Tuesday, November 01, 2011

THE DEAD NARRATOR


I am reading a book now where the narrator is dead. I don't need to say which book because that would constitute a spoiler. I guess there are several recent uses of this device--it seems especially popular in YA.

"Death" itself narrates in THE BOOK THIEF. How does that work for you?

Back to dead narrators, LOVELY BONES comes to mind. And the William Holden character in SUNSET BOULEVARD. I am sure we can come up with many more. I used it myself in a recent story but found it troubling. I am too literal a person not to be vaguely annoyed.

What do you think of this device? If you know the narrator is dead from the beginning, does it seem less of a cheat than if you don't find out he's dead to the end? Certainly skillful hands are essential.

Also does a ghost constitute a dead narrator? What about a vampire?

When is dead truly dead?

25 comments:

Richard R. said...

I'd immediately see it as a gimmick. There are a lot of ways to tell a good story without gimmicks.

Gerard said...

TO THE WHITE SEA by James Dickey.

Brian Busby said...

Something for those who may be considering your Canadian reading challenge, the first sentence in Robertson Davies' Murther and Walking Spirits:

I was never so amazed in my life as when the Sniffer drew his concealed weapon from its case and struck me to the ground, stone dead.

Joe Barone said...

I'd have to read the book to know how it worked for me, but I admire writers who use point of view well. I can visualize a book with a narrator who is dead or a book narrated by death itself that I would like a lot.

Dan_Luft said...

I remember arguing with my mother 25 years ago about whether the narrator of "Ironweed" was dead or not. At the time it seemed like cutting edge to me.

James M Cain ends "Butterfly" in the middle of a sentence and we are left to think that he was shot while writing it down.

Both "Lolita" and Kurt Vonnegut's "Mother Night" end with the narrator vowing suicide.

And a well respected Hard Case novel ends with a narrator sitting on the train tracks.

It works for me with the vowed suicide or if the book draws attention to itself as a "confession" like Lolita. My favorite dead narrator was William Holden in Sunset Boulevard but he was very up front about his condition in the first shot of the movie.

Using it as a plot twist part way through or at the end of the book feels a bit cheap -- almost like an author has painted himself into a corner.

I guess I feel cheated because almost all books take place in the past tense and if it's told in first person I should feel like I'm reading that narrator's written or spoken story. And if I'm not reading a ghost story, how could I listen to a dead person?

pattinase (abbott) said...

Joe-I think you would really like THE BOOK THIEF. It has both depth and complexity.
How could I forget LOLITA. Good points.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I have read a lot of Davies, but I don't think that one. Great first line. I think it's yours to discuss.

Anonymous said...

Yes, THE BOOK THIEF worked for me. Excellent stuff. I could not read THE LOVELY BONES, but then over the years I've had an aversion (my fault, undoubtedly, as I'm sure some of them are good) to what I consider wildly overhyped books - DaVINCI CODE (which I did try, but the poor writing defeated my interest), LOVELY BONES, THE NAME OF THE ROSE, BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY.

Yes, I'd want to know in advance if at all possible, but depending on the book and how well it's written, I can take ambiguity as long as I get a definitive answer at some point.

Jeff M.

Anonymous said...

Charlie Huston's Joe Pitt is a vampire but he doesn't seem "dead" in narrating his tales.

Jeff M.

Dave Zeltserman said...

Given that several of Jim Thompson's bets noir novels, and that are really classic noir, end with the narrator about to die, this is far more than a gimmick, and if done right can be used very powerfully. I can also remember a recent noir novel that got a good amount of acclaim, if I'm remembering right topping one of NPR's yearly best crime & mystery lists, that ended with the noir narrator heading straight to hell.

djskrimiblog said...

Hm. I won´t say I couldn´t fall for a story with a dead narrator - brilliant writers can pull off almost anything - but I am sceptical.

In the right genres I don´t mind ghost narrators, but if the story involves crime, I want a proper solution, not supernatural hocus pocus.

Travis Erwin said...

I do think it's better to be up front and not trick the reader. That style of writing kind of ticks me off unless done extremely well. I have a novel plotted and partially written where the primary narrator kills himself in the end and part of my trouble is how to make the narrative plausible given his demise.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I feel for you. But tell it right from the start. A beyond the grave confession.

Cap'n Bob said...

I'm not likely to read a book with that kind of approach.

Erik Donald France said...

Wouldn't the last eg. be an undead narrator?

Not so sure about a ghost. Amos Tutuola has some truly strange narration in his Nigerian tales.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Vampire seem to be the mostly chatty.

Deb said...

I think it's all in how the author handles the story. I would neither read nor refuse to read a book based on whether the narrator is dead. On the other hand, I could not bring myself to read THE LOVELY BONES, but I think that was because I have teenage daughters and I just couldn't bear the story line; I cannot read any books where children are killed/harmed/imperiled, etc.

Margot Kinberg said...

Patti - There aren't really that many novels where I think dead narrator works very well for me, although it can if it's done deftly. I like things to be realistic and even though I'm willing to let go of that a little when I read, I still like to be able to "buy" what I'm reading. Åsa Larsson does it well in Till Thy Wrath be Past, but it's tough to do effectively.

Mike Dennis said...

To me, the narrator who dies at the end is cheating the reader, needlessly leading the reader on, only to go, "Ha! I'm dead. See?"

Readers invest emotional capital in the central character of any book. A unique relationship builds and strengthens between the two, and that means the reader is entitled to the assumption that the character/narrator is, at least, alive to tell the story

pattinase (abbott) said...

What about in SUNSET BOULEVARD. You know from the start he's dead.

Julia Madeleine said...

Interesting topic Patti. I avoided reading The Lovely Bones when I learned the narrator was dead. It turned me off right away. But eventually I read it, and I thought it was brilliant. The hands of a skilled writer, can get away with almost anything :)

pattinase (abbott) said...

And that's the truth.

Ron Scheer said...

Dead narrators I don't have time for. They're dead; who cares.

As for movies, I saw SUNSET BOULEVARD as a kid and it scarred me for life, which never kept it from being brilliant. AMERICAN BEAUTY, on the other hand, was just a crappy movie.

Mike Dennis said...

Patti--Gloria Swanson's sensational performance aside, SUNSET BOULEVARD never quite worked for me because of that (the narrator dies in the beginning). I've always thought it was a needlessly arty gimmick and the story would've been much tighter had there been either no narrator or a 3rd person. No narrator would've been my choice. Then, IMHO, it would've achieved greatness.

Veronica Marie Lewis-Shaw said...

I first read THE BOOK THIEF about two years ago... it took my breath away... I'm still trying to get it back.

I cried all the way through THE LOVELY BONES. The story really could not have been told any other way.

I don't think it is a cheat as long as you know right up front that the narrator is dead. If I read a story and on the last page the author says... 'oh... btw... I'm dead."... I am going to be seriously ticked!

Not sure vampyres count... sure, they are technically dead ('dead' being the opposite of 'un-dead'), but we really don't think of them as dead. I mean, how can someone dead give life to another?