17/07/2008

When "I" Is Not Another

A large number of mystery novels are written in first person. This approach offers multiple advantages - and multiple drawbacks as well.
 
Leading among the former is an easier identification with the protagonist - he talks to us, we follow his actions and his thoughts, we see what he sees, we hear what he hears. It's no surprise, then, if the device is historically associated to forms of the genre that rely on strong emotional investment from the reader: suspense of course, but also hardboiled and noir. But, since the narrator is not omniscient and ultimately tells us only what he's willing to, first-person may also be a marvelous tool for mystification, as anyone who's read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd will be happy to confirm, and that's why detective novels and twist-in-the-tale stories made and still make a great use of it.
 
Still, the device has its problems or, as the French say, les défauts de ses qualités (the flaws of its virtues). First, it restrains the scope of the work on both a dramatical and psychological level. As I said above, the narrator is not omniscient. Being only human, he can't read other people's thoughts, make himself invisible or be in two places at the same time. This means we know characters and places only through his personal, subjective experience. If he leaves the room in the middle of a conversation, what was said afterwards will remain forever unknown to the reader, and if he stays we can't be sure people mean what they say. This wouldn't be much of a problem* if that ambiguity extended to the narrator, which alas is rarely the case. All too often he tells the reader in detail about himself, his past, present and future while other characters remain at best silhouettes, more or less well-sketched - making him the actual subject of the story he tells. Such a phenomenon is not uncommon in contemporary mystery fare, even that sticking to third-person mode.
 
Finally and in accordance with the rimbaldian title of this post, the narrator's "I" is often the author's, not only biographically and psychologically but stylistically as well. Narrators, despite being new to the job, know all of the tricks to grab the reader's interest and never let go. They can capture a landscape or a character in a few words and keep a fast pacing, with suspense and twists most efficiently dosed - so efficiently, indeed, that it's hard at times to believe you're reading a true story told by an amateur rather than, say, a piece of fiction by a seasoned pro. Even more remarkable is the continuity of style some authors maintain through different stories with - supposedly - different narrators. Mike, 31, a computer scientist in New York has thus the same "voice" as Roger, an alcoholic quinquagenarian Washington Post journalist whose writing style itself bears some resemblance to that of Sarah, a 40-year old Dallas housewife... all of the three having, of course, never met each other. Quite a feat, indeed!
 
True, characters are often so interchangeable that it's no surprise it goes the same for their voices - but the same phenomenon may be encountered in works by more ambitious writers, proving that style just like every other habit is second nature.
 
*Actually, it may even be beneficial.

3 commentaires:

Henrique Valle a dit…

I gather from your very interesting post that you view first-person narrators as a shortcoming that, at best, may be overcome by accomplished writers.
Conversely, I always thought of first-person narrators as particularly adequate to detective fiction, which is based upon the partial concealment of the truth until the denouement.
This imposes severe limitations on the narrator's omniscience. If the reader would have access to the inner thoughts of the criminal, the investigators themselves (who often know more than the reader does, even when having had access to the same set of facts) there would be no mystery at all. If the reader would have access to the inner thoughts of the other characters, even if not having access to the inner thoughts of the criminal and the investigators, the narrative would be artistically crippled (and the setting of subsidiary mysteries, subplots and red herrings would become almost impossible).
These limitations do not exist to such an extent in crime novels or thrillers. But they are particularly serious in detective stories with psychological leanings, such as the novels by P. D. James. In these, the narrator probes deep into the minds of all characters, including the murderer. Therefore, skilled as the writer is, the narrator's restrain in revealing the murderous intention, or the murderer's steps to cover his/her traces, come across as much more artificial than in Roger Ackroyd - at least here there was a strong motive for not telling the truth.
On the contrary, first-person narrators provide writers with a perfectly plausible and artistically natural justification for not revealing the entire truth at once, which lies in the physical or intellectual limitations of the narrator. A typical example, which at the same time effectively mocks some conventions of the genre, occurs in In It Walks by Night, by John Dickson Carr, when the narrator is expelled from a room in which detective Bencolin and the police are about to discuss the case. This may be infuriating to the reader but is ultimately plausible (since the narrator is not a policeman himself) and artistically sound (because in the case it doesn't harm the fair-play rule - although theoretically it could have done so).
I believe the faults you point come mostly from bad writing in general and not specifically from the use of first-person narrators. You say that «the narrator's "I" is often the author's, not only biographically and psychologically but stylistically as well» and the danger of homogenization certainly exists, but good writers manage to avoid it, sometimes in the same book. Collins' The Moonstone and Innes' Lament for a Maker are masterpieces of multiple first-person narrative by any standards.
You also mention that «Narrators, despite being new to the job, know all of the tricks to grab the reader's interest and never let go. They can capture a landscape or a character in a few words and keep a fast pacing, with suspense and twists most efficiently dosed - so efficiently, indeed, that it's hard at times to believe you're reading a true story told by an amateur rather than, say, a piece of fiction by a seasoned pro». Well, at the best that's so - and fortunately, I guess, because we wouldn't like to read badly told stories! But we must not forget that the narratorial instance is a separate entity both from the writer and the characters - in the latter case, even when the narrative is first-person. Therefore, first-person narratives are always to a certain extent idealized. That is why Dorothy Sayers has written of The Moonstone: «It is true that, for example, Betteredge's narrative is not at all the kind of thing that a butler would be likely to write; nevertheless, it has an ideal truth - it is the kind of thing Betteredge might think and feel, even if he could not write it».
Best regards,
Henrique Valle

Gary a dit…

Bien,

As a writer of m/m erotic romance, I recently published a work in first person present tense in daily journal form that has met with interesting reviews: Passionate, intense, compelling, pure genius, as well as unusual, odd, and not sure if I like it. One thing all readers seem to agree on, however, is that it creates a strong sense of presence, realism and at the same time mystery regarding what will happen next, this latter being element not often found in non-mystery third person past narrative. I must agree with your interesting comments on use of first person in mystery and also erotic romance.

Sincerely,
Gary Martine
"Kingsley & I" MLR Press, 2008
http://www.mlrpress.com

Mike Grost a dit…

First person narrators can cause serious technical glitches with storytelling.
Lots of mysteries open with a look at the suspects, and the events leading up to the murder. Then the detective is brought in, to investigate the crime.
If the detective (or his Watson) is a first person narrator, then the story has to be told in some other way. The sleuth just isn't present before the crime.
And you can't have any later digressions, in which the police search through Paddington Station to look for the missing valise, or arrest a suspect who's fled to Borneo, or whatever. These are easily inserted in third-person novels.