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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Unreliable, naive narrators and The Sense of an Ending

The narrator of a novel usually, although not always, also is the protagonist. It's the ultimate "it's all about me" kind of storytelling, epitomized by David Copperfield in the novel by Charles Dickens. "Chapter 1: I am born."

Some narrators are trustworthy. Their world is seen only through their eyes, but they can be trusted to tell all they know and not to skew the facts in order to fool you. And then there are the narrators who either have fooled themselves so well you can't trust them or who are so arch they cannot be trusted. These unreliable narrators are at the core of some of the finest storytelling we've known, from Chaucer to Wilkie Collins to Stevens in Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day.                                                                                      

Just as rewarding for the reader who likes to be involved in discerning who or what to believe is the naive narrator, such as Huck Finn. He accepts slavery as a normal part of his world and recognizes that, in his world, he will go to hell for helping Jim. And decides he can live with having transgressed. His acceptance is not the same as deciding that his world is wrong. Naive narrators are not reliable either, but it's because they don't know the ramifications of everything that's going on. Stevens is this kind of narrator for most of The Remains of the Day. His single moment of near-realization is devastating in the novel, and he backs away from self-knowledge quickly to return to self-delusion.

Sometimes deciding whether the narrator can be trusted takes up a good deal of the reader's attention. This was me when reading Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending, which won the Man Booker Prize last year.

Tony Webster is in his late middle age, divorced yet still on good terms with his ex-wife, the steady Margaret, distant yet polite with his daughter, the preoccupied Susie. His story begins with odds and ends of his time at school and university with his mates and first serious girlfriend, Veronica. Adrian, a newcomer at school, becomes part of his circle. A schoolmate commits suicide after his girlfriend becomes pregnant. At university, Veronica appears to be a tease but Tony says he doesn't mind. He meets her family one weekend and no one appears impressed. His friends meet her and, again, no one appears impressed. After Tony and Veronica break up, he gets a letter from Adrian that he and Veronica are now in a relationship. Tony's life goes on. But Adrian later kills himself.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Review; 'When Captain Flint was Still a Good Man'

By Nick Dybek
Literary Fiction
Riverhead Books
April 2012
ISBN: 978-1594488092                                                                                                      

The loss of innocence is a common theme of fiction. It's not unusual for a young man or woman, or even a middle-aged one, to look back on the year that things changed. The year they grew up. For young Cal, it is the winter he discovers what it may have been like for the good captain in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island when he decided to become a pirate. And because of what he learns and what happens, he leaves Loyalty Island in Nick Dybek's novel of innocence lost, believing he can never return home because he will never regain his innocence.

Cal grows up the son of a crab fisherman, the captain of one of the ships owned by John Gaunt. Captain Henry Bollings and the other captains, including one named Brooks (Gaunt, Bolingbrooke, hmmm...) can provide for their families because of Gaunt's good stewardship of the fleet. Everyone and everything on Washington state's Loyalty Island owe their livelihoods to Gaunt. The captains are good, hard-working men whose children adore them and whose wives suffer while they are gone to the Bering Sea (just like those guys on The Deadliest Catch). Cal idolizes his father, who spends one off-season telling him bedtime stories of the good Captain Flint, before things went wrong and set up the action in Treasure Island. To Cal, his father is as honorable and brave and true ad Captain Flint. The next year, his father asks Cal if he knew the stories were just that, stories.

It's a timely question. John Gaunt dies suddenly. His wastrel son, Richard, comes back to town to fidget about what he should do with his unwanted legacy. Ultimately, he makes a public announcement that he plans to sell the fleet. Everyone will be out of a job. The town will die. Then, for the first time in Richard's life, the captains announce he has agreed to go crabbing with them. Not two days into the season, the word comes back that he has fallen overboard.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Review: 'Arcadia'

By Lauren Groff                                                                                                        
Literary Fiction
March 2012
ISBN: 978-1-4013-4087-2

The story is vague at first, the how and why opaque as the amoeba grows, as the characters take shape and as the outline of what's going on takes its own time to form.

It begins before the protagonist is even born. Little Bit is the first child born to a group on caravan that eventually becomes a commune. He knows the memory took place before his birth -- a group of women, including his mother, washing clothes in a cold river, people singing old folk songs, a bonfire and a small caravan on the move toward their eventual home.

Before the skeptical reader gives up, know that Bit knows he knows the story because it has been told to him so many times that it feels as real to him as something he actually did experience. So is Bit's own story. He is, after all, "the first Arcadian ever" and his story "is another story so retold that everyone owns it".

This communal passing on of a story is the key to Arcadia, the latest novel by Lauren Groff. So is the sense that, while the novel takes place from the 1960s to the next decade, it is timeless, a tale the Grimm Brothers may have heard to pass along: "The forest is dark and deep and pushes so heavily on Bit that he must run away from the gnarled trunks, from the groans of the wind in the branches." The forest and the outdoors are as much Bit's world as the commune.