He Knows If You've Been Bad or Good
Who is the narrator of “Starting Out in the Evening?” Is it Brian Morton? Is he “telling” the story, displaced across space and time to enter the reader’s home? Or is there another entity mediating between Mr. Morton and the reader—surely a creation of Mr. Morton’s but not the human entity himself? (Why are there so many questions?)
On the back of the Harcourt paperback edition, there’s a photo of Morton (circa 1998 I assume), a small photo next to his bio. He’s smiling, looks like a pleasant fellow, teaches at Sarah Lawrence and NYU, lives in New York. He’s written four other novels. Is it his voice that’s telling the story of Schiller and Heather, Ariel and Casey?
Yes and no.
Come now, you say. How could it not be his voice? Are you suggesting that Mr. Morse was somehow possessed by a spirit or demon? That the book is told by a made-up creature?
What—like Santa Claus? Kind of an unruly audience today. When you talk to me like that, I cannot hear you.
Let’s think about a model of fiction. The “real” author—the flesh and blood person—writes a story, these days probably on a computer. The story—get ready—creates an illusion that, within the process of reading, the reader is being “told” the story by a narrator. The narrator is part of the story. The narrator is not the flesh and blood author. The narrator may be a character in the story who comments on the characters and action. “Love in the Time of Cholera” has this feature. The narrator may refer to itself as “I” or “We.” There is a separation though between the characters and the story and this narrator. The narrator is another layer in the story, like someone to the side of a stage, commenting on a play. Someone the actors are unaware of.
In a lot of contemporary fiction, the narrator is nearly invisible as it does not refer to itself as an “I” or “We.” This is true in “Starting Out in the Evening.”
In “The Rhetoric of Fiction,” Wayne Booth writes, “Even the novel in which no narrator is dramatized creates an implicit picture of an author who stands behind the scenes, whether as stage manager, as puppeteer, or as an indifferent God, silently paring his fingernails. The implied author is always distinct from the “real man,” whatever we may take him to be, who creates a superior version of himself, a second self, as he creates his work (chapter iii)
When there is no “I” narrator, the inexperienced reader may make the mistake of thinking that the story comes to him unmediated.”
Yes, something is mediating and filtering between the flesh and blood author and the reader—Booth’s indifferent God. What is it, you ask? What is the illusion? It is the book’s style.
Style—the way an author writes and/or tells a story. The author's word choice, sentence structure, figurative language, and sentence arrangement all work together to establish mood, images, and meaning in the text.
Well, okay, there you have it. I’ll be back next week with—(Crashing sounds, rustling, angry shouting)
All right! All right—stop. I’ll say a bit more. Just wanted to see if everyone was listening, for gosh sake.
Vargas Llosa says that style is a work of fiction’s added element, the quality that makes it separate from “reality,” the quality of creativity. He goes on to define it in a similar manner as is done above—the way a story is told.
I don’t disagree (that would be foolish) but I want to add the idea that in a book with an invisible narrator, like “Starting Out,” style is the narrator.
This begs the question, what is the style of “Starting Out in the Evening?”
As we’ve already discussed, the story is told from the points-of-view of four characters, all given equal weight. They may at times be mistaken about what they think, but they are not unreliable. The use of present tense imparts a sense of immediacy. Free indirect style is used generously, and this blurs the line between a character’s and a narrator’s consciousness. The story is not just told in the present; there are gaps in time. There are leaps to the past lives of the characters, and this provides depth and context. The prose is lean on description, and sentences tend not to be long and complex. There is plenty of dialogue, to the point where the dialogue often carries the story—at other times, it’s the character’s inner reverie which is often ironic and self-effacing. The story is episodic—there are large gaps in time. The characters sometimes act in unpredictable ways and don’t always reflect on what they’ve done—like Schiller covering Heather’s face with his hand. Schiller’s novels are used as mise en abymes—embedded smaller stories that reflect the whole. The ending is open; the character’s fates are available for the reader’s interpretation.
Ross Chambers talks about how an important strategy that the real author of a fictional work can use to give her/his narrator authority is to weave in “real” persona and events. “Starting Out in the Evening” certainly does this—almost in a gleeful “name-dropping” way. References are made to Wallace Shawn, Erick Hawkins, Edmund Wilson, Henry James (who actually does a cameo), and Anton Chekhov. BOMB magazine, the Village Voice, the process and business of writing and Schiller’s curious and beautiful near-death experience. (No one knows if this is real or not). Each scene is hyper-realistic—the author clearly knows New York City well, as he does the literary and academic worlds.
Today’s “point” is that the style of a novel can function as the “hidden” narrator—the entity that tells the story. Try it at home if you like. Take a favorite novel that does not have a visible narrator and look for how the story is told. And in those great stories that have a visible narrator—that’s part of the style, my friends.
Next week, a new novel.