Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Garden of Well-Told Tales: "Foe," voiced by J.M. Coetzee

           A recent discussion on, an online network for readers and writers, raised the question: What constitutes "literary fiction"? No one's pretending to give a simple answer, but a participant nominated "James" (the site does not permit full names), raised a number of good points. I wish to address just one of them, his emphasis on 'voice' in literary fiction.
           Though I can't fully credit him, knowing only a first name, James mentioned voice twice:
"In literary fiction, anything goes, the author can freely experiment with voice and style... [and] Character (or voice) usually comes before plot."
And in another statement he makes a similar argument:  
"The words and style tend to make it a pleasure to read (as opposed to, say, an action driven page turner, where the action makes it a pleasure to read)."
            I have recently read three short works of fiction that I see as exemplifying the essential virtue of a strong narrative voice.
"Foe" by J. M. Coetzee; "The Meursault Investigation" by Kamel Daoud; and "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher" by Hilary Mantel. In each of these books stories are told by a narrator who buttonholes our attention from the book's first words and holds it to the last. 
           Here, for example, is "Foe"'s narrator, the ship-wrecked Susan Barton appealing to the author of "Robinson Cruso" to tell her story: ''The island was Cruso's (yet by what right? by the law of islands? is there such a law?), but I lived there too, I was no bird of passage, no gannet or albatross, to circle the island once and dip a wing and then fly on over the boundless ocean. Return to me the substance I have lost, Mr. Foe: that is my entreaty."
         Ah, we think, here is someone worth listening to. 
         In this excerpt passage from Coetzee's short novel, chosen pretty much by random, the reader may register impressions such as...:
          Well, we are indeed in the early the 18th century, in which long sentence of relatively complicated structure are routine. Long-windedness is not the mortal sin to the readers and writers of that period that it is today for the terser style readers expect and most writers of English deliver. Today, a college English composition teacher (I used to be one) would say, 'Whoops, you've got a run-on sentence here, right after 'but i lived there too.' You can't just put a comma there and go straight into another independent clause.' 
          Looking at this sentence today, I would have to ask 'why did we bother about such stuff?' Susan Barton's so-called run-on sentence presents no barrier to reader comprehension. In fact the comma, rather than the full-stop period, emphasizes the rising momentum of Barton's surging argument. 
           And no newspaper editor would allow Barton to follow 'bird of passage' with two examples of exactly that sort of bird: 'no gannet or albatross.' Stick to the essential facts, our news writers would be told. But anyone reading Barton's (that is, of course, Coatzee's) prose with an ear for the joy of language finds pleasure in hearing those precisely chosen names. Those are the (phonetically interesting) names of two kinds of birds who do fly lengthy passages over the blue Pacific to island hop and check out the local food sources in the rich off-shore bays. Plus 'albatross' carries a certain cachet for all readers of English literature, though not for the fictional Susan Barton, since Coleridge would not write his albatross-burdened "Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner" for another century. 
          The point is that Coatzee's language -- his fictional voice -- here and throughout this book embodies the pleasures of the English speech of that time and place: a joy in embellishment, in assertion, in the pleasure of argument for its own sake. 
           Similar claims may be made for the voice of Dickens and many of his characters a century later, though his speaker are so full of the joy of elaboration, so enamored of the sound of their own voice, that a good deal of Dickens's humor comes from making fun of their pomposity. 
           And Shakespeare's speakers both embody a degree of elaboration unmatched anywhere (in my experience at least), while other characters offer snidely under-cutting rhetorical thrusts. 
Polonius: "Your noble son is mad:
Mad call I it, for to define true madness,
What is't but to be nothing else but mad?"

Getrude interrupts, concisely: "More matter with less art."          Literary fiction has room for lots of voices; Hamlet's poetic complaints. His mother's pointed questions. Other sorts of fiction, genres, give us the same voice, again, again, again. We recognize it. Often we choose a book because that's exactly what we wish to hear. 
           But the pleasure of English speech spoken well is not what we experience often when we turn on the radio, click on the TV, pick up the phone, or log onto a web site. On these media it's rare to encounter truly crafted language.
          Satisfying the craving for well crafted speech -- a voice with something to say, and saying it well -- is what an authorial performance such as Coatzee's does. It gives us something our soul knows it needs. 

4.) What is more important to you, story, or character? Why?
A.) What's important to me is voice. Somebody has to be telling something -- let's say 'story' -- in a compelling way. Somebody has to have something to say, and has to know how to say it. The writer, through whatever artifice -- first-person narrator or third-person omniscient or anywhere in between -- has to speak with authority, invite, seduce, or demand the reader's attention. And hold it by delivering the goods. You probably need both story and deep, complex, credible characters to do that job, but you don't get in the door, at least my door, without a tongue in your head.