Jeffrey Eugenides, “The Virgin Suicides”
Which is misleading, because they’re not all virgins. I was talking to Gabe last night – you know Gabe – and he asked me if I liked the book and I said yes I do, why. He said he hadn’t finished it yet but he’d talked to somebody else about it, who had said the first half is good but then it stops being good. I asked if Gabe had finished it, and he said no, and I think I asked if the other person had finished it and he didn’t think that person had, actually. I said the end gets good again. I granted him the lull that the book takes between about the halfway point and the final quarter (or less), or anyway the end. But now I’m just wondering if that’s just a side effect of the book failing to do any of the great and surprising things it pulls off in the first half with regularity.
Add to this what I’m seeing in some of the other first-person plural reading, and you get an expected lack of impulsiveness. Because one person is impulsive, right? How can a group of people act spontaneously all at once? Eugenides dodges this for half a novel, but that third quarter does at last succumb just a little to the more natural reflective and re-reflective nature of a group’s memories, of group-think. But then the end picks up again, perhaps with another skillful trick, what some might call cheating, with a reveal that the promise made at the beginning, that all the girls would commit suicide, is only half the story, and that these narrators are way more important to and involved in that outcome than they’d originally let on.
What I see in that third quarter now is an awareness of the importance of the narrator’s role in the story, as if Eugenides had just reread Gatsby and said to himself, wait a minute, it DOES actually matter who Nick is. So he spends a good portion of the last half of the book amplifying the obsession, taking to creepy levels the adulthood obsession, going well beyond what we originally perceived to be intense but adolescent crushes on the beautiful neighbors with all the secrets who killed themselves. Then in the final act we find out where that obsession comes from.
Lydia Davis, “St. Martin”
But this doesn’t change my new perspective on first-person plural, which is to say it sounds like memoir, which is to say it doesn’t go places very quickly (if done in past tense with a good degree of temporal remove). This story doesn’t go anywhere at all. This sounds and feels exactly like memoir to me. It probably doesn’t have to be as passive and picturesquely descriptive as it is, but the first-person plural sure makes that mode seem natural to the story.
Except I hesitate to call this a story, because it seems to me like it’s aiming to recreate the circle of life, which is to say there is no beginning middle or end. We go through all the seasons. We hear that there’s trouble with the dog at the beginning, then find out what that trouble eventually is at the end, but that’s not story progression, that’s just withholding information. Visitors come and go. They’re hungry for a while, then deus ex machina, then they apparently never worry about being hungry again. If 95% or more of this story wasn’t actually experienced by Lydia Davis or someone she knew intimately, I would be shocked. (At first I typed “didn’t actually happen to Lydia Davis,” but that implied a level of action I thought inaccurate, in retrospect. There is no action to be found.) Which is to say, maybe this is all accurate, maybe this is all quite vivid and effective description of house-sitting for a year on a Caribbean island. I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong in assuming that fiction’s job is to impose some order on a chaotic, random universe, to try and prove that post hoc is not always a fallacy, that choices can have consequences, and therefore the choices matter. Maybe sometimes all you need to talk about are the consequences, and you don’t have to mention the choices at all. Maybe it’s okay to just write what we think is neat, or pretty. Hey, here’s a thing that happened. Shiny baubles, nodding to and fro.
I just, don’t know.
Justin Carroll, “Homecoming”
However. When you put first-person plural into the present tense, you can get some rather explosive action out of it. And (spoiler) when you leach out a singular perspective from the plural right at the end, that can be plot movement in itself. That’s ending on a choice, which I find interesting and relevant to “proper fiction,” nnnnnyyess, pass the tea cozy won’t you, love.