Sarah Quigley’s narrator tells us that the eponymous “English speakers” of this fall 2011 Carve story “speak English very well: very well indeed.” But no sooner than a few paragraphs in do we find out that they in fact really, really don’t.
Quigley’s innominate main characters, simply referred to as “he” and “she” throughout, have developed their own intimate version of English. “They are adept at speaking their language,” we are told, “although they know nothing—care nothing—for grammar. Because they understand it instinctively, they are able to throw it away.” Here we come to learn that “adept” and “understand” are hyperbolic, facetiously specious; their off-hand approach to language proves problematic when the two actually have to put their English to use. A move to an English-speaking city where the inhabitants adhere to proper grammar throws into sharp relief just how out of true our two protagonists and their grasp of English are.
“The English Speakers” does a great job of immersing the reader in that drowning feeling of being language-handicapped. The narrator relays the story to us in the bumbling way of a non-native speaker scrambling to find in his dictionary a more suitable translation to what he can only imperfectly express; the narrative corrects itself as it unfolds (“They venture out onto streets that twist like ankles. The pavements are strewn with questions: no, with leaves”).
But despite its feints at linguistic ineptitude, the narrative is in actuality slyly sure-handed and cleverly playful, strewn with plays on interchanging pronouns and possessive nouns, self-reflexive critiques of metaphors, and syntactical and grammatical confusions on the part of the main characters as conveyed by the narrator, which are in actuality cheeky experimentations on the part of the author.
Be forewarned that the story is puzzle-like. It’s fascinatingly bizarre and at times oddly funny, culminating in a surreally surprising ending. It’s enigmatic, demanding a reader perhaps liberalized somewhat from convention. It’s also an unlikely love story (the two characters are beautifully idiosyncratic together; I especially love the darling moment when we read: “In the bedroom, laughter and darkness lie side by side, waiting for them. So there are four of them: him, her, the laughing, and the dark”). And depending on one’s interpretation of the ending (the alarming muteness, or more accurately mouthlessness, in the final passage), it’s a tragedy as well. Overall, a worthwhile read from the Carve archives.