Frail & Flawed: Engaging Narrators

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By Miriam Gershow (author of The Local News)

Most writers I know are reading fetishists.  We each have our peccadilloes, getting hot and bothered by a particular aspect of storytelling, which we seek out over and over again.  For some, it’s the lyrical sentences that send shivers down their spine.  For others, a vivid description of setting makes them go weak in the knees.  Me, I’m a sucker for narrative voice.  Nothing pulls me into a story as quickly or haplessly as an engaging narrator.  And by engaging, I don’t necessarily mean likeable or funny or even particularly clever. I mean a narrator who authentically human, in whatever frail, flawed or crazy way that might mean.

There are the classic narrators–Holden Caulfield and Humbert Humbert come to mind at the top of the list.  Here, I present you with several others.

1. Edwin Hanratty in Jim Shepard’s Project X.  Spend these164 pages with Edwin, and he will break your heart.  To call this a “school shooting” book is to oversimplify the achingly lonely, alienating, utterly believable world Shepard constructs of junior high school.  Edwin all too believably falls through the cracks of home, school and the larger community.  And he tells his own story in the voice of a child, without ever being childish.  He is, from the opening page, perceptive, honest and doomed.  The closing paragraph will crack you open and make you want to jump into the ink to rescue him.

2. Andrea Marr in Blake Nelson’s Girl.  Oh Andrea Marr, how do I love thee?  Let me count the ways:  You have the pitch-perfect vocabulary and cadence of a high school girl.  You capture, in turn, the boredom, distraction, preoccupation and longing that make up teen life.  You are smart and sensitive and keep me flying through the pages.  You think you understand yourself in the way that all teenagers think they understand themselves, while at the same time being an endearingly confused mess.  And best of all, you were written by a man.  A grown-up man.  Read this book for the story and the characters and great depiction of Portland OR, but best of all to marvel at how well Nelson flawlessly channels the voice of a teen girl.

3. Lionel Essrog in Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn.  Think it’s a gimmick to have a detective narrator with Tourette’s-like outbursts, who trips over, stutters through and garbles the language?  Then you haven’t read Motherless Brooklyn. Lionel Essrog is trapped in himself, though the readers will feel anything but trapped.  He is hilarious, wise and vulnerable all at once.  The detective story is interesting, though not nearly as interesting as the narration.  Flip to any page for Essrog’s wry voice.  I just did, and I landed on this sentence: “The big Nazi cat went on raking up thread-loops from my trousers seemingly intent on single-handedly reinventing Velcro.”  What more do I need to say?

4. Kathy Nicolo and Colonel Behrani in Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog.  Do I ruin my credibility as a high-falutin’literary fiction writer by selecting an Oprah pick?  I don’t care.  It’s worth it in this case.  The remarkable narrative feat pulled off by Dubus is crafting two diametrically opposed, utterly distinct narrators who are equally believable and equally sympathetic (or unsympathetic, as it were), so that the reader is endlessly pulled back and forth between the two voices with no safe place to land.  This makes for an unsettling and deeply compelling reading experience.  And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that what Dubus does with the Colonel Behrani narration near the end of the book breaks every rule of first-person storytelling and is absolutely stunning.

Miriam Gershow is the author of the recent debut novel, The Local News, described by Janet Maslin of the New York Times as  “Unusually credible and precise... deftly heartbreaking.” Gershow lives in Eugene Oregon where she is at work on her next novel.

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