Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Guest blog post on Well-Read Donkey

I wrote a guest post of the "Well-Read Donkey" blog, a blog of Kepler's Writing Group (Kepler's is a great independent bookstore in Menlo Park, a town where Dave happens to work). Here's an excerpt from my post:

"One of the ironies of my nascent writing career has been that, while I write most of my fiction in English, my publications are primarily in Russian. In the United States, my stories have appeared in a score of online magazines with various levels of affinity toward zombies, vampires, and the preternatural—even though I’m pretty sure I’ve never intentionally written genre fiction. In Russia, my second collection of short stories is scheduled to come out in September from a well-established publisher of literary fiction..." Read more here.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The cute Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury is turning 90 is August. Related to this or not, there's an interview with him in the latest issue of the Paris Review. Obviously, I'm missing something about the Paris Review, but I find it curious that the interview is unattributed to a specific interviewer or editor. Moreover, the interview is heavily based on an unpublished interview that the magazine conducted with Bradbury in the 1970s. So, it's a compilation of two separate interviews, written by two unnamed people. The strangeness of this aside, the later of the unnamed writes: "It's unclear why the interview was abandoned, but according to an attached editorial memo, editor George Plimpton found the first draft 'a bit informal in places, maybe overly enthusiastic.'"

The interview itself is super cute. My favorite part is when Bradbury compares story ideas to hungry nestlings:
I do keep files of ideas and stories that didn't quite work a year ago, five years ago, ten years ago. I come back to them later and I look through the titles. It's like a father bird coming with a worm. You look down at all these hungry little beaks -- all these stories waiting to be finished -- and you say to them, Which of you needs to be fed? Which of you needs to be finished today? And the story that yells the loudest, the idea that stands up and opens its mouth, is the one that gets fed. And I pull it out of the file and finish it within a few hours.
Although, if I think about this quote a little longer, there's something very paternalistic in the metaphor -- a story idea that is separate from the father-bird and depending entirely upon him for nurture. Also, something very survival-of-the-species -- it's not the hungriest or the smallest bird that gets the worm, but the one who yells the loudest. Still, I find the metaphor cute. A lot more cute than, say, Bradbury's rant against teaching of mathematics. The Paris Review quotes him as saying: "We should forget about teaching children mathematics. They are not going to use it ever in their lives. Give them simple arithmetic -- one plus one is two, and how to divide, an dhow to subtract. Those are simple things that can be taught quickly. But no mathematics because they are never going to use it, never in their lives, unless they are going to be scientists, and then they can simply learn it later." This reads to me more scary than cute.

Also, Neil Gaiman just published a personal essay on Bradbury in TimesOnline, where he basically gushes about the Bradbury books he read as a child. This is definitely cute.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Narrated monologue or free indirect discourse

I've written about psycho-narration before, and I've come up with a couple of examples of quoted monologue here and here. In addition to these, Dorrit Cohn and Suzanne Keen after her suggest the third mode open to third-person narrators when they attempt to represent a character's inner psyche: narrator's monologue or free indirect discourse. I've left the discussion of these to the last, because I remember having a lot of fun with this idea in class -- and because I was also trying to come up with good examples of this mode in recent fiction.

First, the definition. "Narrated monologue presents the character's mental discourse in the guise of narrator's discourse," Keen reports. This is what makes it fun -- we receive two voices in a single phrase, frequently leaving us uncertain what the relationship between the narrator and the character is: what does the narrator think about the character? is the narrator treating the character's thoughts in good faith? is the narrator indirectly making fun of the character? Narrated monologue does this by retaining the tense and person (third) of the narration while at the same time allowing the feel of the character's inner speech to come through--the word choice, the sentence structure might be borrowed from the character's own diction. "Reading narrated monologue gives the impression of the words and modes of expression of the character, while retaining the tense and person of the narrator's language," summarizes Keen.

The difference between narrated monologue and free indirect discourse is largely formal: narrated monologue turns into free indirect discourse when it omits tagging, words like "he thought." On a historical aside, Keen reports that this technique is considered "one of the most significant innovations in the nineteenth-century novels, though some critics have spotted it in earlier texts."

Perhaps, this is just due to my inattentiveness (what do I pay attention to while I'm reading??), but trying to find definitive examples of this technique in the recent magazines turned out to be rather difficult. One good example I did find, comes from Sona Avakian's story "Artichoke Hearts" in Instant City's volume 5. The main character of this short story, Harry, is addicted to smoking, so much so that even when his wife and his daughter threaten to cut him out of their lives unless he quits, he's unable to comply. The narrative mode is very interesting, because while the events are told as if seen through Harry's eyes (Harry serves as the main focalizer for the heterodiegetic narrator), the narrator is not necessarily sympathetic to Harry. The narrator never breaks the fourth wall and tells us directly that Harry is a selfish old man, no, nothing like that; instead, we're able to surmise this purely through the way the story is narrated.

Free indirect discourse seems to be key here. On the one hand, the narrator puts us very close inside Harry's mind. For example, at one point Harry goes to see a performance by a traveling circus and reminisces. The narrator tells us: "And each booth filled him with a longing for the good old days. Days when cars had ashtrays in the back seat and you could smoke in the hospital when your mother was dying." The second sentence is narrated monologue without tagging: this is Harry thinking about ashtrays in the back seats of cars, Harry remembers smoking in the hospital. And this memory clearly brings Harry pleasure, because the narrator also reveals (in a bit of psycho-narration) that Harry's longing for the "good old days," key word being "good." We get another affirmation of how much Harry enjoys these memories when he becomes attached to one of the circus performers and repeatedly goes back to see her.

So on the one hand, we know that Harry's attachment to the cigarette smoking is very earnest and goes to the very depths of his psyche -- it seems to be all that Harry ever thinks about; and on the other hand, we get a chance to see that the narrator disapproves because these flashes into Harry's mind are so brief that they seem to function like quotes taken out of context. When these flashes repeatedly come at the end of a paragraph, for example, at the time when we're expecting a minor revelation, the narrator seems to set up Harry's thoughts as punchlines to the jokes about the man himself. For example, when Harry is considering the hypnosis treatment, the narrator reports: "He looked forward to being put in a trance. If nothing else, maybe he could ignore Arla and Jennifer better." You can almost hear the drum roll at the end of this paragraph. The last sentence seems to be lifted almost exactly from Harry's own thoughts. However, this is reported to us still in the narrator's discourse. And if Harry's thinking this in earnest, the narrator's stance in reporting this is very coy.

Keen explains that "most theorists consider [narrated monologue or free indirect discourse] a double-voiced kind of discourse." It allows us to glimpse deep within the character's mind and at the same time makes us aware of the subtle commentary by the narrator.

Nothing good can come to the character who's the butt of a joke for his narrator -- and certainly nothing good comes to Harry.

I'll keep looking for more examples of FID, there's got to be loads of it out there that I'm simply not seeing. It's too easy to read without paying attention to any of this.