Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Protagonist as Self-Editor

Rereading The Night in Question, I found my attention drawn to several instances in which Wolff's narrators became self-conscious about how they felt or expressed themselves. More like a writer than a real person.

In "Casualty," the protagonist tries to tell his girlfriend about his war experiences:
He wanted to be truthful with her. What a surprise, then, to have it all come out sounding like a lie. He couldn't get it right, couldn't put across what he had felt. He used the wrong words, words that somehow rang false, in sentimental cadences. The details sounded artful. His voice was halting and grave, self-aware, phony.
In "The Chain," the protagonist is recounting the story of an attack on his daughter by a dog:
'The whole thing took maybe sixty seconds,' Gold said. 'Maybe less. But it went on forever.' He'd told the story many times now, and always mentioned this. He knew it was trite to marvel at the way time could stretch and stall, but he was unable not to.
In "Smorgasbord," the young narrator describes the reaction of an older woman to his tales of sexual exploit:
... the more I told her the more wolfishly she smiled and the more her eyes laughed at me.

Laughing eyes--now there's a cliche my English master would have eaten me alive for. 'How exactly did these eyes laugh?' he would have asked, looking up from my paper while my classmates snorted around me. 'Did they titter, or did they merely chortle? Did they give a great guffaw? Did they, perhaps, scream with laughter?'

I am here to tell you that eyes can scream with laughter.
None of these little apologies are all that significant; they don't derail the stories at all. They reveal Wolff struggling with the problem of writing characters who are trite or sentimental. He disavows responsibility by having the characters apologize for their behavior, even though real people might never consider their own triteness. It is undeniably a form of authorial intrusion, but one which we, as kindhearted readers, must forgive and forget. Yes, I know that's trite. I can't help myself.