Rhythm in Writing

The title, Bluestone Rondo, is a story in itself. Bluestone can be read two ways: “blue stone,” which represents the symbolic aquamarine cuff links that both brothers covet. Those cuff links signify a divisive talisman that brings the illusion of good luck to one brother, and bad luck to both. The second reading is: “blues tone,” which captures the musical nature of the story. Any jazz lover will recognize the similarity to Dave Brubeck’s Blue Rondo a la Turk, a masterpiece of rapidly changing rhythms—from a frantic 9/8 time signature to a laid-back swing groove played in 4/4 time. From Calvin’s fevered pursuit of his brother in the beginning of the book, and Joe’s simultaneous pursuit of escape to the white world, the rhythm is speedy and anxious. When Joe arrives in New Orleans, the tempo slows to a relaxed southern feel, then jerks back up to high speed when he arrives in New York. And the pattern continues throughout the book.

Two of the best examples of rhythm in writing are Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, and Native Son by Richard Wright. Steinbeck’s rhythm sways in a sad, continuous rumble reminiscent of the Joad family’s dilapidated truck that rolls along despite unspeakable obstacles. Richard Wright’s rhythm in Native Son is visceral and relentless. There is no subtlety, just a pounding march cadence that leads Bigger Thomas to his inevitable fate.

In Bluestone Rondo, there is a scene with the band debating the anatomy of scatting and trading fours. As they talk in clipped, staccato rhythms, with their sarcastic overlapping one-upsmanship, they are actually, literally, scatting and trading fours using spoken words as their instruments. The effect is talking music.

In the scene with Doc grieving the death of a loved one, he is all alone with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red and John Coltrane’s Lush Life as his ill-chosen companions. There is a distinct rhythm in Doc’s anguished mutterings interspersed with the lines from the song playing on the record player. When the needle is stuck at the end of the record, there is a haunting hopelessness in that endless, repetitive sound.

In a later scene, the tempo changes again, this time it is a waltz-like dialogue between Magda and her lover in the afterglow of their first night together, followed by a rhythmic pick-up into pulse-pounding anger and jealousy.

But of course, there are no rules when each reader’s perception is different. So what is your favorite “rhythmic” novel?

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