Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Will the Real Winnie the Pooh Please Stand up?

You found many things to admire in Viet Thanh Nguyen's recent novel, The Sympathizer, including the certainty you will reread the novel soon and in the process find even more things to smile at with the recognition one smiles at when discovering how transformative a complex, multilayered story can be.

Among the things noted and admired in Nguyen's novel was a technical matter you consider from time to time as a teacher, a reviewer, and a writer of your own narratives, the matter of narrative direction. 

The Sympathizer is a confession, thus written in the first person, an assistant to an important military figure, writing about his observations about and behavior toward his superior, set down as a report/confession to an individual whose identity we do not discover until well into the final chapters.

Nguyen's narrator is a spy, reporting to his superior, all in all a remarkable performance of the duplicity, mischief, and irony to be had from an unreliable narrator attempting to present an at least rational account of his personal unreliability.

Taking a few steps back from the narrative design of this novel, you ask for the same reason you ask similar rhetorical questions how vital such a design of storytelling contributes to a short story or novel being made memorable and enduring.

Some stories from past eras begin with the well-worn "Once upon a time--" while other tales of more or less that age have another familiar beginning, "In the city of X, there lived a man named Y (or a woman named Z)." If you come upon such stories, however well the other details or resolution, there is the distinct sense you are reading something dated and from another era. This extends to such beginnings as a narrator addressing you directly to tell you he or she is about to tell you a story.

You believe there is some mechanism inherent in most persons, call it the dramatic genome, that causes us to leap over the chasm between being told there is a story we are about to hear and into the reality, however fanciful, of where that story is taking place.

More often than not, when you ask of a story, who it is being told to, you are examining the most optimal portal between our shared reality and the invented reality of the story. You wish to know with all deliberate speed to whom and why the story is being told.

At such times, you are also confronting those thought barriers most apt to keep you from gaining access to the story you which to relate, with emphasis on the dramatic connotations the word "relate" has for you as contrasted to the descriptive connotations.

Such issues inform your choice of writers, narrative choices, and your attempts to deal with the technicalities of your own work. In your reality, a storyteller does not describe a story so much as he or she filters it through the experiences of one or more characters. Another recent novel,The Trespasser, by the American writer living in Ireland, Tana French, conveys this sense to you of you being an eavesdropper to the events of the story, going on about you.

While considering such matters earlier this morning, somewhere between awakening and your first meaningful contact with coffee, the following beginning presented itself to you, indeed as though the narrator were relating it to you, with, as you now realize, the intent of manipulating you for some purpose you will have to allow to play out:

"In a rather nice irony, McNeil lived under the name of Sanders for nearly two years, before I pointed out to him one evening when we'd met for drinks, that Sanders is often a Jewish surname.

"I, myself, used it at one time,but had the good sense to put a u in it--Saunders--removing any possibility of misunderstanding, including the original use of the expression.

"McNeil took his name from me. At least, he thought he did. I was for a time what you might call his step-father, except that I was not really married to his mother, who believed many things back in those years, one of them being that my name was McNeil."

As with so many things of this nature, these paragraphs are a gift, a mischievous distraction, and a curse. Possibly all three.


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