involves communicating a falsehood.

He only said, "Well, goodbye, Maureen," because it was a sentence. He didn't want to hang up any more than he wanted to walk.

In my notes I transcribed the line as "he didn't want to hang up any more than he wanted to talk," which struck a chord with me, recalling past telephone conversations with loved ones when I had nothing left to say but didn't want to break the connection. The actual line seems meaningful, too. Too often, unable to say what is really on our hearts, we speak in cliches and familiar phrases that mean little but fill space. Or we just say goodbye.

"What will you have?" she said. She wanted to add "darling" but the word was too shy to come out.

Not much commentary is needed here, but I like how Rachel Joyce makes the word, not the woman, the shy one.

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