Stuart Dybek, “Pet Milk”
We’re moving on! Welcome to first-person land. Dybek’s story operates on the principle that the one perspective we’re getting is the only one capable of telling this story. It’s a story that says this is a mind that is fascinated by the swirling of things, and so for it to tell what it would consider to be a beautiful story, the story itself has to drift and meander and, only at the very end, seem to cover everything.
Charles Baxter, “Gryphon”
This first-person narrator is not concerned with himself, but his substitute teacher. Really, she is the essential character in the story. But the story is not so much about her as it is his experience of her. While she is the most interesting character, our access to her behavior is limited to the classroom. Not just the narrator, but all of the students are seeing her act oddly. Even when the narrator speaks to her directly, he only says what any one of them would have. So why is it told from his perspective? When we follow this narrator onto the bus or back home, he is able to weigh all of the potential student reactions in his mind and come up with, if not the right response, the one that shows Miss Ferenczi in the most sympathetic way. And his sympathetic response shows a lasting reaction to her, making the story matter more.
Ethan Canin, “The Year of Getting to Know Us”
The story here is just as much about the narrator as it is his father. I could imagine a third-person perspective on this story working just as well for most of the way through, but I like the ending in first. For most of the story, the narrator is setting up his own juxtapositions between his life and his father’s, which could arguably even be better done in third. When he’s talking about his childhood he does seem to have the perspective on it to reveal what’s important, but his adult life does seem to be a little muddied by too-recent emotion. Even if the events he brings up are the ones we need to see to make sense of his childhood experiences, the style does not seem as beneficial to me for the story’s sake as it is detrimental for not permitting as clear an understanding as they could. But the ending, and for that matter the beginning too, provides a very effective emotional experience of being inside the person whom the father is saying these things to. That’s something I don’t think could be achieved in third.
Amy Hempel, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolsen is Buried”
Doug had talked up this story a lot last spring in workshop, so I was glad to get to read it. In it, we see a best friend dying from the perspective of the other best friend. The first person voice is necessary here, because even though the story is about how she’s not strong enough to stay with her friend until she dies, i.e. not strong enough to face the truth, she has to be the one to admit the truth to us. This is a story of admission, and without this character’s first-person perspective, there would only be accusation, or acceptance. A very powerful story could be told, I’m sure, from the dying friend’s perspective–the only other person who knows the whole truth of these events–but ignoring the obvious fact that she dies before the end, she could only genuinely give us either anger or forgiveness. But in the admission story, we get both the accusation and the acceptance. She both hates herself for having to leave, but also makes us totally understand why she did.
Alice Munro, “The Turkey Season”
As usual, Munro finds a way to have her cake and eat it too. This narrator… blah blah blah. Actually I have no opinion on this story yet. She does take advantage of her character being young and innocent at the time, and immediately following the in-the-moment reaction with sage adult reflection. But honestly I forgot I hadn’t finished this story when I started to write this, and now I have finished it, but Munro stories always take me more than a few days for them to really sink in. So instead of saying something off-the-cuff and unimportant, I’ll just take a pass, for now.