Monday, February 2, 2015

Odd Narrative Choices

So. Last week I read Jantsen's Gift, which made me think of However Long the Night (same ghostwriter), which in turn made me think of King Peggy (because...ghostwritten memoirs about West Africa? I guess?). And that made me think of odd narrative choices.

In King Peggy, what felt off to me was that it was not actually a ghostwritten memoir—rather, the writer talked about the eponymous King Peggy in the third person, narrating what she did and said and thought. The story was absolutely fascinating, but the writing took me out of that story and out of King Peggy's voice.

Then there was Volunteering in Ethiopia ( you can't guess what that one was about...). I was unable to glean much info about the publisher, and it's possible that this one was self-published (read: less editorial action), but the narrator—i.e., the writer, as the book is a memoir—managed to drive me up the wall and right back down again (and then across the room and up the other wall) by constantly referring to himself in the third person. Not I did this and "Oho," I said, but Skelton did this and "Oho," Skelton said.

And lastly, there was A Room with a Pew. This one was written jointly, with its two authors contributing (presumably) roughly equal weight. That's not an uncommon model (or a bad one, or an odd one) in and of itself, but in this case the authors wrote as one: one I in the book, not two. Not Richard and Miriam but I. For the sake of the narrative—and they do address this, briefly, in an Authors' Note—they...consolidated their experience.

It makes me wonder. That narrative choice in A Room with a Pew was intentional, measured. It didn't work terribly well for me, but a quick look at other reviews on Goodreads suggests that I am in a minority; in any case, I imagine they considered other options before landing on this one. I am not so certain about Volunteering in Ethiopia—that author went to law school after his time in the Peace Corps (the PC being the subject of his book); it's impossible for me to know whether he took writing classes or anything like that, but there is no evidence that he is a trained writer. In his case I suspect that he found it easier to get a bit of distance when writing about himself in the third person.

And in King Peggy...well, again, it's all supposition on my part, of course. There I imagine that it was just a poor fit between writer and book: the author has written other books (without the memoirish twist), which have good reviews on Goodreads (as does King Peggy, for that matter, so perhaps* I am a cranky reader).

There are plenty of other, perhaps odder, narrative choices—especially in fiction—that I don't question. Books where the narrator isn't named until the last page, or isn't named at all. Books where the main character is something of a pathological liar, and the reader can't trust anything they say. (In all three books I'm thinking of there, it worked out just fine, as far as I was concerned.) And I can't say that I'm much of a purist. I mean, I'll read the words on a cereal box ten times in a row if I don't have a book on hand. But...I guess I'd be curious to see an outside-the-box narrative choice in nonfiction that...well, that worked better for me. (Suggestions, o nonexistent readers?)

*'Perhaps?' Definitely.

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