The novelist Henry James used the term ficelle (also a type of bread, and French for “string”) to indicate a type of confidante character whose true purpose is to be an exposition device. Everyone tells the ficelle secrets and asides, under the guise of bringing him/her up to speed. The point is to move the narrative along and explain backstory to the reader in an organic way.
I’ve always fancied myself a ficelle. (Not in the “piece of bread” sense, please.) I love to pepper people with questions. I’ll fire off a machine gun round or 10 of the 5 Ws if you let me — and you probably will; everyone loves to talk about himself. Friends have called this habit “scary,” “annoying” and “good practice for having a 2-year-old.” I introduced my boyfriend to it on our first meeting, as I monopolized our speed dating time together in order to grill him on relevant facts. To his credit, he’s grown from finding my Inquisition habit “outrageously intolerable” to merely “oddly unnerving.”
One of the spoils of my guerrilla interrogations is a bursting Word doc full of quotes, ideas and vignettes. If you don’t keep one of these types of documents — for goodness’ sake, start!
Among the best-represented in this document are the bons mots (or mals mots) of my aforementioned college friend Lina. She’s originally from South Africa, and fiercely smart and off-kilter. This produces a hilarious mix of unexpected solecisms, perplexing worldview and blunt cruelty/randomness. In short, eminent quotability. Let’s have a look.
want to go on a date with this guy? he’s really irritating and won’t leave me alone. maybe you’ll marry him.
–email from 12/4/09
He’s an old school doctor. He usually wouldn’t diagnose cancer over the phone.
That’s badly made and ugly. You need to ask me before you waste your money.
–2/11/09 (Lina, to her boss, after he bought a “bad purse” for his girlfriend)
Violet: You should be more tactful with your boss. Don’t overtly berate him, even if he’s wrong.
Lina: No, that can’t be right.
Naomi explains to Lina that outer space and galactic bodies are not neon-colored, but that a composite of black and white telescope images has been colorized to indicate the different spectra of light. Hours later, Lina’s still distraught:
I can’t believe girls wear leggings with hot pink galaxies and stars on them. It’s such a lie.
Violet: I can’t date someone who repulses me.
Lina: But you two are a jewelry box. He’s a piece of black felt and you’re a diamond. Don’t you love being the diamond?
Lina: What would you rank him?
Violet: Well … probably a courtesy 5.
Lina: THERE IS NO COURTESY! CALL HIM OUT! HE GETS A 2!
At an industry panel at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Lina scrutinizes the crowd and loudly announces:
Judging by their looks, there’s no way these people are anything BUT writers.
Lina: I can’t eat ostrich meat, ever since I rode one.
Violet: Then I guess I shouldn’t eat horse meat, since I rode one.
Lina: You can do that?
Survival is overrated when you only live once.
Did you ever take Intro to Ethics with Shelly Kagan? I hated ethics. You had to be all ethical and shit.
So what if he’s one in a million? That means there are 7,000 more of him.
Get yourself a hot dress. Good things happen at the Yale Club.