Friday, August 5, 2011

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Three recent novels, all written by women writers, resonate in your recollections as vibrant examples of narrative voice.  The novels are Karen Russell's Swamplandia, Kate Atkinson's Started Early, Took My Dog, and Bonnie Jo Campbell's Once Upon a River.  Although their voices are wildly different, they are the major unifying theme in the comparison; the voices, to abuse a metaphor, are the tails wagging the dogs.

Embarking on any kind of list of your favorite narrative voices--say the Parker novels of Donald E. Westlake, writing as Richard Stark, or the tone wrought by Richard Powers in The Echo Maker, you are brought to conclude that narrative voice is the ingredient that props up the story until the thermals of event give it lift and, ultimately, flight.

The better narrative voices have the coltish feel of minor league baseball, the near poignancy of the junior high school band, the keen ache of appetite experienced by the tourist at the buffet table.  There is always something slightly off, yet never irritating in its off-ness.  If anything, its being off adds to the appeal--makes you yearn to believe it is telling the truth, with only a pardonable few stretchers.

The right narrative voice leaves you with the sense of regret you get after eating two ballpark hot dogs, only to realize you have had each without sauerkraut.

The draw of the effective narrative voice is its resonant frequency of the outsider looking in, the dying-to-play kid who is not chosen in a pick-up game at a park; it is the sound of a writer wanting to sing love songs to something no one ever thought to sing a love song to before.  It is a young girl, breaking up with someone she's gone steady with for years, realizing this may be the biggest mistake of her young life, but thinking there is someone somewhere she can love even more than she loves this one.

The effective narrative voice is the sound of banter between an elderly couple that makes you want to eavesdrop on their conversations until you discover the secret that allows them, after so many years, to tease and play rather than throw darts.

The way to get at the narrative voice is to love your characters in their entirety, wanting them to mess up not from schadenfreude but rather as a way of showing you how they get out of the mess,and what risks they take to get into another.

It is the sound you listen for when you write; it is moments when you are listening to Ravel or Theolonious Monk and it comes to you that you wish for your sentences to behave that way.

For most of your life, you have lived in areas where mourning doves sound their territorial cries.  When you first heard them and asked your mother what creatures made those sounds, you were afraid for a few moments until she answered you.  Their name sounded right, the way cinnamon sounds right and oh, how grand to be told the nut you held in your hand was an ah-l-mond.

Of course narrative voice is idiosyncratic; it is the equivalent of the first tin of watercolor paints you were given as a youngster.  It is the comfort of hearing :
"TOM!"

   No answer.

    "TOM!"

   No answer.

   "What's gone with that boy, I wonder? You TOM!"

   No answer.

It is every bit as mysterious as  the opening line in Hamlet.

"Who's there?"

It is the thing you strive for each time you work the movement of an opening scene or a beginning paragraph of an essay; it is the work, speaking to you, calling you home.

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