Monday, January 23, 2012

Narrative Voice

If we’re to get the most benefit from our reading of a particular narrative, we’re well advised to spend time wondering who the narrator is, and what he or she had in mind for us—at the outset and the conclusion.

Were we being seduced into the belief we were about to share some romantic idyll, only to Improvised Explosive Device of social consciousness or moral inquiry thrust upon us as an onion peeled before our eyes?

We can begin our reading-examination by questioning the author, moving him or her into the interview room, then asking straight away: Why did you chose this particular character or group of characters to narrate your story?

This is a reasonable question to ask.  If, for instance, we were able to pin down Herman Melville about why, of the voluminous and remarkable dramatis personae he chose to narrate the events of Moby-Dick, he opted for Ishmael, he’d be able to look at us with slight askance as he explained how Ishmael had to be the narrator because he was the sole survivor in the contest between the whale and the obdurate Ahab.  

Melville’s answer—any author’s answer—is still to be ingested with a grain or two of salt or in liquid form as the salt of some grain.  Authors do not have to tell the truth nor to be cooperative or, even more confounding, may be an habitual liar.  The author may have been at pains to build a particular persona such as Somerset Maugham did, conveying one personality while being quite another in day-to-day, non-writing life.

In most cases, readers are left to evaluate what they read on circumstantial rather then direct evidence.

Excellent starting points for reader evaluation are two seminal works from Samuel Langhorn Clemens, Innocents Abroad, and Life on the Mississippi, each sent into the world as autobiographical excursions, each combining fact with a great deal of opinion, both direct and implied.  Writing as his self-proclaimed persona of Mark Twain, Clemens approaches each work with his signature deadpan narrative voice.  Do we trust him?  He goes on as though he expects us to—and we do until we sense our reader’s leg is being pulled along with the attitudinal leg of actual individuals in the text.  Thus Twain shows us a major device, the potential for alternate visions of the same reality.  Twain was by no means the first to do so, nor was he the first to feign ignorance of what he was doing.  Using these techniques, he rode into the twentieth century on a wave of irony.  A century later, he—and we—are still riding.

Do we take Mark Twain as reliable?

In England, a remarkable novelist, a mere five years Twain’s junior, was born.  Twain lasted until 1910.  Thomas Hardy remained until 1928.  Twain’s work informed the twentieth century.  Thomas Hardy’s monumental opera dragged the nineteenth century kicking and screaming into the twentieth.  Which of the two do we consider reliable?  Why?  Hint:  the answer has the word humor in it.

Do we consider any narrator entirely reliable?  Given our knowledge of Truman Capote’s troubled personal life, are we able to take him at his narrative word or is there always the acerbic hint of agenda clinging to it.  And yet.  Capote surely read George Orwell, particularly Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, his first booklength venture, written in such a way that we become absolutely convinced of his accurate, documentary style.  Because of its narrative tone, its judicious, almost frugal use of personal pronouns or references, its seeming objectivity, Orwell’s account is still in print, still seen as a model of a particular type of memoir.  Compare Orwell’s approach in Down and Out with Capote’s twentieth-century narrative breakthrough, In Cold Blood.  Read Capote’s Hand-Carved Coffins and Music for Chameleons, then ask yourself the question Capote was prompting you to ask all along:  Are these two works factual reporting or fiction?  Then ask yourself why he was at such pains to blur the two states.

An earlier account by the same sections of London described by Orwell, The People of the Abyss by Jack London, takes narrative tones ranging from self-piteous to hectoring, and political posturing.  Try finding a copy of The People of the Abyss in most libraries, much less in bookstores.  Amazon or Alibris are the more likely sources and their selections are limited.

A valuable point emerges here:  The ease and fluidity of an author’s narrative style can lull us into an unwary state wherein we glide over the things we might ordinarily regard with some suspicion.  Authors such as Twain and Orwell, later Joan Didion, can inject the occasional adjective of judgment with such deftness that we swallow it whole, taking it in, scarcely recognizing how we’ve been led along the pathway of their intent, cajoled and teased into the emotional response the writer wishes to convey.  We are being led along the narrative trail by the process of evocation rather than mere description.

Same thing works in photography.  A photographer has perhaps photographed the same building in differing conditions of light, choosing the one exposure that most expresses her desired effect.

Even when we read for pure information, as opposed to such adjuncts as enjoyment or disagreement or traces of bias, we cannot avoid the need to ask questions, to challenge the statements, to engage authors dead these long years with questions.  How do you know?  What did you feel?  Are you fucking kidding me?

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