Voices

The narrative voice in fiction relates to a number of other issues which I find exceedingly interesting. The most important of these is the approach the novel takes to the subjective nature of reality, the fact that events differ when recited from a different point of view. Perhaps the greatest example of this is the Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon, or the short stories on which it is based, but I have neither seen the film nor read the stories. This tells a story from a number of narrative perspectives, each shining a different light on events, each story slightly different. I am getting ahead of myself. The point is that the narrative voice is incredibly interesting and yet I doubt that many authors put much thought into their use of voice. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Would some things be better in a different voice to the one in which they are told? These are some of the questions which have been on my mind recently.*

Reading back over an old diary/notebook of mine recently I came across my discussion of this theme on 6th August 2010. I read it out to my girlfriend, and she told me about a story by a friend of hers which she had read recently which had been written in the first person. It was clearly a very personal piece, she told me, and she had questioned her friend’s decision to write it in the first person. Her reason for the questioning was the issue of “show, don’t tell” and its relationship to the emotions of the narrative voice. Her basic argument was that in the first person feelings can be stated, whereas in the third person they have to be carefully shown. The issue of “show, don’t tell” is a complicated one, which will come up a few more times I think, but I don’t want to get into a detailed discussion of it now. I think that it is a good guideline, but believe that there are some things which need to be shown and others which need to be told. The key is to know which, and to have a reason.

My preference has usually been for the third-person narrative. As of August 6th 2010 I had read 32 books that year of which 12 had been, at least in part, first person. One of these was the book Gateway by Frederik Pohl, which has become a byword for bad first-person narratives in my mind not due to any explicit problems with the book, but because I could not stand the narrator, Robinette Stetley Broadhead. This isn’t really a legitimate reason – you can dislike main characters in third person narratives, although in those circumstances it is less likely to be so strongly rubbed in your face. I wonder if this is a guide: if your main character is likable, then you can get away with first person narrative. Emilio Sandoz, one of the main protagonists in Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, is very likable, but he could not be the narrator for two reasons: the first is that he would have to be an unreliable narrator; the second is that the book contains a mystery.

This brings me to the first “legitimate” use of the first person: the investigator. Crime novels are perfect examples of an opportunity to use the first person narrator, for when there is a mystery to be solved who is better to take you through it than the person charged with solving it? In 2010 my first example was China Miéville’s The City and The City; another would be Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels, and any number of others. For the Sherlock Holmes stories, of course, we cannot solve the mystery as quickly as Holmes does – that would be too easy – and so Conan Doyle uses Watson as a medium through which we see the events, gather all the evidence, but who is equally stunned by Holmes’ deductive powers as we are. Taking us through the path to a discovery – this is a use of the first person.

Then there is the narrator who knows something which we do not – and who often tries to hide it. Gateway falls into this category; another book I read in 2010 which does is Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. This is essentially the story of a revelation, which must be revealed by the individual who received the revelation. A further dimension of this is the unreliable narrator. I have only read one/four books which are explicitly known to have an “unreliable” narrator, which are Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series. I think these will need a re-read before I can comment fully on this use of the first person. The naive narrator, however, is aptly presented in The Hunger Games trilogy, where Katniss Everdeen is so painfully unaware of her own circumstances at times that it’s hard not to shake your head and wonder at her.

A couple more thoughts emerge from The Hunger Games. I think that Suzanne Collins is fairly brave, especially in Mockingjay, not to push Katniss into every event of importance in order to show it. She allows some things to be told. We are taken by surprise, and we don’t know everything because Katniss doesn’t, even if we sometimes have more insight than she does. On the other hand, Katniss often has to explain things about her world which she shouldn’t have to do, unless she knows to whom she is talking (i.e. us, in the far past of her world) about which she gives no other indication. The finest examples of first person literature must be those when the audience is known, and it is believably the reader. Addressing the reader and pulling them in – “Call me Ishmael” – is the trick to the first person, it seems to me.

The Hunger Games and The Book of the New Sun also fall into a category of books which are the “first person historical narrative”; in these cases a major figure from a historical period is discussing the events which they lived through. In my opinion, regardless of what Graves himself says about them, one of the most interesting examples of this are I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves. I read I, Claudius from Christmas day 2006 to an early point in 2007, but had to stop reading Claudius the God as I was studying Roman history I.vi, from Caesar to Claudius, at the time, and it was terribly confusing. But Graves was (very, very) well read in his Roman history, and I believe Claudius is made to highlight the fact that he makes a conscious decision contrary to that of the (real human being) Caius Julius Caesar when he choses to write in the first person. This, it seems, is an admission of bias, and of a subjective perspective on the history through which Claudius lived – and indeed, who else could have seen through Clau-Clau’s act of always playing the fool but the man himself? You wouldn’t trust a historian who told you he was not an idiot unless it was the man himself, prooving the contrary.

Once we are this far back in history it seems no greater difficulty to leap to the first example of a first-person narrative in the western literary tradition: Books 9 through 12 of The Odyssey, in which the travels of the hero are recited by the man himself. We cannot say whether or not there is any element of the unreliable narrator in “Homer”‘s consciousness – after all, we know Odysseus sits down and converses with gods, as he does with Athena when he returns to Ithaca. But we can interpret it as such now – Odysseus is the only survivour of the Ithacan ships which departed Troy ten years earlier; there are no voices to counter his account. If there is a modern literary novel based on this premise I would really, really like to read it, so please let me know.

The Odyssey follows a narrative structure which was common in the epistolary novel; that is the narrative-within-a-narrative. One of my first encounters with this method was Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, which features a framing narrative by a Mr. Lockwood, who in turn recites the story which was told to him by the housekeeper at the Grange, Nelly Dean. It is questionable how successful this is, as Nelly is places in several scenes where perhaps one might not expect a nursemaid to appear; it does, however, allow for a great deal of speculation about what Cathy and Heathcliff got up to when she wasn’t around.** Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein also uses the device of diaries and reporting-direct-speech within letters etcetera to tell the story. This is perhaps the best way to use multiple-first person narratives, short of the means used in Rashomon and the short stories on which it is based, which I still haven’t read, even though it’s been more than an hour.

The alternation of narrative viewpoint is a feature I still find strange in novels. The first novel in which I came across this feature was Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn. I cannot tell you the reason why it was used in this book, or the sequels which followed it. I could understand if there were two separate first person accounts, that of Takeo and that of Kaede, but there are not – Takeo has a voice, Kaede has a third person narration. But it isn’t told in any really different way, except that Takeo calls himself “I” and Kaede does not. I also ought to point out that I don’t like either of these characters, although I did enjoy the series. Especially the end of the third book, for some reason. The short story “The Tain” by China Miéville changes voice in this way, with one character acting as a first person narrator type figure, which I dubbed “the expositionist” in my diary, on the basis that he sets the scene against which the third person narrative is told. I did find the first person narrative more interesting in this case though, and I wasn’t really that concerned with the third person protagonist.

Christopher Priest’s Inverted World uses this mode in a particularly effective way. The topic of the book is, in some ways, the subjective nature of reality and the way in which our perspectives are changed. I can’t go into any more details without risking spoiling the plot of the book, but there is a good reason for the person change and it is used well.

A final, bad use of the first person must be the “wish-fulfillment” first person. This is where the author inhabits the character about which they are writing and thus the character receives a great deal of favour and will often be infuriating – to me at least. In 2010 I read a fun fantasy story called Magic Lost, Trouble Found by Lisa Shearin which essentially fulfilled this. It wasn’t a terrible thing, except that it wasn’t “for me”, and as I said on 6th August 2010: “I do find Severian’s [Book of the New Sun] claims about the beauty of the women he encounters as infuriating as Raine [Magic Lost, Trouble Found] lusting over the men in her life.” A real concern on this front would be the Twilight series – but I must be fair, and I haven’t read them, so I cannot comment.

It seems to me that the third person narrative is the norm, and I would expect this to be the natural way in which to tell a story and an alternative choice is just that – a decision to do something different. But it seems as if so many books in the nineteenth century were first person, that this actually seems to be the norm. That The Iliad is third and it is not until The Odyssey that we have an extensive first person narrative suggests that it is foolish to think one is more “normal” than the other. But it is certainly the case that in my experience third person narratives are more common, and so I’m not so sure that I have that much to say about them.

The advantage is that multiple points of view, or the omniscient narrator following more than one character, becomes more possible and believable to follow. There’s no question why a third person narrative changes protagonist from time to time, and some uses of the third person take the view from inside a character’s – or several characters’ – head. But the depth of this is limited, if the “show, don’t tell” risk is not to leach into the third person narrative, at least for emotions, too. My girlfriend seemed to think that there was more art to the third person, as you have to find ways to show emotions which you can tell in the first; I would argue that what you tell in the first is not necessarily the truth, unless you show it to be. But this is not the be-all and end-all of the choice of voice.

I wonder sometimes about the choice of voice. Why, for example, aren’t the Harry Potter books told in the first person, when most of what we see is through Harry and not (for example) Hermione or Ron? In this case, I think it is a question of the ability to relate to the character. Harry is a lot more believable as an “everychild” in the third person, rather than telling a unique story. We can empathise with his feelings without having them shoved down our throats. Do I think this was a conscious choice on the part of J.K. Rowling? I seriously doubt it, to be honest. Why would she have considered this, if Harry sounded to her in the third person?

My girlfriend questioned her friend’s use of the first person, and I think, if you are a friend of a person writing a book or short story who is reading it, it might be worth asking them about their use of voice. They might not have thought about it, and you might make them really self-conscious about it so that they have great difficulty writing. Uh, but don’t let that put you off. It might stimulate some interesting thoughts in their writing. Or it might just be that the story sounds better to them in the voice it’s in – that is their decision, and it’s unlikely to be a mistake if it feels right to them. First person, third person – their choice of voice is all about finding their own voice, and that is the best way to write.

* I have never read a book in the second person, so I am not going to mention it again in this blog. But that is also interesting and everything, of course, although it’s also really weird.

** They were totally doing it, FYI.

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Battle Royale

I feel compelled to say a few things in preparation for this discussion of Battle Royale which I might not otherwise do for a book. The first thing is that, if I must compare it to The Hunger Games (and I must, because I want to do so) then I would say that I prefer Hunger Games. But this is not entirely fair. The book Battle Royale suffered in my reading of it as I had recently re-watched the film. As a consequence a large amount of the book was effectively spoilt by knowing the conclusion to events. This is especially unfortunate as many of the events in the book unfold in a much more interesting and involving way than they do in the film. This is not to disparage the film – in the earlier portions of the book when I was not enjoying it as much as I would come to do I described it as like the novelisation of the film. Compared to the film of HG, BR is a much more loyal and accurate adaptation which nonetheless manages to feel like a film rather than an adaptation – a point on which HG the film fails. So if I seem negative about the book, that is why. The last word on the HG/BR controversy really should go to Koushun Takami, with whom I essentially agree:

“I think every novel has something to offer,” Takami told ABC News, in an email. “If readers find value in either book, that’s all an author can ask for.”

I did struggle to find some of the value in Battle Royale, at least at first. The book was condemned as violent exploitation on its release, and I think this appears reasonably accurate at first. But then again, I was coming at this book from a teleological perspective, in that I knew where it was going when I began. There is, I would say, considerably more hope in the book than there is in the film. Without spoilers, it is difficult to discuss these things in detail. But several of the more developed characters are very enjoyable. Unfortunately I find the pattern of introduction, background, violent death of most of the characters to be a little bit repetitive and stale, deserving of the condemnation “violent exploitation” (although if this were a western book I would say that it does point at the original source of this story as the Iliad, and make the comparison with Hunger Games seem more plausibly coincidental). Ultimately I feel that there were too many students, and perhaps the educational system of alternative-relality fascist Japan would benefit from smaller class sizes.

The developed characters were very interesting, though. Shinji Mimura and Hiroki Sugimura especially so, although the contrasting figures of Kazou Kiriyama (whose actions are given a physical, if not biological basis) and Mitsuko Souma (for whom the proposed, although not completely validated, explanation is experiential) would reward further analysis. Neither is suggested to be wholly bad, and indeed the characters throughout the novel are very similar, reacting to the situation in which they find themselves either calmly, violently, with panic, or with disbelief. Indeed, the comparison to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is much more rewarding than to The Hunger Games, although the stresses placed upon the children in that novel are very different to those in Battle Royale where they are armed and under threat. (I have to stress that I am not comparing the two now because it has been over a decade since I read Lord of the Flies and I feel ill-equipped to do so).

Ultimately Battle Royale is good but too long; makes interesting points which are lost a little in the violence; and is perhaps not as studied as its predecessor, nor as blunt as its successor, on the issues which it addresses. There are also some problems in its origins – firstly some poor translation, with stilted English at times (although I was reading the 2000 translation, not the updated 2009 edition); and secondly the stresses which it examines seem to me to be those of Japanese society, not mine. This doesn’t make it an unrewarding novel, but I think I would like to know a lot more about its background before I pass complete judgement upon it.

Sources:

http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2012/03/the-hunger-games-a-japanese-original/

The Hunger Games

I finished reading The Hunger Games this afternoon when I should have been learning some ancient Greek. I haven’t yet downloaded the other two books in the series, but I have to say it will not be all that long after I post this that I do. Also, I don’t want to say too much about the book right now, because when I watch the film, read Battle Royale, and re-watch Battle Royale the film, I will be comparing the two of them as far as I think the analysis will stretch. At this point, remembering the film from when I watched it something like a decade ago, I can understand why people choose to compare the two, but I feel that it is a very easy comparison which isn’t terribly rewarding. The concept of gladiatorial conflict was hardly new with BR (I can think of another 2000 film which also dealt with the topic, actually) and even if there is an influence on The Hunger Games the difference in approach and intention seems to me to support the necessity of variety over picking the better one.* But perhaps I don’t remember the intentions of BR very well. I do remember my sister saying that the book read like the wish fulfilment of a man who had wanted to murder his classmates. Then there is the different target audience, the different world in which we live post-11/09/2001, and with reality TV as it is now. I will say that I compared The Hunger Games mentally to the second episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, 15 Million Merits. But to be honest, I think that was at least in part the aesthetic of the trailer to the film of Hunger Games. Interesting, though, that people should be connecting reality TV and the ever-increasing polarization of the wealthy elite and the working classes on both sides of the Atlantic.

This is what I thought of The Hunger Games: it was a good start for children in their teens to start learning about social justice. To a far-left twenty-six year old perhaps the metaphor is obvious, even strained. But to a fifteen year old just starting to realise that there is an imbalance in this world, it could be much more potent.

The role of the Career tributes is one which I find fascinating, although perhaps under-explored in the way I had hoped it would be. To me, the Career Tributes were presented as those who had submitted to the dominance of the Capitol rather than those, like Katniss, who would rebel, or Peeta, desperate to retain his identity in their Games. I’m not sure if this was intentionally hinted, or if it was just my reading.

A review – or rather a mention on twitter – by Radio Times film editor Andrew Collins said that he felt that, in the film, the other tributes weren’t developed enough so that it was possible to care. In the book, with its first-person perspective, this is hardly surprising. But the aim of the Games is to divide – even the individual Districts – and to keep the lower classes fighting one another rather than the Capitol. Katniss cannot afford sympathy for the other Tributes, so how can we, seeing the Games through her eyes? I perhaps think that there could have been a greater element of menace to the other Tributes, but I am unsurprised by their (general) lack of development. It is a survival technique.

The after-effects of the Games on the Tributes is another under-explored area, although I suspect and hope the other books will explore this. Enough is said of Haymitch to hint that the psychological damage could be great, and one angle I had hardly considered is highlighted towards the end of the book. The descent into the necessary violence needed to survive would have to be traumatic, and whoever wins the Games must have killed at least one child – several seems more likely. The ill-effects of this I expect to see explored in Catching Fire and Mockingjay.

I liked Katniss. I’ve read some negative criticism of her, as well as some positive thoughts, but I understand the slightly bewildered response to being told that someone believes they are in love with you, and the possibly negative response which that can engender. She behaved, as far as I was concerned, like an ordinary teenager with too much on her hands, except perhaps for the obvious differences in her position:

Days of hunting and gathering for this one meal and even then it would be a poor substitute for the Capitol version. What must it be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button? How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by? What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol, besides decorating their bodies and waiting around for a new shipment of tributes to roll in and die for their entertainment?

I did think, for most of the novel, that the love-story seemed tacked-in, especially the third angle. But then again, so did Katniss, it seems. It made sense to play the audience, and that the audience would be played by this. It also made sense that separation could make the heart grow fonder. I was happy to be following her through these games; definitely happier than I would have been following the sap Peeta, who I’m not entirely expecting to carry the film. Nonetheless, a book enjoyed. And more than I meant to said about it, now I come to think of it. More after I see the film on Wednesday! Apologies for indulging in hype…

* I will also confess a certain wariness which relates to the probability that people think Japan>America. Too much of me doubts the likelihood that the praise for Battle Royale is as simple as it being a better film.

A recommended tangent

I am resolved now to blog more regularly, and about more interesting things. Or about more themed things so that this blog has a purpose. At some point, I might even link it up to my facebook account so that people I know might actually read it. Might. After all, a couple of people I know already read it, even if one of them is related to me. It’s the other that’s a bit more pressing here, as in his blog he has accepted my “challenge” to try to read 52 books in a year (a challenge I have never achieved, excluding work related books, of course). This blog is an update on that theme: a state of the union type address, if you will, to my attempt to read quite a bit this year.

The last book on which I reported was The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin which, in case you missed it and you can’t click on that link, I adored because I am a “secret” anarchist.* Since then I have read five novels, all of which were very good, and Mark Steel’s In Town, which had its charms; this puts me on seven novels, God is Not Great (partly last year) and In Town, eight and a half in week 11. Behind, already!

Not to mention the fact that I have sort-of cheated. When behind, I have a tendency to pick books which are shorter – the last novel was How to be Topp by Geoffrey Williams and the recently deceased Ronald Searle. In order to get a taste of this novel, I recommend this obitury of Searle, written in the style of the protagonist of How to be Topp N. Molesworth. I had read the preceding Molesworth tale,** Down with Skool!, at the end of last year, and, while I enjoyed it, it hadn’t been quite as spectacular as my brother, who loaned me the book, had led me to believe. How to be Topp, however, really delivered – I’m not sure if that’s because I was in a better mood for it, or if because it had a greater focus on Latin teachers, but the series is well worth sticking with.

Before this, I read a book loaned to me by my sister, Treasures of Time by Penelope Lively. As with How to be Topp, it is possible that my appreciation of this book was based on the connections which it has to my own experiences, in that it concerned the filming of a BBC documentary focused on the exploits of an archaeologist, and one of the protagonists was reading for a DPhil at the University of Oxford (although admittedly not actually in archaeology). Still, there was a reason why Penguin included this book in their Decades series.

As these books have somewhat faded into memory, I’m going to go off on something of a tangent. I started to read this article about the books/film The Hunger Games earlier tonight, but it was really long and I wanted to write this blog. So I stopped. But I got far enough to read the point that most of the books we read are on the recommendation of friends and family, not based on any advertising which publishers can actually do. As the past two books which I have mentioned were loans, I appear to fit this pattern. In fact, going back through this year’s list, we find: The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe (recommended by a friend, although I didn’t trust him so it took me about ten years to get around to reading any Wolfe); The Handmaid’s Tale by Margret Atwood (my mother’s copy, I believe, and recommended by my entire family, although it took me a while, again); The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle (recommended by everyone, of course); The Dispossessed (my brother loaned me the Earthsea books a couple of years ago, and I fell in love with Le Guin); A Study in Scarlet (somewhat covered).

On the other hand, I don’t know if anyone I have actually met has read The Hunger Games.*** This is annoying, because I realised while reading that article that if someone told me to I would read the first book right now – I’m between novels, and I’m still mildly disappointed with myself for putting off the Harry Potter books for so long. I dimly recall my brother saying that someone said that they weren’t very good, but lots of people said that the Harry Potter books weren’t very good too, and I really enjoyed them. This includes the friend who recommended The Book of the New Sun, which might be why I put off reading them for so long.

But on the other hand negative criticism has kept me from reading the Twilight books, which (aside from my desire to write an in-depth critique comparing them to Buffy) seems to have been a good thing. So should I ignore the half-remembered criticism, and go with the flow?

In the interests of fairness, I ought to point out that I read the first page of Twilight and was put off, while reading (about) three pages of the kindle preview of Hunger Games made me want to read it, so I won’t take much prompting. But I was somewhat surprised by the analysis of my reading habits, and how (anecdotally, of course) I appear to fit the publisher’s pattern.

* I was asked by a friend the other day if I was a secret anarchist – I pointed out that my political views on Facebook are listed as “anarchist”, so it’s hardly a secret. Really, of course, my anarchism is ideological (and based on V and Shevek, not Kropotkin and Chomski) rather than active or practical. I actually discuss this a bit in the post on The Dispossessed, take a look.

** I say “tale” – the Molesworth books are not really stories, although there are elements of narrative to them.

*** One of my twitter followers has, though. She seemed to enjoy them. Her blog is here, I haven’t read much of it though (sorry Amy). [EDIT: I had a look at Amy’s blog out of guilt, and came across this, which is a great entry. You should read it: http://amystwentytwelve.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/normal-0-false-false-false-en-gb-x-none.html /EDIT]