Love in a third language: Ash and Darian play Nabble

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

So, here we go: the first close reading of this brand-new blog experiment, and I’ve chosen an absolute favorite: Alexis Hall’s Glitterland. For those of you who haven’t read it, here’s the cover, a buy link, and the official blurb.

Once the golden boy of the English literary scene, now a clinically depressed writer of pulp crime fiction, Ash Winters has given up on love, hope, happiness, and—most of all—himself. He lives his life between the cycles of his illness, haunted by the ghosts of other people’s expectations.

Then a chance encounter at a stag party throws him into the arms of Essex boy Darian Taylor, an aspiring model who lives in a world of hair gel, fake tans, and fashion shows. By his own admission, Darian isn’t the crispest lettuce in the fridge, but he cooks a mean cottage pie and makes Ash laugh, reminding him of what it’s like to step beyond the boundaries of anxiety.

But Ash has been living in his own shadow for so long that he can’t see past the glitter to the light. Can a man who doesn’t trust himself ever trust in happiness? And how can a man who doesn’t believe in happiness ever fight for his own?

https://books2read.com/glitterland

When we arrive at the scene I want to discuss, about a third of the way through the book, Ash and Darian (who met with a look across a crowded dance floor) have been speaking different languages, both figuratively and – at least if you ask Ash – literally. Ash is a writer, and his first person POV guides us through the book in a standard, and at times insufferably erudite, English. Darian, on the other hand, is an “h-dropping, glottal stopping glitter pirate” (27) from Essex who says “fink” instead of “think” and “awright” instead of “alright” and whose speech is relayed through a delimited set of phonetic representations of his accent. 

In this scene, Ash and Darian have decided to play “Nabble”: a version of Scrabble Ash played in college. Darian has already turned down a game of actual Scrabble, deeming Ash too “good wif words and stuff” (96) to want to play against him. In Nabble, however, only made-up words can be played, accompanied by a realistic explanation for what they might mean. 

So let’s look at the full passage, and then I’ll break it down :

“He was uncertain at first but soon he was nabbling like an old hand. First came glink (“that like look what happens when two people are fanciying each other from across the dance floor”), then gloffle (“like when you put too much toffee in your mouf at once”), then mooshes (“ankle boots made out of crocodile levva wif pompoms hanging on ‘em, big in New Zealand”), rapazzled (“off your head, obvs”), and quimpet (“like when hair extensions get all weird up at the top like what ‘appened to Britney”). And then, somehow, I got silly and offered up svlenky to describe the motion of his hips while dancing, to which he responded with flinkling, which was apparently what my brow did when I was coming up with something sarcastic to say. From there we moved through a few variations too ridiculous to be recorded, I foolishly formulated glimstruck as a representation of how it felt to be around him, and then we graduated to kissing, still fully clothed like a pair of teenagers, on the wreckage of the Scrabble board. 

He crashed over me like a wave and I was drowning. He shone so brightly and I was burning. Touched, by his hands and his body and his unintended mercies, I needed my distance back. Difficult, though, when my skin sang at his closeness and I blazed with wanting. 

Glitterland, Alexis Hall. 2018. p 101

This is a watershed moment for Ash and Darian’s relationship, because it requires them to create a new language together, one where Darian sets most of the terms. Over the course of a few lines, Ash gets lost and found again, starts over, demonstrates trust, reiterates his fear of falling in love, and gives us a tiny bit of hope that he will anyway. And all of it, this passage demonstrates, is based on finding a metaphorical “third language” between Ash and Darian’s disparate idioms.

So lets look at how it plays out. I’m going to divide the text into three parts. Or, since Scrabble is the theme here, three turns.

First turn: changing the rules of the game.

“He was uncertain at first but soon he was nabbling like an old hand. First came glink (“that like look what happens when two people are fanciying each other from across the dance floor”), then gloffle (“like when you put too much toffee in your mouf at once”), then mooshes (“ankle boots made out of crocodile levva wif pompoms hanging on ‘em, big in New Zealand”), rapazzled (“off your head, obvs”), and quimpet (“like when hair extensions get all weird up at the top like what ‘appened to Britney”).

Glitterland, Alexis Hall. 2018. p 101

In the very first sentence, Ash includes an invented word that the reader hasn’t seen before. He’s given us the tools to interpret it though: from “Nabble” (which he has already explained) we get “nabbling.”  The inventiveness is tempered by Ash’s typically stodgy speech (what twenty-something calls his boyfriend an ‘old hand’?), but we see Ash ready to meet Darian on the linguistically playful terms of this new game.

This section adheres to a set pattern: an italicized nonsense word, followed by Darian’s definition in parentheses. Darian’s voice dominates the passage: Ash provides only five structuring words (“first came,” “then,” “then” “and”). In fact, it isn’t necessarily clear at first that it’s Darian turn: we aren’t sure who puts down the word glink until we read the non-standard formulation of the definition “That like look what happens when…”

It is, uniquely, a whole chuck of Darian’s speech that does not rely on any punctuating dialogue from Ash – no “he said” or “Darian added” to be found.

Why is this significant? Well, for starters, because Ash often uses his punctuating dialogue to judge Darian’s Essex accent:

“I gotta say babes,” he said in a nasal Essex whine “you’re giving me sutcha bedroom look.”

Glitterland, Alexis Hall. 2018. p 17

In fact, sometimes he just replaces punctuating dialogue entirely with judgment:

“I read one of ‘is coming back from Ibiza.” Of course he pronounced it Ibeefa.

Glitterland, Alexis Hall. 2018. p 22

So, as Ash lets Darian speak for himself, he’s moving past some old linguistic habits. 

As readers, we experience several paradoxical effects of this un-punctuated dialogue (just as Ash experiences some… paradoxical effects of finding himself attracted to an orange glitter pirate). On the one hand, it’s intimate. Recognizing who is speaking here relies on the reader’s familiarity with Darian’s speech patterns: we have to know he’s the one who says “mouf” and “levva” to make sense of the scene. It’s a sign of intimacy and recognition we share with Ash, being accustomed to how Darian speaks. 

On the other hand, there are still important elements of distancing: we’re confronted with as series of tiny punctuation-shaped barriers (quotation marks, parenthetical brackets). It’s also a bit disorienting: we lose our dialogical landmarks just as Ash is losing hold on his emotions. We’re falling together with Ash, and Darian is – emotionally, linguistically – in control in a way he often isn’t, though Ash is still trying to put up barriers.

As we bring Darian’s turn’s to a close (Ash is so gone at this point that, as far as we know, Darian gets five turns in a row), it’s time for Ash to retake the linguistic reins. But rather than dominate the conversation as he often does, we watch him start over in their new language. 

Second turn: starting over. 

And then, somehow, I got silly and offered up svlenky to describe the motion of his hips while dancing, to which he responded with flinkling, which was apparently what my brow did when I was coming up with something sarcastic to say. From there we moved through a few variations too ridiculous to be recorded, I foolishly formulated glimstruck as a representation of how it felt to be around him, and then we graduated to kissing, still fully clothed like a pair of teenagers, on the wreckage of the Scrabble board. 

Glitterland, Alexis Hall. 2018. p 101

Despite the game of Nabble being Ash’s idea, he’s hesitant to join in. He marks his hesitation both through adjectives that trivialize his emotions (“silly,” “ridiculous”), and adverbs that further minimize them (“somehow,” “apparently”).  He isn’t speaking Darian’s new language yet- he’s still a bit lost in it, and afraid of it.  

But Ash is leading us, slowly and hesitantly, to the money word of this entire scene: glimstruck. It is, in the entire game, the only word that doesn’t get a concrete definition. Mooshes and quimpet are vivid and specific nouns involving hair extensions and ankle boots, glink is about a kind of instant attraction on the dance floor that we’ve already seen in Ash and Darian’s meet-cute, gloffle is a sound that’s literally about nothing except eating toffee. 

All we get for glimstruck is that it’s a way Ash feels around Darian. Technically that could mean almost anything. Ash has felt exasperated, horny, judgmental, anxious, and all manner of other things around Darian. 

But it’s not any of those. 

And we know it without being told

We know a little bit because of how the word sounds: glim like glimmer, like glitter, like Darian the glitter pirate. Struck like lighting, like the emotion that Ash won’t name until it’s almost too late, like the complete overwhelm of being knocked off your feet and falling.

But to be fair, glim is also pretty close to glum, and getting struck isn’t often a good thing. How do we know it isn’t that? We know from context, but most of all we know because we’ve watched Ash learn a language that Darian has been teaching him since they first glinked, and he’s finally giving himself over to it. 

And indeed, the final movement of this section is all about growing into something new, the lexicon of “graduated” and “teenagers” suggesting passage through a liminal space, leaving behind the “wreckage” of their separate languages and pushing them on to something new. 

Third turn: love hurts. 

He crashed over me like a wave and I was drowning. He shone so brightly and I was burning. Touched, by his hands and his body and his unintended mercies, I needed my distance back. Difficult, though, when my skin sang at his closeness and I blazed with wanting. 

Glitterland, Alexis Hall. 2018. p 101

That said, this scene takes place at the 39% mark, not the 99% mark. So Ash and Darian don’t have it all figured out yet. The next two lines are intense – intensely gorgeous, probably my favorite of the passage – but they also mark a return to Ash’s default language: florid, poetic, and distancing (via repeated metaphorizing) of the world around him.

He crashed over me like a wave and I was drowning. 

He shone so brightly and I was burning. 

 These lines are beautiful, but they also sound a bit sinister after the fun of glink and the sweet vulnerability of glimstruck. For one, the repetition of this structure

(He [x] and I was [y]). (He [x] and I was [y]).

recalls not just intensifying feelings, but also Ash’s struggle with getting stuck in patterns: of pushing people away, of his recurring episodes of depression. They also have the cadence of an incantation, a way of warding against his anxiety. If you look at what Ash is doing in those passages, he’s “drowning” and “burning” : no matter which way you face from in between these two sentences, he’s staring down opposite forces of water or fire, he’s suffering. In fact, hidden in those two sentences, in their second word and their last, is a hint of what this relationship is going to have to do before it gets to HEA: crash and burn

Ash is right to be scared. He thinks he needs distance, but he’s so far gone now that he buries that thought under a lyrical evocation of Darian’s touch. 

Touched, by his hands and his body and his unintended mercies, I needed my distance back. 

Ash is touched twice by something physical (“hands,” “body”) and on that magical third time, by something he can’t feel physically, only emotionally: Darian’s “unintended mercies.” This is a pretty significant progression. We’ve seen Ash be ok with most kinds of physical touch: the many extremely hot scenes between him and Darian attest to that. But he’s not (yet) ok with being touched emotionally, especially not with Darian’s mercies. And he certainly can’t accept that such mercies might be intended. That’s the rest of the journey he’s going to have to go on. 

The remainder of the paragraph (which I will leave you to find on your own) is a list of things Ash wants to do, not just to Darian but for Darian. To fuck him, but also to “bedeck him with [pleasure]” and “weave him a crown of all [his] lost dreams” (102) . It isn’t just their “crash and burn” that’s hidden in this passage, it’s also the forgiving and the giving that will heal them. And ultimately, all of this is built on their third language, the space they create together, and will have to keep re-creating together even beyond the end of their HEA. 

I highly, highly recommend you go read all about how they work it out by buying Glitterland here : https://books2read.com/glitterland. The author’s website also has detailed CWs, which you may want to check first.

Thanks for stopping by, folks! Hope you had half as much fun reading this as I did writing it. I’m still working out exactly at what rate I can feasibly post here, but for the moment here are the next three books I have close readings planned for :

The Governess Affair, Courtney Milan (it’s free, if you want to read along!)

A Duke in Disguise, Cat Sebastian

Layover, Katrina Jackson

In between, I’ll also be doing shorter posts, including an every-Friday feature of the “best sentence I read this week” variety. More soon!

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