Monday, June 05, 2006

The Juvenile Narrator

This week The New Yorker brings us "My Parents' Bedroom," by Uwem Akpan. It's a story of African genocide, as told by Monique, a nine-year-old girl who sees her father murder her mother to satisfy a mob who would otherwise murder the entire family.

The story suffers from the problem of the juvenile narrator. The story is told in present tense, so the conceit is that the narrator "is" the first-person narrator, telling the story as it is lived. In other words, the author wants us to believe that the narrator is the same age as the protagonist, whereas in a story told in past tense, a first-person narrator is always older than the version of himself who serves as the protagonist. A "reminiscent first-person narrator" is usually an adult version of a character looking back on himself as a child.

These are interesting distinctions to keep in mind, because the language and perceptions of the story are dictated by the age and experience of the narrator, not the protagonist. I've had readers tell me that if I'm writing a story about a seven-year-old boy, I must use the vocabulary of a seven-year-old boy. Unless I intend for my narrator to be seven years old, this is not true. These readers have failed to grasp the distinction between the narrator and the character. Even in a first-person story, they are never the same.

The problem with a truly juvenile narrator, as seen in "My Parents' Bedroom," is that the narrative is stuck with the language and understanding of a child. It's almost impossible to render satisfying adult fiction under such constraints. In most cases, the language is drearily dull. The child narrator is usually too naive to be believed. And often, as is the case with this story, the result is a melodramatic portrait of the child as victim, beset by issues and problems she cannot understand. Oh the poignancy. Oh the heartbreak. I, for one, don't buy it. I am never able to forget that no nine-year-old could have told this story, with or without constrained vocabulary, and that serves as a constant reminder that the author is out there, or up there in the rafters, tugging at my heartstrings. Just use third person. Let the story speak.