Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Narrative Intimacy


Whether you were consciously aware of doing so or not, each time you prepared for a new semester in which you were to teach one or more courses related to writing fiction, you were outlining a history of dramatic narrative.

Your interest in the ancient forms, on a scale of one to ten (which is the scale doctors and nurses use when they stand at your hospital bedside to inquire about the degree of pain you may be experiencing) was about two.  In recent years, as many things seem to connect back to the ancients, your interest has gone to four or five.

For some time, story was told, either from the author directly or from an author surrogate, some character we recognize as the author’s spokesperson.

The story about the artist, Paul Cezanne, making his first trip to the top of The Eiffel tower, seeing a kind of perspective he’d never witnessed before, then leaping ahead in his mind to “visualize” an approach that informed Impressionism in painting may be complete Apocrypha.  Yet it does dramatize a sense of departure in narration, delegating story to fragments or, if you will, characters.  Some writers, notably the admirable Irish writer, William Trevor, still use an omniscient point of view to relate story, so smooth in its execution that it does not seem to come from the author but rather from characters.

You’re fond of the multiple point of view for longer works, because that approach allows for the presence of a quality you much admire, ambiguity.  The result is as though your only authorial presence was the introduction of the sense that any one of the characters might be right or wrong in their versions of how things are or what past events mean.  You find this intriguing, quite lifelike and plausible. 

Another approach you like is the third person and the first person, each of which allows you to introduce ambiguity in the form of narrators who appear more or less reliable than other characters or perhaps more or less naïve.

Since the times of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Henry James, narrative has become more focused toward the inner life of the character and away from a tangible sense of narrator as a ghostly force that sees and reports all.

You’re quite comfortable when, in the act of composition, your chosen filter is in effect reporting to him- or herself as opposed to telling the story to the reader.  This requires skills you are at pains to acquire, to approach perfection with, moving as far as possible from mere telling with narrative.  The narrative in effect is none of your damned business; it is the character’s business.  You want the reader to have access to clues, but you need to be careful not to tell the character what the character already knows simply to inform the reader of what’s going on.

With all due respect to the reader—let the reader surmise.

You are amazed to discover how many writers are good at editing, an ability that relates more to their ability to edit others than themselves.  Makes sense then that some of these writers would be knowledgeable readers, able to pick up clues.

This is your target.  Getting the narrative to convey what it once took description to convey.  Dialogue helps, of course; it works in tandem with the narrative.

It can be done.  Such narrative is out there.  You’ve just seen it in the new Zadie Smith, NW, you picked up to read today.  The Dog Stars by Peter Heller is another.  Don’t forget Annie Proulx’s imaginative use of narrative in The Shipping News.

It’s out there, man; all you have to do is step out of the way and listen to them.

Listen to who?

Listen to the characters..

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