I&A is proud to feature monthly guest posts from the Firehouse Five!
Guest post by Lisa Cindrich
Look Who’s Talking:
- An expert hand surgeon slowly losing her memory to Alzheimer’s.
- A precisely logical boy with Asperger’s faced with the mysterious death of a neighbor’s dog.
- A teenager hanging out on the moon with his friends while a feed of entertainment and ads streams directly into his brain.
- A five-year-old growing up imprisoned with his mother in a hidden room.
What do these have in common? They are the frequently quirky, always intriguing, and entirely unexpected narrators of some of my favorite books of the last decade or so. These are books that: 1.) had a hefty emotional impact on me while I was reading them, 2.) put up their feet and took up residence in my head, and 3.) churned up an intense desire to write something equally powerful, fresh, or strange.
Much of each story’s power streams directly from the choice of narrator. Either the narrator’s environment or the very nature of how their brain works shapes a perspective and a use of language that is so different, so fresh that it can give the most jaded reader a jolt. The result—to me—is a reading experience that startles by virtue of its pure creative energy.
I am in the office of a Carl Tsien. A doctor. My doctor, it seems. A slight, balding man. Pale, in the way that only someone who spends his time indoors under artificial light can be. A benevolent face. We apparently know each other well.
Alice LaPlante’s interest in writing a novel, Turn of Mind, centered around dementia stemmed from witnessing her own mother’s descent into the disease. Those personal observations, plus plenty of research, gave her knowledge. But the story wasn’t working the way she’d hoped until she made a daring choice of narrator. As Laplante told an interviewer at bookbrowse.com:
I’d tried to write about the complexity of my thoughts and emotions from a variety of angles, but it wasn’t until I had the idea for telling a story from the point of view of an actual Alzheimer’s patient that I could “get at” the deep material I wanted to peruse.
Laplante’s choice means that we are intimately involved in the dissolution of her narrator’s mind, a queasily disorienting experience. Because the narrator was a highly intellectual woman and a respected doctor, her sometimes confused, fragmentary, or simplistic language will suddenly glint with anatomical or surgical terminology. The novel’s structure is likewise fragmented, the chronology chopped up and shifted about, following the chaotic movements of the narrator’s memories which are sometimes murky, sometimes sharply illuminated. The doctor is the ultimate ‘unreliable narrator.’ Because Turn of Mind’s plot hinges on a murder she can’t remember if she committed, her narration of events only increases the suspense. What could easily have been just an offbeat little mystery novel gathers layers upon layers of meaning and emotion, because of a bold choice of narrator.
Bolder yet? How about letting Death himself tell the tale? Markus Zusak described how difficult it was to find the right narrative voice for The Book Thief. He initially chose Death as the narrator, but Death’s voice was too vicious, too mean. Zusak switched to a different first-person narration, then simple third-person. Six months later, he was back to Death, but with a difference. Death was now exhausted, overworked (hey, the novel is set during World War II) and “haunted by humans,” although still possessed of a wry sense of humor.
Some of you are most likely thinking that white is not really a color and all of that tired sort of nonsense. Well, I’m here to tell you that it is. White is without question a color and personally, I don’t think you want to argue with me.
Death’s perspective allows us to see the scope of the war’s tragedy, details of its small, individual sufferings, and–because Death never dies—how each existence plays out, even decades later. Death’s fascination with particular humans and the curious value he places on them gives us the ability to stand alongside him and to witness the beauty within the ugliness that permeates so much of existence. Zusak can give Death a heartachingly poetic way of speaking. He allows Death to see in ways we cannot.
It [the death of a young pilot] was a beautiful thing in some ways. The plane was still coughing. Smoke was leaking from both its lungs.
He allows Death to face us directly:
Your soul will be in my arms. A color will be perched on my shoulder . . . The question is, what color will everything be at that moment when I come for you? What will the sky be saying?
The Book Thief is, yes, a war novel, a piece of historical fiction. But as Death speaks, it is impossible to evade the knowledge that he will come for us as well, just as he came for the characters he describes. The boundaries containing the novel collapse and we confront the same poignant truths that Zusack’s characters do: “humans have great beauty and great ‘ugly’ (as Death puts it) in them,” Zusack told compulsivereader.com, “and we all struggle to steer ourselves, hopefully, towards the beauty. I guess the old saying is true – that death is what makes life worthwhile.”
A very different choice of narrator enlivens (sorry!) Mark Haddon’s A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Fifteen-year-old Christopher, on being told of his mother’s death, responds:
Mother was only 38 years old and heart attacks usually happen to older people, and Mother was very active and rode a bicycle and ate food which was healthy and high in fiber and low in saturated fat like chicken and vegetables and muesli.
Father said that he didn’t know what kind of heart attack she had and now wasn’t the moment to be asking questions like that.
I said that it was probably an aneurysm.
Christopher’s narration—doggedly literal, swept clean of metaphor, the chapters ordered by prime number—vividly reflects the way he thinks. The humor, charm, and emotion that emerge arise not only from the gap between Christopher’s perceptions and our own, but also from what we share. Haddon describes on his website that he chose Christopher as his narrator because “it’s a novel about difference, about being an outsider, about seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way. it’s as much a novel about us as it is about christopher.”
Unusual narrators pop up in all sorts of places: From the imprisoned little boy in Emma Donoghue’s Room to the electronically linked-in teenager in M.T. Anderson’s Feed, from the sociopaths of Gillian Flynn’s current blockbuster Gone Girl to A Clockwork Orange’s energetic adolescent slang and underlying musical structure (because Alex loves a good piece of Beethoven just as much as he enjoys a bit of the ultraviolence, right?), and from the smart-alecky djinni of Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus series to the man with Tourette’s in Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. Entertaining and literally novel reads abound.
So . . . what does this all mean as far as my own writing (and maybe yours?) goes?
Don’t always go for the easy voice. Don’t always reach for the obvious narrator. Don’t be afraid to try the unexpected, the bold, the I-may-be-totally-out-of-my-depths choice. Allow the narrator’s personality and traits to shape the language, create the emotion, and mold the structure. Most of all, enjoy following your narrators along whatever strange and wonderful paths they may forge . . . let your readers experience the new journey.
Reader, librarian, mom, dog-lover, chocoholic, Kansan, and author of the historical middle grade In the Shadow of the Pali and the upcoming adult dystopian Executables.