Thursday, July 2, 2009

Breaking a literary taboo

This week at the Colgate Writers' Conference (and for those of you who missed the comments of the conference post, I highly recommend this smart, friendly, incredibly fun event), I had a student who had written a very long, complicated novel spanning many years, and incorporating many points of view. And the student broke a major literary taboo: that is, the novel featured a hugely important piece of secret knowledge on which the whole story hinged--and also featured a close third-person narrative from the point of view of the only character who held this piece of knowledge. And yet this character just happened never to think about the vital information.

Generally speaking, I consider this a terrible cheat. It's a fairly common tactic in lousy police procedurals, where the detective's point of view is casually intercut with scenes from the mind of the killer--whose identity and location coincidentally never cross his mind.

Why does this bother me so much? It's a violation of what I consider to be the prime directive of literary narrative: the exploration of consciousness. I'll accept all manner of plot implausibilities, but when a writer makes people think in an impossible way, I become very, very impatient. If you can't trust the narrator to give you an accurate representation of the characters' minds, you can't trust the book at all.

And yet sometimes writers kind of almost get away with it. I just read The Girl Who Played With Fire, the pretty good sequel to Steig Larsson's terrific The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (I'm not going to review it here, but I can tell you the ending, while exciting, is embarrasingly implausible), and I saw this taboo broken many, many times. A character is suspected of committing three murders. Did she do it? We get 75 pages from her point of view before she happens to think about it. In this case, it nearly works--the character in question has a highly unusual, compartmentalized mind, and you can almost make a case for her not considering her own possible role in the murders over several weeks. Ultimately, though, it's a lame trick, and cheapens the book.

Karin Fossum, on the other hand, pulls it off in The Indian Bride, a superior and highly unusual crime novel; our killer is hidden in plain sight, and from himself, in a very effective literary sleight-of-hand. But it works because it makes sense for the character to think this way. It's never just for Fossum's convenience.

Of course, you can do this easily in the first person--first person narrations are inherently untrustworthy, and sometimes a writer foregrounds this quality, as in Kazuo Ishiguro's great unreliable-narrator novels. But the third-person narrator is supposed to be somebody you trust--somebody who understands the characters entirely, and doesn't let them get away with anything. It's a rule made to be broken, but break it at your own risk.

9 comments:

Matt said...

How about "The Murder or Roger Ackroyd" by Agatha Christie? Its trickery made a lot of people angry when it first came out. My opinions on it are invalid, I think, because literally the day I began "Ackryod," I read the story "The Macbeth Murder Mystery" by James Thurber, in which a woman spoils the ending.

Incidentally, "The Macbeth Murder Mystery" is a great little story with a funny take on the issue of writers tricking authors.

rmellis said...

It's not a taboo so much as something some writers never think about, imho. I blame movies for inserting chunks of information at convenient moments, which movies can get away with. It doesn't work in books, for the reasons you mentioned.

A.J. said...

I think The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (which I'm admittedly fan of) was such an anomaly at it's time that it was completely confusing to people (or maybe, if not for all people, then for the majority of Christie's target audience)--though maybe I'm wrong on this? It seems now, to me, when I read folks doing the same, that they are mainly pale imitations of that book somehow. Then again, I do have a strange fondness for mustachioed characters, too.

jrlennon said...

I am embarrassed not to have read that story...

rmellis said...

I read all of Agatha Christie, but can't remember a durned thing about Roger Ackroyd...

JR, you haven't read ANY Christie, have you? Admit it!

jrlennon said...

No, I read three or four that one time you were on a Christie kick. They were pretty OK!

Gary said...

In Narrative Techique by Thomas Uzzell (1923), one of the most daunting books I have ever skimmed, he analyses this problem in some detail, showing its general scope (ie it's not just found in murder mysteries):

'The writer strives for an effect of surprise or suspense, but he chooses for his story the angle of a character who knows all the facts, and who in the course of the events would naturally report them. These facts can be kept from the reader, therefore, only by a distortion of the truth about the angle character. Such artificiality is never necessary. This mistake is more and more objectionable in these days of realism. It is essentially a trick on the reader. It assumes many forms, is sometimes perpetrated by the best writers, and is always questionable. An example is to be seen in a published story written by one of our leading authors of literary stories:
A sailor tells the story of how a former engineer on a private yacht, during convalescence from a serious injury in an accident due to his own carelessness, for weeks sits despondent in a steamer chair on the deck of the yacht in the harbor, refusing to rise. The sailor, who is pictured as entirely simple and frank in his narrative, recounts in detail how all efforts to get the man to rise were ineffective. He tells how finally a woman, with whom the engineer was in love, fell into the sea in an effort to get the engineer to come out of his lethargy, and plunge in to rescue her. Still the engineer refuses to budge. At last, the woman, not loving him, but concerned about his apparent dullness and lassitude, stands in front of him, holding out her hands, and saying that he can have her if he will walk to her. The sailor tells how the engineer gets down to the deck and begins to crawl to the woman — he had no legs. The accident which the sailor had witnessed had crushed the engineer’s legs and the sailor now tells us about it for the first time!
Here, you see, the person who is telling the story knows all the facts about the engineer, who is the main character. The narrator is also, of course, in a sense a character of the story, and he is pictured as entirely frank; he is given none of the ingenuity or artistry which would account for any skill in holding back the main fact about the engineer. He saw the engineer after the accident, and every day while the man was completing his convalescence, he carried him below to his bunk. Since the facts are withheld solely for the purpose of maintaining the suspense, we have a want of naturalness and so a want of art.’

Uzzell goes on to say how the situation can easily be remedied, with no loss of suspense, simply by re-writing from a different POV, making the outcome logical and satisfying. Though given that the trick is essentially one of false psychology and that the reader is being duped because they assume the author is 'playing fair', it might be that the story wd collapse without it and it couldnt really be rewritten with equivalent suspense merely by doing this...

jrlennon said...

Yes, the real problem with the story he describes is that it's a sentimental piece of crap! But that's a good example of what I'm talking about.

It is a little depressing to learn that this isn't a new problem...

Anonymous said...

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