Tuesday, August 16, 2005

My Ass is Struggling with "Collective Narrator"

My first conscious experience of a collective narrator was Jeffrey Eugenides' THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, which is told by a group of high school boys. It took me several pages--maybe even a chapter--before I went, "what...hey! Who's speaking again?" I reread, then finally had to have it explained to me by a book review. Then I was intrigued, then enthused, and finally hooked.

I found the device again a few years later in Alice Elliott Dark's "Watch the Animals," a short story told by a town observing its most unsocialized citizen. In the notes section of the 2000 O. HENRY AWARDS anthology Dark's explanation struck a chord:

"It took a while for me to decide on the point of view. As I fooled around with scenes, though, the story became more about the community than Diana, and its voice emerged. Diana, in turn, got more fabulous and contrary and eccentric. I worked on the ending until it was both a transcendent moment for the group and a funny portrayal of how quickly people revert to type after they've been generous..."

Yes, it's insular, and a little insecure, too. It's the right voice when group identity is a bigger deal than individual identity. Mob mentalities, the many zeroing in on the few, where a false strength comes from banding together and judging "other." Or, like scenarios more familiar to me: small groups of freaks who find solace in each other when the world at large is too cruel. As I began composing "Welcome to the Pleasuredome," a story about a clique of high school drama geeks, my gut told me that collective narrator was the right choice.

Let's just say it didn't get unanimous raves in workshop. That's cool, that's what workshop is for. But my gut is still telling me it's the right idea for the story. Is it possible to make a silk purse out of this thing?

Time to dissect some examples. On my Google foray, I discovered this essay, "We the Characters" by Laura Miller, in which she observes:

"Modern readers find collective first-person narrators unsettling; the contemporary mind keeps searching for the familiarity of an individual point of view, since it seems impossible that a group could think and feel, let alone act, as one."

She cites writers who have formed and solidified the convention of first-person-singular--Nabakov, Roth--and proposes:

"Truth, these writers suggest, is slippery and protean, and authenticity can be found only in individual experience. Broader claims to authority are suspect."

While I want to gain reassurance from this--it's not me! It's them! My damn readers! It's just an acquired taste!--Miller also points out what's becoming painfully obvious to me:

"In clumsy hands, it may seem merely a stunt, or in the case of Ayn Rand's 'Anthem,' a novella about a collectivist dystopia, drearily tendentious."

Feeling properly put in my place, I 'm taking stock. I want to rescue this story without the 3rd-person cop-out (which incidentally, turns their version of "Our Town" into "Their Town," not quite the same ring). So, off to the library I go, to check out more examples, and dissect, and see exactly HOW these writers pull it off, if they do. How does one give a group's voice authority and clarity? I'll skip the Rand, but will take a peek at the following, which I've heard are 1st-plural telling:

Kate Walbert: OUR KIND

Ha Jin: "The Bridegroom"
William Faulkner: "A Rose for Emily" (the classic, according to John Gardner)
Judy Budnitz: "Nadia"

Work is cut out for me. I'll check back later with my "scientific observations."


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