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the Dublin Limited


Freshman year of college I took a class on Joyce and there first heard the term ‘free-indirect discourse’. I was profoundly shocked. Before this I had not realized the extent of an author’s control over his characters. Now, by means vastly more subtle than simply getting inside characters’ heads, an author could feign objectivity and manipulate the scene in more insidious ways. This was perhaps, I thought, the best way to perform the task of the novelist.

Kundera talks in The Curtain about the writer’s “conversion experience”, explaining: “After that experience, he will know that nobody is the person he thinks he is, that this misapprehension is universal, elementary, and that it casts on people…the soft gleam of the comical. (That gleam of the comical, suddenly discovered, is the silent, precious reward for the novelist’s conversion.)”

The novelist’s task is to present, describe, and (in whatever way) transcend human delusion. I think that some people have this sense from the time they are young, and the presence of it probably goes a long way to making that person want to become an artist, or a writer. But he’s also got to see how it’s done on the page before he can know that that’s what writers do. I’d say, for me, that class freshmen year was it, my conversion experience from a juvenile writer of amateur poems of the self, to a serious writer of prose and the human experience.

The writer’s perceptiveness, his broad-mindedness, can be expressed in many different styles and forms, what matters is only its effectiveness. The reason for free-indirect’s (also called “limited third”, among other cognomens) seeming takeover of narrative voice since the early Twentieth Century, is because of its effectiveness in this regard. It certainly isn’t the only way to do it, nor is its popularity among writers a mere fad. It has worked many times and will work again.

I am and have been a staunch defender (and occasional practitioner) of some of the more underrepresented forms: the second person, the plural first, the present tense. The latter of these has been criticized as shallow and faddish, the former two as experimental and unserious (also probably faddish). If one is producing a history of literature, then I might excuse such an opinion, as certainly there have been fewer great works utilizing any of those three voices. As a principle, however, I don’t see how one can defend (in absolute terms) one form over another, at least on any basis other than precedent. Precedent matters, of course, but we too have precedent for the above ostracized trio: Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler, Garcia Marquez’ Autumn of the Patriarch, Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (a two-fer!). To name just three.

Certainly each form has its narrative predilections, good and bad. Free-indirect will likely remain king for some time. If art were at all democratic, it would get my vote.


From → Readings

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