Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Who is I?

You may wonder sometimes who is supposed to be saying the verses. Is it the Author, that strange but uninteresting person, or is it Christopher Robin, or some other boy or girl, or Nurse, or Hoo? If I had followed Mr. Wordsworth's plan I could have explained this each time; but as it is, you will have to decide for yourselves.

Padgett Powell's critically acclaimed new book The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? is composed entirely of questions - a provocatively mysterious one being Who’s asking the questions? Seriously, that is a thought which could keep me up at night: in a work of fiction that is not written in the first person, who is the omniscient narrator?

In works of journalism and non fiction, we can often easily assume that the narrator and the author are one and the same; we can also easily accept that the thoughts in poetry belong to the poet. The water gets somewhat murky when one turns to narrative fiction, though. Is the narrator some kind of a god of the universe being described in the book? (It would not be irrelevant to note at this point that some of the earliest works of fiction written by humanity is literally considered the be the word of god.)

My friend Dylan would probably scoff - 'because fiction is an artifact, the narrator is simply the narrator', he would say, refusing to assign any greater ontological depth to it. I am not sure I agree completely, though. In fact, I would probably posit that the search for a self in the narrator lies at the heart of much of postmodern literary philosophy & techniques.

P.S. While we are on the subject, I was watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail the other day and it struck me again how this near-perfect gem can serve as a primer for those interested in the use of postmodernist techniques in popular culture.

P.P.S. In case you were wondering, Powell does have an answer to his own question - "Well let me use some of my rich French: C'est moi. Why be coy about it? That's me."