Is That A Polyphony I Hear? - Anything Is Possible
‘Kay, during our time discussing Elizabeth’s Strout’s Anything Is Possible, I know that you’ve been itching to suggest that the structure of this novel is an example of polyphony.
Well, it isn’t.
You’re making this up! And nobody here was itchy.
It was Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin who applied the musical term polyphony to literature, pointing out how, in Dostoevsky’s novels, the characters’ voices are not subordinated to the voice of the author, thus giving the effect of a number of people telling a story. This is a notoriously tricky concept. Bakhtin writes about how in a polyphonous novel, the characters may actually argue with the narrator over the telling of the story. Since a novel is written by an author, this seems paradoxical, no? A single human author is responsible for an illusion of many voices. How is this accomplished? Of course, the answer lies in the relationships between the implied author of a novel, its narrator, and its characters. Yes, an implied author could create a narrator entity who has a different understanding of the story than a character. And this gets us into the whole wild world of unreliable narrators.
In Dostoevsky’s Demons, for example, the narrator is a character who is relating the story of the several characters to the reader(s). At times in the book, it’s clear that this narrator is mistaken about the events and/or unaware of them.
So, in Anything Is Possible, we have a story about people in a Midwestern town who each have their own chapters and perspective, their own plots that synergistically are more than their parts. It is a story being told by a number of characters. But—and this is a big but—there is a narrator who presents a unified view from the perspectives of many different characters.
This is not polyphony, best B.
How does this narrator work?
First of all, this narrator is not unreliable, in fact she/he is eminently reliable as far as I can tell. (As reliable as I am). There are times when the characters surprise each other; there are times when the characters “see” different aspects of each other, but this is all presented by a gentle, omniscient narrator who is discrete and keeps to the shadows.
Let’s look at a particular chapter for examples.
Windmills begins with the narrator entity telling us, “A few years ago, with morning sunlight coming into her bedroom, Patty Nicely had had the television on, and the sunlight had caused whatever was on the screen to be unseen from certain angles.”
‘Kay, I have to say, first of all, that is a wonderful first sentence that encapsulates all the stories and the whole book, showing it as a sun that illuminates people seen from different angles.
But more to the point of spotting the narrator and her/his characteristics, who is speaking here? Some entity, unidentified, shows us a scene from “a few years ago,” using the past perfect tense, also called the pluperfect, a verb tense used to talk about something that happened before something else that is also in the past.
Huh. So, Patty Nicely had the television on at a point in the past that was before a different point in the past, and the narrator wants us to pay attention to this. Several paragraphs later we are told, “The reason she remembered this now—the fact that Lucy Barton had been on television—was because she had then told Sebastian about the woman.” (Sebastian was Patty’s husband, now deceased).
After a paragraph break, we have, “Today she drove with her car’s air conditioner turned on high…”
We have several markers of time. A scene is shown that occurred in the past—prior to another past which is called “today.” This naming of “today” as the past is something only a narrator would do.
So, there is a disembodied narrator who is showing us a story very close to Patty Nicely’s perspective. A different author might even do away with this layer and render the first sentence this way: “A few years ago, with morning twilight coming into my bedroom, I had the television set on, and the sunlight had caused whatever was on the screen to be unseen from certain angles.”
Perfectly fine, you might say, but the difference is a loss of perspective. Okay, a gain of directness, too. But as Ms. Strout has it, “we” are invited by a narrator (who has her own warm presence) to “see” something through her eyes and mind. In the second example, a character is telling us a story about herself. In the first example, there’s room for considerable distance between the narrator and the character, i.e. they may disagree. The character, Patty, may be shown as unreliable (she is). In the second example, this distance disappears—unless the character narrator is looking back at herself in a judgmental way or is just deluded.
Wait, does this even relate to where we started—trying to determine if there is a consistent narrator, whose consistent presence would make the whole story not polyphonic?
Pretty much. This narrator who shows us Patty Nicely at two different times in her life does the same thing in each story, utilizing a consistent voice.
Let’s look at a passage from Mississippi Mary, the fifth chapter.
“The sun went behind a cloud as they walked back to the caseggiato, and this changed the light dramatically. The day seemed suddenly autumnal, yet the palm trees and brightly painted buildings were at odds with this, even for Mary, who—presumably—should have been used to it.”
‘Kay, who is speaking here? It’s the narrator of course—how do we know this? It’s subtle. A naïve (but maybe one who is having fun) reader might gloss over nuance and think they were reading a passage showing the character’s experience of walking back home. But then we have the observation that the character, Mary, should have been—presumably—used to the contrasts. Uh, Mary wouldn’t make that observation about herself; it’s the narrator who is presuming. And it’s that consistent voice we read in Windmills.
In the seventh story, Dottie’s Bed and Breakfast, we have, “For no reason she could think of, and it may have been nothing more than the way the sun was slanting then across the hardwood floor, Dottie was suddenly visited by the memory of one summer of her childhood…” Again, the narrator is setting a scene within the story, marking it as a memory. Let’s read it as a first-person statement, “For no reason I could think of…I was suddenly visited by the memory of one summer of my childhood,” Hmmm, sort of…shallow, no? (value judgment). But, when you have the narrator—the same narrator across all the stories—telling it, you gain another layer of familiar perspective. Someone else is seeing the action and telling you their version of it, and their version is the same one you’ve abided with throughout the whole book, thereby tying it together.
This is not Dostoevsky, itchy. But it is something equally as profound.
Till next time.