Monday, April 20, 2009

POV, Part V: First-Person Plural

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So, here we go again. Having dealt with the main permutations of first-person, the next--brief!--phase of the class would deal with the most slippery points-of view: first-person plural, and second-person.

Why deal with these two together? Partly because they are comparatively rare, and partly because I think they share certain common features.

Probably the most famous fiction in first-person plural is Faulkner's short story A Rose for Emily. John Gardner declared that the narrator ("we") of the story is the town, the community in which the events happened. I have to say both yes and no. Structurally that might be feasible, but it's apparent that there is a single narrator, speaking as the voice of the town. Read any of the criticism around A Rose for Emily, and you'll start finding critics speculating on characteristics of the narrator--is it male or female? Obviously not young, because of the narrator's thorough acquaintance with the town across time...

In other words, A Rose for Emily feels as though someone particular is narrating--an individual voice, not some collective. So after a time, the reader begins to wonder--is this person really speaking for the town, is this truly the collective wisdom of the town--or is this simply someone claiming to speak for the broader group?

On the other hand, the "we" of A Rose for Emily seems to know so many obscure details about Emily's life, that it verges on omniscient...but still comes to us through a quirky, personalized filter.

See why I call first-person plural "slippery"? Is this narrator a particular person in disguise, or is this narrator all-knowing, some entity looking down on creation (or, if not the whole of creation, at least, like Jane Austen's narrator, omniscient about a segment of creation)? In either case, why wear the mask? It seems a bit fishy.

And, speaking of the illustrious Jane, much the same obtains in the use of first-person plural in Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club, where the "we" is the club. Probably. Or maybe just one member speaking for the club. But a lot of the wit is Austenesque, and therefore has an omniscient quality about it...

The Virgin Suicides is another well-known, well-executed novel in first-person plural. The narrative "we" in this case is a group of boys who knew the Lisbon sisters, and are, long after the events, trying to piece together an explanation of what happened and why. It's a marvelous read, but also slightly maddening in its elusiveness.

Sometimes the narrative voice of The Virgin Suicides takes on a nonfiction tone: "Supporters of this theory said..." At other moments, though, the adjectives and metaphors are so ripe or off-kilter that it is reminiscent of some of Tom Wolfe's early journalism, factual reporting and subjective reactions elbowing each other aside. Foretelling intrudes into the story (one of the sisters is said to have a long neck, and in the next instant we are told that "we" the narrators didn't suspect the day would come when it would be hung by a rope from a beam).

Yet the "we" of the novel isn't believable as a collective; the language turns too idiosyncratic to be a group creation. A group doesn't think that a young girl sunbathes next to a pool "sweating nectar." Trooping down into a basement recreation room, a whole group of boys do not simultaneously think that the light blazing up from below is such that it seems they are approaching the molten core of the Earth.

We are never sure how many boys constitute the "we," but some of the boys are described in detail, and some of those described in detail are not characters who would ever speak or think in the narrative voice of the book. Even more than in A Rose For Emily, everything points to a single narrator who has elected to hide behind a mask of "we." Why? Who knows?

Ayn Rand's slim little novella, Anthem, is first-person plural only in the most technical sense, as there is never any doubt that it is a single individual narrating. (Some might in fact say the whole book is merely a gimmick, and I suppose it is, but I thoroughly enjoyed it in my youth. Indeed, in retrospect, I would say the merits of Ms. Rand's novels are inversely proportional to their length.)

Apart from the fishy question of the narrator's identity (and the reasons it is concealed), first-person plural faces other challenges. First-person singular is as subjective and voicey as writing can be; even the most distressing first-person narrator (think of Lolita's Humbert Humbert) gains a fair degree of sympathy through their intimacy with the reader. That goes by the board once the narrator is "we." On the other hand, the narrative can't really swoop inside character's heads and dwell there in full POV, the way omniscient third can. "We" restricts the narrative to a certain distance from the characters, which can limit the reader's involvement. And, above all, "we" is one of those words that people hear mostly from the mouths of politicians, and this makes many readers immediately want to quarrel.

A piece that is absorbing enough, as in Faulkner, or clever enough, as in Fowler or Eugenides, may be able to overcome these challenges, but it sets a rather high hurdle for a writer and doesn't offer all that many apparent advantages. One of the assignments for the hypothetical class I'm victimizing here would be to try an write a piece that would arguably be best told from first-person plural. (None have ever occurred to me, so I'm glad I'm not in that class.)

We'll get to second-person in the next post. Honest.

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Tim Stretton said...

I think in almost cases it's a gimmick; it's very rare that the story wouldn't be handled as well or better in first-person singular.

The only exception I can think of would be if the narrator were attempting to share responsibility by using "we" instead of "I" - a death-camp guard, say. For this to work the reader would need to identify by the end of the novel which character was employing the strategy. As you say, that doesn't happen with Eugenides, and it does frustrate. For me, the novel succeeds in spite of the narrative stance, not because of it.

Nikwdhmos said...

One way to try an easy first-person plural -- write a first-person from the perspective of a monarch and use the royal "we".

Never seen a lot of "we" writing, except in gestalt-type stories

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

We're on the same page--though the death-camp guard is an interesting idea indeed.

Let me know when you write that story. I want to read it!

David Isaak said...

Hey, Nikwd--

Interesting! I don't recall anything written from the royal we.

Janet said...

I spend too much time reading speculative fiction obviously, but the first thing I thought of was a story told by a hive mind, something like Orson Scott Card's buggers.

And now you have my mind buzzing like a swarm of bees.

I didn't really need any more story ideas. Seriously. I've got to stop reading your blog.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

That sounds like a great idea.

The story idea, I mean. Not stopping reading my blog.

Janet said...

LOL. One of the beauties of writing novels is that you don't have to come up with a new idea every week. A small handful of ideas can keep you busy for many years. And I already have plenty. So you really don't have to inspire any more.

I'll probably come back here anyway. Silly me.

David Isaak said...

"I'll probably come back here anyway. Silly me."

There are many requirements for being a writer. I suspect Silliness is near the top of the list.

Janet said...

In that case, I'm well qualified.