Showing posts with label unreliable narrator. Show all posts
Showing posts with label unreliable narrator. Show all posts

18 February 2016

The Good Soldier


by Eve Fisher

Fordmadoxford.jpg
Ford Madox Ford
I was on a panel about writing at our local library and the moderator asked each of us "What book or story would you love to have written, and have put your name to?"  My answer was - and is - The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford.

It may be the perfect novel.  I read it every year both for pleasure and to analyze its amazing structure.  Very short (under 200 pages), tightly woven, seemingly infinitely layered and complex, Ford himself said that "I had never really tried to put into any novel of mine all that I knew about writing...  On the day I was 40, I sat down to show what I could do – and The Good Soldier resulted."

It begins, "This is the saddest story I have ever heard."  And right there is the first hint that we're dealing with one of the most unreliable narrators in history.  Because John Dowell didn't hear this story:  he lived it.  John Dowell and his wife Florence, both Americans, meet Captain Edward Ashburnham and his wife, Leonora, of Branshaw Teleragh, England, at a spa in Nauheim, Germany, where Edward and Florence are being treated for heart ailments.  The Ashburnhams "take up" with the Dowells, and they spend all their time together for the next nine years.  Until it all collapses when Florence dies, and Dowell discovers a number of things:
  • that Edward and Florence having an affair, which he never knew.
  • that Florence never had a heart problem at all.  Instead, she'd faked a heart complaint to stay in Europe, originally so that she could continue her affair with her uncle's American bodyguard and helper, Jimmy. 
  • that Edward and Leonora hadn't spoken in private for perhaps twenty years.
  • that Edward was a serial philanderer, whose known adventures began with a conviction (!) for assaulting an Irish servant on a train.  
  • that Edward was now in love with his young ward, Nancy Rufford.  
  • that Florence killed herself... well, look down under questions...

From left: Jeremy Brett, Susan Fleetwood, Robin Ellis and Vickery Turner in the 1981 TV adaptation o
The 1981 TV adaptation, with Jeremy Brett and others
Dowell also admits a few things:
  • that he and Florence never had sex, because of her supposed heart problem.
  • that he is extremely glad to be rid of Florence.  Florence begins as "poor dear Florence" and ends up "a contaminating influence...  vulgar... a common flirt... an unstoppable talker..."
  • that he is now extremely wealthy, because Florence was an heiress. 
  • that he wants to marry Nancy Rufford. 
And then there are the things that are hinted at, implied, downright said but then denied.
  • Dowell admires Leonora Ashburnham more than any woman on earth, and also considers her "the villain of the piece".  
  • Dowell's admiration of certain men, beginning and ending with Edward Ashburnham, of whom he says, "I loved Edward Ashburnham - and that I love him because he was just myself.  If I had had the courage and the virility and possibly also the physique of Edward Ashburnham I should, I fancy, have done much what he did..."  But there was also a nephew, Carter ("handsome and dark and gentle and tall and modest....  [whose] relatives... seemed to have something darkly mysterious against him") , and hints at others.  
  • Dowell's greed for the sensuous pleasures of life, from caviar to Kummel to... other things...
  • Dowell has never worked a day in his life.
The first reading of the book is heartbreaking.  Both Edward and Florence commit suicide, and Nancy Rufford goes insane.  Believe it or not, this is not a spoiler:  this is first chapter stuff.  The point is, that the first reading, gives you the plot, the second - maybe - gives you the motivations, and the third...  well, there's a lot of questions.
  • Why did Florence commit suicide?  Was she really that heartbroken about Edward and/or that terrified of Dowell?  (Dowell describes them both as "violent" men...) 
  • Did Florence commit suicide?  (There was a letter...) 
  • What was Dowell doing during the two to four hours between Florence's death and and the discovery of her body? 
  • Why did Dowell marry Florence, a woman he did not love, take her straight to Europe, and do everything she and the doctors told him to?  
  • How many women was Edward Ashburnham involved with?  (Six are detailed, but there's also "the poor girl, the daughter of one of his gardeners" who was accused of murdering her baby at the end...) 
  • Did Edward commit suicide?  And how?  Two different ways are given...
  • What about Edward's alcoholism?  
  • What about Dowell's alcoholism?
In other words, what the blazing hell really happened?

And all is told in a magnificent, elegiac, Edwardian style that is rich as plumcake.  Read it, and let me know what you think.

Available at Gutenberg Press for free at:  Gutenberg Press Edition
Available on Kindle for free at Kindle Edition
(Though I still prefer a hard copy, where I can scribble notes - almost as cryptic as the text - all over it...)

Also, the most interesting article of all that I've ever found on "The Good Soldier" compares Ford Madox Ford to H. P. Lovecraft:  "Ford Madox Ford: As Scary as HP Lovecraft?"



Maybe...

16 July 2013

First Person


by Dale C. Andrews

       In choosing a narrative voice most authors historically have opted for the “third person,” which, in many respects, simplifies the writing process since the voice telling the story can be omniscient and removed from the story itself.  The author, as a result, does not need to establish a personality for the narrator or worry about what the narrator knows and does not know.  

       “First person” narration has always had a somewhat larger presence in the mystery genre however, and there is evidence that it may be on its way to becoming the preferred voice there. There certainly are some interesting advantages in telling the story as a personal narrative of a character.  Since a character narrator knows only what that character would, in real life, know, use of the first person adds a complexity to the author's task and to the story’s narration.  As such, first person narration calls for some creativity and has often been used as a device for narrative experimentation.   It is a voice that can invite the author to get a bit sly.   Think of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5, in which the narrator, while present throughout the story, is not clearly identified as Vonnegut until the firebombing of Dresden when the narrator is standing next to the central character, Billy Pilgrim, and breaks the fourth wall by saying “[t]hat was I.  That was me.  That was the author of this book.”
        The classic example of using the first person in a mystery is, of course, the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, in which Dr. Watson is the narrator.  And the classic example of experimentation with the first person in the mystery genre is Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, narrated by Dr. James Sheppard, who serves as Hercule Poirot’s assistant.  While Dr. Watson, assisting Holmes, is very forthcoming, in Christie’s novel we know only what Poirot's assistant, Dr. Sheppard, wants us to know.   While he may be close to omniscient vis-a-vis what is going on in the story, we, the readers, are anything but.   Dr. Sheppard is, in fact, one of the earliest examples of the "unreliable narrator."

        The feat Christie pulled off in Roger Ackroyd in any event has been a gauntlet cast to other mystery writers.  It stands at the head of its class in terms of what it accomplishes with first person narration and using that voice as a means to spring an unexpected result.  As such the book stands as a challenge to other writers’ experimentations with first person narration.  Some recent mysteries have stepped up to that challenge and have continued to plow new ground with this narrative mode.

       Reminiscent in some respects of Christie’s approach is the first person narration in Gillian Flynn’s best seller Gone Girl. The book offers up “dueling unreliable narrators,” as it were -- Nick Dunne and his wife Amy. Like Christie’s Dr. Sheppard, each holds back crucial information as the reader attempts to figure out exactly what has happened to the missing Amy. Through the use of two unreliable narrations Gillian Flynn leaves the reader guessing as to what is going on and what is being held back. The result, in the words of The New York Times' review, is “a house of mirrors.”

        In The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold tells a haunting story narrated in the first person by the central character, Susie Salmon.  Discussing Sebold’s narrative technique requires no spoiler:  When the story opens Susie is already dead, the teenage victim of a rape murder.  She narrates the story from heaven -- a first person narrative that grants the narrator the omniscience Susie gains from her perspective in heaven, where she grapples with her family’s grief, her own demise, and the quest of everyone to bring down the monster responsible.  Little Brown and Company agreed to publish Sebold’s 2002 novel even though their view was that given the premise of the book they would be lucky to sell 20,000 copies.  In fact, The Lovely Bones sold well over one million copies and was on The New York Times bestseller list for over a year.  Susie's circumstances, so steeped in sorrow and horror, have caused many (my wife, included) to not give the book a try.  But I strongly commend it to you.  Read it and watch the catharsis that Sebold weaves amidst the sorrow, and watch how she uses Susie’s first person narration to pull it off.  
       Alice LaPlante’s debut novel Turn of Mind in fact turns any idea of omniscient first person narrative on its head.   The central character and first person narrator in Turn of Mind, Dr. Jennifer White, is an Orthopedic surgeon suffering from Alzheimer's disease.   She is not our typical unreliable narrator.  Rather than holding things back from the reader, here there are simply things that occurred previously that Dr. White, our narrator, no longer remembers.  As readers we are imprisoned in her mind, a mind that Dr. White herself describes as:
This half state. Life in the shadows. As the neurofibrillary tangles proliferate, as the neuritic plaques harden, as synapses cease to fire and my mind rots out, I remain aware. An unanesthetized patient.
       And, as readers, that is our state as well.  Dr. White may or may not have killed her friend and neighbor from down the street.  Unlike Dr. Sheppard in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Dr. White holds back no information.  But, unlike Susie in The Lovely Bones, she is no where close to omniscient.  She, and we, have no idea whether she was involved in her friend’s murder. LaPlante uses this constricted first person narrative to deliver a taut thriller built on a growing fear and paranoia on the part of the narrator as, before our very eyes, she declines into dementia.

        Another recent debut novel displays yet another example of a constrained first person narrative.  In Before I Go to Sleep, by S. J. Watson, the central character and narrator, Christine Lucas, is a 47 year old woman suffering from a rare but recognized disease -- anterograde amnesia.  She awakens every morning with no memory of her previous life.  She, in effect, has to re-learn who she is anew every day.  The thriller therefore progresses with the reader closer to omniscience than the narrator -- we know all that Christine has discovered in previous days, which, each successive morning, is more than Christine herself knows. John O’Connor, writing in The Guardian says this about S.J. Watson's narrative choice:  “The structure is so dazzling it almost distracts you from the quality of the writing. No question, this is a very literary thriller.”

        And, finally, let’s end with a more subtle experimentation in first person narrative.  In Laura Lippman’s The Most Dangerous Thing all of the flashback chapters, chronicling underlying events that transpired when the central characters in the story were children, are written in the first person. As mystery fans, when you read this book you will doubtless attempt (as did I) to figure out precisely which one of those characters is the unnamed and unidentified narrator of the flashbacks.  But if you investigate carefully you will find that for various reasons every single one of the characters can be eliminated -- there is no one in the book who individually could supply the first person narration in the flashback chapters.  Lippman hints at what is going on when, in several passages, she refers to the children as having been so close that they were like appendages of a single creature.  The strange but inescapable conclusion, then, is that the narrator of these chapters (like the collective narrator in Jeffrey Eugenides The Virgin Suicides) is the entire group, speaking to the reader in first person plural.  In an interview following publication of her book Ms. Lippman has confirmed this conclusion and explained her decision to use first person plural narration as follows:
The decision was intuitive at first—that is, I knew it was right, without knowing why it was right. When I finished the book, I realized that these passages are a consensual version of what happened in the past, that the survivors have agreed on what happened and that’s why the story is, at turns, unflattering to each of them. They are working out their level of culpability in several tragedies and they just can’t face this alone. And that voice allowed me to include a subtext of gloom and foreboding—the story is being told by people who know how badly it ends.
        All of which goes to show that the choice of narrative voice has a direct effect on how the story is told.  The advantages of opting to tell your story in the first person also can mirror the disadvantages.  Following a more standard third person narrative approach gives the writer the relatively easy task of telling his or her story from the perspective of omniscience.  The narrator need not be given personal characteristics and the author can expect the reader to accept the narration as gospel.  

       By contrast, the first person narrator is a character that the author must bring to life and then employ consistently.  The narrator must speak -- throughout the entire story -- as that character would, and must act with consistency as that carrier also would given his or her background.  And particularly in the mystery genre, we have all (thank you, Agatha Christie) been taught to expect the unreliable narrator. The reader may not trust your narrator, or even like him or her very much.  But, as the works discussed above illustrate, writing within the constraints imposed by telling the story through the eyes of a first person narrator can spark an author's creativity and can be exhilarating and fun, both for the writer and for the reader.