Tuesday, May 14, 2013

All the sad young onlooker narrators

With The Great Gatsby back in the news because of Baz Luhrmann’s new film version, so too is the special kind of narrator Fitzgerald enlisted for his great novel. On Twitter the other day I suggested the term “onlooker narrator” for Nick Carraway’s kind; in The Rhetoric of Fiction, Wayne C. Booth further subdivides the class into “mere observers (the ‘I’ of Tom Jones, [George Meredith’s] The Egoist, Troilus and Criseyde)” and what he calls “narrator-agents, who produce some measurable effect on the course of events (ranging from the minor involvement of Nick in The Great Gatsby, through the extensive give-and-take of Marlow in Heart of Darkness, to the central role of Tristram Shandy, Moll Flanders, Huckleberry Finn, and—in the third person—Paul Morel in Sons and Lovers).”

Booth’s own examples break down the subdivision, though. The “narrators” of Tom Jones, The Egoist, and Troilus and Criseyde are not characters in the narrative. The omniscient narrative style of The Portrait of a Lady might as well be called an “observer narrator,” since James drops into first person here and there—even though he is pretty clearly referring to himself, the author of the novel held in the reader’s hands. (If you ask me, so is Fielding.) But modernism is modernism: if the use of the first person indicates what Booth calls a “dramatized narrator,” then what is good for Fielding is equally good for James. After all, it represents a break with the omniscience of the Victorian novel, as implied by both E. M. Forster (“One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister”) and Zadie Smith (“One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father”) before both of them proceed to write something very much like a throwback to the Victorian novel.

The far more beguiling technique, because far less common, is Fitzgerald’s secondary character who also participates in events. His access to facts is limited, because he is a person in the drama, but he conceives his role as a secretary, a gatherer and reporter of information—at least Nick does—and so he may try to find out about events he does not witness firsthand. If this kind of narrative is to succeed, the novelist (or his critics) must be able to answer the question that the Amateur Reader, during a discussion of Gatsby, posed on Twitter the other day: What does the narrator understand himself to be doing? The novelist Wright Morris adds one more question in his little-known 1975 book About Fiction: “How do we distinguish, with assurance, between the ‘I’ of the narrator and that of the author?”

Oddly enough, Morris’s question comes up in praising Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, which Will Wilkinson advanced as a classic of the “onlooker narrator” method. What are the others? The narrator must not be telling his own story, but someone else’s—not even his own story at a distance in time, making him an “onlooker” upon his younger self. He must be a witness, close to the action, even involved in it (peripherally), but not swept up in the catastrophe. All characters in fiction are “agents,” to greater or lesser degree; the smallest gesture may cause the universe to rock on its axis. Booth’s distinction between “observer” and “agent” is all thumbs, then. His example of Marlow in Heart of Darkness is on target, though (again) the line of demarcation between an onkooker’s narrative and a frame story is thin and faded. The method is also standard in detective fiction, when the detective tells in first person the solution to a mystery in which he is not implicated.

Despite the distinguished examples of Conrad, Ford, and Fitzgerald, though—despite the intrinsic fictional interest of the method—it is rarely tried. More recent examples are thus more difficult to come up with, although they are almost always enjoyable to read. Pnin is narrated by Pnin’s colleague, a fellow Russian emigré named Vladimir something. R. V. Cassill’s 1961 novel Clem Anderson is the story of a famous larger-than-life drunken and destructive poet (modeled upon Dylan Thomas), told by a witness to the destruction. Steven Millhauser’s 1972 novel Edwin Mullhouse goes a step further than Cassill: it is a faux literary biography of a great American writer, who dies at eleven, narrated by a friend who is six months older.

Calder Willingham (a clever novelist who does not deserve to be forgotten) used an onlooker narrator to tell the story of Rambling Rose (1972), a family housekeeper and the young narrator who has a crush on her. (Martha Coolidge’s 1991 film version mislaid the novel’s charm, because it could not invent an equivalent of the onlooker narrator’s voice.) Malcolm Bradbury’s Mensonge (1987) is both a hilarious send-up of literary theory and perhaps the best single-volume introduction to it—a professor who is “in the know” sets out to write the biography of theory’s most obscure theorist (“If I will thus have played some small part in lifting him from nowhere, and putting him somewhere, then I fancy my life, or one very small part of it, will not have been totally—despite what everyone says—in vain”). And though the last thing I want is to sprinkle any more praise on its head—in Mark Sarvas’s words, people are going to start thinking my relationship to the author is more bromance than Boswell—Christopher R. Beha makes brilliant use of a witness who is too self-involved to understand exactly What Happened to Sophie Wilder, but whose witness is indispensable to the whole picture.

Beha’s novel is a reminder than our method is native and necessary to the saint’s life, in which a scribe must testify to a saintliness he himself cannot lay claim to. But at least since Sholem Aleichem, it is equally native to Jewish fiction in which a famous writer serves as an amanuensis for a more responsible and less literary soul, who needs his story told. Who, after all, is Nathan Zuckerman if not a Jewish Nick Carraway?

10 comments:

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Wuthering Heights deftly emplys double onlooker narrators. The onlooker who writes the story is in turn told the story by another (closer, likely more active) onlooker. A pretty good trick.

Esther Summerson provides another interesting variation. In the legal setting of Bleak House, the onlooker becomes a witness, someone who saw something important to the case at hand. How that results in 400 pages of testimony perhaps requires a suspension of disbelief.

I want to borrow some of your argument when I write a bit about Henry James later today. Thanks in advance!

D. G. Myers said...

If you are going to write about HJ in this connection, Tom, you need to consider What Maisie Knew, which might be described as a third-person onlooker novel. The narrative consciousness is limited to, well, what Maisie knows about her parents’ terrible marriage.

Francine Prose rewrote the novel many years later as Primitive People.

Carolyn Givens said...

I've always been fascinated by the "friend who lives on to tell the tale" type. Often it is my favorite character (see, Horatio in Hamlet; the Apostle John; Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings; Christian in Moulin Rouge). In my own writing, I've twice tried using that character as the narrator. It is difficult to walk the line of keeping that character as the onlooker, rather than the focus, which may be one reason why it is so rarely used. As I tweeted, even when the narrator remains peripheral to the action, to the reader he or she often becomes the "hero" simply by familiarity and resonance.

scott g.f.bailey said...

It's been a while since I read it, but doesn't Gunter Grass's Dog Years have this sort of peripheral narrator?

Aonghus Fallon said...

I know DGM isn't a fan of the book, but what about the narrator of 'The Secret History'?

PMH said...

My narrator for a novel I'm working upon is the editor of the volume. But he also a character and, he admits, a fabricator of parts of the story or history that are missing. I only say this to add a writer's voice to thread: this sort of narrator is wonderfully interesting and produces/reveals surprising ideas about all of the usual assumptions attending narrative/narrator. The process becomes self-inventing and fascinating. There is a new level of motivation.

Unknown said...

I'm so glad to see your kindly reference to the now unread and unknown Calder Willingham, in my youth one of my favorite writers, whom Norman Mailer described in ADVERTISEMENTS FOR MYSELF as "a clown with the bite of a ferret." (Mailer also said, "He has written what may be the funniest dialogue of our time.") Willingham's magnificent huge hilarious dirty violent cynical richly colorful pull-out-all-the-stops Southern Gothic novel, ETERNAL FIRE, is the first book I ever read that truly thrilled me. (Newsweek said that it "deserves a place among the dozen or so novels that must be mentioned if one is to speak of greatness in American fiction.") Only on later rereadings in college did I come to appreciate the deadpan humor of its Chaucerian opening paragraph, tornadoes, orbs, and all:

"In this peaceful land, pretty birds sing and the woodbine twines. Violets and forget-me-nots bloom in the meadow. The wind is soft as a baby's smile, and as warm and gentle as mother love. Only an occasional random tornado moils the scene and disrupts nature. True, the summer sun is a fiery furnace; it boils the blood, cooks the brain, and spreads a fever in the bones. But that same fearful orb, in collaboration with the sweet rain generated by its power, makes the little flowers grow."

Aonghus Fallon said...

Tom's mention of how there are two narrators in 'Wuthering Heights' reminds me of 'Melmoth the Wanderer' - an Irish Gothic novel about an immortal in which one story encloses by another like a series of Russian Dolls. Just to make things even more confusing, Maturin rarely bothers using multiple quotation marks to indicate which story is a subset of which.

scott g.f.bailey said...

What about Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors: the big family drama takes place right behind him, almost invisibly, while he's busy telling us about his role in the big family drama. He's the only person in the novel who thinks he's at the center of the action, while the family knows he's just an errand boy. It takes a long time for that to become clear to the reader.

zmkc said...

Brideshead Revisited and The Go- between?