I agree with Dan Magers in New Pages that John Cotter's Under the Small Lights (Miami University Press) "has less of the expansiveness of prose, and more the concise cognitive breath of poetry," although this should be amended to specify the "expansiveness" of a certain kind of expository prose employed by some novelists. Other writers of fiction have always preferred a more "concise" kind of prose, and while such prose could be called "poetic" in its effect (I'm not sure what the word "cognitive" adds to this formulation), it is not usually because the writer in question is seeking to emulate lyric poetry but because the writer finds this style of prose most effective in evoking the fictional world he/she is after. One could say that, in consciously pursuing a concise style, writers such as Hemingway or Carver or Mary Robison do seem more attuned than many "expansive" writers to the role played by language (literally the use of this word rather than that, the assembling of words into sentences) in the creation of fiction, and that this deliberate restraint results in a prose more immediate in its effect.
Cotter's novel does seem to originate in this orientation toward style, but to simply associate it with the "concise. . .breath of poetry" does not really capture just how Cotter achieves his particular "concise" effect. Under the Small Lights is a novel that proceeds primarily through dialogue, but it is not the usual kind of snappy, faux-film dialogue to be found in much of today's "literary fiction," nor is it simply the perfunctory use of dialogue many novelists believe is necessary to write a "proper" novel--here's some exposition, here's some dialogue, here's some more exposition. Here's a part where the character must "speak for himself." Instead, both character and event are revealed through dialogue, the latter element sometimes consisting of dialogue. Furthermore, at times following and accurately attributing the dialogue on the reader's part can be its own kind of action. The following scene features three characters, the narrator, Jack, in love with Corinna, who is (or will be) married to Jack's friend, Paul:
"One of those girls came by today," I said, tongue loose with gin. "She buzzed up. Her. . .the other one already told me the other day that she was 'intrigued.' She said, 'Are you intrigued?'"
"Intrigued?" Corrina bit her lip. "So she's Anais Nin?"
"Right, so. It was a bad day. I don't mean to get morbid or. . .I'd been at the. . .I don't know what happened but I'd been at class, then I went to the Cafe du Paris to have a coffee and a sandwich. I was reading Beckett's poems."
"I saw that you had that," Paul said. "I was curious to read that."
"They're pretty grim." The buzzer jarred and I jerked to press talk.
"This is Bob Dole. Who's winning?"
"Really," Paul said, eyeing Corrina, "because of all people. . ."
I leaned on the buzzer. "Anyway I was real sad, like, heartbreak and worry and. . .she came in the door and said 'Last time I saw you, you were naked.' Yeah, I know, right? Cute. So. I figured, alright we'll talk, and I made some tea." I started walking down the hall to unlock the door for Star and shouted, "And I told her everything about how I was bawling, and she was like, see you!"
"It's already unlocked!"
"So, Jack!" Corrinna yelled. She softened when I came back to the room. "When are you going to get a girlfriend?"
She was fixing a second drink, long fingers collecting the wet bottle caps.
"I don't know."
We are presented here with a situation that unfolds, and a group of people who speak, more like what might be found in real life than what is usually found in novels. We're not really sure of the significance of the subjects of conversations, which anyway continue to shift . We must infer from the reference to Bob Dole that the characters are watching a Presidential debate, which ultimately acts only as the backdrop to the ongoing conversation, itself conveyed as a disjointed affair often left incomplete and marked by serial interruption.
Much of the novel is organized around scenes like this. The obvious analogy is to the use of dialogue made by the dramatist, and indeed the protagonist of Under the Small Lights is himself occupied throughout the novel in writing a play (with his friend, Bill), suggesting a congruence between Jack's artistic inclinations and his role as narrator. What this novel accomplishes with the strategy is enhanced, of course, by the contribution of Jack's voice as narrator and thus by the focus on Jack's growing estrangement from his circle of friends and his ultimate disillusionment. This process is dramatized in various self-contained episodes that range freely over time and place, their relative brevity and discontinuity mitigating against our perceiving them as "acts" in a novelized play, even as the burden of dramatic development is carried by the subtly revealing dialogue. Ultimately what we learn about the novel's characters and their toxic intimacies is conveyed through what we can discern in their at once both urgent and aimless talking with one another.
There is nothing especially new or revelatory about this strategy. Fiction driven by dialogue to the extent it seems to be appropriating theater is a well-established mode, especially in English fiction (the novel of manners most particularly), and no one has experimented more thoroughly with the possibilities of embedding narrative structure within dialogue than William Gaddis. But Cotter's willingness to make his dialogue more than just narrative drapery, to challenge readers to interpret it as something other than perfunctory chat, is admirable enough at a time when most writers are urged to think about "narrative arc" and "polished prose" as the writer's compelling concerns--all the tricks that make passive, complacent reading the norm. Readers could find the interchanges between characters in Under the Small Lights initially rather elliptical, the overall narrative strategy somewhat disorienting, but the closer attention they are asked to pay is worth the effort, if what we want from our experience of fiction is more than simple compliance with workshop tested formulas, an experience that perhaps makes the aesthetic choices made by writers an opportunity precisely to enhance our appreciation of what's at stake in such choices.
Most readers would probably find Under the Small Lights finally to be a recognizable slice of "lifelike" realism, albeit one still loosely fitted to the mold of the bildungsroman. However much it might frustrate the attempt to make language transparent to plot, it does so for the sake of building character and scene in a way that ultimately conforms to convention. I might find this to be the novel's most serious limitation, but I can easily imagine many readers finding the payoff to be a rewarding one. It is a novel that takes us to a familiar place, but it does not follow the same old well-worn route.