For many, the audiobook is a source of pleasure and distraction, a way to get through the To Read Pile while washing dishes or commuting. Audiobooks have a stealthy way of rendering invisible the labor of creating this aural experience: the writer, the narrator, the producer, the technology…here at Sounding Out! we want to render that labor visible and, moreover, think of the sound as a focus of analysis in itself.
Over the next few weeks, we will host several authors who will make all of us think differently about the audiobook selections on our phone, in our car, and in our radios. Today we start things off with a close listen of the 1982 audiobook edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Watch out for the hoooooooooooooonk of the SO! train pulling into the station!
—Managing Editor Liana Silva
To think about James Joyce’s Ulysses is to think about the first instant when it truly seized your ears. Accordingly, my Ulysses begins in its final episode, “Penelope”: Molly Bloom is lying down or sitting up next to a passed-out Leopold Bloom when she hears the “frseeeeeeeefronnnng train somewhere whistling.” Her train does not go chug, choo, or chuff, but it rhymes with her “Loves old sweeeetsonnnng” (1669) with an infectious insouciance for the codes of language. Let us call this the Ulysses of 1922 (though the definitive edition of James Joyce’s book whose page numbers are cited here was produced in 1984 by Hans Walter Gabler).
The Ulysses of 1922 is what Jacques Derrida called gramophonic. It plays back to us something recorded without filtering out the noise and is to be heard more than it is to be read. We listen to the book, but we are second-in-line. The first listener is the book itself, which listens to Dublin and records everything with an odd sonic democracy, discriminating little amid its recording of all sounds vivid or vapid, giving equal importance to cats, carts, bells, machines, laughter, coughs, and language. The book saunters about the city, listening and recording, and we listen to the book like we would to a scratchy, static-filled recording of a concert the morning-after. It is a reminder of something Michel Serres once said in The Five Senses: “Meaning trails this long comet tail behind it. A certain kind of æsthetics… take as their object this brilliant trail” (120). Ulysses’ elusive modern city glows in this comet tail of noise and background static more than it pivots around conventionally meaningful language content. Eventually, industrial and technological modernity catches up with artistic modernism and in 1924, Joyce reads and records parts of the “Aeolus” episode of Ulysses, and later in 1929 he records a section of Finnegans Wake. Many years after, in 1982 – the centenary year of Joyce’s birth – Ulysses comes home to Dublin and is recorded in full by Irish national radio.
The 1982 Ulysses Broadcast was an uninterrupted twenty-nine-and-a-half-hour reading of the entire unabridged text on Ireland’s RTÉ Radio on 16th June – Bloomsday – produced by Micheál Ó hAodha. Among this and the two film versions, one from 1967 and the other from 2003, and other recordings such as the ones by LibriVox volunteers and a more recent one by BBC Radio 4, the 1982 Ulysses Broadcast was the first complete recording of the text. Director William Styles called upon voice actors from the Radio Éireann Players to dramatize and act Ulysses out.
My Ulysses of 1982 seizes me differently from the book. From the first seconds of the 1982 Broadcast, I reacted to Buck Mulligan stepping down the stairs inside the Martello Tower with surprise, because the reading is somewhat copiously accompanied; the sounds of loud waves outside of the walls of the seaside tower were part of the soundscape I was thrown into:
Immersion was of the essence. Not that the Ulysses of 1922 is by any means a silent text, but this accompaniment was a simultaneous roar. Sounds in the written text take up space, and as these sounds are being “played” in the book, there is a length of text where nothing else is happening. Think, for instance, of the machinery in the “Aeolus” episode: “Almost human the way it sllt to call attention” (251). As the “sllt” is recorded by the book, it is not over or behind any other sound or voice. It takes up its own space, unlike in the Broadcast
The layering of Buck Mulligan’s voice over the sounds of the sea becomes possible in the move from the spatial-visual of the page to the temporal-aural of a recording. However, listening to the Broadcast prompts me to ask: Is the sonic democracy of recording the soundscape still there?
Most critical work on the audiobook focuses on readerly reception and pleasure, almost indicating that we can hear the Ulysses of 1922 but we must read the Broadcast of 1982; the book provides for more direct sensory engagement while with the Broadcast, we must focus on analyzing the mechanics of our reception. We also get terms like Reinhart Meyer-Kalkus’ “hear-reading” (179) or Matthew Rubery’s “ear contact” (72) which are concerned with the link between the playback of the recorded text and the reading ear. We hear-read when we listen to the voice in our heads recite aloud to us what we are reading, and we establish ear contact, much like eye contact, when we find our ears bound to voices instead of people. Both these concepts are concerned with reception. If we steer clear of our listening of the Broadcast and turn the focus to the Broadcast’s listening of Ulysses, what we find is a rich sonic world, but it is one which takes us away from the linguistic play of the text.
For instance, the book gives cues for the ambient sounds of Dublin clamor surrounding any voice which might be speaking at that moment. “Stream of life” (327) signals in the Broadcast the coming alive of the city soundscape. What is described as a “sudden screech of laughter” (255) in the book is layered upon loud laughter in the Broadcast, as is “a loud cough” (281) upon a loud cough, and a telephone which “whirred” (283) upon the sound of an actual ringing telephone. Later, in the “Circe” episode, a mention of whistling (1169) is also whistled out.
Trams, the clatter of plates and glasses, desks being rapped, coins and bells ringing and jingling, cannon-firing, all these sounds are played as accompaniments again and again as their descriptions are being voiced in the Broadcast. Like in bedtime storytelling, says Brigette Ouvry-Vial, sound effects as uncomplicated accompaniments are never in conflict with the voiced text. Think of pictures and illustrations alongside words in children’s literature (185). The background sound effects of the broadcast add nothing to the sonic democracy of the book even if they do not detract from it.
The Ulysses of 1922 is also rife with non-lexical, unpronounceable sounds, like the one’s Bloom’s cat makes. The many different cat sounds, for example “Mkgnao!” and “Mrkgnao!” and “Mrkrgnao!” (107-8), are not voiced at all in the broadcast, and are instead replaced by the mimicked sounds of a cat meowing, almost exactly the same each time:
“Miaow!” (133) and “Prr” (107), which are Bloom’s responses to his cat, are voiced by him. When the “door of Ruttledge’s office whispered: ee: cree” (243), there is no voicing – only the sound of a creaking door. Yet, when we are in Bloom’s thoughts, like when he remembers a glorious gust of wind which blew up Molly’s skirt, he voices the gust of wind in the Broadcast going “Brrfoo!” (329), pronouncing the non-lexical word with a close-approximation. Would not the non-lexical sounds in his head suggest that he is thinking in sound rather than in language, much like many of us who can hear sounds in our heads? Often but not always, environmental sounds are retained as actual sounds while the sounds in Bloom’s head are sublimated into pronounceable, phonetic language. But mostly there is an insistence on adding sound effects wherever possible.
Whether the book describes the sound or sounds it with a non-lexical string of words, the Broadcast attaches its effects. If we look at the book as a recorder, its movements are staggeringly complex as it moves in and out of multiple spaces. When it is in Bloom’s head, the environment is muted, and when it is inside a carriage, unless it is poked out an open window, it does not record the street. Ssave for a few instances, the Broadcast’s insistence on effects attests to its rich production, but not to its vitality. It therefore stands as an accompaniment to the book, not as a text in its own right given its compositional inconsistencies. So, the several variations on Bloom’s flatulence with “Rrrrrr” (625), “Fff. Oo. Rrpr,” and “Pprrpffrrppfff” are all erased and instead fart sounds are recorded.
On the same page, when Bloom tries to mask his own sounds of bodily release under the din of the passing tram, the “Krandlkrakran” (629) is both voiced by Bloom and recorded as the sound of a noisily ringing tram in the background. But only an actual train whistles in “Penelope,” with no voice in the Broadcast attempting to say “frseeeeeeeefronnnng” (1669).
For Charles Bernstein, the sound of a work of literature, much like the shape of poetry on the page, might be an element which is “extralexical but… not extrasemantic” (5). It is different from the written word but it is not a meaningless ornament. For the Broadcast, however, it might as well be the case that sound is made irrelevant to meaning. Or, we can argue that the meaning being made is in the realm of performance studies and not literature. The pure temporality of the Broadcast helps. We can stop reading the book to look, but we cannot stop the Broadcast and still listen. Moreover, when the Broadcast records, it is listening to the book’s listening of Dublin, removed by another degree from the soundscape of Dublin.
The Broadcast is not however without value. Bernstein echoes Serres when he aggrandizes the “sheer noise of language” (22) which must take precedence over the impulse to decode everything. The Broadcast answers this need to not immediately rationalize and sublimate in analysis everything that is heard, but to rather hear without listening. Cue the poet Robert Carleton Brown who once said that writing since the very beginning has been “bottled up” inside of books (23). And in 1982, the stopper on Joyce’s spuming prose was popped.
Featured Image: “telemachus: the tower, 8 a.m., theology, white/gold, heir, narrative (young)” by Flickr user brad lindert, CC-BY-2.0
Shantam Goyal studies English Literature at the State University of New York at Buffalo for his PhD. He completed his M.Phil in 2018 from the University of Delhi with a dissertation titled “Listen Ulysses: Joyce and Sound.” He hopes to continue this thread for his doctoral research on Finnegans Wake and mishearing. Besides Joyce Studies and Sound Studies, he works on Poetics and Jazz Studies, and is also attempting to translate parts of Ulysses into Hindi as a personal project. His reviews, articles, and creative work have appeared in The Print, The Hindu Business Line, Vayavya, ColdNoon, Daath Voyage, and Café Dissensus among other publications. He prefers that any appellations for him such as academic, poet, or person be prefaced with “Delhi-based.”
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Last month, T.M. Luhrmann compared the experience of reading a written book versus listening to books in the New York Times article “Audiobooks and the Return of Storytelling.” Lurhmann points out how audiobook sales jumped 20% in 2012, whereas total industry book sales went down 1%. From the looks of it, books have benefited from audiobook sales, but in literary studies, print remains the primary vehicle for analysis. Might listening to an audiobook actually change how we critically read a text?
As I listened to Junot Díaz narrate This Is How You Lose Her (2012), the first book Díaz has read as an audiobook and the first book of short stories the author has published since 1996’s Drown, I wondered how his reading influenced how I interpreted the text. Díaz’s reading sounds less like regular speech and more like a performance, with its own cadence and rhythm:
This post approaches the audiobook as a text in itself, coming from a sound studies perspective. I attempt to conceptualize the idea of “close listening” as a methodology akin to “close reading” in literary studies. I listen for how Diaz reads the text but more specifically how the reading itself becomes a way of authoring the text. Ultimately, I argue that Díaz’s reading becomes a re-authoring the text—re-writing the text sonically. On a broader level, I hope to add to the conversation of what it means to read an audiobook, as Birgitte Stougaard Pederson and Ibsen Have brought up in “Conceptualising the Audiobook Experience.” Using This Is How You Lose Her, I show that reading an audiobook means engaging with the text from the angle of the ear, and that close listening can become an aural reading practice that relies not so much on the visual texts, but on aural cues from the narrator.
This Is How You Lose Her revolves around Yunior, a young Dominican immigrant who grows up in New Jersey and who ends up as a professor in Boston, and the many loves he has had or that he has encountered growing up. The stories trace his progress from a young, recently arrived Yunior, to a tenured, mature Yunior, showcasing certain relationships that influence how he relates to women—in sum, illustrating how he loses the women he loves. Throughout the short story collection, Díaz also calls attention to other relationships that may influence Yunior’s perspective, for example, his brother’s attachments with women, especially toward the end of his young life as he battled cancer, and his father’s relationship with his mistress, a Dominican woman who lived in New Jersey. At the end, Díaz illuminates how a mujeriego (womanizer) like Yunior comes to be; the short stories indicate that Yunior is as much a product of his environment as he is a seller of the merchandise.
Díaz is not a professional audiobook narrator. Although Díaz has done live readings, reading the full-length version of a book one has written is a different exercise. The Penguin Audio version of the collection is based on the actual short story collection (in other words, unabridged), so it does not contain additional stories or behind the scenes interviews. Technically, it is no different than the print version.
Listening to authors read their own work has value beyond the pleasure of hearing them read their text. Scholarly writing on audiobooks has emphasized the experience of listening to an audiobook for pleasure (like Deborah Phillips’ “Talking Books: The Encounter of Literature and Technology in the Audiobook” and James Shokoff’s “What Is An Audiobook?”), but it wasn’t until the 2011 edited collection Audiobooks, Literature, and Sound Studies that audiobooks were considered on their own instead of as extensions of the literature they were based on. The allure of doing this scholarly exercise with the audiobook version of This Is How You Lose Her is that Díaz’s delivery of the text is uncommon at the least.
Talking about Junot Díaz’s readerly voice requires to tune into conversations about his writerly voice. In many reviews of Díaz’s books, writers discuss how Díaz deftly conveys a writer’s voice in his text, indicating that his success is that his characters have a very clear voice—or at least Yunior does. Michiko Kakutani, for example, points out how “Junot Díaz has one of the most distinctive and magnetic voices in contemporary fiction: limber, streetwise, caffeinated and wonderfully eclectic, capable of conjuring for the reader everything from the sorrows of Dominican history to the banalities of life in New Jersey.” Although this quotation is in reference to Díaz’s second book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, it describes Díaz’s writing in terms of his voice instead of, for instance, in terms of his use of metaphors or choice of subject.
Richard Wolinsky, in his Guernica interview with Díaz, sees an overlap between Yunior and Díaz: “He’s [Yunior] got a very distinct voice, and it’s a voice that’s informed by [Diaz’s] own reading, particularly science fiction and fantasy.” Although Díaz has pointed out that Yunior is loosely based on events that have happened to him, Wolinsky “hears” Díaz in his main character. The tone and the language Yunior uses is read as a reflection of Díaz.
Conversations about the voice of the writer point to a sensibility about sound, but are often limited to a written text. Anna Barnet, in an interview with Junot Díaz, states “His two principal linguistic registers (‘this kind of crazy Caribbean language and music’ and ‘this sort of African-American-infused American vernacular’) grind against each other along with the many other voices he ventriloquizes in his writing.” Barnet reminds readers that Díaz’s writing style is based in spoken language—particularly Díaz’s spoken language. This language of “voice” to describe a writer’s style (or, specifically, a writer’s ability to convey a clear sense of who the character is and/or their views) is commonplace but gives the impression that there is a sonic aspect to an author’s work, when in reality it is but a metaphor for something that occurs at the level of text.
A critical reading of a text that includes the audiobook rendition allows critics to add substance to those references to “voice.” In Junot Díaz’s case, it is possible that readers encounter him first through written text, and so have an expectation of what Díaz (or Yunior) would sound like live. In my textual analysis of eight audiobook reviews (and one book review that included a mention of the narration in the audiobook) most listeners showed some sort of discomfort with Díaz’s narration. One reviewer, for example, had issue with the “smoothness” of Díaz’s narration: “At times the reading was a little shaky and uneven”. Another reviewer stated “at times his cadence is choppy, with odd pauses and emphasis on strange words that detract from the overall experience.” Reviewers also had an issue with Díaz’s pace, which is characterized by pauses in places that many not seem normal in casual American speech. These statements hint at a “weird” quality in Díaz’s speech, something that does not come through when Díaz has a casual conversation. (Listen to this podcast episode of NPR’s Alt. Latino guest-starring Díaz and compare with this video of him reading part of This Is How You Lose Her.) Although one blogger pointed out that Díaz sounded “professorial” in the reading, others used the words “native,” “authenticity,” “Dominican” and even “Jersey accent” to describe how Díaz sounded. It is unclear how these reviewers define “native” or “authentic.”
Connecting sound to authenticity implies that Dominicans can only sound a certain way, or that the audio narration is lacking when it does not represent a “typical” Dominican voice. To the extent that Díaz is Dominican, his voice is of a Dominican male who has grown up in the Northeastern United States. His uneven audio narration creates a feeling of sonic unintelligibility in the listener, similar to the effect of including Spanish words in the written text. Díaz-as-narrator can make a listener uncomfortable, and by extension forces that reader to listen.
The sonic unintelligibility also relies on the text, on how Díaz plays with language by switching back and forth from English to Spanish. Díaz mentions in an interview with Marva Hinton that some readers are not happy with his choice of Spanglish in his writing: “There [are] folks who hear one Spanish word, and they’re convinced this is some sort of immigrant conspiracy” Farther down, in the same article, Díaz refers to his mix of Spanish and English (and a particular kind of Spanish and English at that, since he moves among Standard American English, African American Vernacular English, and Dominican Spanish) as “opaque language.” There’s a connection between the kind of “opaqueness” that Spanish gives and the unintelligible effect of Díaz read his work.
An example of how sonic unintelligibility operates in the audiobook is the first story, “The Sun, The Moon, The Stars.” This opener, told in first person, revolves about one of Yunior’s break-ups; Yunior and his girlfriend Magdalena, on whom he cheated, go to the Dominican Republic on a trip they had planned before she found out about the affair. It frames the book as being an in-depth analysis of loves lost, from the man who keeps losing them. It also sets the tone sonically for the audiobook reading: after the introduction of the book, a snippet of bachata music comes on, and then makes way for Díaz, who reads the title of the story. This is the pattern of the book: slices of bachata, followed by Díaz’s narration.
His voice is characterized by a slight sing-song cadence that is reminiscent of Dominican Spanish accent. If this were in Spanish, it might be easier to lose track of the cadence, but in English it sounds like a disembodied accent. I showcase the swing in Díaz’s narration by alternating capital letters and lower-case letters: “Her FAther, who usually would treat me like his HIjo, CALLS me an ASShole on the PHONE, SOUNDS like he’s STRANgling himself with the cord.” The voice seems to float for a while until Díaz arrives to the end of a paragraph or a series of sentences, and then it sinks. Moreover, this pattern does not change when Díaz switches characters: it’s hard to tell Yunior apart from Magdalena unless the reader pays close attention to when the narrator is switching characters and/or when the narrator uses a pronoun. The same effect comes from the odd pauses in the author’s narration: “Oh God, she wailed. Oh. My God.”
The choppiness and the emphasis in the reading are a way to dislocate the listener, in a similar way that Spanish phrases or lack of quotation marks in the text dislocate a reader who does not understand Spanish or who depends on the quotation marks to make sense of the prose. Also, this story focuses on Magdalena withdrawing from Yunior and not communicating with him. The tone, cadence, and sound of Díaz’s voice can be read to mirror the relationship between Yunior and Magdalena (and the other women in the text): the sonic unintelligibility is manifest at the level of plot through Yunior’s relationships.
Although many audiobook reviewers may consider the plot in their reviews, part of what makes an audiobook stand out is the performance of the text. I take my cues from audiobook reviewers and consider critically my listening experience of This Is How You Lose Her and how this can become the basis for a critical interpretation of the text. My analysis underscores that having an author read a text can provide a different way into analyzing the text and prompts readers to pay attention to sound. If, like Shokoff asserts, most audiobook readers listen to an audiobook while doing something else, Díaz shows that listening closely to the audio text can be as rewarding as reading a book.
Featured Image: “Junot Diaz” by WBUR Boston’s NPR News Station, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License
Liana Silva-Ford is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out!.
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