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
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.
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 thinks — The 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?
The old man is clearly accompanied by an intelligence that is not only superior to his own intelligence but also to our intelligence as readers. This intelligence knows more than what the old man knows, and it knows more than what we know, and it knows that the old man sometimes knows more than we know, and it works here and there to bridge the gaps between our knowledge and his. It is right there, in fact, in the opening paragraph:
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week.
In translating the word salao into English, the controlling intelligence of the narrative presumes that we do not speak Spanish and endeavours to help us make up for our shortcomings. And it continues to undertake such endeavours throughout the narrative, either translating the old man’s Spanish thoughts into English or expressing his thoughts in English via free indirect discourse and then translating them into the original Spanish. For instance, when the old man experiences a cramp in his hand, we are told that “he thought of it as a calambre,” and later, when he decides to eat the dolphin he has caught, we are told that “he called it dorado.” In a similar vein, the controlling intelligence also explains things to us that we could not know unless we, too, were fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico. The old man, for instance, “rowed over the part of the ocean that the fishermen called the great well because there was a sudden deep of seven hundred fathoms where all sorts of fish congregated,” and, later: “The tuna, the fishermen called all the fish of that species tuna and only distinguished among them by their proper names when they came to sell them or to trade them for baits, were down again.”
The controlling intelligence, however, does not stop at simply translating the old man’s thoughts. Crucially, it also recognises itself as a translator and thus demonstrates the self-awareness of a sentient being. When the old man says, in despair, “Ay,” the narrative voice informs us: “There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood.” Yet the failure of the controlling intelligence to translate certain phrases is not solely restricted to untranslatable phrases. Sometimes, it simply refuses to translate, as when we are told that the old man “thought of the Big Leagues, to him they were the Gran Ligas, and he knew that the Yankees of New York were playing the Tigres of Detroit.” Gran Ligas is translated but Tigres is not; and although Tigres may not require translation given that we can easily infer its meaning, there are other instances in which a translation is not forthcoming even when we cannot as easily infer the meaning of the Spanish words. For instance, the old man thinks to himself: “This is the second day now that I do not know the result of the juegos,” and then he thinks: “Un espuela de hueso,” without translation in either instance.
The controlling intelligence, then, discloses and withholds information at whim, which is to say, by extension, that far from being merely an external observer or recorder of events, it has a verifiable personality, and the shape of the narrative is to some extent a reflection of the rigours of that personality. Indeed, there are other instances in the novel in which its personality more clearly shines through the ostensible objectivity of the prose.
For instance, the prose contains a number of descriptive similes that seem to have come from someone other than the old man, that do not reflect what we know of his existing sentiments and his prior experiences, and that therefore raise the question of their source. We are told that the sail of the old man’s boat, furled around his mast, “looked like the flag of permanent defeat.” But who makes this comparative assessment? We are told as well that a number of enormous clouds in the sky were “white cumulus built like friendly piles of ice cream,” that the old man’s cramped hand “was as tight as the gripped claws of an eagle,” that “the fish’s eye looked as detached as the mirrors in a periscope or as a saint in a procession,” and that an enormous shark “came like a pig to the trough if a pig had a mouth so wide that you could put your head in it.” Who makes these comparative assessments? Who exactly determines the simile? Who possesses an experiential familiarity with “friendly piles of ice cream,” “the gripped claws of an eagle,” “the mirrors in a periscope,” “a saint in a procession,” and “a pig [at] the trough,” sufficient to determine that the clouds, the cramp, the fish’s eye, and the shark respectively resemble these things? And to whom do we attribute the prosaic lyricism of the moment at which the old man first catches a glimpse of his enormous fish? The fish, we are told, “jumped in the air, true gold in the last of the sun,” and “jumped again and again in the acrobatics of its fear,” but surely those words are far too poetic and indeed self-consciously literary to have originated in the simple mind of the old man himself?
So in addition to the personality that it reveals via the selection and translation of narrative details, the controlling intelligence also positions itself in relation to both the old man at the heart of the narrative and the reader of the narrative, and makes itself known as an entity in possession of greater knowledge than either one. Sometimes, in fact, this positioning and this possession of greater knowledge is made startlingly obvious, if not quite explicit. “He was too simple to wonder when he had attained humility,” we are told of the old man, presumably by a wiser entity that has passed judgement on him, “[b]ut he knew he had attained it and he knew it was not disgraceful and it carried no loss of true pride.” And, further, the controlling intelligence reveals that it knows more than the old man when it tells us, as he gazes up at the night sky, that “[h]e did not know the name of Rigel but he saw it,” and the controlling intelligence also reveals that it presumably knows better than the old man when it remarks upon his attempts to contort himself into a more tolerable sitting position in his cramped skiff. The new position, we are told, “actually was only somewhat less intolerable” than the last,” but the old man “thought of it as almost comfortable.” Thus, when we receive no clues as to the actual nature of the fish that steals the old man’s bait from his line — “It could have been a marlin or a broadbill or a shark,” he muses, entirely without interjection or clarification from the controlling intelligence via the narrative voice — we must acknowledge that we are being played, toyed with, as much as the old man toys with the fish he ultimately catches. Just as he unspools and then abruptly revokes the line with which he catches the fish, so the controlling intelligence of his narrative freely discloses and then abruptly withholds the details of the narrative itself.
The old man, we are told, “knew no man was ever alone on the sea.” By the end of the novel, we, as readers, also know as much — although, unlike the old man, we at least can ascertain the qualities of the entity in whose company he is not alone.
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. Off-hand, I could not say exactly which passage she had in mind, but Wikipedia agrees with the questioner — “[a]t one paragraph only in the discussion of the journey, the story is told in the first person” — and so too does the blog Sycorax Pine, where the first-person slippage is explicitly identified:
On p.74, there is a sudden shift in narrative voice — while the rest of the novel is in the third person, a single paragraph at the top of the page is in the first person, in the father’s voice. What is odd is that this passage deals with memory and seems to “correct” the central narration: “He doesn’t remember any little boys.” What is going on here? Does this happen at other points in the novel, points that I just missed?
And here is the passage in question, in what does indeed appear to be the first-person voice:
The dog that he remembers followed us for two days. I tried to coax it to come but it would not. I made a noose of wire to catch it. There were three cartridges in the pistol. None to spare. She walked away down the road. The boy looked after her and then he looked at me and then he looked at the dog and he began to cry and to beg for the dog’s life and I promised I would not hurt the dog. A trellis of a dog with the hide stretched over it. The next day it was gone. That is the dog he remembers. He doesnt remember any little boys.
Since this supposed “shift” in the narrative voice is a shift to the voice of the father, it would of course undermine my questioner’s suggestion that the entire narrative is told in retrospect by the boy when he becomes a grown man. That aside, let me state, for the record, that to read this passage as a “shift” from the third-person voice to the first-person voice is to divorce it from its context within the narrative as a whole. The implication of such a “shift” would be that the first-person voice of the father has somehow obtruded upon the voice of the third-person omniscient narrator, as if the narrator had somehow been shunted aside for the space of a paragraph before being allowed to continue speaking. But this implication rests on a disregard for the remainder of the narrative, the seventy-three pages of third-person omniscient narration that precede this passage and the one hundred and sixty-six that follow it. The narrator is omniscient. As I have suggested, he has had certain limitations imposed upon his ability to express what his omniscience allows him to know about the apocalypse that has destroyed the world, but, even so, he remains able to leave the boy and the man behind and extend his view of the ravished earth, or else to become so intimate with them that he can easily perceive their innermost thoughts. Consider, for example, this passage:
Later when the boy was asleep he went to the house and dragged some of the furniture out onto the lawn. Then he dragged out a mattress and laid it over the hatch and from inside he pulled it up over the plywood and carefully lowered the door so that the mattress covered it completely. It wasnt much of a ruse but it was better than nothing. (125)
Or consider this passage:
They began to come upon from time to time small cairns of rock by the roadside. They were signs in gypsy language, lost patterans. The first he’d seen in some while, common in the north, leading out of the looted and exhausted cities, hopeless messages to loved ones lost and dead. By then all stores of food had given out and murder was everywhere upon the land. The world soon to be largely populated by men who would eat your children in front of your eyes and the cities themselves held by cores of blackened looters who tunneled among the ruins and crawled from the rubble white of tooth and eye carrying charred and anonymous tins of food in nylon nets like shoppers in the commissaries of hell. (152)
Or consider this passage:
He sat in the floor of the cockpit and sorted through the tools. Rusty but serviceable. Pliers, screwdrivers, wrenches. He latched the toolbox shut and stood and looked for the boy. (191)
In the first passage, who exactly judges that the mattress covering “wasnt much of a ruse but it was better than nothing”? In the second passage, who exactly holds a fear of “men who would eat your children in front of your eyes”? In the third passage, who exactly deems the tools in the cockpit to be “[r]usty but serviceable”? For reasons that vary from passage to passage, the words quoted here do not belong to the third-person narrator. They belong to the man, and yet in each instance the narrator seems to represent the man’s thoughts via a “slip” into a voice other than the third-person: the implied first-person in the third and first passages, and the second-person in the second passage.
What we have, then, is a third-person omniscient narrator with a history of using his very omniscience — or what remains of it — to lay bare the thoughts of the man at the heart of his narrative. In other words, the passage seemingly spoken in the first-person voice of the man is not a deviation from the voice of the third-person omniscient narrator but is rather a product of the narrator’s very omniscience. He grants us temporary access to the man’s thoughts just as he does throughout the narrative, albeit at greater length here than at any other point. We can only understand this, however, when we read the passage within the context of the narrative as a whole — that is, when we read it not as something isolated from the remainder of the novel, but, on the contrary, as something sharply attuned to the remainder of the novel.
I hasten to suggest that Henry James would have also seconded such a reading of this passage. His was a distinctly holistic literary criticism, a criticism that directed all discussion of the constituent elements of a work of literature towards a greater discussion of that literature in its totality. If we extract the fragment from the big picture, we misunderstand how exactly the fragment contributes to the construction of the big picture and thus how it simultaneously invests meaning in the big picture and obtains its own meaning via the investment it makes.
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.
Although that narrator is a demonstrably omniscient being, I argued that he has nevertheless recognisably suffered from his experience of the apocalypse at the heart of his narrative and that his suffering gives credibility to his narrative as a whole. “He is demonstrably omniscient,” I said, “since, as well as delving freely into the thoughts of his characters, he is also able to distance himself from them so completely that at one point he obtains a truly godlike view of the planet: ‘By day,’ he says, ‘the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp.’ And yet,” I stressed, “throughout the novel, he withholds or is otherwise unable to articulate the exact cause of this apocalypse,” and this inability to articulate that cause is what invests the apocalypse with credibility. Here, in its entirety, is his explanation for the apocalypse:
The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. … [The man] went into the bathroom and threw the lightswitch but the power was already gone.
Reading this threadbare explanation in light of the narrator’s omniscience, what we end up with is a narrative told by an almost godlike being who nevertheless fails to speak the entirety of what he knows about the apocalypse at the heart of his narrative. “It is as if the apocalypse itself was so powerful that it shocked even this omniscient entity into silence and stunted his every attempt to explicitly account for it,” I said; and, more importantly, I noted that the narrator is aware that his expressive abilities have had limitations imposed upon them and that those limitations have been imposed by the apocalypse of which he speaks. “In his hands,” I said, “language, like narrative as a whole, has been reduced to rubble” — and he knows it:
The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believes to be true. … The sacred idiom [had been] shorn of its referents and [therefore] of its reality.
“As with all the words in this novel,” I said, “these words are spoken by a narrator who comes from a world in which words themselves are decaying, and who therefore has no choice but to reassemble — clause by clause and sentence by sentence — the very language with which he makes himself a narrator. Sometimes he is successful in his efforts; other times, less so. Either way, as a result, the style in which this narrative is told originates from within the narrative premise.” In other words, the narrative voice is highly idiosyncratic and its very idiosyncrasies imply an account of how it came to be this way; the narrative voice bears the scars of the apocalypse whose aftermath the narrative depicts, and so it carries within itself the conviction that the narrative itself is true and thereby gives us reason to read it as something credible.
“Every last word in The Road,” I said, “every linguistic awkwardness and every syntactic peculiarity, testifies to the truth of the novel’s otherwise unbelievable narrative premise and reinforces the credibility of the narrative as a whole,” and, in conclusion, I pivoted off this point to suggest that Henry James would have likely approved of McCarthy’s technique despite McCarthy’s use of a disembodied narrator. “[I]n proportion as the work is successful,” wrote James, outlining his primary criterion for literary accomplishment, “the idea” — the narrative premise — “permeates and penetrates it, informs and animates it, so that every word and every punctuation-point contributes directly to the expression,” and the linguistic awkwardness of the narrator of The Road allows the novel to satisfy that criterion.