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.
5 responses to “On Narrative Voice (1): The Wounded God”
This is very interesting – thanks for sharing. Where is the Henry James quotation from?
It’s from James’ classic essay “The Art of Fiction.” There’s a clean PDF copy of the essay online at http://virgil.org/dswo/courses/novel/james-fiction.pdf. Flick to the bottom of page 8 and the top of page 9 of that version of the essay and that’s where you’ll find the James quote I placed at the end of this blog post.
Excellent, thank you very much.
Hi again Daniel,
Could you tell me where you obtain this idea?:
“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 couldn’t find it in the ‘Art of Fiction’ essay (though it was a very interesting read).
That’s an idea James developed in his correspondence and essays/prefaces as he read over his body of work towards the end of his life, in preparation for its republication in the multi-volume series known as the New York Edition of the James oeuvre. I can’t remember *exactly* where he develops it, but off the top of my head I’d say that his remarks on “Daisy Miller” would be a good place to start.
However, you can see the seed of the idea in “The Art of Fiction,” on page 3 of the version I linked to above: “A novel is in its broadest definition a personal impression of life; that, to begin with, constitutes its value, which is greater or less according to the intensity of the impression.” This is the starting point for his defence of an embodied narrator. Since an impression implies the existence of the person upon whom it *is* an impression — the person who experiences it — a novel, being “a personal impression of life,” implies the presence of the narrator *in the thick of* the events whose retelling conveys the impression. Ultimately, James went on to suggest (and I’m paraphrasing here) that the intensity of that impression was conveyed (and the quality of the novel improved) to the extent that the narrator explicitly acknowledged their presence or involvement in those events, which is to say that they embodied themselves in their narration of events.
Obviously I don’t entirely agree with that — my argument concerning “The Road” was that the disembodiment of the narrator actually heightens the “personal impression of life” in McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic world — but that’s at least the gist of what would become James’ belief after he hinted at it in “The Art of Fiction.”