Friday, February 10, 2012

Narrative Friction

I recently learned (maybe I’m the last to know) that Ben Zimmer of The Boston Globe has been tracking anachronistic language in the PBS hit show Downton Abbey for a project called Visual Thesaurus. The anachronisms are also the subject of a YouTube video.

The examples (“I couldn’t care less”) have not struck me while I watched the series, so I can’t claim they took this viewer out of the fiction. It could be that I’m just a sucker for an English accent, lapsing into instant credulousness at the first seemingly erudite syllable. Then again, some of these “mistakes” seem like a great deal of hairsplitting. For instance, the word “floozy” — which Zimmerman flags — is said only to have begun in American (not British) slang in the earlier part of the decade in which Downton takes place. I don’t know — I’m not a linguist — but the first written citation in the Dictionary of American Slang dates to 1902. Wouldn’t the oral slang precede the written? Doesn’t at least sixteen years seem like enough time for that usage to have crossed the pond, especially with a world war on? And isn’t it possible that the character who speaks this word was at least exposed to an American in England who introduced her to the usage?

Well, never mind the pilpul; it’s all in good fun. But this exercise does bring to my mind the issue of narrative voice in fiction.

Whether writing in the first or third person, it’s the job of the narrator to create a kind of immersion in time and place. When this works and the voice is applied consistently, this immersion acts as a lubricant that enables the author to tell his or her story with minimal resistance from the reader. Anything that takes the reader out of the story we might call “narrative friction.”

Because of the possibilities for narrative friction, the first task of all narrative voice is to get out of the way, but it’s more complicated than that. For example, James Wood, in his insightful little book How Fiction Works, notes that “so-called omniscience is almost impossible. As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking.”

I might quibble: it’s not really the “narrative” that wants to do this but the author, because what a novel has over other forms — movies, say, or television — is its ability to get inside a character’s head. Every art form inevitably plays to its strength. Still, there’s something instructive here.

This selective quote from Wood — taken a bit out of context, in that it comes originally during a discussion of the distinctions between direct and indirect speech — may sound like a criticism of the omniscient voice bending itself toward its character, but I don’t believe it’s meant to be. More to the point, anything that brings us closer to the conditions of time and place that the novelist wishes to evoke seems like a fair technique — so long as it doesn’t go overboard and create narrative friction.

I recently read West of Here by Jonathan Evison, a successful novel that jumps back and forth between the 1880‘s and 2006 while employing a third-person narrator. I don’t know whether there were any anachronisms in the historical parts — I wasn’t really reading critically — but I thought Evison did a good job of creating an immersion in time, which when it’s executed correctly involves much more than references to period clothing or swapping cars for horses.

In fact, what Evison does quite cleverly is use (in the narrator’s voice — not necessarily in dialog) no contractions (“It is said”) when he’s in the 1880s and plenty of contractions (“She hadn’t expected”) when he’s in 2006. I might, if I look carefully, find a few quibbles, but nothing jumped out at me while I was immersed in the story. The narrative seemed relatively frictionless.

This may seem like a simple thing to the reader, but it isn’t a simple thing for the writer. On the creator’s part, it requires a great deal of thoughtfulness and discipline.