Rebecca Makkai, “Painted Ocean, Painted Ship”

Honestly, that last analysis took a lot out of me and I’m running out of time here. So I’ll keep this brief. Makkai’s protagonist Alex is looked at in a close third. The analysis and reflection seemingly all comes from Alex’s viewpoint and the narration often faithfully follows her thought process: “It occurred to Alex, lying drunk on the couch, that if all she could summon up was one incident of someone else’s vague racism, while she could pin three on herself – no, four, let’s not forget the big one – that made her the most racist person she knew.” She gets caught up in her physical appearance, more and more the less she respects her academic and professional selves, and she tries to look at herself from an outsider’s viewpoint, but she’s so locked inside herself that she doesn’t seem worried at all about a colleague, a poet who eventually kills himself (although it does say that no one else seemed to see it coming, either).

Tim Gautreaux, “Same Place, Same Things”

Another limited third story, one where we get to see the protagonist’s opinions evolve, although not quite as on a thought-by-thought basis as the previous example. His esteem for the female in the story is the main measure of this, as it starts low and then grows, and then when he fears her and what she’s done to her previous husbands, she turns back into having a “flinty expression,” which nicely previews her thonking him on the head with a wrench.

This narrator’s voice, although also in limited third, seems a little more detached because it renders most of the imagery in vivid, creative detail, and only when it zooms into the protagonist’s direct experience does the language get simplified (“She had wanted to paint the kitchen walls green; Henry had wanted them yellow.”). Another way it distances itself from being too locked inside the protagonist is that it seems pretty concerned with making observations about Henry that will figure him out. So even though we don’t have access to Henry, we are constantly making attempts to get in there.

Tobias Wolff, “Bullet in the Brain”

Anders is our point of access in the story, and when the bank is being robbed, we see things as he sees them. But when the bullet enters his brain, the narrative voice takes a long pause from what he is experience to point out to the reader what he is not. This creates a certain narrative distance, an uneasiness with our decisions about who Anders was, and it encourages us to reevaluate what we thought we knew. This allows us to accept the kind of reverse-time de-characterization of Anders, wherein we watch all of his snide assholery come undone, and we’re left with the one flash-before-the-eyes scene he does see as he’s dying, which is sweet, relatable, and humanizing.

That’s about enough. I skipped the Saunders story (“The End of Firpo in the World”) but you can look that one up yourselves.

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