The first person is seductive. It feels, for many, like the most natural way to tell a story. We are all first person narrators of our own lives, after all, and surely it is the easiest thing in the world to translate personal experience to the page. That way there is no need to fuss with the peculiar questions that arise when a mysterious and sometimes too-knowing third person narrator appears on the scene.
But the first person is in fact more difficult than the third. As we approach the first person narrator we may discover that it is essentially unlocateable, rather like the electron in orbit around the atomic nucleus. We can approach it, but we cannot actually put our finger on its nature precisely. This has to do with the recursive properties of consciousness, probably, but also with the unavoidable fact that the presence of any teller prompts us to ask how trustworthy the teller is. We never trust anyone telling us anything.
Of course when we write first-person narrators, we must in fact not only locate but convincingly inhabit our speakers, trustworthy or not. If we don’t, our work suffers. We discover there is a subtle but crucial difference between something like “reporting from the scene of a consciousness” and “reporting from within a consciousness.” The former is weak and unconvincing, while the latter feels like life. One finds the difference in how deeply the writer has managed to seat the perspective of the narrator—how firmly we embed the reader in the narrator’s point of view.
A few techniques can be brought to bear to increase the reader’s sense of embeddedness.
Jeffrey Eugenides’s prose is typically lax and underpowered (which accounts for the bagginess and unproductive length of a work like Middlesex). Over and over in that flabby, overwritten novel he can be observed struggling to seat the point of view in Calliope’s head. In the following passage, insufficiencies such as “the next thing I knew” point to a narrator who has not yet arrived on the page, as do such infelicities as “I let it keep burning my lungs because I wanted to distract myself from the pain in my heart.” But amid the wreckage here there are some successes. Our narrator is at a party with some other teens:
The Object’s green eyes were watering. But she took the joint and inserted it between her lips. She leaned toward Rex Reese, who opened his own mouth wide.
When they were finished, Jerome took the joint from his sister. “Let me see if I can master the technical difficulties here,” he said. The next thing I knew, his face was close to mine. So finally I did it, too. Leaned forward, closed my eyes, parted my lips, and let Jerome shotgun into my mouth a long, dirty plume of smoke.
Smoke filled my lungs, which began to burn. I coughed and let it out. When I opened my eyes again, Rex had his arm around the Object’s shoulder. She was trying to act casual about it. Rex finished his beer….
“I can’t see my feet,” I said. “It’s dark in here.
[Jerome] passed me the joint again and I took it. I inhaled and held the smoke in. I let it keep burning my lungs because I wanted to distract myself from the pain in my heart. Rex and the Object were still kissing. I looked away, out the dark, grimy window.
“Everything looks really blue,” I said. “Did you notice that?”
“Oh yeah,” said Jerome. “All kinds of strange epiphenomena.”
The Oracle of Delphi had been a girl about my same age. All day long she sat over a hole in the ground, the omphalos, the navel of the earth, breathing petrochemical fumes escaping from underneath. A teenage virgin, the Oracle told the future, speaking the first metered verse in history….
One of the telltale signals of a first person not yet completely inhabited is often the overuse of simple subject-verb constructions: “I looked,” “I wanted,” “I thought about,” “I remembered,” “I imagined,” “I felt,” and so on. These constructions of consciousness are defensible in early drafts but should be substantially controlled in later ones. They originate from a positive and necessary impulse — to attach what is happening to the experiences of the point of view character — but they are not rendered from within the narrator’s actual experience. Rather, they are reported from a safe distance.
This seems a small point but it is a crucial one, really the crucial one when considering the first person narrator. In life, we do not engage in anything so controlled or constructed as an act that can be described as, for example, “remembering.” In fact, we simply have images and thoughts occur to us, immediately and all at once. There is no process of remembering, only a moment before we have remembered something and the moment after which we have remembered it.
Similarly, we do not really “look” at things. Rather, visual stimuli enter our eyes and brains and make an effectively immediate impression upon us. The things we see are before us at once, unmediated by any agency of consciousness. They are simply there. The verb “look” is, when considered this way, inadequate to describe the speed and immediacy with which images arrive in our awareness. There is no action of “looking” per se. As with remembering, visual stimuli are not there in one moment, and are there the next. Eugenides’s mistake is to describe an activity rather than recreating, through other means, the subjective experience of actually engaging in the activity. After all, it is only someone else who may be said to “look” at something. What we do, in our own minds, is simply experience the result of looking.
But there are two (two and a half, maybe) successful moments in this passage: 1) “She was trying to act casual about it” and 2) “The Oracle of Delphi had been a girl about my same age.”
“She was trying to act casual about it” works because the awareness of the narrator is for once unfiltered. How does Calliope know that The Obscure Object “was trying to act casual about it”? Calliope’s process of information gathering and processing is undescribed. But speaking literally, she has engaged in a long series of complicated mental calculations based on the visual stimuli she has received. She has received visual and aural information about The Object’s stance, facial expression, tone of voice, and she has from these bits of evidence concluded something like a fact about the Object. Whether this “fact” is true is unknowable, as it should be, because this is Calliope’s truth unfiltered. This is a successfully embedded point of view.
In the second example, Eugenides spares us the awkwardness of anything like “At that moment I remembered that the Oracle of Delphi had been…” Instead, he delivers the thought unmediated. In this way the memory arrives on the page in the same way memories arrive to us in life — all at once and unaccompanied by anything like intention. As in life, this thought about the Oracle simply arises. At the instant it is occurring to Calliope it also occurs for us, and in the same fashion.
A small success might also be noted in the first half of the sentence Leaned forward, closed my eyes, parted my lips, and let Jerome shotgun into my mouth a long, dirty plume of smoke. Eliminating the pronoun “I” is a shortcut and a cheat, and Eugenides is likely doing it here mostly to achieve some rhythmic and aural variation (perhaps tired of the “I [verbed]” construction himself). But eliminating the pronoun does work to short-circuit our sense of an action being reported from outside the reporter. It is not much, but it is something, and if we are getting tired, this is okay. But Eugenides undoes his accomplishment in the second half of the sentence: “a long, dirty plume of smoke” would be invisible to Calliope.
We can contrast Eugenides’s struggle with Michael Chabon’s customary effortlessness. The florid, exuberantly demonstrative first-person narration of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh provides a fine example of a point of view deeply embedded in its purported perspective. The novel opens:
At the beginning of the summer I had lunch with my father, the gangster, who was in town for the weekend to transact some of his vague business. We’d just come to the end of a period of silence and ill will—a year I’d spent in love with and in the same apartment as an odd, fragile girl whom he had loathed, on sight, with a frankness and a fury that were not at all like him. But Claire had moved out the month before. Neither my father nor I knew what to do with our new freedom.
“I saw Lenny Stern this morning,” he said. “He asked after you. You remember your Uncle Lenny.”
“Sure,” I said, and I thought for a second about Uncle Lenny, juggling three sandwich halves in the back room of his five-and-dime in the Hill District a million years ago.
I was nervous and drank more than I ate; my father carefully dispatched his steak. Then he asked me what my plans were for the summer, and in the flush of some strong emotion or other I said, more or less: It’s the beginning of the summer and I’m standing in the lobby of a thousand-story grand hotel, where a bank of elevators a mile long and an endless row of monkey attendants in gold braid wait to carry me up, up, up through the suites of moguls, of spies, and of starlets, to rush me straight to the zeppelin mooring at the art deco summit, where they keep the huge dirigible of August tied up and bobbing in the high winds. On the way to the shining needle at the top I will wear a lot of neckties, I will buy five or six works of genius on 45 rpm, and perhaps too many times I will find myself looking at the snapped spine of a lemon wedge at the bottom of a drink. I said, “I anticipate a coming season of dilated time and of women all in disarray.”
The unparalleled excellence of the writing is a joy: “carefully dispatched” is visually and characterologically exact (we can see Art’s father, vested and buttoned, methodically working away at his tidy plate, leaving only the parsley garnish), and “snapped spine of a lemon wedge” shows us what we have not bothered to notice until now, the segmented and organic nature of that unconsidered thing in our glass, and by saying not “glass” but “drink” Chabon also gives us the ice cubes and perhaps the swizzle stick, as well as the shape, size and weight of the glass, the table on which it sits, and some qualities pertaining to the space in which that table stands. These excellences function as keys to the mind of the speaker, arriving as they do unmediated into Art’s consciousness: it’s not “it occurred to me that my father was carefully dispatching his steak” or “I looked at the lemon wedge…”
On a deeper level, note that we can usefully distinguish, on the one hand, between the Chabonian constructions “I had lunch with my father” and “I was nervous and drank more than I ate” and, on the other hand, the Eugenidean “I coughed and let it out” and “when I opened my eyes again.” Eugenides’ efforts to track Calliope’s consciousness moment by moment fail because they do not reflect what it really feels like in a subjective sense to cough or to open one’s eyes. By contrast, Chabon mostly uses the pronoun “I” to report on larger-scale occurrences — things that are happening over a longer span of time — and so avoids this pitfall. Having lunch with one’s father is not an immediate or all-at-once experience. Nor is being nervous and drinking more than one eats. Our experience of these events differs fundamentally from our experience of coughing, seeing, hearing, thinking, and speaking, in that they are events that, with their complicated social and behavioral aspects, must be understood with several sets of mental instruments, including those having to do with family history, taste, manners, and so forth. Most importantly, having dinner is not one experience but a set of extended experiences which can really only be described or apprehended in synthetic terms, while sensual experiences are discrete and immediate. The Chabonian “I” in this sense is a more complicated device, albeit a slightly more removed one, than the Eugenidean.
Notice, too, that when Chabon does use simple subject-verb constructions they are often in some fashion filtered through Art. Even the usually deadly “I thought” is here first improved by “for a second”, which at least acknowledges the fleeting nature of any thought; then “I thought” is redeemed entirely by the thought having nothing to do with anything that has come before, such that even this usually worrisome construction, once successfully moderated in this way, manages to suggest the impinging influences of an unstructured brain. Why is Lenny jugging three sandwich halves? How do they stay together in the air? Why three halves? Where is the fourth? Eaten, perhaps, by Uncle Lenny. But who is Uncle Lenny? We don’t know, we don’t know, we don’t know, we don’t know, we don’t know. And then Lenny is gone.
Notice, too, that there is an important distance between “I said” and “I said, more or less”, and there is a very great gulf indeed between a character declaring “I will wear a lot of neckties” in a strictly literal sense and saying “I will wear a lot of neckties” in a fit of metaphorical brio. The passage is so fanciful, in fact, and by its end has so separated itself from any claim to strict literality, that we may reasonably suspect its concluding line of dialog (“I anticipate a coming season of dilated time and of women all in disarray”) is not what is actually said aloud, and that in fact what is said aloud is something else entirely that just sounds or feels like “I anticipate a coming season of dilated time and of women all in disarray” to Art’s subjective consciousness. There are very few constructed elements to Art’s thinking, and those that are to be found are intentionally undermined, such that the effect (and purpose) of this passage is both to convey the impression of what it is like to be Art and to suggest that our best reading of Art should include not only what he says, but what he appears to mean.
On the other end of the spectrum from Chabon are first-person narrators who might be described as reticent or formal. Reticence and formality can have powerful effects, and often this kind of voice is deployed in the service of hiding some otherwise unmanageable emotion on the part of the speaker. In such a case the habits of the voice itself often become part of the narrative machinery of the story, and the developments in the voice mirror, oppose, or otherwise assist the events on the page. For instance, a voice may work to undermine itself, or will seek to hold off powerful emotion by refusing to attach to what is being reported. Other effects are possible; often a formal or unforthcoming voice is used to depict the mind of someone working to maintain sanity, to prevail over trauma, or to rationalize an otherwise inexcusable act or set of behaviors, as in Jane Smiley’s “The Age of Grief.”
Ethan Canin has deployed many different kinds of restrained voice over his long career. In his early work his narrators were often models of delicate understatement, as is the case with the narrator of “The Year of Getting to Know Us”:
I’m an only child, and I grew up in a big wood-frame house on Huron Avenue in Pasadena, California. The house had three empty bedrooms and in the back yard a section of grass that had been stripped and leveled, then seeded and mowed like a putting green. Twice a week a Mexican gardener came to trim it, wearing special moccasins my father had bought him. They had soft hide soles that left no imprints.
My father was in love with golf. He played seven times every week and talked about the game as if it were a science that he was about to figure out. “Cut through the outer rim for a high iron,” he used to say at dinner, looking out the window into the yard while my mother passed him the carved-wood salad bowl, or “In hot weather hit a high compression ball.” When conversations paused, he made little putting motions with his hands. He was a top amateur and in another situation might have been a pro. When I was sixteen, the year I was arrested, he let me caddie for the first time. Before that all I knew about golf was his clubs – the Spalding made-to-measure woods and irons, Dynamiter sand wedge, St. Andrews putter – which he kept in an Abercrombie & Fitch bag in the trunk of his Lincoln, and the white leather shoes with long tongues and screw-in spikes, which he stored upside down in the hall closet. When he wasn’t playing, he covered the club heads with socks that had little yellow dingo balls on the ends.
At first glance the work here, while very good, appears uncomplicated. But as detail accumulates, something happens. A tone emerges: measured, even distant. One source of this tone is the lack of the speaker’s summarizing judgment. Nowhere does the narrator describe what thoughts or feelings these facts produce in him. He is simply reporting the facts. There is a taffy-like motion here, as the longer the passage continues without the narrator’s summarizing presence in it, the more we feel him pulling away. Apart from the carefully deployed exception (“the year I was arrested”), the speaker is effectively absent. It is the opposite of Chabon’s wildly interpreting Art, who, at the gentlest prompting, erupts in gouts of hyper-responsive feeling. The restraint on display in “The Year of Getting to Know Us” is elegant; Canin achieves this effect through an absence, a difficult feat that accounts for much of this story’s wistful tone.
In the later example of “The Accountant,” Canin’s customarily restrained and semiformal style has hardened into habit and lost some of its nuance. But there is still something to be taken from him. The novella opens:
I am an accountant, that calling of exactitude and scruple, and my crime was small. I have worked diligently, and I do not mind saying that in the conscientious embrace of the ledger I have done well for myself over the years, yet now I must also say that due to a flaw in my character I have allowed one small trespass against my honor. I try to forget it. Although now I do little more than try to forget it, I find myself considering and reconsidering this flaw, and then this trespass, although in truth if I am to look at them both, this flaw is so large that it cannot properly be called a flaw but my character itself, and this trespass was devious. I have a wife and three children. My name is Abba Roth.
This voice, a much less subtle instrument than the one at work in “The Year of Getting to Know Us,” might be said to occupy two zones: 1) the highly built formal zone in which the sentences are long and polyclausal, and 2) the unbuilt, demotic zone in which the sentences are simple and declarative. By occupying both zones in one paragraph, Canin proposes a consciousness that has one half of itself in one zone and the other half in the second. Half of its energy is deployed in constructing a presentable truth, and the other half, like a muttering chorus, relates those facts that can be delivered without polish or interpretation – the real truth, as it were. The voice that propels the short sentences ” I try to forget it” “I have a wife and three children” and “My name is Abba Roth” will be the voice of the flawed, criminal Abba. The other is a mask.
The Retrospective Eye
Several techniques create a first-person eye that, even from a future vantage, create vivid action. Alice Munro provides a subtle, canny example in the opening of “Walker Brothers Cowboy”:
After supper my father says, “Want to go down and see if the Lake’s still there?” We leave my mother sewing under the dining-room light, making clothes for me against the opening of school. She has ripped up for this purpose an old suit and an old plaid wool dress of hers, and she has to cut and match very cleverly and also make me stand and turn for endless fittings, sweaty, itching from the hot wool, ungrateful. We leave my brother in bed in the little screened porch at the end of the front verandah, and sometimes he kneels on his bed and presses his face against the screen and calls mournfully, “Bring me an ice cream cone!” but I call back, “You will be asleep,” and do not even turn my head.
While there is a great deal in play in this paragraph it is the word “ungrateful” that allows us to see this action as being observed from the future. In any retrospective narration, the first-person narrator sees with two pairs of eyes, one occupying the occasion of telling and the other the moment in which the event occurred. The immediate eye relates the details: the “dining-room light,” the “old plaid wool dress,” the lines of dialog, and so forth. The eye that sees from the future is mostly content for the event-eye to do the seeing. The girl whose mother is making her a dress notices, in the moment, that her mother “has to cut and match very cleverly” and she will naturally complain because her mother will “also make me stand and turn for endless fittings, sweaty, itching from the hot wool.” But it is the eye from the future that can declare her past self “ungrateful.” The girl in the past may feel ingratitude, but she will likely be unable to articulate such a thing; surely she will be unable to confess it. It is the work of the future narrator to see that she was in fact ungrateful, and to note it, and thereby to hold that earlier version of herself to account.