the ultimate first person narrator

I’m not a huge fan of first person narration. In fact, I will admit that I often pick up a book and put it down immediately upon discovering that it is in first person.

A few exceptions: first, novels that are written in alternating first person narration often work quite well. The most recent novel I can remember reading that really pulled this off was Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper. Each person in a family terribly disrupted by the serious illness of one of the kids takes a turn, and with every turn the reader’s understanding of the story evolves.

There’s one approach to first person that I truly like, and that’s the unreliable narrator.

The way to think about this, or at least a way that worked for me when I was teaching this stuff, is to imagine that the story you’re reading, the narrator whose words you are reading are not being addressed to you, but to a police officer or judge or some other authority figure. You’re listening to somebody spin a story. A narrator who has got more than the usual stake in getting their side of the story across. We’re not talking the grandma narrator, the one who just wants to amuse you with funny stories of her girlhood. We’re talking grandma in the pokey, and the first time she sits down with her lawyer.

The first grandma might start:

We were poor, but I didn’t know that until I first went to school and found out that other little girls wore dresses that weren’t made out of flour sacks.

Grandma in the pokey might start:

It took you long enough to get here. Surely you must realize there’s been a mistake. If I shoot a man between the eyes — and I’m not denying that I did just that — you had best believe I was acting in self defense. To let that man live even another minute would have been the death of me.

The first grandma may have a great story to tell, and she may write it down and sell it and find a niche audience and do very well. This Mitford-type approach is not so much my cuppa tea. I’m far more interested in the second grandma, grandma with a gun. She’s got a story to tell, but it’s only going to be one layer of a very complicated story, and I’ll have to pay close attention because now and then she’ll let her guard down and I’ll get a glimpse of what was really happening, how she came to shoot her neighbor, the one who grew prize winning dahlias, between the eyes.

You can think of a lot of scenarios where the narrator is going to be unreliable. Joan’s car is sitting in the garage with one fender smashed in, a ticket on the windshield, and the unmistakable smell of a common Illegal Substance wafting out a broken window. And the gas tank, which was full yesterday afternoon at three, is on empty.

Joan walks upstairs to the bedroom her twin daughters share and wakes them less than gently. They peek at her from underneath the covers.

Speak, says Joan. And it better be good.

And the speak. Oh boy, do they.

All first person narrators are unreliable to some extent. They are limited by their own observations and memories, by necessity. But a true unreliable narrator is exciting. That narrator is a cat in a sack. Maybe a really mad cat with very long claws and a score to settle. Maybe a desperate little cat whose been lying so long to protect herself that she’s forgot how to tell the truth. Or maybe an evil cat, one who likes to mess with your mind. Purr and slash, just for the hell of it.

Two unreliable narrators come to mind first. Eudora Welty’s “Why I live at the P.O.” is a wonderful short story with a narrator who will stick around in your head for a long time. And then there’s Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne. Dolores is a fantastic unreliable narrator, because she herself isn’t completely sure what happened, and what she wants to happen. She’s got strong opinions and she’s not afraid to tell you exactly what’s on her mind. Or at least, the parts she can bear to speak out loud.

Any unreliable narrators you’re especially fond of?

Gunk v. Good Stuff

I have symptoms which are truly awful, and I will not tell you about them because, well, I have some of the Catholic school girl veneer left. I do. The doctor said: oh yeah, you’ve got that galluping crud thing, nothing to do but ride it out. You know the drill.

And there’s nothing I want to watch on television tonight. I ask you, is that fair?

A few words about The Nine, which I mentioned yesterday. Here’s the setup:

Two brothers go into a bank to rob it. It all goes wrong, and they take hostages. One hostage is released early. Fifty-two hours later the police storm the place. Nine hostages survive.

What we are given:
a brief introduction to the main characters (those who will be hostages);
a few of the people in their lives;
a brief sketch of the two robbers;
the very beginning of the crisis.

Then the story jumps forward to the police rescue, and the hostages coming out. It moves on from there.

What you’ve got here is an interesting approach to plot. Thing of a group of people going into a big box. Fifty two hours later they come out the other side, and everything has changed. They have changed as individuals, their relationships with each other, their world views.

What happened in there?

That’s the tag line, and it’s a great one. Over the course of the season the story will be revealed both forward (and they each cope with the aftermath) and backward (what actually happened).

Lost does something like this, but there’s no mysterious mumbo jumpo in The Nine. No inexplicable polar bears or smoke monsters. It’s all about how humans deal with stress, or fail to deal with it. Which ones rose to the occasion, and which ones faltered. Survivor guilt and anger.

Interesting stuff. I’m looking forward to the rest of the season.

The downside: ten main characters, five male, five female. Three of the men are good looking and youngish; two are middle aged, one heavy, one just plain odd, as you see here.
Bio Billingsley
Bio McbrideFive women, and not one middle aged or less than gorgeous. Don’t look for a Kathy Bates type, because they couldn’t make room for that. Five good looking women, aged 16-35 was all they could come up with.

I really like the premise of this story and how they’re approaching it, but for dog’s sake. Will somebody please get a clue? If you’re worried about making your advertisers happy, it would seem to me it would make sense to at least make a gesture to women older than forty. We’ve got money, and we know how to spend it.

Very cranky, here. I’m going to go try to sleep.

short short

Rumaging around on my hard drive looking for something I always run into the oddest stuff. Such as this short short story I wrote what, maybe ten years ago, experimenting with form. It’s called “Photo Reduced” and while it hasn’t appeared in print anywhere, it’s still all rights reserved, all wrongs avenged, blah blah blah.

The photo:1 Two little girls astride a stuffed bear in the middle of Lincoln Park Zoo.2 Ice cream rings3 around their mouths; smears of chocolate on matching short sets.4 The bigger one laughs5,6 at the photographer.7,8 The little one, puzzled, stares off in the other direction.9

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1. Chicago, 1961. When Lincoln Avenue was the whole world, and animals all lived in cages.

2. Where did this poor bear come from, and where did it go? It smelled of mildew and dust, and the glass eyes were clouded. The upper lip curled over yellow teeth. A back like a board, the fur like splinters.

3. Mondays and the restaurant closed: my father spent his free time feeding us. Ice cream and cotton candy and long paper strips with candy dots in precise rows. At home there was more food waiting: pasta fazul, minestrone, short ribs, fried bread, sausage and peppers, bruised bananas.

4. Imagine my mother at Sears, Montgomery Ward, Goldblatts, sorting through piles of little girl pinks and pale greens, polyester sticky to the touch. Imagine her there at the zoo in a sundress and sandals, cigarette between her fingers, nails painted the same blood red as her mouth. Imagine her someplace else entirely, dim and cool, smelling of beer.

5. See me: the smarter one, the clever one. The one who knew when to laugh.

6. See me: the one who will survive.

7. It is real laughter; I can see that much about my child self. But what was I laughing at? Surely not my pacing father. I see him in a short sleeved shirt and bow tie, his hands crossed behind his back. Surely not.

8. The photographer is not memory and declines to be imagined. His camera: a box that stood on three legs. In 1961, fathers and uncles and sons and strangers held the cameras, wound the film, flashed. Mothers and daughters and sisters learned how to hold their heads up, how to smile, when to laugh.

9. A baby still. Her cheeks round, her fine hair drifting around her face. Scowling, unsure, on the verge of tears. She rocks in place, at odds with the world, already and always.

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