Saturday, September 19, 2009

Would you buy a used car from your narrator?

Sometimes, when the telephone rings and you answer it, instead of waiting for some kind of gated-community security assurance from the answering machine, you are greeted by a complete stranger who introduces with some vague job description.  "With the Sheriff's Department," or "From a Research and Marketing Division," or even the more prosaic, "This call may be monitored by quality control to see that you are being given courteous service."  This introduction is invariably followed by an inquiry, ambiguous enough to allow interpretation of How is your health today? or How is your attitude today?  The question is the casual-sounding How are you, today?  To which you, with increasing frequency, reply, "When someone I don't know calls to ask how I am, I suspect they are reading from a script and either want money or want to sell me something?

What are the qualities and characteristics of a narrative voice that arouse such varying responses as suspicion, reliability, boredom,hostility?

Setting aside the obvious answer that differing stimuli transmit these responses variously, we repeat the question, looking for the lowest possible common denominator of "tells," signs by which we judge the intent and integrity of a narrative source.

In our mind, we compose lists of selling voices, starting with the now iconic used car sales person, the telephone solicitor, the telephone sales person, the religious enthusiast wanting to "sell" or promote a particular path to either salvation, redemption, or outright merging with the godhead; the politician, he who warns of dire consequences, or the recruiter in some cause.  All these have apparent motives which will be revealed if we hear the narrator out, which makes us cynical in a way we have rarely been cynical:  their entire pitch is predicated on our agreeing to something because we are bored and want to get rid of them.

There are more subtle voices, although it is often debatable how subtle their intent, that carry hidden political agendas secretly reeking of elitism, protectionism, racism, and perhaps verging upon delusion.

Would we buy a used car from our own narrator?  Indeed, why did we chose this particular narrator or narrative form?  At first blush, the multiple point of view appears to be the most democratic and reliable since it allows us to take sides in our emotional assessment of the story, but this is not always a possible point of view, particularly in a short story.  Yeah, yeah; William Trevor manages it in a short story, but A) he is William Trevor and B) he has a track record of being empathetic to all his characters, even the ones with malign intent.

Look at the results of the narrator in Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier, who starts things off with a rousing assertion, "This is the saddest story I ever heard," then, as the novel unfolds, appears not to have seen what was happening under his very nose.  In short, is anyone reliable or, for that matter, trustworthy?

Much as these questions may be interpreted to cut off narration entirely, it is floated forth as a greater indication that the narrator must have a personality, a motive for telling the story, an intent, and even an agenda.  Your own agenda in asking these questions is to help you arrive at the intent of the narration of a story you are living with quite a bit these days and which is reaching the point of wanting to be set down on paper--but through what filter?


Querulous Squirrel said...

For me, first person narrators move into my head like tenants into a landlady's apartment. I never know who's going to move in next.

lowenkopf said...

And they give noisy parties to which you wouldn't mind being invited, but aren't.