July 9th, 2012 / 8:01 am
Craft Notes

The role tautologies play in writing; or saying the same thing a different way when making a story or a poem

AKA, "the wordy guys"

So far in this series, we’ve been looking at Viktor Shklovsky’s early book Theory of Prose (1925/9), asking what insights it might have for us as writers today. In Parts 1 and 2 I provided an overview of Russian Formalism and Shklovsky’s concepts of “device” and “defamiliarization.” Then, in Part 3, we started applying those ideas to writing, looking at how repetition allows artists to both build patterns and deviate from them. We also saw how repetition can be used to decelerate a pattern’s advancement—how repeating text delays the work’s inevitable conclusion.

Today, I want to examine another “rule” that Shklovsky identifies: tautologies, which are essentially repetitions, but repetitions using synonymous language. And I want to demonstrate this principle, and some of its potential effects, with examples taken from Donald Barthelme and Raymond Carver. (I chose them because it’s in their stories that I first learned to see this.)

Let’s start with Donald Barthelme’s well-known short story “Me and Miss Mandible” (c. 1964), examining how much language Barthelme devotes to tautological constructions:

(A note on my method: I’ve bolded and marked in matching colors the tautological expressions. I don’t want to argue that the marked sections are always exact tautologies—but notice throughout how circuitous this writing is.)

OK, here’s the Barthelme:

19 September

Only I, at times (only at times), understand that somehow a mistake has been made, that I am in a place where I don’t belong. It may be that Miss Mandible also knows this, at some level, but for reasons not fully understood by me she is going along with the game. When I was first assigned to this room I wanted to protest, the error seemed obvious, the stupidest principal could have seen it; but I have come to believe it was deliberate, that I have been betrayed again.

Now it seems to make little difference. This life-role is as interesting as my former life-role, which was that of a claims adjuster for the Great Northern Insurance Company, a position which compelled me to spend my time amid the debris of our civilization: rumpled fenders, roofless sheds, gutted ware houses, smashed arms and legs. After ten years of this one has a tendency to see the world as a vast junkyard, looking at a man and seeing only his (potentially) mangled parts, entering a house only to trace the path of the inevitable fire. Therefore when I was installed here, although I knew an error had been made, I countenanced it, I was shrewd; I was aware that there might well be some kind of advantage to be gained from what seemed a disaster.  The role of The Adjuster teaches one much.

Much of this story’s style, its particular voice, arises from this narrator’s fondness for repeating himself. He immediately presents himself as something of a bureaucrat, capable of saying very little in a lot of very technical language. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that although he can articulate his situation—and he is quite invested in articulating it (the device of the journal works well here)—he nonetheless can’t quite wrap his mind around it. This bureaucratic tone also contributes a lot to the story’s plausibility: it makes sense that a man trapped in one abstract, depersonalized system (selling insurance) would somehow get reassigned to another one (the fourth grade).

Barthelme was fond of tautologies and used them often, exploring variations. Consider his later story “The School” (c. 1976):

We weren’t even supposed to have a puppy.

We weren’t even supposed to have one, it was just a puppy the Murdoch girl found under a Gristede’s truck one day and she was afraid the truck would run over it when the driver had finished making his delivery, so she stuck it in her knapsack and brought it to the school with her. So we had this puppy. As soon as I saw the puppy I thought, Oh Christ, I bet it will live for about two weeks and then… And that’s what it did. It wasn’t supposed to be in the classroom at all, there’s some kind of regulation about it, but you can’t tell them they can’t have a puppy when the puppy is already there, right in front of them, running around on the floor and yap yap yapping. They named it Edgar – that is, they named it after me. They had a lot of fun running after it and yelling, “Here, Edgar! Nice Edgar!” Then they laughed like hell. They enjoyed the ambiguity. I enjoyed it myself. I don’t mind being kidded. They made a little house for it in the supply closet and all that. I don’t know what it died of. Distemper, I guess. It probably hadn’t had any shots. I got it out of there before the kids got to school. I checked the supply closet each morning, routinely, because I knew what was going to happen. I gave it to the custodian.

Here we have tautologies being employed to a very different effect—this is hardly a prissy bureaucrat’s journal! Instead, the narrator seems inarticulate, fumbling for words, making the story up right before our eyes. (Observe how spread out the tautologies are here; their scattered nature contributes directly to the writing’s scattered feel.)

Shklovsky, when trying to account for how plots got put together, was working from the bottom up; he was fascinated precisely by how very simple basic devices could be combined into a practically infinite number of poems and stories. (As I said last time, his “special rules of plot formation” were more patterns that writers could use to string together formal devices—not absolute or prescriptive laws.)

We could find in these two stories other examples, but let’s turn to Raymond Carver, because I want to emphasize how tautologies, just like repetition, can be used to create many different effects, and are not unique to only one type of writing. Donald Barthelme was ostensibly a “postmodernist”; I dislike that term myself, but I think we can agree that his work is hardly realist—and that it certainly wasn’t “dirty realist,” as was Carver’s.  And yet Carver, too, frequently used tautologies—albeit quite differently. Here’s an excerpt from the opening paragraphs of “Vitamins” (c. 1983):

[…] For a while, she was just another girl who went up and down blocks in strange neighborhoods, knocking on doors. But she learned the ropes. She was quick and had excelled at things in school. She had personality. Pretty soon the company gave her a promotion. Some of the girls who weren’t doing so hot were put to work under her. Before long, she had herself a crew and a little office out in the mall. But the girls who worked for her were always changing. Some would quit after a couple of days—after a couple of hours, sometimes. But sometimes there were girls who were good at it. They could sell vitamins. They were the girls that stuck with Patti. They formed the core of the crew. But there were girls who couldn’t give away vitamins.

The girls who couldn’t cut it would just quit. Just not show up for work. If they had a phone, they’d take it off the hook. They wouldn’t answer the door. Patti took those losses to heart, like the girls were new converts who had lost their way. She blamed herself. But she got over it. There were too many not to get over it.

Most people will tell you that Carver was a “minimalist,” his prose sparse and unadorned; some will even tell you that it was “unstylized.” As the legend goes, John Gardner and Gordon Lish taught him to carve his work down, from 25 words to 15, from 15 words to 10, then 5. And yet look at how much he repeats himself in these two paragraphs!

Of course, the “extra,” “synonymous” words here are doing something; they are being productive. They help establish the narrator’s voice. Like in Barthelme’s “The School,” the effect is essentially conversational—although, beyond that, the two narrators are very different. Barthelme has created the effect of a middle-school teacher who is fumbling for words because he’s embarrassed about the events he must recount (all of the deaths that have been happening at his school). Carver’s narrator, however, is very confident—almost smug. But he’s presumably much less educated, more working class, and the effect of his repetitions is to create the sense that he’s telling his story in a relaxed atmosphere, to one of his buddies or pals.

Tautologies can do much more yet. Consider Carver’s use of them toward the end of his story “A Small Good Thing” (also c. 1983), which is written in a more objective third-person, and less conversational than our last two examples in style and tone:

He served them warm cinnamon rolls just out of the oven, the icing still runny. He put butter on the table and knives to spread the butter. Then the baker sat down at the table with them. He waited. He waited until they each took a roll from the platter and began to eat. “It’s good to eat something,” he said, watching them. “There’s more. Eat up. Eat all you want. There’s all the rolls in the world here.”

They ate rolls and drank coffee. Ann was suddenly hungry, and the rolls were warm and sweet. She ate three of them, which pleased the baker.

Here the narrator is being hyper-articulate, almost precious. You can practically see him wringing his hands as he, like the baker, anxiously watches the Ann and her husband. There’s a touch of Barthelme’s school teacher’s consternation, although the motivation for it is very different.

Notice, too, how the chronology slips here (see the text in green): we’re told twice that Ann eats rolls before we get the line “Ann was suddenly hungry, and the rolls were warm and sweet.” One potential reading of course is that Ann is discovering her hunger as she eats. But the detail that “the rolls were warm and sweet” seems like something that she would discover as soon as she started eating, no?

This temporal confusion, slight though it is, provides a good example of how tautologies can decelerate the plot’s progression. Carver is lingering in this moment, the story’s climax, the beginning of the reconciliation between Ann and her husband and the baker who has spent the story tormenting them. A good amount of the story’s cathartic power is owed to the employment of this device, and how it holds us in that moment.

(As I alluded earlier, Barthelme and Carver were massive influences on me when I was younger, and the use of tautologies is something I feel I learned or absorbed from them. If you care to see some examples of it in my own writing, check out my pieces “You’ll Be Sorry” and “5000 Units of Product,” as well as this post on a writing technique I developed, “synonym clusters.”)

Repetition and tautologies are just two of the rules Shklovsky examines in Chapter 2 of Theory of Prose. In the next post in this series, I want to look at one more pattern / means of decelerating and defamiliarizing writing. After that, we’ll travel deeper into the book, seeing what other useful principles we can find in the later chapters. Until then—

—don’t be afraid to say the same thing twice. Or to repeat yourself.

Tags: , , , , , ,


  1. darcie dennigan

      Two of my favorite Bartheleme stories. I totally dig this post. And tautologies. 

  2. Rhythms of repetitions « Paul Jessup
  3. A D Jameson

      They’re two of my favorite, too! & thanks!

  4. Odd Words « Odd Bits of Life in New Orleans

      […] is not a swan song. I am not about to stop now. Some things bear repeating, a technique known at tautology when it is used in writers as sparse as Raymond Carver. I am not half to clever. I am simply going […]

  5. The 2012 Realist Sex Novel Kerfuffle (a response to Blake and Stephen, involving also cowboys, Atlas Shrugged, and the Franzen/Marcus debate) | HTMLGIANT

      […] yes, dear God, I know I’ve already written a ton about the guy (here, here, here, here, here, and even more yet elsewhere), and so I won’t bore you by rehashing it all once again. […]