Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Narrator is Death

I've been obsessed with the problem of narrative voice for more than twenty years. There has always seemed to be something missing--from critical accounts, in what I was searching for in my own writing. I found myself thinking about this again after reading a recent post by Dan Green. He was reflecting on the shifting point of view in Eugenides's The Virgin Suicides. I realized that in both of my novels I have not so much been searching for the right narrative voice, the right POV, as trying to escape it--a sense that the written voice was secondary, itself a reflection of or response to what remains--what must remain--outside the work, the real narrator is that presence that is called into being between the reader and the word--something heard and but imperfectly embodied in what finds its way onto the page, a threatening presence which can only be felt as a kind of absence--as the silence the words are there, not to reveal, but to obscure, to hide, to protect us from... a thing to drive off; leaving the writing, in essence, as a kind of incantation, the words, meaningless in themselves, their real purpose, to draw a circle around the living, to chant into being a border which the real Voice, the countless shifting voices of the dead are powerless to cross.

Here from the first line of Ari Figue's Cat, and the opening of chapter 2.

Late Winter
He had been lying in bed for hours, half asleep, half awake when he heard, as distinct and real as the rattling of the windows in the wind, as the knocking of the heating pipes in the walls, a woman's voice calling out the name, Jacob, as though it were his own.


When he was a child it would come to him, the voice--sometimes out of common white noise, the sound of passing cars, a ceiling fan, a radio playing in another room﷓﷓sometimes in his own head, like the one he would hear when he was reading. Do not forget this moment, it seemed to say, as though he were being held accountable for what he had seen and heard--for everything experienced in that moment. Not seldom, it would take on the voice of a real person: Mrs. Erickson in the third grade, who, catching him daydreaming, would grab him by the ear: Pay attention! she would hiss, pointing to figures on a blackboard, demanding an answer to a question he could no longer remember. Somewhere in adolescence, the voice faded, but the feeling that had accompanied it, this sense of accountability, did not. If anything, it grew stronger. It would come over him like a seizure: a squirrel running up a tree, a bubblegum wrapper floating in a puddle on the sidewalk, a snatch of conversation overheard--the most trivial things would suddenly be transformed into  enigmas--as though something momentous hung in the balance--a problem he was compelled to solve. Portents of the empty set.

1 comment:

  1. I love the intimacy and introspection in this excerpt. Very good writing.