Thursday, September 12, 2013

New Twists in Narrators

Jeffrey Eugenides selected an unusual narrator for his Pulitzer-prize winning novel, Middlesex; it is first a zygote, then a young girl, and later, a teenage boy. Although each of these is omniscient, gifted with insights unimaginable in ordinary people, the narrator is also very real, quite human, stumbling along from person to person, experience to experience, learning as she/he goes and guiding the reader through the recent history of Detroit in the twentieth century, of the immigrant experience, and of the struggle to know ourselves.

Nevertheless the story is also a first-person narrative, told from Calliope/Cal’s point of view, an omniscient one. Most editors and many LinkedIn writers’ forum participants would advise against such an unconventional approach, but it works. And it works to make a key point in the novel: genetic code or anomaly is insufficient to explain who and what we are.

Michael Chabon, in Telegraph Avenue, dares to use multiple narrators without separating them by section. A parrot and Barack Hussein Obama, before he became the nation’s forty-fourth president, speak as do fathers, women, sons, and street thugs. Each has a distinct voice that often arrives unannounced. The reader infers, gathers data and learns about the narrator through his words, conflicts, and actions.

Chabon’s narrative choices would most likely find critics among the LinkedIn writers’ forums, but his work receives acclaim because readers experience the novel as they might an immersion course in a foreign language. They enter the novel and must find their way, absorbing cultural understanding and insights as they do.

I caution writers not to imitate Eugenides or Chabon, however. These authors labored years to shape their novels, never settling for less than beautiful expression and the truth as they understand it. They did not choose unusual narrative techniques because they could or on a whim. The story required a new methodology, and as proven masters of the craft, each examined the necessary point of view, then created a structure that would best deliver.

Reading Challenge:

Read Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex and Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. Enjoy the story as you study the techniques.

Writing Challenge:

Experiment with point of view. Tell a very short tale from multiple points of view: the tree standing nearby, the adored pet, the ghost of a significant relative, the protagonist, and the antagonist. Learn what each brings to the tale.

A Beloved Pet. What tales would he tell? Snapshot by Al Griffin.

Beloved Pet with Attitude (One generation removed from feral, I suspect) What tales would she tell? My, how those tales might sting. Snapshot by Al Griffin