Garrison Keillor’s voice

Here’s a familiar voice that most of us listen to rather than read. Actually, Garrison Keillor’s radio and writing voices are close, because he writes for reading aloud. This selection comes from a whimsical survey of six state fairs in National Geographic He expands the third item in a list of “Ten Chief Joys of the State Fair”:

Of the ten joys, the one that we Midwesterners are loath to cop to is number three, the mingling and jostling, a pleasure that Google and Facebook can’t provide. American life tends more and more to put you in front of a computer screen in a cubicle, then into a car and head you toward home in the suburbs, where you drive directly into the garage and step into your kitchen without brushing elbows with anybody. People seem to want this, as opposed to urban tumult and squalor. But we have needs we can’t admit, and one is to be in a scrum of thinly clad corpulence milling in brilliant sun in front of the deep-fried-ice-cream stand and feel the brush of wings, hip bumps, hands touching your arm (“Oh, excuse me!”), the heat of humanity with its many smells (citrus deodorant, sweat and musk, bouquet of beer, hair oil, stale cigar, methane), the solid, big-rump bodies of Brueghel peasants all around you like dogs in a pack, and you — yes, elegant you of the refined taste and the commitment to the arts — are one of these dogs. All your life you dreamed of attaining swanhood or equinity, but your fellow dogs know better. They sniff you and turn away, satisfied.

How would we characterize the personality speaking to us here? We would judge it as wry and comic, ironic, edgy, hip, suburban, uncomfortable, and vigorous, as well as homely and sophisticated at the same time.

What devices create this familiar voice? First, you notice the long, sprawling sentences. Despite their length, they’re clear because Keillor gives you the subject and verb early, and keeps expanding to the right of that unit. His parenthetical insertions fall at places that don’t impede the flow. Read on the radio, with the voice punctuating, these sentences are even easier to follow. The effect is a rich, compelling, clear explainer.

We think of state fairs as rural, but the world-view here is suburban, with the sensibility between the farm and city. The first-person plural pronoun “We,” beginning with “We midwesterners,” really refers to all Americans.

Keillor propels the reader with strong verbs and rolling sentences. He uses mostly simple words, mixed with more sophisticated vocabulary: “tumult and squalor,” “scrum,” “corpulence,” “bouquet of beer,” “commitment.” He even makes up words: “swanhood or equinity.”

He tosses off a reference from the fine arts (“solid, big-rump bodies of Brueghel peasants”) without explicating it. He presents all the imagery of the state fair without explanation; he assumes you know what he’s talking about, and probably experienced it. Even if you haven’t, he makes you experience it vicariously.

Garrison Keillor, this very American voice says, is our representative, our point of view, immersed in something that characterizes us.

[Does this explication of his writing voice square with your experience listening to him?]

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Published in: on September 24, 2009 at 10:17 am  Leave a Comment  

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