Sophistication

There is a time in the life of every boy when he for the first time takes the backward view of life. Perhaps that is the moment when he crosses the line into manhood. The boy is walking through the street of his town. He is thinking of the future and of the figure he will cut in the world. Ambitions and regrets awake within him. Suddenly something happens; he stops under a tree and waits as for a voice calling his name. Ghosts of old things creep into his consciousness; the voices outside of himself whisper a message concerning the limitations of life. From being quite sure of himself and his future he becomes not at all sure. If he be an imaginative boy a door is torn open and for the first time he looks out upon the world, seeing, as though they marched in procession before him, the countless figures of men who before his time have come out of nothingness into the world, lived their lives and again disappeared into nothingness. The sadness of sophistication has come to the boy. With a little gasp he sees himself as merely a leaf blown by the wind through the streets of his village. He knows that in spite of all the stout talk of his fellows he must live and die in uncertainty, a thing blown by the winds, a thing destined like corn to wilt in the sun. He shivers and looks eagerly about. The eighteen years he has lived seem but a moment, a breathing space in the long march of humanity. Already he hears death calling. With all his heart he wants to come close to some other human, touch someone with his hands, be touched by the hand of another. If he prefers that the other be a woman, that is because he believes that a woman will be gentle, that she will understand. He wants, most of all, understanding.

Sherwood Anderson
Winesburg, Ohio

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Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun

The prose is not remarkable in any conventional sense. It is clear, muted, and even pedestrian — a world away from the exuberance of Roberto Bolaño, the zing of Don DeLillo, and the lyricism of Ian McEwan — and, for that reason, Zeitoun has attracted a number of offhand dismissals from broadsheet critics. Indeed, even those who have praised the book’s narrative have expressed reservations about the prose, as if its lack of conventional beauty were a side-effect of Dave Eggers’ overstretched workload or, worse, a symptom of his inherently underwhelming literary capabilities. But since Eggers has repeatedly proven himself one of the most adventurous stylists at work today, it seems more likely that his prose in Zeitoun is unconventionally remarkable given the deliberation with which he attempts to make it appear unremarkable.

The clarity of his prose entails a stylistic about-face so radical that, far from making the prose inconspicuous, Eggers perhaps inadvertently calls attention to the prose itself and thus calls into question the purpose of its clarity.

My review of Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun is online at The Critical Flame.

On Narrative Voice (3): Not Alone or Adrift

Unlike The Road, and unlike virtually any first-person narrative you might care to name, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea seems to provide a textbook example of strictly naturalist third-person omniscient narration. The narrative voice is plain and simple, lacking any obvious narratorial interjections as well as any stylistic peculiarities that would imply a narrative history for the controlling intelligence behind the narrative voice. And yet, there are moments at which it becomes clear that someone, some entity with a particular personality, narrates — or at least thinksThe Old Man and the Sea. A little under halfway into the story, it is remarked that the old man “knew no man was ever alone on the sea,” and the remark itself demonstrates the truth of what is remarked upon. Who makes the remark? Who is out there at sea with the old man, and close enough to him to know what he knows? Whose is the controlling intelligence of the narrative, of which the narrative voice is the intelligible mask? Continue reading On Narrative Voice (3): Not Alone or Adrift

On Narrative Voice (2): For the Record

During the audience question time at the end of the lecture I gave last week, a questioner contended that, with regard to the narrative voice in The Road, my entire argument was fatally flawed. The narrator, she said, cannot be some omniscient entity wounded by the apocalypse because the narrator is plainly and obviously the boy at the heart of the narrative, looking back as a grown man on his survival ordeal and retelling it in a faux third-person voice: a displacement technique that suggests ongoing psychological trauma.

That contention seemed to me to be unjustifiably speculative, but the questioner insisted that it was the case and cited as evidence a passage from The Road in which the third-person narrator inexplicably slips into the first-person voice. Continue reading On Narrative Voice (2): For the Record

On Narrative Voice (1): The Wounded God

A couple of days ago, I gave a brief public lecture on the narrative voice in two recent and highly-acclaimed works of post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming. Beginning with Henry James’ assertion that a work of fiction can only be credible in a way that induces the reader to suspend disbelief if it filters its fictional events through the eyes of an embodied first-person narrator, I argued that McCarthy’s third-person narrator in The Road actually generated that sort of credibility with far more sophistication than did Amsterdam’s first-person narrator in Things We Didn’t See Coming. In that novel, the narrator ostensibly endures a series of episodic disasters — an apocalypse that unfolds by degrees — but because he discusses his experiences in an entirely coherent and colloquial voice, his voice itself fails to suggest that he has actually experienced those events and thus robs his words of their truth. In McCarthy’s novel, by contrast, the narrator speaks in a voice that does not undermine the truth of what he says but instead augments it. Continue reading On Narrative Voice (1): The Wounded God