Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Narrator

Michael Cisco's The Narrator is a delicious, brain-twisting novel. It almost defies verbal description, but I will do my best here. His Wikipedia article cites his work as "de-genred fiction", which I absolutely endorse.

SPOILERS in the extreme for the plot, the substance, and my hypotheses about the book below the cut.

The titular main character is Low , a student drafted into the national army to serve in an ongoing war. He is drafted, briefly trained at a rally point, and then embarks on an escalatingly-strange sally, including a series of land and sea battles, and exhausting military marches.

Thus ends the simple plot summary. I cannot tell you more about what definitely happens, or any further description, for reasons that will shortly become clear.

Low is a student of narration; he is studying to be a Narrator, capital-N, at a school of Narration. So of course most of the book is in first-person. I have not figured out how to approach the interlude sections in third-person, take for example this quip from 40% of the way through the book*:
Who is narrating this? ... Conjure them with the third person, to whom this is addressed. Address the third person with them. ... It gambols. The third person squirts and slips from those hands like a lathered cake of soap, ... [it] somehow happens to preside over this switching operation, if only because it can persuade you this operation happens between stories.
I have elided the parts that make even less sense, and invoke even more dissociation. Sometimes the second person is used and I'm fairly certain that the "you" being addressed is not the novel-reading audience.

The thing about our narrator is, he is not a fully-trained Narrator: his studies are interrupted "When I was in my third year at the College of Narrators" (3%). So Low makes a lot of mistakes: subjects and verbs don't agree, sentences begin with one thought and end with another, subordinate clauses are attached where they make no sense. (He brings a book called "Syntax for Personal Narrative" with him to the army, but never reads very much of it, although of course he does manage to demonstrate the book's recommended technique of a "rhythm ingrained into writers, reciters, and listeners until even those events observed firsthand are experienced as if they were already written and being read back." 4%) The story jumps forwards in time with no warning or signposts, or drags interminably describing a single moment for many paragraphs. This sort of purposefully-badly-written style could be irritating, but it is a testament to Michael Cisco's utter authorial mastery that it serves as a continual hook: it kept pulling my attention, and it was irritating and impossible to dislodge. Zeugma.

Our Narrator Low also intersperses his own narration with aside comments on the craft of narration itself, and he often meets other characters who tell him some of their own story, which he annotates in his own narration. Meeting a narrator from another army unit, he listens for awhile and then remarks:
The details of his account seem to flash up at me randomly; he describes closely things that seem incidental to me, and omits what I would have assumed were crucially important points, but I can't strictly make out what his criteria of importance is. (79%)
This is an obvious giant wink to the readers, and commentary on Low's own narrative style. (As is, "I have told my story in such a way as to answer any questions he might have before he asks them." 81%) And although he notes where other characters, in telling him a story, pause for drama, or breathe heavily, or show other affect or narrator-craft, or use unusual tenses or quantifiers, he seems bizarrely un-self-aware of features of his own narration:
I imagine the victorious stories rolling out like crawling smoke from the cemetery, the city, the capitals of both sides, and rolling us, the ones who lived and died the story right off the page like we never existed for ourselves, we were just characters. I look up and see nothing around me, no people anywhere --- not even me. (98%)

As a framework, the first-person narration follows no expected guidelines. I'm not even sure that Low survives to the end of the book; for a book called "The Narrator," whose titular character actually narrates, the book completely avoids an explanation of its own provenance, and Low provides no helpful retrospective details or hints. He did think about it, though: "If I ever were to write an account of these events, which are in any case written, my narrative would be incoherent and inconclusive" (6%), a surprisingly terse and accurate prediction/observation from such an unhelpful narrator. Later he says, "Am I narrating now?" in the narration (20%). This kind of thing tickles the edges of my brain. It is utterly alluring. Low often daydreams, or remembers, or hallucinates, and these subjective mental experiences of his are seamlessly incorporated into his narration, often without indicators of what is real and what is imagined, and mixed in with his meta-narration, so that a mirage spotted while on the march yields the amazing: "I want to linger over the fantasy, but the story won't let me. The column is moving." (24%) The progress of the narrative words, the progress of the march, the progress of the story: all these elements move ineluctably forward, unexplained.

It is entirely possible that Low dies in the penultimate chapter. But really, the untrustworthiness of every sentence in the novel leaves even the fate of the narrator uncertain. At 97% we have this exchange between a soldier and Low:
[Soldier:] "If we lose, there won't be anyone to tell our story at all!"
[Low:] "To hell with the story! It's a stupid story! It's a worthless story! It's a shameful story! What do I care about stories when I'm dead!? which of these dead people is going to tell the story?"
"I won't tell! I won't tell a word of it!"
"You will," she says. Panting and hot eyed she grabs me by the front of my uniform and shakes me. "You will do it. You are the narrator."
As if this unreliable, untrained narrator were not enough, the world of the book is subject to certain narrative conventions not of this novel. All the characters we meet are deathly afraid of certain others --- the "dreamers" --- who exert a certain (forgive me) narrative force around them: dreamers dream, and the world around them is the dream. When in the proximity of a dreamer, all characters lose their agency and are forcibly enlisted as characters of the dream. It's understandable that the characters of this book distrust, and try to avoid, being around the dreamers. Low is at one point accused of being a dreamer (because weird plot events happen around him, which we know is because of this novel's dramatic power), and replies, "I'm not! I'm not! I'm one of you! I have to be one of you! I'm the narrator!" (53%) The novel seems to suggest that dreamers apply an external force to those around them, but narrators observe, and grant the power of being remembered and reported, somehow without exerting any influence over the situation. But it also clearly and repeatedly asserts that Low is both narrating and influencing events.

There are other nuggets of curious detail about the world dropped here and there. Low can be forgiven these teases; even a good narrator might not understand what is unspoken and understood about their world does not correspond to our, the readers', world. The opposing army has soldiers with levitating armor. Not everyone seems entirely human, but Low just alludes to their strangeness, as if it is such an obvious thing that it should go without mentioning.

This makes the battle scenes and action sequences dissociative and disjointed. And that is certainly intentional.

I highlighted a huge number of snippets and tracts of The Narrator. If it were physical, it would be dripping with post-its and marginalia. I'll definitely come back and reread it sometime when my mind is feeling too unkinked and straightforward.

Highly recommended.

This post's theme word is prolepsis, meaning:
  1. The use of a descriptive word in anticipation of the result. The verbose man narrated.
  2. The anticipation and answering of an objection or argument before it is raised. Also known as prebuttal. Low's hedging descriptions are a prolepsis, presupposing that characters he comes to hate and fear began with traits of innate evil.
  3. The representation of an event before it actually happened. He lost track of details even before the writing began.
  4. The anachronistic representation of an event before its actual time. Also known as prochronism.
  5. A literary technique in which the author drops hints of things to come. Also known as foreshadowing. Literally every sentence in this book could be interpreted as prolepsis, given enough time, caffeine, and imminent "Expository Writing 101" deadlines.
  6. The return of a paroxysm of a periodic disease before its usual time or at progressively shorter intervals. His brain's prolepsis is evident in the increasingly frequent hallucinations as the story progresses.

[1] I read an ebook, so no page numbers for me.

No comments: