Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Growing Evolution of Narrative


By happy coincidence, a review copy of Dennis Lehane’s latest novel, Live by Night, arrived scant hours after you’d delivered a longish lecture on narrative.

You’ve been a fan of his work for some years, after one of your clients on a book tour met him, liked him, then recommended his work to you.  At this point, years down the reading line, only one of his works, Shutter Island, was a mild disappointment for you.

Any new work of his is an occasion, particularly since he seems to be gaining in strength and reach.  How could anything be more satisfying than Moonlight Mile?  Answer:  Live by Night, his latest, seems to gather texture and narrative momentum, moving the reader closer to the reader’s interior both in feeling and stream of consciousness as each relates to the story at hand.

Only in recent years has the thought occurred to you to chart the slow-but-inexorable evolution of narrative as it attempts to move story along while simultaneously rendering the information through the characters rather than having story points and insights sent forth by the author like messenger pigeons with personal notes.

As your interest increased, you spotted some anomalies:  Jane Austen seemed to be well ahead of the wave of interior thought and a closer, more intimate sense of connection with character.  George Eliot got in her licks as, ultimately, did Virginia Woolf.

With such things as interior monologue and narrative text as denominators, you can almost place the time in which a particular work was written, witness the young Henry James growing more impatient with what must have seemed the rural pedestrianism of Thomas Hardy’s narration.

Well and good:  Author back off.  You are the filter of the story, its director and producer, rolled into one.  You are even casting director, with complete freedom to take chances on unknown characters, almost at you whim.  You say almost here because in the revision/editing process, the author may have to make some changes, by degree inserting more momentum or purpose or goodness or meanness or agenda into the character who appears to be causing the story to bog down.

Lehane is so rewarding because of the ongoing ways his characters sense things about themselves and their relations to the cosmos.  Yet Lehane remains in the background, not intruding, artful in his ways of allowing persons in his story to see consequences and feel effects without stopping the flow of movement to slip in an explanatory footnote.

This feels so right, bringing together a theory that Lehane learned a good deal from writing for David Simon on that remarkable novel for television, The Wire with your own growing conviction that the writer and actor have much in common, techniques each could stand to gain from sharing with the other.

There is a delightful sense to story when you approach it this way as well as when you read the works of favorite writers, allowing the story to speak to you the way you let music speak to you.

You can in effect have your cake and eat it; you can have your story and feel it and understand how the diverse parts join together to produce something alive and pulsing.

In back of all this, you’re happily aware that yesterday was the lay-down day—the day bookstores are free to shelve and display a new title—for the new Louise Erdrich.


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