Monday, July 13, 2015

On a Clear Day, You Can See the Narrator, but Can he See You?

The more you progress in the composition of the mini-essays evoking your emotional responses and learning processes to your own hundred life-altering novels, the more you see how fortunate you were to come upon The Adventures of Tom Sawyer when you did.  

This happy coincidence brought you sooner to Huckleberry Finn, a game-changing meeting that has paid off from about the time of graduation from the university to, as a matter of fact, this mid-July day in 2015.

Much of your reading after experiencing Huck for the first time has been more or less of an exercise in quantifying the effect of Twain's narrative voice on you, and where it has led you in the pursuit of your own.  You hasten to emphasize your own voice here, because there have been numerous times when Twain's voice had such a persuasive effect on you that you stopped once again to listen to his rather than respond in your own.

Today, as you are skimming through a novel you consider a worthy successor to Huck Finn, you note in quick succession two important things.  You are several pages into Saul Bellow's breakout novel, The Adventures of Augie March, and there is no hint of story, only a narrator now in his middle age, starting us out on our journey of his life, throwing relatives and family friends at us, revealing an occasional family secret here and there, and being at age ten the sort of person you wished to be at age ten.  

This bench mark you wished to attain orbited about your ten-year-old life, looking for a place to land, but not seeing sufficient runway space.  To be blunt, you had neither the physical nor emotional vocabulary to process these goals.

Instead, you settled on Huck Finn, thus your assessment of Huck in your life as a happy coincidence, because it was the purest luck imaginable.  In subsequent years, perhaps in your thirties, you developed enough recognition of nuance to understand the pleasing irony of the term "high-class problem."  By this last trope, you note your awareness of having so-called Hobson's Choices, meaning the option of taking the least awful of existential choices, and you'd had one or two occasions when you were able to accept the grace note of an outstanding choice to which the opposite choice was not even present.

Having Huck in your life and the fondness for numerous consultations with him was a lovely irony, a high-class choice, which continued to get better.  Until your first reading of Bellow's novel, The Adventures of Augie March, the you of your literary yearnings seemed to progress at a comfortable rate.  That all changed when for the first time, you were chewing away at the pages and incidents of your revisit today.

You'd grown considerably by following Huck, but Augie March was your culture, closer to you in immigrant status than Huck, whom you'd never thought of at all in that context.  Angie was closer to your playmates and friends of pre-World War II, when being of your culture seemed even more fraught with notes of peril, suspicion, and wariness.  

At the same time, Augie announces quite early in the narrative that he wants things beyond mere success or affluence, two things he does not in fact achieve.  His author did, but there was a considerable price tag.

You recognized the remarkable presence of voice, you recognized the picaresque, character-driven nature of the narrative, both present in sufficient quantities to leave you in a stunned state you now remember as one of restless wandering with no particular goal in mind.  You were absorbing the effects of Augie March's voice and his seamless shifting from personal history event to another event without the slightest hint of plot.

Reading these early paragraphs today, you are reminded of a stand-alone chapter from one of Twain's earliest memoirs, Roughing It, in which he recounts his early career as a newspaper reporter in Virginia City, Nevada.  The stand-alone is titled "The Grandfather's Ram Story," which does not appear to have any structure at all until it has been read, considered, digested, then allowed to sink in.

Because Huck led you to read so many of his creator's works, including the autobiographical and flat-out non-fiction, you'd also spent considerable time studying another of his essays, "How to Tell a Story."  When you combine the technique resident in "How to Tell a Story" with "The Grandfather's Ram Story," you have not only a vivid presence of Twain's dead-pan humor, you have him at one of his better devices, the distraction.  You could also call it the shaggy-dog story or the dead-pan tale.

What Twain did in "The Grandfather's Ram Story," Saul Bellow does in the opening pages of The Adventures of Augie March.  He has drawn you several paragraphs into the narrative with an exquisite display of voice at work to the point where, today, you are reading Bellow who is in the act of stringing us along on the magic of style, word choice, imagery, humor, and confessional.  In the same manner Twain allows Huck to take the helm, Bellow gives Augie opportunities to show us the sort of person he is by allowing us to see him immersed in the moment, ten-years-old, yes, but the how and why of his street wisdom.

What difference does it make how Augie's mother got a pair of much-needed reading glasses free from a clinic?  At the very least, Augie's part in the elaborate venture reveals the same things about him Huck reveals about himself, almost in a series of throw-away lines. 

Among the many lessons:  Character is story.  If digressions are presented abruptly, with neither explanation or defensiveness, the reader will follow.  A narrator who cops to the occasional flaw on his or her own is more likely to win the reader's affections.  A narrator who would rather have experiences than rewards can get away without a plot longer than a plot-driven narrator.

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