Ever lurk on discussion boards for books you are reading to see what insights others come up with? No?
Well, I DO!
Goodreads user Alex asked an interesting question about Roddy Doyle’s novel Love. He asks, “How many pints do Joe and Davy drink over the course of their night?” As the cover of the book suggests, the book is essentially two old friends talking about love over pints of beer. So Alex’s question is indeed a fair one.
While I didn’t see a reliably clear way to count all the beers they drink (the words pint and pints appear a total of 96 times, but that doesn’t quite capture the inquiry), Alex’s question did get me thinking about the role drinking plays in the novel. For the book’s main characters, Joe and Davy, beer serves as a kind of truth serum–or lie serum, depending on the scene.
I wondered if there were ways to explore the role of beer in the book a bit more. As an author, how does Roddy Doyle use beer as a way to shape both the story and his characters?
Exploring the Literary Data
To examine this question, I decided to explore the literary data using correlation coefficients. Correlation coefficients simply refers to a mathematical formula used to determine strength of the relationship between data. It generates a number indicating strength of correlation (1 is strongest, 0 is neutral, -1 is weakest). For instance, one might expect that the words Romeo and Juliet are strongly correlated because they are such intimate lovers throughout the play. (It’s not true, actually, see for yourself!)
For Doyle’s book Love, I created a spreadsheet with the frequency of use for every word in the book. Since the book doesn’t have chapters, I used the section breaks (indicated with “***”) to identify the book’s structure. Then, I reviewed words associated with drinking to see which ones had the both high frequency of use and appeared throughout the book. Finally, using a common correlation coefficient formula, I compared the use of pint in the text to all 4,794 other unique words.
What Stats Say About the Story
The word with the strongest correlation to the word pint is counter, with a correlation coefficient of 0.78. At first, I was as unsurprised as I was uninterested in that discovery. Counter refers to the top of the bar where a pint would be served. A strong correlation seemed obvious. For instance, Doyle writes:
He finished his pint. He put the glass down, then picked it up and put it at the far edge of the counter, as far away as he could put it.
Confident in my dismissal of the word, I went on to the word on the list: interrupt. (But it would only lead me back to counter…)
The next mostly strongly correlated word seemed quite a bit more interesting. The word interrupt is correlated with pint at a coefficient of 0.74. Readers will recall that the story of Davy and Joe is littered with interruptions. At times, the actual word is used:
—Okay, I said. —Sorry. I’m interrupting you. Go on.
—Well, he said. —What?
—Go on with what you were saying.
But beyond that, Davy and Joe interrupt each other constantly throughout the book to assert, agree, disagree, joke, relate, exclaim, and to take bio breaks. I suspect I’m not the only reader who found Doyle’s dialogue style challenging at first, to know who was speaking when and with relation to whom. The lack of quotation marks is part of the reason, but the habit of characters’ regularly interrupting each other is also to blame. Interruption is a hallmark of their conversational style, and their relationship.
Rereading Doyle’s Use of “Counter”
It’s with this new focus on the relationship between pints and interruptions in the book that the word counter took on more significance for me, however. As I mentioned above, a counter simple refers to the top of the bar in the story. But it is a word with many meanings. I began to wonder if Doyle uses counter in part because of its multiple denotative meanings. For instance, counter can mean:
- “a level surface (such as a table, shelf or display case) over which transactions are conducted or food is served or on which goods are displayed or work is conducted” (Entry 1.3)
- “a person or thing that counts something” (Entry 2)
- “to act in opposition to oppose” (Entry 3.1a)
- “to or toward a different or opposite direction, result, or effect” (Entry 4.2)
- As a prefix, “complementary : corresponding” (Entry 7.2)
These multiple definitions revealed to me that the word counter captures an essence of the story’s dual protagonists spectacularly. The pints of beer served throughout the story, and the counter (1.3) on which they are placed, serve as a kind of fulcrum or nexus for the characters. It is over the pints that Davy and Joe both relate and act in opposition (3.1a) to each other, which results in a complementary effect akin to water’s ebb and flow (7.2). The old friends interject while the other is speaking routinely, but in doing so often the interrupter attempts to redirect the conversation (4.2) in ways the speaker does not wish. The result is often a kind of personal offense and overreaction, which each character adds to their ongoing tally of grievances (2) cataloged about the other.
As conflicted as both Davy and Joe are about each other, they also need each other in a way that their spouses and family cannot accommodate. They refill their drinks with each other to fulfill their sense of self, love, and worth. Davy and Joe would rather be misunderstood but cosmically accepted by each other, than be superficially understood by families who haven’t been shown who they really are.
Relationships, for many of us, are one of the more evasive and effortful parts of life. I found it refreshing to read a book that so cosmically accepted me, as if my own relational inadequacy was permissible, if not downright prosaic, and nothing that a pint couldn’t remedy.