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Wednesday
Nov112015

The Hottest Narrators, Tartar Or Not

Since this book has such a mouthy narrator, I thought it might be a good opportunity just to remind you of the five sorts of narrators that exist in the European/American literary tradition:

1. First-person limited perspective narrator. This big talker, of course, tells the story as an "I" (that is, using the grammatical first person pronoun). Almost all "I" narrators are first-person limited perspective ones, meaning that the "I" of the story sees things only through his or her own eyes (and thus doesn't know everything that's going on). Think Huck Finn or Holden Caulfield. Think of the first three chapters of THE SOUND AND THE FURY (we are going to read that book some day). Think of almost any memoir or autobiography you could read. However, this stance doesn't have to be an "I" narrator. The first-person limited perspective can be a "we." Think of that glorious book about Japanese brides in America we read last year, Julie Otsuka's THE BUDDHA IN THE ATTIC.


2. First-person omniscient narrator.  
This is far rarer, an "I" narrator who sees, hears, and knows everything. Imagine writing a book from God's perspective with God telling the story. Or imagine some of those horrid political autobiographies or memoirs that come out every election season. This storytelling stance is far harder to pull off since it frequently becomes turgid, overblown, or downright insufferable. However, this stance is frequently used in religious texts in which the diety speaks directly. One of the most amazing things about the Jewish narrative tradition (from which the Christian one springs) is that God is never the title character. God is a character in a narrative which claims to report his speech.


3. Third-person limited perspective narrator. Henry James is said to have perfected this art: a story told in the third person grammatically (he or she did this or that) with the perspective strictly limited to that character's eyes and ears. In other words, nothing happens that he or she wouldn't see or experience. THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY is one example. But an imperfect one because there are chapters throughout that happen without Isabel's presence (Gilbert and Madame Merle have a talk fireside, for example). A whole novel in third person strictly from the main character's perspective is a tough act to pull off. Once you start writing about a character in the third person, it's hard to control it to just his or her eyes. Some modern novelists, however, do it quite well--like Ian McEwan in ENDURING LOVE or Richard Ford in CANADA (wow, I loved that book). Colum McCann works at it in LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN, except every chapter is a new perspective from a different character's point of view.

 
4. Third-person omniscient narrator. This is the most common narrative stance in the Western tradition. For example, with the exception of a couple of Chaucer's characters, almost every pilgrim in THE CANTERBURY TALES tells a tale from an omniscient stance: in other words, the narrative is about a "he" or a "she" (not an "I") but the narrator behind the scenes knows everything, even what the character doesn't or can't know. George Eliot is often caught on this dilemma: she wants to write a third-person limited perspective story (only from her character's eyes) but she also often feels compelled to step back and offer a wider perspective. (Wait until DANIEL DERONDA this winter!) Most films are told from this omniscient perspective with the camera taking up "God's eye" so that it sees beyond what the characters could see. (Watch out--the bad guy is right behind that door!) One of the things that makes THE CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS OVER AN ELEVATOR IN PIAZZA VITTORIO such a bad film is the way the camera has to collapse all those first-person limited narrators into a third-person omniscient narrator--and then it just becomes a sad murder mystery.


5. Second-person narrator. Rare. Very. Basically, the whole thing is told as "you." You do this and you do that. There are some postmodern narratives written this way. David Eagleman's SUM: FORTY TALES OF THE AFTERLIVES pulls it off: after death, you go here or you go there. (Remember that book?) It's an odd stance but becoming increasingly popular with experimental writers--as if the reader is a character in the tale being told. I know an experimental writer in New York who wrote a 1200-page (!) memoir entirely in the second-person: it's his life but told it as it were about me, the reader. On this day, you have lunch with your grandmother who tells you. . . . Almost by definition, the second-person technique is a limited perspective stance: since you, the writer, are writing me into your story and telling me what I'm doing, you can only see it from my (that is, your) perspective.


So that's the run-down. There are finesses, of course. One could write a third-person plural narrative: "they." I don't know any that are successful but it's theoretically possible. And one can combine techniques, a frequent move in Victorian and post-Victorian novels. For example, Dickens' BLEAK HOUSE uses both third-person omniscient and first-person limited perspective narratives in alternating chapters: first a chapter in Esther's "I" voice, then one in the narrator's voice, then back to Esther's "I" voice, and so on. We really should read that one, too.

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