Monday, February 28, 2011

The Child as Narrator, and why do we read books anyway?


I've recommended Room to a few people, and most of them have really loved it. Yes, it's creepy and disturbing...but so good! But my friend Mary Jo hated it. Ugh. I hate that feeling. There's a strange sense of guilt: I sold you, and you hated it. I wasted your time.

Interestingly, the thing that I loved about the book was one of the thing that Mary Jo hated about it: Jack's narration. I guess from here you need a little backstory, and it might be something you don't know about me: I hate children as narrators.

I'm not entirely certain when this dislike of child narrators became such a passionate feeling, but I'm pretty sure it has to do with To Kill a Mockingbird. TKM is a book almost everyone universally loves. But after a few years of teaching it, it's a book I've come to strongly dislike. I think this is true of teaching books in general. Some books I dislike, but come to appreciate. For me, the best example of this is The Pearl by Steinbeck. I'll never love this book, but I liked teaching it. I grew to appreciate it's structure and it's simple but elegant metaphors. On the other hand, some books become more grating and annoying as you teach them. My colleague, David, has a fiery, burning hatred for Lord of the Flies after years of teaching it to 9th graders. It is not an understatement to say that I have come to have similar feelings for To Kill a Mockingbird. Luckily for me, I shuffled it off to the 8th grade and don't have to teach it anymore. Whee!

One of my biggest problems with TKM is Scout. I just don't believe her. Kids don't think and talk and see the world the was Scout does. As a matter of fact, when I read The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, I had a similar response: kids don't think this way! There's this sleight of hand that authors use that's supposed to make it okay---this is an adult who is looking back on her childhood. This is not a child, but an adult narrating their childhood. That's why I thought Jack from Room was so fresh. He is a child, he thinks like a child, and perceives as a child. Mary Jo's argument was, essentially, that he's no better than Scout, he's just the polar opposite of her.

This got me to thinking about a very important question. Why do we read books anyway? After all, the truth is NO ONE thinks about their life the way people in books think about their lives. Novels seem so normal to me because I spend so much time reading them, but in reality, life isn't one clean story with a straight linear path. Life's messy and complicated. While it is happening, it's impossible to know which events are meaningful. It's only with time that I have been able to look back and see the narrative structure of my life. But that's also something I've been able to do as an adult. Looking back to 5 or 9 or 11, it's a blur. It's hard for me to believe any child could look back and weave together a coherent story out of memories. Ultimately, I just don't buy it. If I doubt the narration, I can't enjoy the pleasant escape from reality that a book promises. Hmm...maybe my real problem is with FIRST person narration, but it's particularly noticeable when that narrator is a child.

Believe it or not, this brings me back to Skippy Dies. You'll remember that I was pretty dismissive: too sloppy, too much going on, not enough payoff. Skippy Dies is the very celebration of the idea that stories are complex and confusing. After talking to Mary Jo, I started to think about the narrative voice, and why we read, and what it means to tell a story. It made me appreciate Skippy in a new way. Maybe it's a great thing to read a big, sprawling mess of a book. Skippy Dies is certainly more like life as it really is, and not the way life is usually portrayed in novels.

Hey, maybe this blog will bring me to some grand unifying theory of fiction?

1 comment:

  1. Hrmmm... I read To Kill a Mockingbird on my own (vs. as "required reading") in college and I LOVED it. I haven't read it since -- I wonder if I still would. Probably. I have a general "thing" for Southern Lit, so it's got that edge for me.

    As for Room, I enjoyed it despite Jack's voice, which I found to be a slightly annoying. Oddly, I read it on a day that I happened to be spending time with a 5 year old and I thought, "This kid [the real 5 year old] is not thinking thoughts like this."

    Then again, perhaps he is, but he's not able to articulate them. So then I got distracted by what I guess I would call Jack's "articulation" -- even if he cannot verbalize these thoughts, perhaps he is actually thinking them? I guess the book is his story from inside of his brain and who are we really to know what a 5 year old is thinking?

    I actually do remember being 5 and I remember thinking some relatively complex thoughts. But was I really thinking complex thoughts at that time or am I now recalling them as they are colored by the complexity of adulthood?

    In the end, I grabbed a strong hold of our old friend "Suspension of Disbelief" and enjoyed that book immensely!