or, Narrative Stance

In an effort to blog a little more, and more often, and because I’m taking a class called Point of View with weekly reading and response assignments, I’m going to post them here. For your edification and amusement, but mostly the first one. These will be mostly short stories of the toppest quality, reviewed for (among other things) their use of perspective, POV, narrative distance, narrative direction, (un)reliable narration, and whatever else pops into my head. Mostly these will be very short but poignant life-changing analytical quips. On occasion, I’ll have to give a lead discussion, thus the writing will drone on for a little longer.

All of the stories for this week are either great or fantastic, including a legendary six-pager from Tobias Wolff, because my professor has great taste.

First up, because I’m lucky, is my lead discussion on

Kate Braverman, “Tall Tales from the Mekong Delta”

You start with the protagonist, a woman who will remain unnamed. Then some quick information on her background – after the divorce, after the hospital, the fifth month of her sobriety – and boom, you’re in the present moment. This is a story that tells you right away it doesn’t intend to dwell in the past. Almost as soon as you’re in the present, the story flashes forward: “Later, she would freeze this frame in her mind and study it.” So the initial perspective, to me, feels something like this:

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Except, just before the narration flashes forward, you’re introduced to Lenny, the driving force that will carry the story to the end: “He fell into step with her. He was short, fat, pale. He had bad teeth. His hair was dirty. Later, she would freeze this frame…” Lenny is not introduced with a name either, not until he introduces himself. If you cut out the flash forward, this becomes a very experiential opening, locked solidly in the moment and mostly concerned with exactly what the protagonist is seeing, thinking, feeling, which to me becomes something more like this:

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It’s a subtle move, and one you barely notice as Lenny’s dialogue train starts moving, and, moreover, as the narration adds another viewpoint (or alters the first some more, but I think of it as an addition). First, the experiential details, a reaction to Lenny’s wardrobe: “It was too hot a day for the leather jacket and scarf. She didn’t find that detail significant. It caught her attention, she touched it briefly and then let it go. She looked but did not see.” (Emphasis mine.) Perhaps this is that future knowledge coming into play again (Lenny echoes this phrase to her near the end), but it feels to me as though it’s on the cusp of what she is capable of seeing about herself – but just outside her purview.

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The very next sentence, the future voice comes back: “She wasn’t afraid yet.” This could be that outside perspective again, making another judgment she can’t make, but initially it sounds like something she both is and will be aware of in regard to Lenny. She may not literally know the future in this moment – she may not know what will make her afraid – but it’s hard not to believe that she’s certain she will be.

The moments of perspective play are rare but each one feels significant. For the most part you are invested in the present, in the woman’s mind, whose name you don’t know because how often do people think about their own name. But the dual perspective, I think, is made use of when we find out that Lenny has been stalking her, discovering her routines, her home situation, her schedule, watching her house, watching her daughter. Suddenly, then, it feels like there’s another perspective in the story, one you don’t have access to, but palpable nonetheless. Things get paranoid, claustrophobic – and also a little predictable. imageAnd why shouldn’t they get predictable? The narration has essentially promised you a relationship between these two, with destructive results. At the next AA meeting, Lenny is there waiting for her: “‘I got seats,’ he said. He motioned for her to follow. She followed. He pointed to a chair. She sat in it.” You’re following her from such a close perspective that you are shown all the warning signs and bad choices, but perhaps you can only recognize them as such because you’ve been given permission to. You’ve been shown how. Almost every time something strange or uncomfortable happens, the protagonist reacts or resists, but succumbs. She looks but she doesn’t see.

After the meeting, he tells her to get on his motorcycle. She doesn’t want to, but then she gets on. In moments like this, where the outsider perspective that you know the narration has access to is screaming no no no, instead of giving that perspective voice, the narration zooms in closer to the protagonist’s perspective, her interior drift, a behind-the-scenes look at how bad decisions are made:

She looked at his hand and how the air seemed blue near his fingers. It’s simply a blue glaze, she was thinking. In Malibu, in Hilo, in the China Sea, forms of blue, confusion and remorse, a dancing dress, a daughter with a mouth precisely your own and it’s done, all of it. Somewhere it was carnival night in the blue wash of a village on the China Sea. On the river, boats passed with low-slung antique masts sliding silently to the blue of the ocean, to the inverted delta where the horizon concluded itself in a rapture of orchid and pewter. That’s what she was thinking when she took his hand.

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The story ends (spoiler!) with Lenny leaving town and the protagonist relapsing into alcohol abuse, i.e., not with a grandiose tragedy but a very personal one, and very blue. Though he was manipulative and definitely destructive to the new life she’d been trying to form, the promises of awful fear and pain never quite pan out (assuming he didn’t infect her with AIDS, which is admittedly a possibility). This allows for an entirely different reading of the perspective, of what you know and don’t know. Maybe the violent drug-smuggler Lenny wasn’t as violent as you had him pegged. He’s never shown to physically abuse her, and though he convinces her to kiss him and sleep with him, he doesn’t actually force himself on her physically, even one time saying, “Come here. Sit down [on the bed]. I won’t touch you. Not unless you ask me.” And you believe him: one of Lenny’s gifts as a character is that he’s honest to a fault, he can’t hold anything inside him that he believes to be true. So even though he has promised that if she would get AIDS (somehow) he would keep her so high on heroin that she’d never suffer, and if she did suffer he’d kill her himself, nothing even approaching this level of violence ever happens.

So what happened to all this fear talk, huh? This ability of the protagonist’s perspective to report on the future, and that outside analytical perspective too, did that viewpoint have it all wrong? The story allows you to read it two ways, almost simultaneously. Either the big fear happened, or it didn’t. Four pages after “She wasn’t afraid yet,” when she says she doesn’t want to get on the motorcycle, the narrator says simply, “She was afraid.” You’re only six pages into the story and the big prediction has paid off, in the form of a totally rational and normal fear of riding on a motorcycle by hanging onto the back of a sickly drug addict.

On the next page, the ability to see the future is downplayed some more: “They were walking across a parking lot. The autumn made everything ache. Later, it would be worse. At dusk, with the subtle irritation of lamps.” (Again, emphasis mine.) The same tone you took so seriously the first time it showed up is now used merely to predict a bodily discomfort. So in the end, despite Lenny being as creeptastic as humanly possible, you’re forced to consider the possibility that he had no disturbing or deviant intentions for her, that he only ever loved her, albeit in an inordinately disturbing way. Either the promise of pain that Lenny carried from the very beginning never happened – or it did, and you missed it.

If you missed it, you have a good excuse. When Lenny convinces her to start smoking again after six months quit – which he does sneakily in a close-your-eyes sort of way – you are told very passively, “She was thinking that she was like a sacked capital. Nothing worked in her plazas. The palm trees were on fire. The air was smoky and blue. No one seemed to notice.” While this might be evidence of her interior devastation, it is only secondhand evidence. It is being reported. This is her analysis of herself. And analysis doesn’t seem like a product of great pain. So, what if all of the pain she’s feeling is pain she puts there herself? Maybe we were deeper inside her head than we even realized.

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Still, something about the blue imagery deep inside her mind rings true, the way it is both appealing and disturbing, and convenient, triggered by her interactions with Lenny. And when you see her thinking for herself and achieving a degree of independence – when she resists Lenny, especially early on – the imagery tends towards yellows, oranges and reds. With such a blue ending, you have to acknowledge the existence of a significant pain, even if it is a pain wholly inside her mind. Her fear is the pain you were promised, and it’s not a fear of Lenny so much as a fear that Lenny has left behind, the fear he ushered in and allowed to sack the capital. And if no one seems to notice, it is only because: how could they? It is an ending loaded with melancholy and despair, paranoia and shame, all of it deeply rooted inside the protagonist herself.

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That’s about all I can say regarding perspective in that story. I’ll start a new entry for the rest of this week’s short analyses.

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