During the Reign of the Queen of Persia (New York Review Books Classics)

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Joan Chase: Our Childhood Edens and Lost Orchards of Memory

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This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

Every year I teach Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein to first-year college students, who can’t quite believe it was written by a girl their age. How could someone so young create a work so furiously complex, alive with the energies of need, anger, love, and alienation? But then, who would have known freakishness so well as a bookish girl in a male-dominated world, secretly convinced she’d killed the mother she never knew? “When I looked around I saw and heard of none like me,” the Creature tells his creator, Victor Frankenstein. “Was I, then, a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned?” Yet the Creature’s own consciousness makes avoiding this pain impossible, and, like any writer, he is drawn to examine it: “[O]f what a strange nature is knowledge!” he tells Victor. “It clings to the mind, when it has once seized on it, like a lichen on the rock.” Knowledge brings pain. But knowledge — and its exploration, in stories — is irresistible.

The sorrowing rage of a precocious daughter who felt spurned by her father and responsible for her mother’s death certainly drives the novel. But its origins aren’t quite that simple. Frankenstein was a book Mary Shelley had to write, for reasons she might never have been able to explain. That inward pressure is part of the alchemy that makes any novel an even bigger and stranger experience for its writer (and its reader) than the writer knows. While we may sometimes connect the real Mary Shelley with her brooding Creature, Frankenstein’s enduring allure comes from a much more mysterious place — an imaginative energy born of transgression, memory, fear, and desire, which may spring from real life but isn’t ever fully bound by it. That energy communicates itself to us, elevating the idea of the novel itself — to a heightened sensory tour of a recognizable human reality, fundamentally not responsible to any laws but its own.

Joan Chase, whose first novel was published when she was 47, is a writer whose work demonstrates this energy. She’s won many awards (including a Guggenheim, a Whiting Writers’ Award, the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, and PEN America’s Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award), and, according to one online source, is “still writing.” Yet she’s a shy, little-known presence in the modern literary world, with no webpage or Twitter feed. When confronted with so specific a fictional realm as Chase’s, readers accustomed to copious author bios and Internet availability will find themselves baffled. Yet her fiction demonstrates just how little “authorial intent” or “biography” can matter. Chase teaches us what it means for a writer to submit herself to the story, letting fiction and fact alchemize according to the needs of the created world on the page and following wherever that world’s logic leads, regardless of literal “truth.”

Recently reissued by NYRB Classics, Chase’s first novel, During the Reign of the Queen of Persia (1983), is narrated by a collective “we,” a group of sisters and cousins living in a matriarchal farm household in northern Ohio in the 1950s. “For as long as we could remember,” they tell us, “we had been together in the house which established the center of the known world.” Celia, Jenny, Anne, and Katie are cousins and sisters, “like our mothers, who were sisters” and who are all living in the house together at one time or another. “Sometimes we watched each other, knew differences,” they say. “But most of the time it was as though the four of us were one and we lived in days that gathered into one stream of time, undifferentiated and communal.”

The girls’ days are marked by farm-kid pleasures (kittens under the porch, playing in the hayloft with a hidden deck of cards) and violence (fighting with each other and their boy cousin, the sinister Rossie) and family crises that descend like weather: cancer, marital discord, courtship and impending marriage, abuse and making-up again. Family members come and go and come again until three generations — parents and their daughters, and the daughters’ husbands and children — have settled into the house. At every turn the girls feel knit deeper into the place:

Peaceable, we waited on the porch in the dappling noontime. In the Mason jars stacked up dusty and fly-specked on the side shelves, in the broken-webbed snowshoes hung there, the heap of rusty hinged traps waiting this long time to be oiled and set to catch something in the night, was the visible imprint of the past we were rooted in.

The girls’ world is presided over by a fierce, dominating goddess — their grandmother Lil. Nicknamed the eponymous “Queen of Persia,” Lil has been working her entire life, starting as a scrawny 11-year-old nanny for a neighbor with tuberculosis. Even an inheritance from a rich uncle, which enables her to buy a farm for herself, doesn’t soften her sense of grievance at the world. “She vowed it was peculiar,” say the girls, “her father spent his life in the West, searching for oil, when all along it was right out back under the corn crib. Now wasn’t that just like a man? Like life.” Focused in old age on her own self-protection, Lil widens her angry judgment of the world to include her daughters and granddaughters. Sometimes she condemns them, but sometimes she protects them. When her oldest daughter Grace dies of cancer, Gram squares off against Grace’s feckless husband, Neil. Yet at the novel’s end — after making a decision that shocks the reader — Gram snorts, “What did we ever have around here but dying and fighting? Work and craziness.” For the girls, Gram models womanhood as sheer cussedness and endurance, a “soiled and faded apron and her exhausted face, marked like an old barn siding that had withstood blasts and abuse of all kinds, beyond any expression other than resignation and self-regard.”

The man for whom Gram reserves most of her fury is her husband, Jacob, a stern Amish outcast who “was bigger than all the other men we saw who came around the farm…it was a bigness of bone, as though he were solid calcium with only skin stretched over him.” Cursing at the cows, backhanding Rossie into the barn wall for smashing eggs, and changing his long underwear only a few times a year, Grandad is a dark force of nature whose inability to interpret or express his own emotions makes him terrifying but, initially to Gram as a young woman, alluring:

Every night his eyes were watching, wanting her and letting her see it in him; but he wouldn’t touch her…though when she would pass close beside him she would hear his breathing, harsh and quick. It nearly drove her wild and her mind came to dwell on him nearly every second. Sometimes, when she lifted up the handle of the stove to stir the wood, the glutted, ashy coals crumbled at the slight touch and something inside her seemed to fragment in the same way.

Eventually, marriage — marked by furtive, rape-like sex and Jacob’s long absences — bends Gram’s desire into a thick club of anger, aggression, and dark humor with which she attacks everyone around her, and herself:

I seen more damned men than you would believe drinking themselves crazy, killing each other over nothing. And their women dying with babies or something else unnecessary. But you can’t tell them. I’m through trying. You can’t tell a young gal nothing, nor an older one neither. Not anything she don’t want to hear.

Watching Gram hang on to her life exactly as it is — remaining married to a man she hates, stashing her money under the floorboards, and shaking up her family with daily small cruelties — makes the reader wonder: in a world that thwarts women, what makes a woman also thwart herself, surrendering to meanness and pushing against a hard life in a way that only makes it harder? What’s the source of that particularly Midwestern passive aggression, self-sabotage, and buried rage? And why hate the one who gets away from it all — in this case Aunt Elinor, a successful New York career woman whose efforts to care for her dying sister are mocked even as they are relied upon? “Aunt Elinor looked patient, as one who had seen a wider world,” the girls observe, “one she constantly made visible to the rest of us — accepting the fact that a wider world might mean a weaker place in the old one.” Why love a place where the ordinary marvels of life — “The wet orchard grass and briers gleamed like washed planking, while above, the branches held green sails to the wind” — are braided with such pain?

When you are immersed in Joan Chase’s writing, that love seems wholly inevitable. In her review of During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, Margaret Atwood described the girls’ connection to this place:

Will the ‘we,’ having known a childhood so all-enveloping, so histrionic and so collective, ever be able to resolve itself successfully into four separate ‘I’s? For despite the horror of some of the events they witness, the children’s life at Gram’s is fascinating and addictive, and they live with an intensity and gusto that prevent their final vision from being a bleak one.

Indeed, something in the girls cleaves to their “flamboyantly, joylessly unpredictable” grandmother, no matter what:

When we are grown up and have been through everything, we’ll be like that. We’ll order kittens drowned by the bagful. Then at night we’ll dress in our silken best, pile on jewels and whiz off to parties, bring home prizes for the family. We’ll bet on horses.

This thread of resilience brightens the otherwise dark weather of this novel, which nevertheless isn’t forced or melodramatic — it’s only doing what it must, only being what it is. Lacking answers to the questions we might ordinarily ask the author — Is this your family? Are you saying something about women and passive-aggression here? — we fall back on the novel itself and on our own reactions, delving deeper into the territory of self-investigation. Which is to say, into literature.

Like Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, which was published three years earlier, During the Reign of the Queen of Persia is poised on the border between strict realism and something like a dream. If the governing element of Robinson’s novel is water — the frozen lake, the drowned train — Chase’s novel is of the soil. Rooted in landlocked northern Ohio, it is replete with cluttered farmhouses and barns and deer stealing windfall apples from the orchard. Yet its effects are never showy or awkward, never just rural Gothic cliché. Like William Faulkner, whom Chase admires, this is novelistic imagination with no elaborate scaffolding between reader and author — just direct immersion in a stream of subjectivity and life we come to know through that immersion itself. In this, the novel echoes its subjects: terrifying, marvelous, and memorable things happen here, and that’s just how it is — here in this dark Midwestern Eden, with its gnarled and faithful apple trees.

Chase found an early center of gravity in a large family homestead in rural Ohio like the one in Queen of Persia. “[I]t was wonderful,” she has said, “to have so much family around me.” On an “Ohioana Authors” radio program, she said, “When I began to write what became During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, I didn’t decide on Ohio as the setting, Ohio was just there, my imaginative heartland. It was the land of my childhood and from my perspective the most lovely and thrilling place in the world.”

These biographical statements (among the few Chase has made) don’t account for the elements of Queen of Persia that are less than “lovely.” But they don’t really need to; we all know that what is “true” doesn’t always make the best story. A writer must let the emotional qualities and images on the page shape the story according to her own emerging logic. This means that tracing a writer’s “biography” in a novel can be difficult. Particularly for the writer herself. And that, too, is perhaps as it should be.

Chase’s later works return to themes similar to Queen of Persia, although in more diffuse, experimental ways. Her second novel, The Evening Wolves (1989) explores how a feckless, wandering father warps his daughters’ lives. Francis Clemmons is charming and fierce, self-centered and often irresistible. The first-person narration (traded among his three children and second wife) is precise and pithy, rooting us in particular bodies and subjectivities: “My hair is straight, quiet hair,” young daughter Ruthann declares, “and my head feels peaceful, at least where it shows.” Elsewhere she tells how a boy “started rubbing my bones, their stone hearts luminous in the dark, binding me like stays.” Unlike Persia, the novel feels inconclusive, with an open-endedness that is employed to better effect in Chase’s short fiction.

Gathered in Bonneville Blue (1991), Chase’s stories are strange and shapely, centered around striking images from down-at-heel rural worlds reminiscent of Persia’s barns and backroads. Sally in “Crowing” accompanies a cranky old man around his barn: “People say farm animals know when the hog butcher is coming. Somehow. Even the day before, they will be restive, off their feed, as though word of the appointment has reached them.” Here, too, women are yearning yet uncertain how to act. In the lyrical “The Harrier,” an unhappily married woman dreams of a younger man:

I didn’t go with him up into that bed in the forest, not in the end, although as I said, in that winter of cold and driving spikes of ice he seemed to slam against my bedroom window all night like some night bird wanting in. But I chose to lie on, hugging the curve of my husband’s unyielding back, dreaming the smell that is feverish and rank, the distillation of roots and vines newly turned over.

Like Elena Ferrante, whose novels of growing up in midcentury Naples have drawn fresh attention this fall — and who writes from behind an inviolable pseudonym — Joan Chase disrupts the links we seek between a writer’s life and her art to let her work stand alone in the public eye. Of course, Joan Chase is her real name. But her relative silence, while thwarting readers’ curiosity, serves us as Ferrante’s pseudonymity does by sending us back to the work, which stands on its own — enigmatic, dark, and gorgeous.

Reading Chase, Ferrante, and Mary Shelley all together reignites my curiosity about women, writing, and boldness. What interior permissions, or exterior disguises, or at-long-last states of peace and determination must a woman attain to in order to speak the story that wants to take shape, whatever that shape may be? I’m wondering, too, about the relationship between personal privacy and the kind of boldness we need to do our work. In the Internet age, Ferrante’s pseudonym and Chase’s quietness both suggest strategies to address that issue: if you want to avoid complaining family members, or earnest reviewers asking you about “which parts are autobiographical,” or random readers’ emails, short-circuiting the link between you and the public might help. Maintaining privacy might also quiet interior voices that insist a good daughter would never write this. Seeking recognition is just not what we do in this family. If you get the wrong kind of attention, it’s your own fault.

During the Reign of the Queen of Persia does make me wonder about Chase’s family’s reaction: whether they recognized themselves, whether they objected, whether they half-resented the one whose success they also envied. But ultimately, it’s not our business. It is enough that Joan Chase brought into the world a novel so vivid, risky, and beautiful, and that from it we can learn to trust our stories — to finger the jagged grain of those trees in our childhood Edens, those lost orchards of memory — and let them take us where they need to go.

Undomesticated: On Joan Chase’s During the Reign of the Queen of Persia

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Consider that phrase, “domestic fiction.” So close to “domesticated,” it carries the connotation of a house-broken pet: eager to please, discreet, companionable, sulky but essentially submissive. It’s a usefully misleading cover for a mode that is more often fraught and claustrophobic. When Anthony Lane describes Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady as a “disturbance of the peace” and a “horror story,” he could be talking about domestic fiction generally.

Reissued this month as a NYRB Classic, Joan Chase’s During the Reign of the Queen of Persia won the PEN/Hemingway Prize for First Fiction in 1983, two years after Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and one year after Bobbie Ann Mason’s Shiloh and Other Stories. Upon publication, those three novels were individually considered as feminist reworkings of domestic fiction — as political statements — though each author had ambitions that extended into questions of the self against the demands of community.

The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas once answered the question “What does it mean to be Jewish?” by saying:
To be Jewish is not a particularity; it is a modality. Everyone is a little bit Jewish, and if there are men on Mars, one will find Jews among them. Moreover, Jews are people who doubt themselves, who in a certain sense, belong to a religion of unbelievers. God says to Joshua, “I will not abandon you nor will I let you escape.”
In, Housekeeping and Chase’s first novel, as well as Paula Fox’s The Widow’s Children and Hilary Mantel’s Every Day is Mother’s Day, the Family is a kind of Lévinasian paradox: its members will not abandoned nor will they be allowed to escape. These fragile communities are knitted together by doubt, intimidation, suspicion, timidity, and egotism.

To better understand why they stay in co-dependent relationships, Fox, Mantel, and Chase anatomize their protagonists’ intellectual contradictions and follies stoically, without a hint of sentimentality. If there is an arch-theme to the genre, it would be the way each of us can become ensnared by our own solipsism. In The Widow’s Children, one character stays in an impoverished, acrimonious marriage because she has convinced herself of her own superiority over her condition, “that they were only ‘broke,’ that rescue was on the way — always on the way.”

The “Queen of Persia” is a grandmother in a small Ohio farming town. She has four daughters. Her four granddaughters are all born within two years of each other to mismatched parents. The male characters — the malevolent grandfather, one hapless trumpet-playing uncle, and another enigmatic uncle who is a failed writer — are palpably uneasy around their daughters and wives. The women assume the responsibility of preparing the young girls for the austere life they will inherit.

Chase’s novel is narrated by the four young granddaughters, “we.” This unorthodox conceit works subtly, but it also leads to a telling choice. There is no reference to “Mom” or “Dad,” only to Aunt Libby and Uncle Dan, insisting on a tone of estrangement between the children and their parents. When their individual anonymity is disrupted, one of the girls is lifted out of the group and treated like an outsider. Occasionally, the narrators skip over subjects that perhaps are not comprehensible for pre-teen girls. (They have a sexual encounter with a cousin that is obliquely depicted.)

The tone is cautiously wistful, as if this past still has a grip on its survivors. A signal choice in this novel is the manipulation of time. During the Reign of the Queen of Persia and Toni Morrison’s Sula (1977) cover the same territory, well, literally. Sula opens with a landscape of rural Ohio:
In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood. It stood in the hills above the valley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom. One road, shaded by beeches, oaks, maples, and chestnuts, connected it to the valley.
This is the beginning of Chase’s novel:
In northern Ohio there is a county of some hundred thousand arable acres which breaks with the lake region flatland and begins to roll and climb, and to change into rural settings: roadside clusters of houses, small settlements that repose on the edge of nowhere […] These traces of human habitation recede, balanced by the luxuriant curving hills, cliffs like lounging flanks, water shoots that rapidly lose themselves in gladed ravines.
As opposed to Morrison’s description, the present doesn’t dominate the memory of 1950s Ohio; the past has been carefully circumscribed. Morrison’s historical landscape is besieged by real-estate developers and social forces of change. Chase’s landscape doesn’t register the present. It appears elemental, hardly concerned with human beings at all.

The first chapter of During the Reign is set in motion when the oldest granddaughter, Celia, experiences puberty, “a miracle and a calamity.” Sexuality shuffles the motives of everyone around the young girls, who only dimly seem to understand why. Her mother, Aunt Libby, becomes fiercely devoted to making sure she doesn’t ruin her chances for marriage. A half dozen men woo her. Her fiancé later betrays her. In what feels like 10 pages, Celia’s adolescent beauty and verve quietly shrink: “[Her mother] still fretted over Celia, a set habit, focusing now on her health, for rather quickly the bloom of Celia’s face and figure was gone. She looked wilted by misfortune.” Celia marries the quietly pining boy she wasn’t interested in and moves to Texas.

When the father of two of the girls visits the farm, a large “country-style” breakfast sparks memories of his own childhood. After breakfast, the girls wait for him in the barn. Their private ritual the narrators describe is a re-enactment of his childhood. He performs the role of a Mr. Higgenbottom, a teacher “as mean as Silas Marner, as severe as God, and as relentless as the devil.” He gives each girl a word to spell. Eventually, the girls misspell “symbol” and “conscience” and he whips them with a stick. They rationalize that he hits them less hard than he hits his own hand.

The father, Neil, eventually let them go:
We are released then, forget again, and begin to descend the levels of the barn, down through the shafts of sunlight, and then we run off down the pasture lane into the woods, walking by the stony shallow stream until it is deeper and it runs clean. We slide into the water; our dresses fill and float about us as though we have been altered into water lilies.
Neil, though, follows them to the stream, where they tackle him and pile onto him. Restless and mysterious, he seems to vanish into the air, and the girls call his name. The narrators then say, “Then we forget again, dreaming.”

This odd father-daughter set piece is echoed in a later Chase novel, The Evening Wolves (1990). The father in that novel imitates the big bad wolf. Drawn to the dangerous wolf, the daughters are unable to resist approaching and being mauled by the wolf. Both scenes, with the apologetic victim and the physically violent adult, are unsettling.

The father-uncle and the girls are caught in a pantomime of private history that they can’t seem to extricate themselves from. Like the abusive grandfather lurking in the background, Neil allows the grief of his own past to impinge on his own daughters’ youth. Their childhood isn’t innocent and it isn’t painless, Chase suggests, but he shouldn’t add to their suffering.

The novel then spools backward, to the marriage of the grandmother and grandfather, a man hardened by his Depression-era struggles. He is an abusive drunk who slowly recedes to a bench in the barn, among the cows that he is dedicated to. He sells off the cows silently and dies, un-mourned.

For the first three-fourths of the novel, the girls have only touched on the trauma that has shaped their young lives, as if their consciousness has ricocheted off it. The reader learns that Grace, mother to two of the girls, has already died from cancer by the time Celia is married in the first chapter.

The novel tests an old cliché — that the dying can teach us how better to live — before the narrators discard it. They also reject the faith-based consolations of their Aunt, a Christian Scientist.
None of us sang, our sorrow accomplished. We heard the footsteps of the men who carried the coffin and the closing of the car doors. We went outside with the others, blinking our eyes as if we’d walked into first light. Without a comprehensible past or imaginable expectations, we had entered into another lifetime. We held hands.
That fragile and incomprehensible past looms in this story, a centripetal force in the narrative of their lives. The painful recollection of her slow death resonates throughout the house. The gurgling sound that Grace makes during one of her last nights, as she tries to breathe, is the same sound the sink drain makes.

Amy Hungerford has argued that Robinson’s Housekeeping is preoccupied with how grief paradoxically enlarges the memory of the dead and starves the self’s presence. Alternately, the group chorus of During the Reign of the Queen of Persia seem untethered by time, reordering events and maintaining the inscrutability of their own motives. Unbound from a linear construction of time, this group of agnostics are connected by the tenuous thread of Lévinasian doubt and by grief.

One reason that Chase has slipped into obscurity, while her rough contemporaries Robinson, Mason, and Mantel have ascended, is the relative infrequency with which she publishes. Seven years elapsed between During the Reign of the Queen of Persia and The Evening Wolves. It has been 23 years since her short-story collection Bonneville Blue.

“The success of Persia was part of what made it difficult for me to begin a second novel,” she told Contemporary Authors Online. “But I think just being published was equally constraining. For the first time I was aware of an audience as an integral part of the process which makes a book a book. After that it was harder for me to focus on my material and fictional intentions without hearing other voices and responses.”

I also suspect that her lack of productivity owes something to her lapidary style and unhurried structure. Near the end of the novel, the Queen makes arrangements concerning the house, which she keeps secret from the entire family: “We were as separated from her,” the narrators say, “as always, living on there, awaiting her decisions, with everything that happened heightened with the poignancy and solemnity of an old tale.” That poignancy and solemnity is the effect of deliberate, patient craftsmanship. Moreover, the craftsmanship here is consummate.

We the Narrators

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On a desert plain out West, the Lone Ranger and Tonto are surrounded by a band of Indians, all of them slowly closing in. Sunlight reflects off tomahawks. War paint covers furious scowls. “Looks like we’re done for, Tonto,” says the Lone Ranger, to which Tonto replies, “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?”

That old joke raises a question other than its own punch line. Why would anyone decide to write a novel in first-person plural, a point of view that, like second-person, is often accused of being nothing but an authorial gimmick? Once mockingly ascribed to royalty, editors, pregnant women, and individuals with tapeworms, the “we” voice can, when used in fiction, lead to overly lyrical descriptions, time frames that shift too much, and a lack of narrative arc.

In many cases of first-person plural, however, those pitfalls become advantageous. The narration is granted an intimate omniscience. Various settings can be shuffled between elegantly. The voice is allowed to luxuriate on scenic details. Here are a few novels that prove first-person plural is more of a neat trick than a cheap one.

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

Prior to the publication of The Virgin Suicides, most people, when asked about first-person plural, probably thought of William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” This novel changed that. A group of men look back on their childhood in 1970s suburban Michigan, particularly “the year of the suicides,” a time when the five Lisbon sisters took turns providing the novel its title. Most remarkable about Eugenides’s debut is not those tragic events, however, but the narrative voice, so melancholy, vivid, deadpan, and graceful in its depiction not only of the suicides but also of adolescent minutiae. Playing cards stuck in bicycle spokes get as much attention as razor blades dragged across wrists. Throughout the novel, Eugenides, aware of first-person plural’s roots in classical drama, gives his narrators functions greater than those of a Greek chorus. They don’t merely comment on the action, provide background information, and voice the interiority of other characters. The collective narrators of The Virgin Suicides are really the protagonists. Ultimately their lives prove more dynamic than the deaths of the sisters. “It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling.”

Our Kind by Kate Walbert

This title would work for just about any book on this list. A collection of stories interconnected enough to be labeled a novel, Our Kind is narrated by ten women, suburban divorcees reminiscent of Cheever characters.
We’ve seen a lot. We’ve seen the murder-suicide of the Clifford Jacksons, Tate Kieley jailed for embezzlement, Dorothy Schoenbacher in nothing but a mink coat in August dive from the roof of the Cooke’s Inn. We’ve seen Dick Morehead arrested in the ladies’ dressing room at Lord & Taylor, attempting to squeeze into a petite teddy. We’ve seen Francis Stoney gone mad, Brenda Nelson take to cocaine. We’ve seen the blackballing of the Steward Collisters. We’ve seen more than our share of liars and cheats, thieves. Drunks? We couldn’t count.
That passage exemplifies a technique, the lyrical montage, particularly suited to first-person plural. Each perspective within a collective narrator is a mirror in the kaleidoscope of story presentation. To create a montage all an author has to do is turn the cylinder. Walbert does so masterfully in Our Kind.

During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase

“There were the four of us — Celia and Jenny, who were sisters, Anne and Katie, sisters too, like our mothers, who were sisters.” In her New York Times review, Margaret Atwood considered this novel, narrated by those four cousins, to be concerned with “the female matrix,” comparing it to works by Anne Tyler and Marilynne Robinson. First-person plural often renders itself along such gender matrices. This novel is unique in that its single-gender point of view is not coalesced around a subject of the opposite gender. Its female narrators examine the involutions of womanhood by delineating other female characters. Similar in that respect to another first-person-plural novel, Tova Mirvis’s The Ladies Auxiliary, During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, taking an elliptical approach to time, braids its young narrators’ lives with those of the other women in their family to create a beautifully written, impressionistic view of childhood.

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler

Novels written in first-person plural typically have one of four basic narrative structures: an investigation, gossip, some large and/or strange event, and family life. The Jane Austen Book Club uses all four of those structures. The novel manages to do so because its overall design is similar to that of an anthology series. Within the loose framework of a monthly Jane Austen book club, chapters titled after the respective months are presented, each focusing on one of the six group members, whose personal stories correspond to one of Austen’s six novels. The combinations of each character with a book, Jocelyn and Emma, Allegra and Sense and Sensibility, Prudie and Mansfield Park, Grigg and Northanger Abbey, Bernadette and Pride and Prejudice, Sylvia and Persuasion, exemplify one of the novel’s most significant lines. “Each of us has a private Austen.” Moreover, such an adage’s universality proves that, even when first-person plural refers to specific characters, the reader is, however subconsciously, an implicit part of the point of view.

The Notebook by Agota Kristof

If one doesn’t include sui generis works such as Ayn Rand’s Anthem — a dystopian novella in which the single narrator speaks in a plural voice because first-person-singular pronouns have been outlawed — Kristof’s The Notebook, narrated by twin brothers, contains the fewest narrators possible in first-person-plural fiction. Its plot has the allegorical vagueness of a fable. Weirder than Eleanor Brown’s The Weird Sisters, another first-person-plural novel narrated by siblings, the brothers in The Notebook are taken by their mother from Big Town to Little Town, where they move in with their grandmother. In an unidentified country based on Hungary they endure cruelty and abuse during an unidentified war based on World War II. To survive they grow remorselessly cold. Kristof’s use of first-person plural allows her to build a multifaceted metaphor out of The Notebook. The twins come to represent not only how war destroys selfhood through depersonalization but also how interdependence is a means to resist the effects of war.

The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

In the same way narrators can be reliable and unreliable, collective narrators can be defined and undefined. The narrators in this novel include both parts of that analogy. They’re unreliably defined. Sometimes the narrators are the people who find the corpse of the titular patriarch, an unnamed dictator of an unnamed country, but sometimes the people who find the corpse are referred to in third-person. Sometimes the narrators are the many generations of army generals. Sometimes the narrators are the former dictators of other countries. Sometimes the point of view is all-inclusive, similar to the occasional, God-like “we” scattered through certain novels, including, for example, Jim Crace’s Being Dead, E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, and Paul Auster’s City of Glass. Even the dictator, periodically and confusingly, uses the royal “we.” For the most part, however, the collective narrator encompasses every citizen ruled by the tyrannical despot, people who, after his death, are finally given a voice.

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

What about first-person plural lends itself so well to rhythm? Julie Otsuka provides an answer to that question with The Buddha in the Attic. In a series of linked narratives, she traces the lives of a group of women, including their journey from Japan to San Francisco, their struggles to assimilate to a new culture, their internment during World War II, and other particulars of the Japanese-American experience. “On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall,” the novel begins. “Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves.” Although the narrators are, for the most part, presented as a collective voice, each of their singular voices are dashed throughout the novel, in the form of italicized sentences. It is in that way Otsuka creates a rhythm. The plural lines become the flat notes, singular lines the sharp notes, all combining to form a measured beat.

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

For his first novel’s epigraph, Ferris quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Is it not the chief disgrace of this world, not to be a unit; — not to be reckoned one character; — not to yield that peculiar fruit which each man was created to bear, but to be reckoned in the gross, in the hundred, or the thousand, of the party, the section, to which we belong…” The line nicely plays into this novel about corporate plurality. At an ad agency in Chicago post-dot-com boom, the employees distract themselves from the economic downturn with office hijinks, stealing each other’s chairs, wearing three company polo shirts at once, going an entire day speaking only quotes from The Godfather. The narrative arc is more of a plummet. Nonetheless, Ferris manages to turn a story doomed from the beginning — the title, nabbed from DeLillo’s first novel, says it all — into a hilarious and heartfelt portrait of employment. Ed Park’s Personal Days, somewhat overshadowed by the critical success of this novel, uses a similar collective narrator.

The Fates Will Find a Way by Hannah Pittard

Define hurdle. To be an author of one gender writing from the point of view of characters of the opposite gender investigating the life of a character of said author’s own gender. The most impressive thing about The Fates Will Find Their Way is how readily Pittard accomplishes such a difficult task. Despite one instance of an “I” used in the narration, the story is told in first-person plural by a collection of boys, now grown men, pondering the fate of a neighborhood girl, Nora Lindell, who went missing years ago. Every possible solution to the mystery of what happened to the girl — Heidi Julavits’s The Uses of Enchantment works similarly, as does Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods — becomes a projection of the characters affected by her absence. In that way this novel exemplifies a key feature of many novels, including most on this list, narrated by characters who observe more than they participate. The narrators are the protagonists. It can be argued, for example, that The Great Gatsby is really the story of its narrator, Nick Carraway, even though other characters have more active roles. Same goes for James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Nancy Lemann’s Lives of the Saints, to name a few. What’s more important, after all, the prism or the light?

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