Monday, December 14, 2009

Shifting narrative situations

I am a contrarian at heart. (No, I'm not!) Maybe this is why I love the parts of Suzanne Keen's book where she challenges conventional workshop wisdom. Here, for example: "No matter how firmly creative writing handbooks enjoin aspiring writers to stick to the contract they establish with their readers, and avoid shifts in narrative situation, in published writing, narrative situation is as often as not manipulated and altered during the course of the story's unfolding. As Brian Richardson remarks, 'contemporary fiction is replete with a polyphony of competing narrative voices; even where the narrator's speaking situation seems fixed, the proliferation of alternative voices threatens to destabilize that situation.' (48, bolding added)"

I love reading writers who don't conform to the most basic rules. Like a narrator who switches from using third-person pronouns to the first-person pronouns and back in the space of one paragraph. I'm reading Clarice Lispector's "The imitation of the Rose," where the heterodiegetic, covert narrator is fully immersed in the perspective of the main character, Laura, whose personality is clearly disintegrating. The narrator forces her audience to participate in this disintegration by using the first person to project one of them onto the reader's own psyche. "But anyone can repent, [Laura] suddenly rebelled. For if it was only the minute I took hold of the roses that I noticed how lovely they were, for the first time, actually, as I held them, I noticed how lovely they were. Or a little before that? (And they were really hers). And even the doctor himself had patted her on the back..."

A simpler way of reading this paragraph, I suppose, is simply imagining the quotation marks around the "I" phrases: this is Laura's direct speech, thinly disguised by dropped quotation marks. Yet, personally I encountered this "I" in the narrative as a mild shock (even though I was told to expect it in the preface of the collection "Family Ties"). A fleeting thought -- I? Did I just take hold of the roses? Then, immediately, a flash of understanding, of course, not I, the character, confusion caused by my inability to interpret the I without quotation marks, having been lulled by the third-person pronounces and the presumption of the existing contract with the author.

Another neat switch in narrative situation I noticed in Lispector comes in the title story of the collection, "Family Ties," also told by a distant heterodiegetic covert narrator, who uses the wife of the story as a focalizer, but then 2/3 through the story switches perspectives and tells the rest of the story through the husband's consciousness. It's a short story, 10 pages total, and they always insist in workshop not to switch point of views like this. Or if you absolutely must, introduce a section break! Why? A certain workshop sensibility I suppose. In this story, this switch is integral in showing what the story is about: "Family ties." To what extent the husband's and the wife's understanding of their own selves is a projection of the other's opinion -- in a way these characters don't seem to exist when they are outside of each other's line of sight.

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