Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Lies! Lies! It’s all damned lies!

Or was that really flies? Maybe it’s all flies? Or pies? I quite like a nice flaky crust.

Spoilers abound.

Back in my time of knee socks, pleated kilts and regulation bloomers (Remove those filthy thoughts from your mind, I was a very frog-like child and not at all attractive) I was completely obsessed with whodunits. And as far as I was concerned, Dame Agatha Christie was absolutely the bee’s knees. For one thing, she’d written so many books there was a strong possibility that I would never be able to read them all. Sadly this was not true, but at least it took about two years to track down all of them.

Big digression:

Incidentally, I seriously intend to name a child after her. Preferably a boy. Not mine, of course. I’m waiting for one of my more baby-inclined friends to pop one out for the third or fourth time, by which time the novelty will have hopefully worn off. Then all I have to do is get them drunk (apparently quite easy when a person hasn’t had a night’s sleep for over 5 years) and forge the paperwork. If I keep quiet and things go according to plan they might not notice until the kid starts school, by which time it’ll be too damn late. Hell, if I give them enough red wine and promise to baby-sit for an hour or two, they may even do it willingly.

Back to the carving board:

In many ways Dame Aggie stuck to the tried-and-true (most reassuring for an 11 year old). Her prose was a bit clunky, her characters mainly paper cut-outs and her setting was a world that no longer existed (if it ever did), but her real appeal lay in the puzzle. The true game was always between her and her readers.

In this, she had no mercy. She gleefully messed with our minds. She supplied clues and red herrings with equal generosity. Locked room mysteries, copycat murderers, faked deaths, a sleeper car full of murderers trapped in snow en route from Istanbul. Even Poirot killed someone once. But in the eyes of many the plot twist at the end of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was a trick to far. The narrator had dunit and this was a flagrant violation of the rules. Dame Aggie had cheated.

Roll forward many, many decades and the cries of “Shame” and “Not cricket!” (it had been the 1920s) were only distant echoes by the time I plucked this book off the library shelf. My biggest concern initially was what had happened to the usual narrator, Captain Hastings, but I persevered with this Dr. Sheppard chap. And then, about three pages before All Was Revealed, I worked out that he was the murderer. No, really. I did. And I absolutely loved it. I loved that I’d outwitted Dame Aggie by a nose. I loved her audacity. I loved that fair play had gone out the window. It was bloody brilliant.

What, you may ask, has this to do with the price of two teacakes and pot of orange pekoe? Well, I could talk about how Dr. Sheppard is a classic example of the unreliable narrator. He deliberately tries to mislead the reader; not by lying but by omission and clever wording. I could talk about how others of his ilk bob about in the sea of literature, from Huck Finn to Humbert Humbert to Verbal Kint. Some are unreliable because they lie, some because they are naïve or lack self-awareness. They’re not necessarily unsympathetic, either. In many cases, the character’s own limitations mean that the reader can detect more about what is going on in the story than the narrator who describes the events.

But in addition to being unreliable, Dr. Sheppard also writes in the first person. In fact, there’s quite a persuasive argument that anything written in the first person has an unreliable narrator. And this is where my wonderings have taken me. A while back, there was an interesting discussion at Maili’s about first person point of view in novels. I’ve been reading a few books like this lately and it occurred to me that while I don’t rely on the narrator to provide the whole truth, all of the time, it really winds me up if their inconsistencies as a narrator aren’t consistent with their character.

I should probably add that if there is no information to the contrary, I always assume that I’m going along with the narrator for the ride, not reading her memoirs. So really obvious foreshadowing of the “If only I had known then…” type squeaks chalk against the blackboard of my mind.

Similarly irritating is when the narrator deliberately doesn’t detail her own actions or things she sees when they will lead to critical plot developments. In other words, moments like, “We got together and discussed our super-secret, cunning and highly surprising plan that night. The next day…” Notice I’m not dying to read on now. This is one heap-big lazy-ass way to keep the suspense going. I am left befuddled. Why would this narrator leave out this information? After spilling her guts about the most personal details imaginable, she leaves out her cunning plan? It feels like the narrator’s been gaffer-taped into a chair while the author comes in with a big eraser to rub out anything that might give away the Big Secret Surprise.

If it really is the case that the events are meant to have been written about after they occurred, then this needs to be a bit more apparent. Laying off the whole rhetorical, “What could possibly happen next?” would probably help, too. It’s just plain weird if the narrator flits back and forth in time like this.

It's more noticeable when it comes to books written in the first person, because the narrator and the character are one and the same. But books written in limited third person aren’t immune either. In this case, it’s sometimes harder for me to put my finger on it on first reading, because the distinction between the author and the narrator is less clear. But if the camera this time is situated behind a character’s shoulder and occasionally peeks into their head, it still can’t just switch off or forward/reverse-wind for no apparent reason. Because then it feels like some pesky author is playing silly buggers with the remote control. And that will make me wonder who’s telling it when to peek and when not to. Which will make me pay a bit more attention to other loose threads, or maybe pick at them a bit. And before you know it, the whole thing will just fall apart, which is no fun for anyone.


Mel said...

I imagine then that you are avoiding the whole rash of 1hour-Agatha Christie-TV-pellets ITV has been force-feeding us lately on an almost daily basis! Not only have they determined to squeeze any and every story into a one hour slot with adverts, no matter what that does to the original narrative, but they have even stooped to inserting Miss Marple into stories where she never belonged in the first place, just to add some of her "brand power".. That is definitely, "Not cricket!".

I digress. I appreciate the thrust of your post had to do with the use of 1st person POV in novels. I can only say that anyone messing with my head, especially at high speed (as with a remote RW/FF) is a BAD thing

EvilAuntiePeril said...

Fear not, Mel. Digressions are intrinsically good things. I'm just stunned by the notion of Miss. Marple having "brand power".

Yet another reason to be glad that a dodgy aerial and no nifty digibox or dish mean I only get 4 channels, and ITV's not one of them.