Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Larger Than Life

The Errol Morris television show “First Person” boasted the memorable tagline, “Spend some time in another person’s mind.”  That statement was absolutely true for the program, which revealed the inner mental lives of a diverse assortment of individuals, including a giant squid-obsessed scientist, a neurotic former “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” contestant, and a babe who dates only convicted serial killers.  But it’s also true of first person as a point of view for a work of fiction, at its best.  Most readers of contemporary fiction are familiar with the device of the unreliable narrator.  I'd argue that, in fact, the appeal of any first person narrator lies to some extent in his unreliability, his elisions and generalizations, the limits of his diction and the colors that particular desires and fears paint his reality.  The setting isn't just a physical place, but the inside of someone's head.  In a first person story, the meaning of the narrative is doubled: we wonder not just what will happen next, but why the speaker feels compelled to tell us about it – what he’s getting at.

First person draws greater attention to this question, I think, at the moments when it oversteps its traditional boundaries: when a narrator relates scenes or incidents for which he could not possibly have been present.  This can be a masterful move.  As I noted in an earlier post, one of the only good things about Eugenides’s sloppy, emotionally dishonest behemoth Middlesex was the confident way the speaker reached generations back to lead up to the inciting incident of her/his own birth.  And the shimmering architecture of Lethem’s Chronic City is dotted with several open windows, moments when narrator Chase Insteadmen’s tender observations of his friends allow him, for a moment, to actually step outside himself to inhabit their twitchy, itchy, off-balance selves.  But these moments are stunning not by accident but necessity.  When an author breaks all the rules, there needs to be a payoff, something that makes the gesture a revelation rather than simply a mistake.

This is all a long way of leading into the point of today’s blog post, which is that Tiffany Baker's The Little Giant of Aberdeen County is the worst book I’ve read all summer – the sort of thing airport screeners should forcibly remove from luggage, along with combustible liquids, loaded revolvers, Ebola monkeys, and any other items known for ruining vacations.  And, in my opinion, the first of its many faults is its blatant misuse of the aforementioned device.  In the book, the title character not only steps out of her own subjectivity to narrate scenes for which she couldn’t have possibly been present; she does it to the detriment of the story’s world and the development of the other characters.

 Her narration overshadows everything else.

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County tells the story of one Truly Plaice, a genetic anomaly whose overactive pituitary starts her growth off at lightning speed and keeps her expanding exponentially long into adulthood.  Her monstrous birth (along with a conveniently timed breast lump) destroys her mother, leaving Truly and her lovely, delicate sister Serena Jane in the hands first of their alcoholic father and, after he drinks himself to death, with appointed guardians in town: the Rev. Pickerton & fam for Serena Jane, the down-and-out, ramblin’ gamblin’ Dyersons for Truly.  Serena Jane wants nothing more than to high-tail it out of ol’ Aberdeen to Hollywood, but shucks, fate has other plans in store for her.  She’s date-raped by Bob Bob Morgan, the son of the town’s doctor, and, since in a novel like this a single ejaculation inevitably packs more dramatic punch than a heat-seeking missile, instantly becomes pregnant.  She marries Bob Bob, bears a son, and then disappears, leaving Truly – for some convoluted and underexplained reasons – saddled with the twin burdens of keeping house for her pure-evil husband and raising her odd-duck child.

This is not a subtle book.  This is the kind of painfully folksy yarn where the narrator’s philosophizing about euthanasia is explored through the metaphor of whether or not it’s right to shoot a horse with a broken neck (in case you’re wondering: “You go and get your shotgun and you shoot it right between the eyes, hard.”); where she comments on the differences between herself and her sister with faux-profundities like, “Pretty can’t exist without ugly”; where the daily life of a town is compressed into meaningless generalizations like, “We in Aberdeen are pure creatures of habit” and non sequiturs including, “One of the things you learn growing up in a small town where everyone knows everyone’s business is that desire is communal.”  In telling the story of her life, Truly Plaice takes her own gigantism as a free pass to cast every individual around her, good or bad, as a character straight out of a fairy tale.  Her sister is a “china doll,” with “Kewpie lips… black fringed eyes… flossy yellow hair.”  Evil Bob Bob has “the semblance of a hairless wolf.”  “Without her church face,” we learn, “Amanda Pickerton almost looked like a fox,” but down-at-the-heels country wife Brenda Dyerson is pretty when she stops kneading bread long enough to let it show.  And the problems Truly describes all of them facing are hardly a full step removed from the old vaudeville parody of standard melodrama: “You must pay the rent!” “I can’t pay the rent!” “I’ll pay the rent!” “My hero!”

Now don't get me wrong.  The idea of a gigantic dying narrator who views her world through the narcotizing haze of sentimentality is actually, to me, incredibly compelling, even heartbreaking.  I love the idea that Truly’s isolation, her circumscribed experience, her lack of book-learning and intellectual curiosity (“Me, I’ve never been a big reader.  I figure that if a secret has an answer it’ll out on its own if it’s meant to”) might limit her perspective so much that, like the long-suffering butler in Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, she finds herself unable to see what’s right in front of her face in her community and in the lives of people around her.  It would be tragic if she considered her sister a beautiful princess, for example, the jewel of the town, whose prized virginity was snatched by a dastardly usurper, when in fact her sister was an attractive but average girl whose high school boyfriend knocked her up; if she saw her teacher (named, I shit you not, Priscilla “Prissy” Sparrrow) as a lonely, desperate spinster as a way of projecting her own teenage sexual frustration onto a nearby target; if she imagined the cruel, manipulative Morgans ruled the town and everyone in it with sneaky maneuvers and outright strong-arming, when in fact their only advantages were the typical ones allotted to the wealthier and better educated members of any American community.  Misperceptions of this kind wouldn’t just lend poignancy to the otherwise irritating down-home voice; they would help to explain why Truly remains so inexplicably passive, kowtowing to authority figures and viewing herself as a victim for most of her life rather than actively shaping her destiny.  Bloated with a diet of half-digested Frank Capra storylines and rural truisms, Truly could have been the best kind of unreliable narrator: the kind whose exaggerations and contradictions reveal larger, more disturbing truths about the culture from which she springs.

But Baker leaves no room for us to question Truly’s version of events.  Instead, she actually grants Truly greater authority by bestowing on her omniscience, allowing her to routinely relay information that she couldn’t possibly have access to.  These moments are never bracketed with caveats – “I imagine” or “she later told me” – and they aren’t mere asides: they’re given to us in full scene, as if Truly were truly there. 

Yet in these moments, the fact of Truly’s remove, her position as observer rather than participant, is also oddly emphasized.  In one of the weirdest passages of the novel, she depicts the scene of her sister’s date rape, prefacing her description with this statement: “What can I say about the events that followed that evening between Bob Bob and my sister?  Only that Serena Jane always wanted a starring role in something, and she finally got it… Thinking about all of this – even now – is like watching a movie for me.  There’s the urge to scream at the person on the screen, to warn them, but of course, doing so only results in a sore throat and nasty looks from everyone else around you.”  Highlighting herself as viewer – as voyeur – may seem bizarre, but it serves a purpose: it makes it more difficult for the reader to reject what follows as hearsay or supposition or outright fabrication.  Truly can see what happened, frame by frame.  She is a camera (here, that metaphor is explicit), and everyone knows that cameras don’t lie.

In this way, Baker is successful in discouraging the reader from approaching Truly’s narration critically.  But the larger effect of this is to make the story’s world not more real, but less.  We’re given no alternative to viewing the other players in this story the way Truly does, and thus the stereotypes she presents us with are externalized.  The haughty princess, the calculating villain, the gentle gardener, the spinster schoolteacher are not timeworn paradigms a miserable woman employs to make sense of her frustrated, stifled existence; they’re the actual figures present in this town.  And so, reading this book isn’t allowing us to spend some time in another person’s mind; it’s sentencing us to a prison term in a town built from the ground up of everyone’s clichés.  No wonder so many people in this community come to Truly begging for death potions to help them finish themselves off peacefully.  Once you realize you know everything that’s coming, it can be a chore to wait for the end.

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