Points of View

The problem of point of view – and it is a problem – can be a nebulous, vexing, and controversial one for a writer. Here, Henry James, in a preface to The Ambassadors, reflects on the subject of the first person singular:

Had I, meanwhile, made [Strether] at once hero and historian, endowed him with the romantic privilege of the ‘first person’ – the darkest abyss of romance this, inveterately, when enjoyed on the grand scale – variety, and many other queer matters as well, might have been smuggled in by a back door. Suffice it, to be brief, that the first person, in the long piece, is a form foredoomed to looseness and that looseness, never much my affair, had never been so little so as on this particular occasion.

‘Foredoomed to looseness’: James never was shy about marking out strict boundaries for his literary philosophy.

The first person can be simultaneously a temptation to ease and a program for difficulty; bad first-person writing is ubiquitous. But the attraction of the first person is obvious. In just a few sentences you can whip up a personality; you can invent a voice. The first person – and this was another of Henry James’s complaints about it – lends itself to volubility. Volubility, though, is a cousin of volatility: results may vary. The first person, which can seem like the safe choice for a writer of fiction, actually becomes the risky option, because of how easily it can go awry.

For one thing, the first person, even more so than the third person, demands the suppression of the writer’s ego. That ‘I’ can become a crack through which the writer’s own personality leaks. And the first person can be resistant to editing: within the sovereignty of a given voice, every sentence seems to belong; the excuse for each lies in the narrator’s id. So everything stays, and a mold of tangents grows quickly in the hothouse of a first person monologue; ill-bred sentences are spared because they add to the overall ‘voice.’ And that sort of voice easily becomes varnish for a rather dull and silly accretion of thoughts:

Yes, fellow alums, we’re boasting bright lights aplenty these days, serious comers, future leaders in their fields. Hell, we’ve even got a fellow who double-majored in philosophy and aquatic life management in college and still found time for a national squash title. Think about it, Catamounts. We didn’t have squash at Eastern Valley. We didn’t have tennis, either, unless you count that trick with the steel hairbrush and the catgut racquet whereby the butt skin of the weak was flayed. Point being, this boy, Will Paulsen (may he rest in peace), left our New Jersey burg without the faintest notion of squash, yet mastered it enough to beat the pants off every prep school Biff in the land, and still carry a four point zero in the question of Why Does the Universe Exist Underwater?

You can see why James was wary of looseness. This passage also illustrates a further danger of the unsupervised first person: a kind of lurid, soured egoism acting as a substitute for wit. Here, Martin Amis’s Money is talmudic. (Fred Exley’s A Fan’s Notes also comes to mind; and the comparison does the above paragraph no favors.) But Money, by its violent and seemingly uncontrolled flow of words, conceals the rigorous magic of its art; and Amis, like his father, actually makes the reader laugh once in a while. The prizing of pure voice, above other literary attributes, arranges literature into an unpleasant democracy in which every citizen is a tyrant, one voice as good as any other.

No contemporary writer better dodges the obstacles of the first person than Kazuo Ishiguro. He has returned again and again to the form, which he tames with an almost superhuman level of control; his entire career, from A Pale View of Hills to his most recent collection of stories, Nocturnes, comprises a study of the first person and its strange labyrinths. Ishiguro draws the suppression of his own writerly ego to an impressive extreme: he favors narrators who are themselves almost completely drained of ego. One thinks in particular of his last novel, Never Let Me Go, which may be his masterpiece, and, of course, of his Booker Prize-winner, The Remains of the Day.

The Remains of the Day is a meditation on duty, on the roles one plays in life, and on Englishness; it dares the reader to become frustrated with its narrator – Stevens, the consummate English butler. For most readers of the book, I suspect, Stevens’s willful oppression of his own ego and desires in the service or Lord Darlington initially comes across as a disastrous violation of the self. How can he refrain from being even a touch sardonic about the frequent absurdity of his role, the capriciousness of the ruling class? (It is a very English novel.) Among Ishiguro’s many novelistic gifts is a spooky talent for drawing the reader into the current of the tale. He is an addicting novelist; you are very quickly turning the pages. And, as you do, you find the logic by which Stevens lives increasingly compelling, even as his own sense of purpose begins to crack under the pressure of remembrance. You recognize the fragility of your own ego by how quickly you deemed his lacking.

Ishiguro favors a deceptively plain – which is not to say simple, or even stripped-down – style for his narrators, and Stevens is no exception:

It is, of course, the responsibility of every butler to devote his utmost care in the devising of a staff plan. Who knows how many quarrels, false accusations, unnecessary dismissals, how many promising careers cut short can be attributed to a butler’s slovenliness at the stage of drawing up the staff plan? Indeed, I can say I am in agreement with those who say that the ability to draw up a good staff plan is the cornerstone of any decent butler’s skills. I have myself devised many staff plans over the years, and I do not believe I am being unduly boastful if I say that very few have ever needed amendment.

Despite the meandering quality of Stevens’s reflection, there is not a wasted word, a misplaced gesture, in the entire paragraph. The novel as a whole shares with this paragraph an absence of figurative language; Stevens doesn’t resort to metaphor, because his life is one of concrete exactness – of tasks – and needs no analogy. Ishiguro is alert to the ironies and self-deceptions of his narrator without ever condescending to him. He ensures that each line of the novel, like Stevens himself, does exactly what it is supposed to do, as when Stevens apologizes for making a boast that many of us wouldn’t consider a boast at all.

Notice that every sentence of the paragraph contains the phrase ‘staff plan’; the awkwardness of that repetition – it is an odd mouthful of a phrase – emphasizes the stiff organizational acrobatics Stevens has to perform in discharging his duties as head butler. The circumlocution (‘I can say I am in agreement with those who say’) enacts the repetitiousness of his work – polishing the same silver, dusting the same portraits – as well as the thoroughness he brings to it; he hangs extra sentences on points he has made already. And the slight nervousness of the prose attests to the politics of his work: he has to offer his employer just enough personality to endear himself without ever offering too much personality – that is, without ever becoming a person. (In Never Let Me Go, of course, Ishiguro takes Stevens’s model of duty and selflessness to a perverse outer limit.)

In the hands of a writer like Ishiguro, the first person narrator is a rich, delicate, subtle tool; by not straining for voice – ‘voice’ here being a synonym for a loud, hyperactive, and frankly blog-like prose style – he creates poignant, credible figures whose lives, even at their quietest, are lived in extremis.

One of the most praised novels of recent years is also one that makes terrific use of the first person. Netherland does not so much follow a plot as it maps the interior of its narrator while pressing firmly but gently on many of our contemporary anxieties. Joseph O’Neill, in an interview with Mark Sarvas for The Elegant Variation, during which he spoke with great feeling and intelligence on a wide range of literary topics, offered some thoughts on his predilection for the first person:

I find the third person very difficult. I do it in short stories, but . . . I’m sometimes tempted by a baroque third person. But that’s, again, hard to do or, oddly enough, too easy to do. Nothing about writing is straightforward, but it’s not especially difficult to write a humorous, verbally tricky fantasia, because that’s a way of dodging certain big challenges. . . . Also, third person narratives lend themselves, in my hands, to plottiness, and the problem with plot is that it becomes – and again, all this is from my point of view – it becomes excessively psychological and ordinary. Whereas if you want a narrative capable of the full, flickering range of empathies, the sort of empathies that everybody has, that approximate the depth and spottiness of human apprehension, you are able to draw that out much more in the first person. At least, that’s the case with me.

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~ by mackenz on July 29, 2009.

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