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 (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 (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

What Not to Do

In an interview with John Self, David Mitchell explains how he approached the unfamiliar territory of the third-person voice while writing The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet:

I’d never really attempted this commonest of forms before because I never knew what to leave out — the third is the infinite voice, whereas the first is the limited one — [but] a few years ago I asked A.S. Byatt how she decided what to put into third person narratives, and her answer was as simple as it was helpful: what you think the reader will want to hear, that’s what you put in.

That is possibly the worst fiction-writing advice I have ever heard, and I’m not surprised it came from Byatt because it cuts to the heart of what makes her work so radically unsophisticated. It’s a recipe for pure storytelling with an overbearing emphasis on the telling-ness of the story; it’s an excuse for using the form of the novel to spell out a fictional tale without exploiting of any of the particular aesthetic and rhetorical properties of the novel in order to artfully shape the tale in the telling. It’s not a blueprint for a way of writing a novel that works as a novel; it’s a way of throwing the garb of a novel over an impromptu but strung-out campfire yarn.