This post is an insider’s look at how fiction really works. This post is the first several pages of James Wood’s classic book “How Fiction Works.”
When I read this first chapter of James Wood’s book five or six years ago, I felt like I was finally getting the inside dope on how real writers actually put novels together. The pages below are an introduction on what free indirect style (sometimes called free indirect speech) is and how it works in practice. Free Indirect Style is one of the main reasons great literature is great. Yet most readers have never heard of it.
I have been reading fiction for sixty-five years and I even taught college English for six years, a long time ago. But I don’t remember ever hearing about free indirect style before reading Wood’s book. I guess I must have missed something in graduate school. Maybe that was because I went to graduate school at the University of Wyoming, which is not exactly the home-ground of high-end literary criticism. Or on the other hand, maybe it was because I took my literary criticism class the first semester of grad school when was meant to be taken in the last year. Or maybe it was because I went directly to English grad school from a Bachelors in Biology with nothing in between and had read very little to no real literature before. I had read a lot of James Bond though, he was really hot at the time. But maybe that didn’t count.
Anyway. When I first read this essay a few years ago, it seemed so wonderful that I thought I had died and gone to heaven. So here it is. I think this is a great way to begin learning what fiction and serious reading and literature are really all about, if such a thing should interest you. However this essay is not for the faint of heart or the easily bored. If you like it, great, I think you should buy the whole book. If not, I really can’t say I blame you. Here is the entire book in the Kindle Library.
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, is 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).
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.
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?
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).
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.
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 brows 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.
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 Overmore, 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.)
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 a characteristic tic 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!”).
Remove the word “embarrassingly” from the sentence and it would barely be free indirect direct style: “Mrs. Wix was as safe as Clara Matilda, who was in heaven and yet also in Kensal Green, where they had been together to see her little huddled grave.” The addition of the single adverb takes us deep into Maisie’s confusion, and at that moment we become her–that adverb is passed from James to Maisie, is given to Maisie. We merge with her. Yet, within the same sentence, having briefly merged, we are drawn back: “her little huddled grave.” “Embarrassingly” is the word Maisie might have used, but “huddled” is not. It is Henry James’s word. The sentence pulsates, moves in and out, toward the character and away from her–when we reach “huddled” we are reminded that an author allowed us to merge with his character, that the author’s magniloquent style is the envelope within which this generous contract is carried.
The critic Hugh Kenner writes about a moment in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” when Uncle Charles “repaired” to the outhouse. “Repair” is a pompous verb that belongs to outmoded poetic convention. It is “bad” writing. Joyce, with his acute eye for cliche, would only use such a word knowingly. It must be, says Kenner, Uncle Charles’s word, the word he might use about himself in his fond fantasy about his own importance (“And so I repair to the outhouse”). Kenner names this the Uncle Charles principle. Mystifyingly, he calls this “something new in fiction.” Yet we know it isn’t. The Uncle Charles principle is just an edition of free indirect style. Joyce is a master at it. “The Dead” begins like this: “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.” But no one is literally run off her feet. What we hear is Lily saying to herself or to a friend (with great emphasis on precisely the most inaccurate word, and with a strong accent): “Oi was lit-er-rully ron off me feet!”
Even if Kenner’s example is a bit different, it is still not new. Mock-heroic poetry of the eighteenth century gets its laughs by applying the language of epic or the Bible to reduced human subjects. In Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, Belinda’s makeup and dressing-table effects are seen as “unnumbered treasures,” “India’s glowing gems,” “all Arabia breathes from yonder box,” and so on. Part of the joke is that this is the kind of language that the personage–“personage” being precisely a mock-heroic word–might want to use about herself; the rest of the joke resides in the actual littleness of that personage. Well, what is this but an early form of free indirect style?
In the opening of Chapter 5 of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen introduces us to
Sir William Lucas, once the mayor of Long-bourn, who, knighted by the king, has decided that he is too big for the town, and must move to a new pile: Sir William Lucas had been formerly in trade in Meryton, where he had made a tolerable fortune, and risen to the honour of knighthood by an address to the King, during his mayoralty. The distinction had perhaps been felt too strongly. It had given him a disgust to his business and to his residence in a small market town; and quitting them both, he had removed with his family to a house about a mile from Meryton, denominated from that period Lucas Lodge, where he could think with pleasure of his own importance …
Austen’s irony dances over this like the long-legged fly in Yeats’s poem: “where he had made a tolerable fortune.” What is, or would be, a “tolerable” fortune? Intolerable to whom, tolerated by whom? But the great example of mock-heroic comedy resides in that phrase “denominated from that period Lucas Lodge.” Lucas Lodge is funny enough; it is like Toad of Toad Hall or Shandy Hall, and we can be sure that the house does not quite measure up to its alliterative grandeur. But the pomposity of “denominated from that period” is funny because we can imagine Sir William saying to himself “and I will denominate the house, from this period, Lucas Lodge. Yes, that sounds prodigious.” Mock-heroic is almost identical, at this point, to free indirect style. Austen has handed the language over to Sir William, but she is still tartly in control.
A modern master of the mock-heroic is V. S. Naipaul in A House for Mr Biswas: “When he got home he mixed and drank some Maclean’s Brand Stomach Powder, undressed, got into bed and began to read Epictetus.” The comic-pathetic capitalization of the brand name, and the presence of Epictetus–Pope himself would not have done it better. And what is the make of the bed that poor Mr. Biswas rests on? It is, Naipaul deliberately tells us every so often, a “Slumberking bed”: the right name for a man who may be a king or little god in his own mind but who will never rise above “Mr.” And Naipaul’s decision, of course, to refer to Biswas as “Mr. Biswas” throughout the novel has itself a mock-heroic irony about it, “Mr.” being at once the most ordinary honorific and, in a poor society, a by no means spontaneous achievement. “Mr. Biswas,” was,” we might say, is free indirect style in a pod: “Mr.” is how Biswas likes to think of himself; but it is all he will ever be, along with everyone else.
There is a final refinement of free indirect style–we should now just call it authorial irony–when the gap between an author’s voice and a character’s voice seems to collapse altogether; when a character’s voice does indeed seem rebelliously to have taken over the narration altogether. “The town was small, worse than a village, and in it lived almost none but old people, who died so rarely it was even annoying.” What an amazing opening! It is the first sentence of Chekhov’s story “Rothschild’s Fiddle.” The next sentences are: “And in the hospital and jail there was very little demand for coffins. In short, business was bad.” The rest of the paragraph introduces us to an extremely mean coffin-maker, and we realize that the story has opened in the middle of free indirect style: “and in it lived almost none but old people, who died so rarely it was even annoying.” We are in the midst of the coffin-maker’s mind, for whom longevity is an economic nuisance. Chekhov subverts the expected neutrality of the opening of a story or novel, which might traditionally begin with a panning shot before we narrow our focus (“The little town of N. was smaller than a village, and had two rather grubby little streets,” etc.). But where Joyce, in “The Dead,” clearly pegs his free indirect style to Lily, Chekhov begins his use of it before his character has even been identified. And while Joyce abandons Lily’s perspective, moving first into authorial omniscience and then to Gabriel Conroy’s point of view, Chekhov’s story continues to narrate events from the coffin-maker’s eyes.
Or perhaps it might be more accurate to say that the story is written from a point of view closer to a village chorus than to one man. This village chorus sees life pretty much as brutally as the coffin-maker would–“There were not many patients, and he did not have to wait long, only about three hours”–but continues to see this world after the coffin-maker has died. The Sicilian writer Giovanni Verga (almost exactly contemporaneous with Chekhov) used this kind of village-chorus narration much more systematically than his Russian counterpart. His stories, though written technically in authorial third person, seem to emanate from a community of Sicilian peasants; they are thick with proverbial sayings, truisms, and homely similes. We can call this “unidentified free indirect style.”
As a logical development of free indirect style, it is not surprising that Dickens, Hardy, Verga, Chekhov, Faulkner, Pavese, Henry Green, and others tend to produce the kinds of similes and metaphors that, while successful and literary enough in their own right, are also the kinds of similes and metaphors that their own characters might produce. When Robert Browning describes the sound of a bird singing its song twice over, in order to “recapture / The first fine careless rapture,” he is being a poet, trying to find the best poetic image; but when Chekhov, in his story “Peasants,” says that a bird’s cry sounded as if a cow had been locked up in a shed all night, he is being a fiction writer: he is thinking like one of his peasants.
Seen in this light, there is almost no area of narration not touched by the long finger of free indirect narration–which is to say, by irony. Consider the penultimate chapter of Nabokov’s Pnin: the comic Russian professor has just given a party, and has received the news that the college where he teaches no longer wants his services. He is sadly washing his dishes, and a nutcracker slips out of his soapy hand and falls into the water, apparently about to break a beautiful submerged bowl. Nabokov writes that the nutcracker falls from Pnin’s hands like a man falling from a roof; Pnin tries to grasp it, but “the leggy thing” slips into the water. “Leggy thing” is a terrific metaphorical likeness: we can instantly see the long legs of the wayward nutcracker, as if it were falling off the roof and walking away. But “thing” is even better, precisely because it is vague: Pnin is lunging at the implement, and what word in English better conveys a messy lunge, a swipe at verbal meaning, than “thing”? Now if the brilliant “leggy” is Nabokov’s word, then the hapless “thing” is Pnin’s word, and Nabokov is here using a kind of free indirect style, probably without even thinking about it. As usual, if we turn it into first-person speech, we can hear the way in which the word “thing” belongs to Pnin and wants to be spoken: “Come here, you, you … oh … you annoying thing!” Splash.
It is useful to watch good writers make mistakes. Plenty of excellent ones stumble at free indirect style. Free indirect style solves much, but accentuates a problem inherent in all fictional narration: Do the words these characters use seem like the words they might use, or do they sound more like the author’s?
When I wrote “Ted watched the orchestra through stupid tears,” the reader had no difficulty in assigning “stupid” to the character himself. But if I had written “Ted watched the orchestra through viscous, swollen tears,” the adjectives would suddenly look annoyingly authorial, as if I were trying to find the fanciest way of describing those tears.
Take John Updike in his novel Terrorist. On the third page of his book, he has his protagonist, a fervid eighteen-year-old American Muslim called Ahmad, walk to school along the streets of a fictionalized New Jersey town. Since the novel has hardly begun, Updike must work to establish the quiddity of his character:
Ahmad is eighteen. This is early April; again green sneaks, seed by seed, into the drab city’s earthy crevices. He looks down from his new height and thinks that to the insects unseen in the grass he would be, if they had a consciousness like his, God. In the year past he has grown three inches, to six feet–more unseen materialist forces, working their will upon him. He will not grow any taller, he thinks, in this life or the next. If there is a next, an inner devil murmurs. What evidence beyond the Prophet’s blazing and divinely inspired words proves that there is a next? Where would it be hidden? Who would forever stoke Hell’s boilers? What infinite source of energy would maintain opulent Eden, feeding its dark-eyed houris, swelling its heavy-hanging fruits, renewing the streams and splashing fountains in which God, as described in the ninth sura of the Qur’an, takes eternal good pleasure? What of the second law of thermodynamics?
Ahmad is walking along the street, looking about, and thinking: the classic post-Flaubertian novelistic activity. The first few lines are routine enough. Then Updike wants to make the thought theological, so he effects an uneasy transition: “He will not grow any taller, he thinks, in this life or the next. If there is a next, an inner devil murmurs.” It seems very unlikely that a schoolboy boy thinking about how much he had grown in the last year would think: “I shall not grow any taller, in this life or the next.” The words “or the next” are there just to feed Updike a chance to write about the Islamic idea of heaven. We are only four pages in, and any attempt to follow Ahmad’s own voice has been abandoned: the phrasing, syntax, and lyricism are Updike’s, not Ahmad’s (“Who would forever stoke Hell’s boilers?”). The penultimate line is telling: “in which God, as described in the ninth sura of the Qur’an, takes eternal good pleasure.” How willing Henry James was, by contrast, to let us inhabit Maisie’s mind, and how much he squeezed into that single adverb, “embarrassingly.” But Updike is unsure about entering Ahmad’s mind, and crucially, unsure about our entering Ahmad’s mind, and so he plants his big authorial flags all over his mental site. So he has to identify exactly which sura refers to God, although Ahmad would know where this appears, and would have no need to remind himself.
On the one hand, the author wants to have his or her own words, wants to be the master of a personal style; on the other hand, narrative bends toward its characters and their habits of speech. The dilemma is most acute in first-person narration, which is generally a nice hoax: the narrator pretends to speak to us, while in fact the author is writing to us, and we go along with the deception happily enough. Even Faulkner’s narrators in As I Lay Dying rarely sound much like children or illiterates. But the same tension is present in third-person person narration, too: Who really thinks that it is Leopold Bloom, in the midst of his stream of consciousness, who notices “the flabby gush of porter” as it is poured into a drain, or appreciates “the buzzing prongs” of a fork in a restaurant–and in such fine words? These exquisite perceptions and beautifully precise phrases are Joyce’s, and the reader has to make a treaty, whereby we accept that Bloom will sometimes sound like Bloom and sometimes sound more like Joyce. This is as old as literature: Shakespeare’s characters sound like themselves and always like Shakespeare, too. It is not really Cornwall wall who wonderfully calls Gloucester’s eye a “vile jelly” before he rips it out–though Cornwall speaks the words–but Shakespeare, who has provided the phrase.
A contemporary writer like David Foster Wallace wants to push this tension to the limit. He writes from within his characters’ voices and simultaneously over them, obliterating them in order to explore larger, if more abstract, questions of language. In this passage from his story “The Suffering Channel,” he evokes the ruined argot of Manhattan media-speak:
The other Style piece the associate editor had referred to concerned The Suffering Channel, a wide grid cable venture that Atwater had gotten Laurel Manderley to do an end run and pitch directly to the editor’s head intern for WHAT IN THE WORLD. Atwater was one of three full time salarymen men tasked to the WRRW feature, which received .75 editorial pages per week, and was the closest any of the BSG weeklies got to freakshow or tabloid, and was a bone of contention at the very highest levels of Style. The staff size and large font specs meant that Skip Atwater was officially contracted tracted for one 400 word piece every three weeks, except the juniormost of the WRRW salarymen had been on half time ever since Eckleschafft-136d had forced Mrs. Anger to cut the editorial budget for everything except celebrity news, so in reality it was more like three finished pieces every eight weeks.
Here is another example of what I called “unidentified free indirect style.” As in the Chekhov story, the language hovers around the viewpoint of the character (the) journal- ist Atwater), but really emanates from a kind of “village chorus”-it is an amalgam of the kind of language we might expect this particular community to speak if they were telling the story.
In Wallace’s case, the language of his unidentified narration is hideously ugly, and rather painful for more than a page or two. No analogous problem arose for Chekhov and Verga, because they were not faced with the saturation of language by mass media. But in America, things were different: Dreiser in Sister Carrie (published in 1900) and Sinclair Lewis in Babbitt (1923) take care to reproduce in full the advertisements and business letters and commercial flyers they want novelistically to report on. The risky tautology inherent in the contemporary writing project has begun: in order to evoke a debased language (the debased language your character might use), you must be willing to represent that mangled language in your text, and perhaps thoroughly debase your own language. Pynchon, DeLillo, and David Foster Wallace are to some extent Lewis’s heirs (probably in this respect only), and Wallace pushes to parodic extremes his full-immersion method: he does not flinch at narrating twenty or thirty pages in the style quoted above. His fiction prosecutes an intense argument about the decomposition of language in America, and he is not afraid to decompose-and discompose-his own style in the interests of making us live through this linguistic America with him. “This is America, you live in it, you let it happen. Let it unfurl,” as Pynchon has it in The Crying of Lot 49. Whitman calls America “the greatest poem,” but if this is the case then America may represent a mimetic danger to the writer, the bloating of one’s own poem with that rival poem, America. Auden frames the general problem well in his poem “The Novelist”: the poet can dash forward like a hussar, he writes, but the novelist must slow down, learn how to be “plain and awkward,” and must “become the whole of boredom.” In other words, the novelist’s job is to become, to impersonate what he describes, even when the subject itself is debased, vulgar, boring. David Foster Wallace is very good at becoming ing the whole of boredom.
So there is a tension basic to stories and novels: Can we reconcile the author’s perception and language with the character’s perception and language? If the author and character are absolutely merged, as in the passage from Wallace above, we get, as it were, “the whole of boredom”-the author’s corrupted language just mimics an actually existing corrupted language we all know too well, and are in fact quite desperate to escape. But if author and character get too separated, as in the Updike passage, we feel the cold breath of an alienation over the text, and begin to resent the over-“literary” efforts of the stylist. The Updike is an example ample of aestheticism (the author gets in the way); the Wallace is an example of anti-aestheticism (the character is all): but both examples are really species of the same aestheticism, which is at bottom the strenuous display of style.
So the novelist is always working with at least three languages. There is the author’s own language, style, perceptual equipment, and so on; there is the character’s presumed language, style, perceptual equipment, and so on; and there is what we could call the language of the world–the language that fiction inherits before it gets to turn it into novelistic style, the language of daily speech, of newspapers, of offices, of advertising, of the blogosphere and text messaging. In this sense, the novelist is a triple writer, and the contemporary novelist now feels especially the pressure of this tripleness, thanks to the omnivorous presence of the third horse of this troika, the language of the world, which has invaded our subjectivity, our intimacy, the intimacy that James thought should be the proper quarry of the novel, and which he called (in a troika of his own) “the palpable present-intimate.”
Another example of the novelist writing over his character occurs (briefly) in Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day. Tommy Wilhelm, the out-of-work salesman down on his luck, neither much of an aesthete nor an intellectual, is anxiously watching the board at a Manhattan commodity exchange. Next to him, an old hand named Mr. Rappaport is smoking a cigar. “A long perfect ash formed on the end of the cigar, the white ghost of the leaf with all its veins and its fainter pungency. It was ignored, in its beauty, by the old man. For it was beautiful. Wilhelm he ignored as well.” It is a gorgeous, musical phrase, and characteristic acteristic of both Bellow and modern fictional narrative. The fiction slows down to draw our attention to a potentially neglected surface or texture–an example of a “descriptive pause,” familiar to us when a novel halts its action and the author says, in effect, “Now I am going to tell you about the town of N., which was nestled in the Carpathian foothills,” or “Jerome’s house was a large dark castle, set in fifty thousand acres of rich grazing land.” But at the same time it is a detail apparently seen not by the author–or not only by the author–but by a character. And this is what Bellow wobbles on; he admits an anxiety endemic to modern narrative, and which modern narrative tends to elide. The ash is noticed, and then Bellow comments: “It was ignored, in its beauty, by the old man. For it was beautiful. Wilhelm he ignored as well.”
Seize the Day is written in a very close third-person narration, a free indirect style that sees most of the action from Tommy’s viewpoint. Bellow seems here to imply that Tommy notices the ash, because it was beautiful, and that Tommy, also ignored by the old man, is also in some way beautiful. But the fact that Bellow tells us this is surely a concession to our implied objection: How and why would Tommy notice this ash, and notice it so well, in these fine words? To which Bellow replies, anxiously, in effect: “Well, you might have thought Tommy incapable of such finery, but he really did notice this fact of beauty; and that is because he is somewhat beautiful himself.”
The tension between the author’s style and his or her characters’ styles becomes acute when three elements coincide: when a notable stylist is at work, like Bellow or Joyce; when that stylist also has a commitment to following the perceptions and thoughts of his or her characters (a commitment usually organized by free indirect style or its offspring, stream of consciousness); and when the stylist has a special interest in the rendering of detail. Stylishness, free indirect style, and detail: I have described Flaubert, whose work opens up and tries to solve this tension, and who is really its founder.
As you can see this is not a simple book, nor is it easy reading. However sometimes the best things require a significant investment of time and effort. And if you actually get through this book, and understand it even partially, then you will have something truly worth having.
So, if this sort of thing interests you, if real literature interests you, you owe it to yourself to buy the whole book. This is really a great book, a necessary book for someone like you. Here it is in Kindle.
The bulk of the text in this post is from James Wood’s classic book “How Fiction Works.”
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