Saturday, April 18, 2009

POV Part IVa: One Last Note on First-Person

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Sorry to be away so long. Things--or rather, I--have been crazy.

In previous posts, I mentioned the fact that Moby Dick and Tristram Shandy didn't really fall into the realm of true first person narratives; certain passages deviate wildly from the first-person POV.

Before I leave the topic entirely, I'd like to mention one other book--this time a modern one--that stretches the limits of first-person until the basic rules are nowhere to be found: The Human Stain, by Philip Roth.

The Human Stain is narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, a recurring Roth character who shares a great many charateristics with Roth himself (including being a famous novelist). In some books Zuckerman is a third-person character; in others, he is a first-person narrator.

Although the story is told by Zuckerman, and there are some scenes where Zuckerman is present and involved, the bulk of the book details the lives of other characters, especially the protagonist Coleman Silk. In these passages, Zuckerman disappears entirely into what seems to be third-person narration. Stretches of what feels like third-person run so long that it can be a bit jarring when the narrator refers to "I" once more.

Occasionally Zuckerman explains how he came to know certain things about Silk's life, but he could never have gathered the level of detail or vividness by research or conversations. And in some scenes from the POV of other characters, it would be manifestly imposible for Zuckerman to know what he relates, since he tells not only their thoughts, but also shares events that the characters have kept secret from everyone.

This is not, mind you, a mixed first-and-third novel; it is resolutely a first-person narrative, but one that takes immense liberties with the form. Zuckerman never explains that he is reconstructing what people must have thought or must have done. He dramatizes many scenes as though he is omniscient, and doesn't bother to excuse them.

Of course, one of the reasons this works is because the narrator character himself is a novelist, and therefore we are willing to let him slip from a purported recounting into what is really a retelling or reimagining. The book has a foot planted in two worlds--it keeps up the pretense that the narrator is telling us a true story, but it also admits in a coy fashion that it is a novel. The dramatizations of what Zuckerman cannot truly know make the book more intense and gripping--in spite of the fog of ambiguity that comes with all of the third-person narration by the first-person narrator.

If you haven't read The Human Stain, you might want to take a look. Simply from theperspective of craft, it's a fascinating exercise.

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mags said...

Hi David:

I thought I was pretty handy with first-person POV, but I'm learning so much here, the infinite subtlety and nuances possible with this POV that I never even dreamed of, thanks to you and the examples you give.

Keep it coming, and please know that your Herculean efforts are much appreciated.


Janet said...

Somebody has to make the required comment that Roth had to be a famous novelist to be able to pull it off. (So I will. Or just did. Time for a post on tense confusion?) Debut authors would be better off abstaining from bending rules till they break. Wait until editors genuflect in front of you, then you can break any rule you like.

Jen said...

I am loving this series and am telling all the folks in my writing group (three of them) about it.

The real reason I'm commenting, though, is to let you know I just took your name in vain in my last blog post. Please don't sue me.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Mags--

The real reason I'm doing this is to try and get it straight in my own head. (I subscribe to the theory that you don't understand anything unless you can explain it to somebody else.)

So my motives are purely selfish. But as long as I'm writing it down, I figured I might as well inflict it on you as well!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

You're right, that point needed to be made. I think that most critique groups, let alone most editors, would have read that manuscript if it came form an unknown, and come to the conclusion that he had no idea what the hell he was doing.

David Isaak said...

Heya, Jen--

Boy, you were on a roll that time!

And I'm glad that someone else was stunned by the use of the term "teabagging." Next thing you know, the Far Right will be getting together and snowballing. So much for family values.

(n.b. If other readers don't know what is meant by teabagging and snowballing, I would advise you NOT to go Google them. You really don't particularly wanna know.)