Monday, August 25, 2008

Failure in the First Person

Perspective is important in any literary work, one of its central structural elements. The perspective from what a narrative is written will demarcate what any reader can be told directly and what they must glean for themselves through implication and throwaway details. Three of my favourite books used a clever first-person narrative construction to create highly nuanced stories which had their power in the small details that composed them.

Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita hid the suffering of the title character under the self-important narration of her pedophiliac abductor Humbert. Roberto Bolaño's By Night in Chile had a narrator, the priest and literary critic Father Urrutia, spend his entire life hiding from the uncomfortable political reality of life in a dictatorship. This only becomes explicit at the end, when he describes a house that was the hub of Chile's literary scene in the early 1980s, which happened to have a torture chamber in the basement. And Bolaño's masterpiece, The Savage Detectives, depicted two central characters, poets without a home Ulises and Arturo, through the viewpoints of over fifty first-person narrators who knew them at different points in their lives.

I've thought about writing my own fictional works in the first-person, but I don't think I'm quite good enough for that yet. I still need to find a way to structure a story around the telling of the story, as Nabokov and Bolaño could do so well. At this stage in my life, any first-person writing attempt would probably end up like these examples.

This spring, I found Mario Vargas Llosa's The Way to Paradise in a bargain bin. It's the life story of French socialist activist Flora Tristan in odd-numbered chapters, and that of her grandson Paul Gauguin in even-numbered chapters. The narrative makes a very simple point about life, that the ideals for which we strive in our lives are always subject to the compromise that comes with living in society. The problem with this book is that you figure this out about a hundred or so pages in, then are continually bludgeoned with it until the end. Their lives and thought processes (and so narration) is repetitious, blatant about the theme of the novel, and seemingly unchanged in attitude all the way through. The clear questing of these characters removes any subtlety from the narrative, and we are left with a slog of nearly 400 pages that would have been expressed much better in a different, shorter, format.

I haven't read Joyce Carol Oates' My Sister My Love, or any Oates, but judging by this review by one of the more reputable sources I know, I'd get more of an idea of how not to write than anything else. It's a book based on the killing of JonBenet Ramsay, told from the fictionalized version of the girl's older brother. But apparently, in this case, all the limitations on the knowledge of the narrator that constituted subtle powerful details and implications, are here just limits. As well, the narrator is said to be quite inconsistent in characterization, with serious breaks in tone that throw off the possibilities for the narrator character. Because one thing I learned from Lolita, By Night in Chile, and The Savage Detectives, is that a first-person narrator is a character herself, in addition to being a storyteller.

Maybe that's why I haven't tried to write in a first-person style yet. I haven't worked out a narrative yet that would have a place for someone who would want to tell the story in the first place. All the characters I've made so far are so secretive that they wouldn't want to reveal anything to a reader at all. So they wouldn't even bother narrating.

In all fairness, I don't intend to disparage Joyce Carol Oates or Mario Vargas Llosa themselves. The impression I have from my research on them as I was preparing this post was that the books in question are among their worst, and far from their A-game. Perhaps eventually, I'll find a cheap copy of Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat, or Captain Pantoja and the Special Service; and maybe Oates' Them, or Zombie.
An odd thing to consider for a moment. A friend updated her facebook status a while ago, and it read "[Name Removed to Prevent Embarrassment] just dropped a container of yoghurt in the fridge and made a huge mess." Do you think she cleaned this mess up before or after she updated her facebook status about it?
I was watching some CNN today for coverage of the Democratic National Convention, and one of their amusing items was a short, almost scatological piece on the prominent product placement of Pepsi at the DNC this year. The Convention is held at the Pepsi Centre, a name which apparently cost the beverage company $68 million.

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