A Reader Inflects
by Frank Muller

I've had my toast, stirred my mug of de-caf Earl Grey, and I'm heading for the studio.

       Once again I am about to engage in what often strikes me as the supreme indulgence. There's a blank reel of tape on the deck and twenty more on the shelf. There's a six hundred-plus page bestseller on a stand under a warm microphone in front of a comfortable chair in what my wife calls the "padded room."

       The book is a huge, panoramic story exploring several decades in the lives of at least dozen people on at least two continents. There are many more peripheral characters of all descriptions adding all manner of colors and flavors, humours and hatreds to the texture of this epic, each of whom, despite being peripheral, is a human being with a complete and complex identity. And the book is written in the First Person. I'm an actor, it's my job to narrate this book as a single voice recording, and unlike on the stage or in film or TV, I get to indulge completely - I get to play ALL the parts.

I often imagine that I'm sitting on a comfortable couch speaking the narrative text into the listener's ear. When the characters speak, they parade around in front of us, and we watch them together.

       The First Person. That means that on some level the opening lines (indeed, every line) will likely carry the weight of full awareness of the entire epic, which means achieving one hell of a perspective without overburdening the prose, "playing the ending", or giving anything away I don't want to give away. Call me Ishmael, indeed. Best of times and worst of times - in not too many takes, please.

       This guy, this first person, has four brothers and three close friends, and everybody gets a voice - that's eight characters right there, all white males from the same background and within a few years of each other in age, each of whom I will have to consistently keep distinct and recognizable as they grow through twenty years of shared history, some changing a great deal and others less, each showing the effects of whatever journey they take over the years -for the twenty-eight finished hours of this unabridged recording, put on tape over the course of six weeks.

       Then there are the women (can a six-foot-plus 200 pound baritone do women?) - the wonderfully melodramatic, sometimes overbearing, sometimes seductive matriarch -the eight-year-old daughter, the wife dynamic ,passionate, tortured, and ultimately tragic, there are the holocaust survivor parents-in-law who tell their long stories - in the first person -through our first first person of course (hmmm...should that fact color the telling - or not... if so, how much?) and all those peripheral hicks, nazis, cossacks, rabbis, tough guys, etc. etc...

       How do you keep all this afloat? I remember doing Moby Dick years ago. A thirty-page digression on the wonders of whale blubber. One sentence with thirty-six (count 'em) semi-colons. Do it with passion. Believe in that blubber with all your heart. Queequeg may try to harpoon you, but Ahab will help you through.

       Passion at the proper pace, preferably. A reading is too fast when there isn't time for an image to reach full fruition in the mind of the listener. It's too slow if the dramatic tension - no matter how heightened or lightened it may be at any given moment - is allowed to drop even for an instant. And building to crescendos, weaving the arc of a story over so many hours, requires total perspective and sure sense of direction.

       And intimacy. An audiobook is a very intimate one-on-one relationship between reader and listener. The microphone is the ear of the listener. I often imagine that I'm sitting on a comfortable couch speaking the narrative text into the listener's ear. When the characters speak, they parade around in front of us, and we watch them together. Even during the grandest, loftiest excursions into epic prose, that relationship is an inescapable dynamic which demands proper attention. In quieter passages, when for example a character has an internal thought, a sudden hushed tone, close on the mike, will draw us in and make us listen - fine, as long as I remember one of the other inescapable dynamics of the medium - the fact that people who drive noisy cars still want to hear every word.

       What a reader and listener are engaging in when the cassette is popped in the machine and the play button is pressed, is in a very real sense a rebirth, or perhaps more accurately, a modern reincarnation of the ancient art of storytelling. Sound a bit grandiose? Those who suggest - and yes, some still do - that audiobooks are anti- literacy forget that the printed word has only been around since Gutenberg, and that the book as mass culture has existed little more than a century. And the mass culture book as made of paper and glue may not survive the next century (sorry, those of you who still own buggy whips and record players). The book itself will, of course, survive in other ways, and one of them is as a recorded storytelling.

       Ancient storytellers began their art around cooking fires many millennia ago, and the responsibility they shouldered was nothing less than to foster the consciousness of the human race. My responsibility when I describe how Beansy Rutolo got himself whacked by a coupla drug dealahs and his pals Tony Two Chins and Frankie Bones are gonna set up some payback, is perhaps somewhat less weighty. But when I tell about an old fisherman battling a huge marlin, or about families struggling to survive the French Revolution, or read a simple story about an old woman who longs to visit her birthplace once again before her approaching death, I do have a responsibility to take seriously.

       The storytellers of old passed on legend and history. They shaped, molded, and embellished.In the modern reincarnation, we interpret. Sometimes, and this is of course the great benefit of the printed word, we all share the deepest thoughts of great minds - Shakespeare, Faulkner, Melville, Hemingway. Narrators, then, have a tremendous responsibility to be faithful to the author's intent. The author is limited to the printed word. No matter how well a word is chosen, he or she must rely to some extent on the reader¹s ability to understand, infer, extrapolate. The narrator can inflect - in fact cannot avoid inflection - using the most versatile instrument ever created - the human voice, and in the course of recording a book, will make literally thousands of choices. Skilled or unskilled, a narrator therefore has tremendous impact. He or she can illuminate or flatten, enhance or destroy...

       OK, the clock is ticking, all the little lights are flashing - clear the throat, quick sip of tea... Roll tape.

Frank Muller