The voice of a story be it first person, an omniscient third person narrator, a third person focalised narrator (where the narrator is separate but not necessarily as distant as your standard omniscient voice) is often overlooked, going unnoticed; like a transparent filter we read through but are unaware of.
I remember the first time a narrative voice seriously affected me and made me question the author’s intentions. I had been told by many people that Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ was definitely worth a read. I knew the subject matter of the novel (like most) and I won’t lie it put me off from ever giving it a chance. I ended up getting a copy for christmas along with three other ‘must reads’ from both my Grandma and my Dad. As a narrative voice goes Humbert Humbert is one of the most interesting and talked about. The very first page of the very first chapter encapsulates all that is magnificent about Nabokov’s narrative choice in Humbert. Humbert charms the reader with plosive alliteration, bursting off the page with ‘Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.’ so much interesting language is happening on this first page that the brief mention of a ‘girl child’ is almost entirely lost as we are swept away by Humbert’s prowess as a storyteller. It is only at the mention of ‘murderer’ that we are anchored back to what this story is actually about. Concluding with ‘this tangle of thorns’ the introduction to Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ is one of the most well known in literature; the ‘tangle of thorns’ mentioned in this excerpt is a useful way to think about a deceptive first person narrator.
Losing sight of the horror at the core of the story is a common experience for many when reading ‘Lolita’. The narrative voice of Humbert can be so beguiling at times that the enjoyment of such unique descriptive writing overtakes the ‘okay so this story is about a pedophile’, then suddenly something will bring you back. The introduction is also the beginning of Humbert’s attempts throughout the novel to convince us (the jury) that what he did wasn’t wrong. I read ‘Lolita’ and Orwell’s 1984 within a month of each other and it made for interesting pair. Unexpectedly, I was made more aware than I had ever been of what the narrative voice telling your story can do, the possibilities.
A convincing and successfully deceptive first person narrative voice can force us to become investigators, detectives, FBI agents trained in being able to tell if someone is lying or not. Throughout ‘Lolita’, Lolita herself, or Dolores, is silent, the girl we experience in the novel is entirely Humbert’s own creation – she doesn’t even get to keep her real name. So, when Humbert tells us she pushed her leg up against his, or that she was manipulating him, or that she hurt his feelings or that she instigated something; can we know ever, for certain that this is true? No. We can’t, is the simple answer. I’ve had conversations about Lolita before where the other person has at numerous times victimised Humbert, has said ‘oh she knew what she was doing though’ and I’ve replied, out of frustration ‘SHE WAS TWELVE.’ But I think that is incredible. Nabokov managed to demonstrate exactly and so precisely how these people go through society unpunished for their crimes, how easy (well maybe not so easy for a writer, but for these types of people themselves) it is to persuade someone that your actions are completely understandable.
I am currently writing a short story that plays with these notions. I haven’t set out to create a controversial, decade changing story and it certainly doesn’t match up to the deceptiveness of Humbert Humbert. My question was, what if the narrator lived in a future so unbelievably different to ours, and this future included something so horrible that normally the reader would let out a quiet ‘ew’ at the thought of it; what if the narrator was so used to how bad that world had become that they normalise it, how far could you keep something from the reader? And how would you do it?
There are so many fantastic examples of first person narrative deception, Gillian Flynn’s ‘Gone Girl’ (film and novel), Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’, Chuck Palahniuk’s ‘Fight Club’ (I will hold off spoiling one of the biggest twists ever in cinema history here because apparently there are still people out there who don’t know…yep). All these books and their film adaptations demonstrate the manipulative power of an unreliable narrator.
I have only just begun my journey with the mysterious narrator of my short story, they’re still a little out of sight, somewhat in the peripheral. But, I’m trying even now to create a vocabulary for them to enable them to keep their secret. It’s the first time I’ve used first person in this way and I must say I can see the attraction to the control that you as the writer can have over possible readers.
Studying the craft of writing prose and forming a narratice voice certainly furthererd my appreciation for the building of a story, the creativity it takes to bring a narrator to life. There isn’t a much better feeling than that when you realise an author has completely had you fooled, that ‘What?!’ moment. .
I think of how many times people have had to remind themselves of who Humbert Humbert is.
I imagine my narrator with that same knowing smirk, the one Amy Dunne, Tyler Durden and many before them have worn.
Feature image source can be found here.