The Picaresque Point of View


I will go from memory here, memory of the Picaresque: a story told, more or less, while traveling. Tom Jones is one. As the hero, and perhaps heroine, travel along, they meet folk who tell them their life stories. What is learned from these folk by the hero might be less important than the entertainment they provide, but the stories are usually linked thematically at least.

If one accepts my loose definition, she might begin to think of Sigrid Nunez as a picaresque novelist. What is different here, though, is that a central narrator – in the two books I have read, The Last of Her Kind and A Feather on the Breath of God – relates the stories to her reader. Usually, they do not speak much for themselves except through the narrator’s retelling. The sources are varied and believable:

Solange’s story is told mostly from her sister’s perspective: her longings for her sister, her worries, her suppositions (many of them true), the stories (of Solange’s travels, loves, and delusions), and what the reader “overhears” Solange saying to her sister. Occassionally, we get to directly see Solange in action, during the acid trip for instance.

Turner’s story is notable in that we learn much from daughter Ann, who is certainly not an objective source, then later from his own words/actions related by the narrator, and words shared with Edie, his sister-in-law (some of which were memorized by the waiter – see “Indulgence” or the post, “Marries”). This last piece leads to what is less of a criticism than a characterization. It starts with a question: How can that conversation between Turner and Edie be known to the reader? Easy. Magic.

The magic comes through Nunez’s picaresque point of view. Most the The Last of Her Kind is told from the first person, in Georgette George’s voice. Within this narrative Georgette speculates, for instance about what Solange is up to, whether or not she went to Woodstock, then later confirms what she has wondered as fact. Sometime she varies the speculation to fit later revealed facts. It is a wonderful way to weave what she cannot see or know with what she can. Nunez keeps narrative control in that way.

But what about that which she cannot know? Like the luncheon of Edie and Turner?

She prepares us for this revelation by switching to third person: “Trial and error has shown that I cannot accomplish this difficult thing – the trick is to be cold about the hottest thing there is: love – unless ‘I’ becomes ‘she.’ “ And with that she ends Part Four and begins to relate the love between Georgette and Turner. Now in the third person the narrative can become omniscient enough to tell us what happened between Edie and Turner (and to have the fun of the waiter noting parts of the conversation). Nunez returns briefly to first person in Part Six, but her foray into third person prepares us for another story, Orphan Annie and the Hand of God.

It is possible to form objections about some of this, but it is hard not to accept it and like it too.  Objection: the lapse into third person means Georgette is going to reveal something, but it isn’t going to be as intimate as we would like.  In some ways, Georgette’s readers are treated like her children, “I lie about the symptoms . . . I keep the pills out of sight.” The reader, even within the first person narrative, does not experience that which Georgette does, but is told about it much in the same way we are told about Ann, about Turner, about Solange. Keep us at a distance, like a stranger walking down Fifth Avenue. It feels New Yorky.

How will Nunez tell us what we want to know – or do not want to know – about Ann after she disappears behind the walls of Marysville State Prison? Since George is not one to really be the friend she could have been, we won’t be going up there to visit Ann.  Instead of doing this George is busy doing other things she never shares with Ann (thanks heaven). So, how to tell the reader? Enter Olympia Underwood.

Here is a first person narrative feeling like a third person narrative.  The resemblance in feeling if not style of this narration to the story George tells promotes the suspicion that this is not another voice but simply a narrative-rouse. Would the reader prefer a firsthand account – replete with emotive sentiment and honest feeling – to this supposed prison-story that gives us a window into Ann’s life after Kwame? Would George’s children be better to know of their mother’s illness? It is difficult not to be thankful for a peek through the prison wall – perhaps a shorter one – but it is equally hard not to wish for a more intimate and extended account from our main narrator. To be kept at a distance feels incomplete, like we will wake the next morning finding our Picaresque story-teller already beyond the crest of the next hill.

 

 

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