All the latest news, ideas, and opinions from Denver's Independent Literary Center: lighthousewriters.org
A few weeks ago, I trotted out a quote about first-person narrative for the Thursday night short story writers to contemplate. It was red meat, so to speak, and I wanted to see if anyone would tear into it. The quote was from Rust Hills, who shares the title of Grumpiest Truthteller in the Craft of Fiction with John Gardner, if you ask me. But the truth he does tell! He says:
“The monologue form, in all its versions, is probably the most awkward way to tell a story there is, and unfortunately beginning writers seem attracted to it unerringly.”
The Thursday nighters are, none of them, truly “beginning writers,” and a lot of them select the monologue and first-person narrative, so I kind of expected a fight. But nothing happened. Everyone agreed, at least in spirit, with Hills. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and not just because I was bested by my first attempt in years to write in first-person (I gave up and went third once again). I was thinking about why, for some of us, it’s a hamstringer. I finally came to this: for me, the first person voice, to really work, has to really bring it. It has to bring philosophy, perspective, voice, rhythm. It should be rife with blind spots. Predilections. Biases. But also authenticity. It has to tell me why I should listen and care. (It’s no different in this sense from any other storytelling voice, in a way, but so many times as writers using an “I” narrator, we shortcut all the work we would have done in any other POV.)
What I mean, I think, can best be shown through a few examples. I’ve read a few first-person narrators recently that I thought really brought it. Here’s one:
I do not love mankind.
People think they’re interesting. That’s their first mistake. Every retiree you meet wants to supply you with his life story.
An example: thirty-five years ago a woman came into the library. She’d just heard about oral histories and wanted to string one together herself.
‘We have so many wonderful old people around,’ she said. ‘They have such wonderful stories. We could capture them on tape, then maybe transcribe them–don’t you think that would make a wonderful record of the area? My father, for instance, is in a nursing home–’
Her father. Of course. She was not interested in the past, but her past.
–from Elizabeth McCracken’s The Giant’s House
Is there any question about the disposition of this narrator? Her problem and her great strength are both captured in the very first line. Here’s another one, quite different but an equally captivating (to me) first-person narrator:
September. It seems these luminous days will never end. The city, which was almost empty during August, now is filling up again. It is being replenished. The restaurants are all reopening, the shops. People are coming back from the country, the sea, from trips on roads all jammed with cars. The station is very crowded. There are children, dogs, families with old pieces of luggage bound by straps. I make my way among them. It’s like being in a tunnel. Finally I emerge onto the brilliance of the quai, beneath a roof of glass panels which seems to magnify the light.
On both sides is a long line of coaches, dark green, the paint blistering with age. I walk along reading the numbers, first and second class. It’s pleasant seeing all the plaques with the numbers printed on them. It’s like counting money. There’s a comfortable feeling of delivering myself into the care of those who run these great, somnolent trains, through the clear glass of which people are staring, as drained, as quiet as invalids…
–from James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime (1967)
What can you say about Salter, but Damn you! And finally, a novel I brattily ignored because the author was, well, younger than I am and quite lovely with fantastic hair. And to make matters worse, she seemed to be getting all the good press for how mind-bendingly smart she was. (Meanwhile, stories about my heedless drafting of dead-end stories were being overlooked–ignored!–by the dailies.) Recently, I downloaded it from the library’s audio collection, and I was quickly captivated:
Due to the surprisingly high sales of The Powers that Be (compared to the other page-turners published by Harvard University Press that year, including Currency Abroad [Toney, 1987], FDR and His Big Deal: A New Look at the First 100 Days [Robbe, 1987]), [Dad’s] impeccable twelve-page curriculum vitae, the frequent appearance of his essays in such respected, highly specialized (yet little-read) journals as International Affairs and American Policies and Daniel Hewitt’s Federal Forum (not to mention a nomination in 1990 for the heralded Johann D. Stuart Prize for American Political Science Scholarship). Dad had managed to make enough of a name for himself to be a perennial visiting lecturer at political science departments across the country.
Mind you, Dad no longer wooed top-tiered universities for their esteemed multinamed teaching positions: the Eliza Grey Peastone-Parkinson Professor of Government at Princeton, the Louisa May Holmo-Gilsendanner Professor of International Politics at MIT. (I assumed, given the extreme competition, these institutions weren’t mourning Dad’s absence from their “tight-knit circle of incest”–what he called highbrow academia.)
–from Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics (2006)
Now, obviously, none of these first-person narrators will be universally embraced by readers. And none of them would work for me if, for example, Peggy Cort, the narrator of McCracken’s book didn’t need to have her misanthropy tested; if, in Salter’s book, the very dreaminess of the narration didn’t evolve into surprisingly concrete revelations; or if Marisha Pessl’s narrator Blue’s very intertextuality and academic lens weren’t serving to blind her to some huge truths in the story of her own life. The voice can’t just be a catchy tune that you can dance to. It has to be part of–ingredient to–the story. Which is easy if you’re channeling the way McCracken, Salter, and Pessl each seem to be, and excruciatingly hard if you’re not.
Have you, our outspoken reader, encountered any great first-person narrators lately? Can you write in the first-person unapologetically? (Please, no gloating if you can, but tips and pointers are welcome.)