Monday, November 30, 2009

Existing within the story world

Spent the week of Thanksgiving commuting between New York and Philadelphia, visiting friends and family. Two of the major cultural highlights of the trip, an Arshile Gorky exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a Coen brothers' movie, A Serious Man. Also watched The Men Who Stared at Goats, very funny in the right mood.

On the airplanes, read Lorrie Moore's "A Gate at the Stairs." I am not familiar with her previous work and bought the book on impulse, after reading the first two pages. I think I was immediately mesmerized by the quality of visual details (the birds in the first paragraph) and the precision of documented emotional responses. ("I liked children -- I did! -- or rather, I liked them OK.") This novel is, at heart, a Bildungsroman, a "fictional autobiography," a novel of development of the central character who narrates her own story, Tassie Keltjin (the name comes, I suppose, from "Celts" and "jins"as in "jinns"?). Right after 9/11, Tassie is a 20-year old college student, a daughter of a Midwestern farmer. She finds a job babysitting an adopted child of a chef, Sarah, and a scientist, Edward. The plot develops from there.

If I were speaking in a customary shorthand, I would characterise Tassie as a first-person narrator. But simply providing this label does not go very far in describing Tassie's characteristics as a narrator. As Suzanne Keen points out, "The use of the pronoun alone does not make a first-person narration. Instead, first-person narration, or self-narration, indicates those narratives in which the narrator is also a character, where the narrator and characters coexist in the story world, and the narrator refers to himself or herself as 'I.' (36)" The terms "first-person" and "third-person" are so misleading in terms of their function in narrative theory that every theorist seems to use his or her own language to deal with narrators. (I want to get to Genette's terminology as soon as possible -- but not now).

First of all, what is very important to note is that Tassie, the narrator, exists and acts within the world of Moore's novel. She organizes and controls the discourse or the sujet -- while at the same time, she cannot control the fabula: the fabula is her biography, the story of her life. This is something that can only be attributed to the conceit of the implied author. But Tassie does choose which events she tells and in what order; her storytelling choices reveal her to us as someone different from Tassie-the actant, the character within the story.

For most of the novel, Tassie acts as a very overt narrator: she uses pronoun "I" to give her opinions and points of view about the story she is narrating. Interestingly enough, several of the most poignant parts of the novel come when Tassie ceases to act as an overt narrator existing within the world of the story but assumes a position of a covert narrator telling a story she was not a part of (traditionally termed a "third-person" perspective). Four sections are narrated as an overheard dialogue (and Tassie plays the role of somebody who merely reports it), and two sections have to do with the summary of her employers' past -- narrated by her boss Sarah and only re-narrated (summarized) for us by Tassie. Tassie retells the story she is told -- and we, as readers, are with her, experiencing this inside story as a major revelation.

A very important feature of her narration is that it is dissonant to the events in the story, Tassie starts the telling long (but not too long) after all the events have already occured. This kind of a dissonant narration allows her to highlight the way she is maturing, the way she is growing through these experiences. By looking back on her own younger self, she has the opportunity to sometimes overtly step in as a narrator and draw our attention to the way time changes our perspectives on our actions. In fact, the novel concludes with a very overt narrative statement: "That much I learned in college."

In my next post, I will try to address a certain quality of this novel that I experienced as a problem; specifically, what I experienced as a credibility problem of using Tassie as a narrator, a problem that I identified as a too overt an imposition of an ideology by an implied author. I don't know if I have introduced enough terms in my theory discussion to achieve this, but I will try.

A footnote: All of these terms (overt vs. covert, dissonant vs. consonant, existing within or outside of the story world) were developed by structuralist theorists who presented them usually in terms of binary oppositions. However, lately, most of these, I think, have been reimagined in terms of scales and degrees. There are more or less overt narrators. And almost every act of narration is dissonant (separated in time) from the narrated events -- it's a matter of exactly how much time. (Although I have not read Don DeLillo's White Noise rumored to be be narrated in complete consonance with the events as they occur).

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