How Fiction Works

James Wood

Picador

Chapter One
Narrating
 
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The house of fiction has many windows, but only two or three doors. I can tell a story in the third person or in the first person, and perhaps in the second person singular, or in the first person plural, though successful examples of these latter two are rare indeed. And that is it. Anything else probably will not much resemble narration; it may be closer to poetry, or prose-poetry.
 
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In reality, we are stuck with third- and first-person narration. The common idea is that there is a contrast between reliable narration (third-person omniscience) and unreliable narration (the unreliable first-person narrator, who knows less about himself than the reader eventually does). On one side, Tolstoy, say; and on the other, Humbert Humbert or Italo Svevo's narrator, Zeno Cosini, or Bertie Wooster. Authorial omniscience, people assume, has had its day, much as that "vast, moth-eaten musical brocade" called religion has also had its. W. G. Sebald once said to me, "I think that fiction writing which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator himself is a form of imposture which I find very, very difficult to take. Any form of authorial writing where the narrator sets himself up as stagehand and director and judge and executor in a text, I find somehow unacceptable. I cannot bear to read books of this kind." Sebald continued: "If you refer to Jane Austen, you refer to a world where there were set standards of propriety which were accepted by everyone. Given that you have a world where the rules are clear and where one knows where trespassing begins, then I think it is legitimate, within that context, to be a narrator who knows what the rules are and who knows the answers to certain questions. But I think these certainties have been taken from us by the course of history, and that we do have to acknowledge our own sense of ignorance and of insufficiency in these matters and therefore to try and write accordingly."
 
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For Sebald, and for many writers like him, standard third-person omniscient narration is a kind of antique cheat. But both sides of this division have been caricatured.
 
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Actually, first-person narration is generally more reliable than unreliable; and third-person "omniscient" narration is generally more partial than omniscient.
The first-person narrator is often highly reliable; Jane Eyre, a highly reliable first-person narrator, for instance, tells us her story from a position of belated enlightenment (years later, married to Mr. Rochester, she can now see her whole life story, rather as Mr. Rochester's eyesight is gradually returning at the end of the novel). Even the apparently unreliable narrator is more often than not reliably unreliable. Think of Kazuo Ishiguro's butler in The Remains of the Day, or of Bertie Wooster, or even of Humbert Humbert. We know that the narrator is being unreliable because the author is alerting us, through reliable manipulation, to that narrator's unreliability. A process of authorial flagging is going on; the novel teaches us how to read its narrator.
Unreliably unreliable narration is very rare, actually-about as rare as a genuinely mysterious, truly bottomless character. The nameless narrator of Knut Hamsun's Hunger is highly unreliable, and finally unknowable (it helps that he is insane); Dostoevsky's narrator in Notes from Underground is the model for Hamsun. Italo Svevo's Zeno Cosini may be the best example of truly unreliable narration. He imagines that by telling us his life story he is psychoanalyzing himself (he has promised his analyst to do this). But his self-comprehension, waved confidently before our eyes, is as comically perforated as a bullet-holed flag.
 
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On the other side, omniscient narration is rarely as omniscient as it seems. To begin with, authorial style generally has a way of making third-person omniscience seem partial and inflected. Authorial style tends to draw our attention toward the writer, toward the artifice of the author's construction, and so toward the writer's own impress. Thus the almost comic paradox of Flaubert's celebrated wish that the author be "impersonal," Godlike, and removed, in contrast with the high personality of his very style, those exquisite sentences and details, which are nothing less than God's showy signatures on every page: so much for the impersonal author. Tolstoy comes closest to a canonical idea of authorial omniscience, and he uses with great naturalness and authority a mode of writing that Roland Barthes called "the reference code" (or sometimes "the cultural code"), whereby a writer makes confident appeal to a universal or consensual truth, or a body of shared cultural or scientific knowledge.
 
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So-called omniscience is almost impossible. As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking. A novelist's omniscience soon enough becomes a kind of secret sharing; this is called "free indirect style," a term novelists have lots of different nicknames for-"close third person," or "going into character."
 
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a. He looked over at his wife. "She looks so unhappy," he thought, "almost sick." He wondered what to say.
 
This is direct or quoted speech ("'She looks so unhappy,' he thought") combined with the character's reported or indirect speech ("He wondered what to say"). The old-fashioned notion of a character's thought as a speech made to himself, a kind of internal address.
b. He looked over at his wife. She looked so unhappy, he thought, almost sick. He wondered what to say.
 
This is reported or indirect speech, the internal speech of the husband reported by the author, and flagged as such ("he thought"). It is the most recognizable, the most habitual, of all the codes of standard realist narrative.
c. He looked at his wife. Yes, she was tiresomely unhappy again, almost sick. What the hell should he say?
This is free indirect speech or style: the husband's internal speech or thought has been freed of its authorial flagging; no "he said to himself" or "he wondered" or "he thought."
Note the gain in flexibility. The narrative seems to float away from the novelist and take on the properties of the character, who now seems to "own" the words. The writer is free to inflect the reported thought, to bend it around the character's own words ("What the hell should he say?"). We are close to stream of consciousness, and that is the direction free indirect style takes in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries: "He looked at her. Unhappy, yes. Sickly. Obviously a big mistake to have told her. His stupid conscience again. Why did he blurt it? All his own fault, and what now?"
You will note that such internal monologue, freed from flagging and quotation marks, sounds very much like the pure soliloquy of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels (an example of a technical improvement merely renovating, in a circular manner, an original technique too basic and useful-too real-to do without).
 
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Free indirect style is at its most powerful when hardly visible or audible: "Ted watched the orchestra through stupid tears." In my example, the word "stupid" marks the sentence as written in free indirect style. Remove it, and we have standard reported thought: "Ted watched the orchestra through tears." The addition of the word "stupid" raises the question: Whose word is this? It's unlikely that I would want to call my character stupid merely for listening to some music in a concert hall. No, in a marvelous alchemical transfer, the word now belongs partly to Ted. He is listening to the music and crying, and is embarrassed-we can imagine him furiously rubbing his eyes-that he has allowed these "stupid" tears to fall. Convert it back into first-person speech, and we have this: "'Stupid to be crying at this silly piece of Brahms,' he thought." But this example is several words longer; and we have lost the complicated presence of the author.
 
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What is so useful about free indirect style is that in our example a word like "stupid" somehow belongs both to the author and the character; we are not entirely sure who "owns" the word. Might "stupid" reflect a slight asperity or distance on the part of the author? Or does the word belong wholly to the character, with the author, in a rush of sympathy, having "handed" it, as it were, to the tearful fellow?
 
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Thanks to free indirect style, we see things through the character's eyes and language but also through the author's eyes and language. We inhabit omniscience and partiality at once. A gap opens between author and character, and the bridge-which is free indirect style itself-between them simultaneously closes that gap and draws attention to its distance.
This is merely another definition of dramatic irony: to see through a character's eyes while being encouraged to see more than the character can see (an unreliability identical to the unreliable first-person narrator's).
 
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Some of the purest examples of irony are found in children's literature, which often needs to allow a child-or the child's proxy, an animal-to see the world through limited eyes, while alerting the older reader to this limitation. In Robert McCloskey's Make Way for Ducklings, Mr. and Mrs. Mallard are trying out the Boston Public Garden for their new home, when a swan boat (a boat made to look like a swan but actually powered by a pedal-pushing human pilot) passes them. Mr. Mallard has never seen anything like this before. McCloskey falls naturally into free indirect style: "Just as they were getting ready to start on their way, a strange enormous bird came by. It was pushing a boat full of people, and there was a man sitting on its back. 'Good morning,' quacked Mr. Mallard, being polite. The big bird was too proud to answer." Instead of telling us that Mr. Mallard could make no sense of the swan boat, McCloskey places us in Mr. Mallard's confusion; yet the confusion is obvious enough that a broad ironic gap opens between Mr. Mallard and the reader (or author). We are not confused in the same way as Mr. Mallard; but we are also being made to inhabit Mr. Mallard's confusion.
 
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What happens, though, when a more serious writer wants to open a very small gap between character and author? What happens when a novelist wants us to inhabit a character's confusion, but will not "correct" that confusion, refuses to make clear what a state of nonconfusion would look like? We can walk in a straight line from McCloskey to Henry James. There is a technical connection, for instance, between Make Way for Ducklings and James's novel What Maisie Knew. Free indirect style helps us to inhabit juvenile confusion, this time a young girl's rather than a duck's. James tells the story, from the third person, of Maisie Farange, a little girl whose parents have viciously divorced. She is bounced between them, as new governesses, from each parental side, are thrust upon her. James wants us to live inside her confusion, and also wants to describe adult corruption from the eyes of childish innocence. Maisie likes one of her governesses, the plain and distinctly lower-middle-class Mrs. Wix, who wears her hair rather grotesquely, and who once had a little daughter called Clara Matilda, a girl who, at around Maisie's age, was knocked down on the Harrow Road, and is buried in the cemetery at Kensal Green. Maisie knows that her elegant and vapid mother does not think much of Mrs. Wix, but Maisie likes her all the same:
It was on account of these things that mamma got her for such low pay, really for nothing: so much, one day when Mrs. Wix had accompanied her into the drawing-room and left her, the child heard one of the ladies she found there-a lady with eyebrows arched like skipping-ropes and thick black stitching, like ruled lines for musical notes on beautiful white gloves-announce to another. She knew governesses were poor; Miss Overmore was unmentionably and Mrs. Wix ever so publicly so. Neither this, however, nor the old brown frock nor the diadem nor the button, made a difference for Maisie in the charm put forth through everything, the charm of Mrs. Wix's conveying that somehow, in her ugliness and her poverty, she was peculiarly and soothingly safe; safer than any one in the world, than papa, than mamma, than the lady with the arched eyebrows; safer even, though so much less beautiful, than Miss Overmore, on whose loveliness, as she supposed it, the little girl was faintly conscious that one couldn't rest with quite the same tucked-in and kissed-for-goodnight feeling. Mrs. Wix was as safe as Clara Matilda, who was in heaven and yet, embarrassingly, also in Kensal Green, where they had been together to see her little huddled grave.
 
What a piece of writing this is! So flexible, so capable of inhabiting different levels of comprehension and irony, so full of poignant identification with young Maisie, yet constantly moving in toward Maisie and moving away from her, back toward the author.
 
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James's free indirect style allows us to inhabit at least three different perspectives at once: the official parental and adult judgment on Mrs. Wix; Maisie's version of the official view; and Maisie's view of Mrs. Wix. The official view, overheard by Maisie, is filtered through Maisie's own half-comprehending voice: "It was on account of these things that mamma got her for such low pay, really for nothing." The lady with the arched eyebrows who uttered this cruelty is being paraphrased by Maisie, and paraphrased not especially skeptically or rebelliously, but with a child's wide-eyed respect for authority. James must make us feel that Maisie knows a lot but not enough. Maisie may not like the woman with the arched eyebrows who spoke thus about Mrs. Wix, but she is still in fear of her judgment, and we can hear a kind of excited respect in the narration; the free indirect style is done so well that it is pure voice-it longs to be turned back into the speech of which it is the paraphrase: we can hear, as a sort of shadow, Maisie saying to the kind of friend she in fact painfully lacks, "You know, mamma got her for very low pay because she is very poor and has a dead daughter. I've visited the grave, don't you know!"
So there is the official adult opinion of Mrs. Wix; and there is Maisie's comprehension of this official disapproval; and then, countervailingly, there is Maisie's own, much warmer opinion of Mrs. Wix, who may not be as elegant as her predecessor, Miss Over-more, but who seems much more safe: the purveyor of a uniquely "tucked-in and kissed-for-good-night feeling." (Notice that in the interest of letting Maisie "speak" through his language, James is willing to sacrifice his own stylistic elegance in a phrase like this.)
 
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James's genius gathers in one word: "embarrassingly." That is where all the stress comes to rest. "Mrs. Wix was as safe as Clara Matilda, who was in heaven and yet, embarrassingly, also in Kensal Green, where they had been together to see her little huddled grave." Whose word is "embarrassingly"? It is Maisie's: it is embarrassing for a child to witness adult grief, and we know that Mrs. Wix has taken to referring to Clara Matilda as Maisie's "little dead sister." We can imagine Maisie standing next to Mrs. Wix in the cemetery at Kensal Green-it is characteristic of James's narration that he has not mentioned the place name Kensal Green until now, leaving it for us to work out-we can imagine her standing next to Mrs. Wix and feeling awkward and embarrassed, at once impressed by and a little afraid of Mrs. Wix's grief. And here is the greatness of the passage: Maisie, despite her greater love for Mrs. Wix, stands in the same relation to Mrs. Wix as she stands to the lady with the arched eyebrows; both women cause her some embarrassment. She fully understands neither, even if she uncomprehendingly prefers the former. "Embarrassingly": the word encodes Maisie's natural embarrassment and also the internalized embarrassment of official adult opinion ("My dear, it is so embarrassing, that woman is always taking her up to Kensal Green!").

(Continues...)
 
Excerpted from How Fiction Works by James Wood Copyright © 2008 by James Wood . Excerpted by permission.

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