Many—maybe even most—of my favorite books are novels narrated by an observer who does not consider themselves the main actor in the story. Think Nick Carraway, Jay Gatsby’s sort-of friend, the perfect mournfully sardonic narrator for one of American literature’s most enduring novels. I love stories told by the supposedly innocent bystander; the less charismatic best friend; the hapless fan or scholar whose own life recedes in the shadow of their subject of adoration.
I especially love books like this because they are honest in two ways other narrative forms are often not. First, a non-protagonist narrator acknowledges the fact that storytelling is always, always about perspective. In the same way history is dictated by the victors, stories are dictated by the people with the ability and inclination to write them down, and the meta-fiction created by a self-aware narrator telling someone else’s story can be beautifully tense, disarmingly frank, and entertainingly specious. Second, the non-protagonist narrator acknowledges obsession—an obsession with another person that inspired the character to take the time to set down this story in writing at all. They seethe with charisma, jealousy, and longing of one form or another. This is why I chose this narrative form for my own novel, The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna.
I’m not the only one who loves to read this mode of storytelling; many of the traditional candidates for Great American Novel follow the format: besides The Great Gatsby, there is Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, in which reporter Jack Burden tells the story of politician Willie Stark; or John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, in which jealous introvert prep schooler Gene obsesses over his outgoing and talented roommate, Phineas. But the list of relevant masterpieces is long and absolutely need not adhere to the reading we did in high school back before “the canon” was including much besides white men. Here are a few of my favorites.
1. The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu
Let’s go ahead and go all the way back to the beginning, to what is argued to be the first-ever novel, composed around the year 1010 AD. The story is related by an unnamed female speaking to a social superior, as is evident in the form of verb conjugation used. It describes the love affairs and misadventures of Genji, a minor son of the Emperor. The identity of the narrator is never revealed, but some believe the text hints that she might be one of Genji’s (rather many) lovers.
2. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
Detective fiction has a long tradition of an average Joe narrator who relates the adventures of a whimsical genius investigator—a tradition that goes all the way back to the mystery genre’s inception with Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin stories and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. With The Name of the Rose (1980), Eco offers a hyper-intellectual pastiche of that archetype with a murder mystery set in a 14th-century Italian convent in which a bumbling Benedictine novice, Adso, describes the crime-solving antics of his master, a monk named William of Baskerville.
3. Passing by Nella Larsen
This 1929 novel is narrated by Irene Redfield, a light-skinned black woman who learns a friend from her Chicago childhood, Clare Kendry, has been living as a white woman, married to a virulently racist white man and completely cut off from her roots. Irene’s obsession with Clare’s choice—and the light it sheds on her own choices—cause her to spin back into the woman’s orbit no matter how much she tells herself she’s done with Clare.
4. The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
The narrator of this 1945 novel is Fanny, an upper-class English girl who is abandoned by her parents to live with wealthy relatives. Fanny is relating the life and exploits of Linda Radlett, her cousin and best friend, whose love affairs and impetuous adventures wholly distract the reader from Fanny’s absence in her own story.
5. Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat
This 1994 novel is the story of Sophie Caco, who is 12 years old when she emigrates from Haiti to join her mother in New York, but really it is the story of Sophie’s enigmatic mother, Martine, whose traumatic history inflicts itself not only on her relationship with Sophie but also, viscerally, on Sophie herself.
6. The Chosen by Chaim Potok
Set in the New York City Orthodox Jewish community at the end of World War II, this 1967 novel is narrated by Reuven, a Modern Orthodox boy from a Zionist family, who is deeply committed to and fascinated by his sometimes controversial friendship with Danny, the genius son of a Hassidic rabbi.
7. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Another favorite of mine that highlights the emotional intensity of a platonic friendship. In this 2012 novel, Elena, the narrator, builds her life around and in relief against her unpredictable and addictive best friend, Lila, a thwarted and moody genius who causes steadfast Elena to underestimate herself.
8. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
Quentin Compson, the troubled Harvard student we saw commit suicide in The Sound and the Fury, narrates the life story of Thomas Sutpen, a larger-than-life slave-holding plantation owner from Quentin’s native Mississippi in this 1936 novel. The narrative framework, a conversation between Quentin and his roommate, incorporates historical fact and conjecture and highly personalized interpretation—one of my favorite allegories for the way it shows how history is preserved.
9. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
This 2005 novel hits heavy on one of my favorite themes: remorse. Its 80-year-old narrator, Lily, reveals how the story of her own long life has been framed by that of her long-lost best friend, Snow Flower, and how she let her obsession with their friendship ruin both their lives.
10. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
A bit of a cheat selection, because the narrator of this 1961 novel is a third person omniscient, but it connects the reader to a group of six Scottish school girls who are all equally obsessed with their vivacious, unconventional, and fascist teacher, Miss Brodie, whom they adore, obey, and betray.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.
Image credit: Design Ecologist.
To paraphrase the critic Georges Poulet: a poet of written poems does not necessarily aim only to write a poem; he or she aims to become, and for those who read his or her poems to become. Becoming is an activity that many young African Americans are engaged in today — whether it be formal, revolutionary, or informal — and it is an activity that requires undivided dynamism. If Kendrick Lamar’s chant “we gon’ be alright” — four words that when repeated meld a fight song to a primordial moment in the foundation and the defense of a collective and its culture — is now considered the foremost musical expression of this era’s black activism, Nate Marshall’s poem “repetition & repetition &”, the very first poem from his book Wild Hundreds, should be considered the foremost articulation of contemporary blackness’s dynamism in literature. It’s an engine of becoming.
Our is a long love song,
A push into open air,
A stare into the barrel
With those three lines, Marshall begins an epic comparable to Robert Hayden’s renowned “The Middle Passage” and other black epics; but this is an epic of guidance and instruction. It’s built on the thesis that black “works,” as painful as it may be to be black. The poem begins by posing the question What do I feel as a black person, its title “repetition & repetition &” having given us the context. The opening of the poem removes any ambiguity we might attribute to the poem’s message, plunging us into the poet’s project.
We are a pattern,
A percussive imperative,
A break beat
“repetition & repetition &” quickly comes to feature the collective “we” as fundamental to the poem. Marshall uses the word “we” as the black community loves for it to be used. If “I” is modernism, and postmodernism, Marshall pushes it aside for the beloved “we” — the “we” of the hard road to salvation and joy. Sorry, he seems to be saying: despite claims that our sentiment is tribalism or that we are just Americans, the black community remains a place where a black “we” is a beautiful way of saying “me.” With “we” he expresses the blackness that has us all feeling, one that cannot be found in oh-so-many poems that center the lonely “I” or “me.”
“We” is brilliantly defined in the line “we are love.” We = love, in convivial crowds and effective political rallies.
Baby we are hundreds:
Wild until we are free.
Wild like Amnesia
This is an epic of identity. It proposes black identity (love, being wild) to its reader, as a written articulation of “black is beautiful”; it functions as a model of identity to adhere to and trust.
Identity is an old and persistent question in black life, to the point where passing, pretending that one is not black or not claiming one’s blackness, has been a theme of many black novels (see Nella Larsen’s Passing). Faith in blackness and in one’s own blackness is a feature in our age of contradictions: of a black president, of interracial marriages, of a growing middle class, of foreclosures of homes owned by blacks, of predatory and racist practices, of the killings of young black men and women, of Black Lives Matter. It’s an age of youthful comic modernities, where tragedy is not the sort of thing that co-workers of other races want to talk about. Should I be happy in public? Who am I in all of this? Marshall answers these questions and others with an epic that can guide, in terms of how to think about blackness or being black.
The black identity being proposed is not a simple one. As John Edgar Wideman wrote as a blurb for Mitchell Jackson’s novel The Residue Years, it embraces the English language as a means of expression, saying loud and clear, Despite my difference, I am culturally a descendent of the English language and of poetry in English. It is perhaps the most complex aspect of the poem — the poet does not want to settle for blackness as some sort of noble savagery. His language tells us that a black person can read French theory and find solace in Modernist English poetry all the while feeling the pain and rage that comes from seeing a dead black child on a television; all of it combined being who “we” are or “I” am as a black person.
In the end, Marshall offers an engine for the pursuit of self that can only be the undercurrent of black production — ranging from Beyoncé’s Lemonade, or Greg Osby’s many great yet unknown albums of genius Jazz blackness, or a teacher’s persistence with children — but also a vehicle for any non-black person to think about the blackness of co-citizens and friends. His poem is an epic of strength in love and in numbers, where in despite “a stare into the barrel,” and “repetition,” as he ends the poem, ‘we are 1’ and will remain it.
In a piece for The Millions last week, I used a single sentence from Anthony Doerr’s bestselling novel All the Light You Cannot See to demonstrate Doerr’s mastery of narrative prose. I was able to build an entire essay around one sentence chosen at random from Doerr’s novel because his prose is so consistently good that I could have picked essentially any sentence from the book and written the same essay.
But the exercise got me wondering: If I looked at the same line — the first sentence of the fifth paragraph on page 40 — in other books, would it offer the same window onto the author’s style? I began scanning my bookshelves at home, pulling down favorite novels and reading the first sentence of the fifth paragraph on page 40.
Though hardly foolproof, my “Page 40 Test” turned out to be an instructive exercise. Stripping away setting, narrative, and character development afforded me an unusual pinhole view into the mind of a writer at work. Some writers displayed infelicities of diction or grammar that I might have missed at full speed, but that, under close examination, helped explain a vague unease I had long felt about the author’s work. Other writers, I found, expertly built their setting, narrative, and character development into every sentence, while still others seemed to lose the plot midway through.
A work of fiction is more than simply a collection of finely wrought sentences. Plot matters, as do the characters and setting. But by paying close attention to how a writer constructs sentences, we can begin to see how the larger structure of the novel is built. Here are some especially telling sentences I found at the start of the fifth paragraph on page 40 of five novels from my shelves at home. Feel free to add sentences from your own “Page 40 Tests” in the comments.
The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor
“We ain’t got nothin’ but pullet eggs,” he said, fishing up another handful of beans.
One sentence, 15 words, and we are set down, firmly and indelibly, in a particular time and place. Given the dialect, this can be nowhere but the American South, and given what they are eating, and the apparent scarcity of it, it can only be the Depression years. City slicker that I am, I had to Google “pullet eggs.” They are eggs laid by a chicken less than a year old, meaning that they are unusually small. In our industrialized farming system, we rarely see pullet eggs, which are typically shipped off to the powdered egg factory.
But this sentence, which comes from the 1946 story “The Crop,” which O’Connor wrote while still a student at Iowa, is more than a sepia-toned portrait of a bygone age. The dialect is pitch perfect, and the verbal phrase at the end of the sentence displays O’Connor’s gift for masterfully inapt figurative language. One usually “fishes” an object from liquid or from an empty space (“He fished his cell phone from his pocket.”) It is just slightly off to say that someone is “fishing up” a “handful of beans.” Yet this wrongness is also exactly right. It gives the sentence its ring of authenticity and its voice, conveying the sense one has so often in O’Connor’s stories of a real person, an ordinary Southerner closely acquainted with the world she is describing, telling a tale.
The Unvanquished by William Faulkner
Then they stopped — Joby and Granny, and while Granny held the lantern at arm’s length, Joby and Loosh dug the trunk up from where they had buried it that night last summer while Father was at home, while Louvinia stood in the door of the bedroom without even lighting the lamp while Ringo and I went to bed and later I looked out or dreamed I looked out the window and saw (or dreamed I saw) the lantern.
Who else but Faulkner could get away with a sentence like this? Actually, I’m not sure he does get away with it. As is so often the case in Faulkner, things start out crystal clear and action-packed, and then, as if the author has taken one too many sips from the tumbler of bourbon he supposedly kept on his writing desk, he gets unstuck in time. The second half of the sentence is a jumble of competing images and time frames, with too many whiles, too many lamps and lanterns and people looking out windows or perhaps only dreaming they are looking out windows. And just as soon as you work out the chronology, things get slippery again: If Joby, Granny, and Loosh are digging up the trunk in the middle of the night, then who are Ringo and I?
But this is the man who wrote, in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” So much in Faulkner is about the blurring of time and how our dream reality distorts, but also helps us make sense of, what we see with our own eyes. And all of Faulkner’s fiction, like this sentence, teems with life. Faulkner’s genius was that he could slip inside so many complex characters, but a part of the genius of his prose was that he let the messiness of life stay messy. It is possible to follow this passage — the dark night, the flickering lamplight, the narrator’s confusion about whether he saw or dreamed the lantern outside the window — but to do so you have to read carefully and recursively, piecing together clues the way the characters are doing. In other words, the only way to read a Faulkner sentence is to enter into it, become one more half-doomed character trying to make sense of it all.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
After class, I wandered downstairs in a dream, my head spinning, but acutely, achingly conscious that I was alive and young on a beautiful day; the sky a deep deep painful blue, wind scattering the red and yellow leaves in a whirlwind of confetti.
I love The Secret History, which remains the most accurate real-time portrait of my own generation of college students in the late 1980s, but I see in this sentence the root of the problems I have with Tartt’s later novels, both of which struck me as bloated and overwrought. The central drama of Tartt’s sentence is compelling and her imagery is original: the sky is “a deep deep painful blue” and the autumn leaves form “a whirlwind of confetti.” But what is up with that semi-colon? It does not, as semi-colons typically do, separate two independent clauses, nor does it function as a super comma linking a series of phrases that contain commas within them. It just floats there mid-sentence binding two tenuously related hunks of language, hoping it looks punctuationally sophisticated enough to ward off any questions about the sentence it is holding together.
Tartt could have replaced the semi-colon with a long dash or a plain old comma. The second half of the sentence still wouldn’t have meshed with the first, but at least the clash wouldn’t be so glaring. But a closer look at the sentence shows that syntactic coherence is the least of Tartt’s worries. How many characters have we seen in fiction wandering in a dream, their heads spinning? The next clause is even clunkier. First, Tartt has trouble articulating the quality of her hero’s consciousness. Is he “acutely” conscious? Is he “achingly” conscious? Hey, why not just use both? And what is it that our hero is so “acutely, achingly conscious” of? That he is “alive” and “young” on “a beautiful day” — three essentially empty vessels of descriptive cliché. This is the work of a writer several orders of magnitude less talented than the one who can turn a clear blue sky “painful” and conjure a “whirlwind of confetti” from a pile of dead leaves. That’s what that semi-colon is doing loitering there mid-sentence looking so guilty. It’s protecting the work of a gifted stylist from that of far more ordinary writer.
All the Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen
All the women in Sam’s life italicized things.
Unlike the earlier Faulkner sentence, this one by Gessen demands little from its reader. This is a sentence, and a book, that can be read on an airplane. Yet the language is not merely functional, the way it might be in a novel by, say, John Grisham or Patricia Cornwell. Gessen’s prose is smartly observant. This sentence refers to a line Sam’s ex-girlfriend once said to him — “Really? That’s ambitious.” — but more generally it speaks to a passion, and a queasily ironic relationship to that passion, felt by the earnest Ivy Leaguers in Gessen’s book who are testing out the ideals they picked up in college in the laboratory of the real world.
This brand of easily accessible cleverness is in many ways a defining feature of commercial literary fiction. Everything is clean and orderly — no wandering participles, no mystifying time shifts, no dabbling in the netherworld between dream and reality. The reader can glide from subject to verb without ever having to pause for thought, yet the prose encourages thinking. At the same time, it’s a little glib. All the women in Sam’s life, really? And what does it mean, exactly, to italicize a thing? Here, as in Flannery O’Connor, the imprecision is part of the art. It gives Gessen’s sentence its punch, its voice. But unlike the O’Connor sentence, this one is self-consciously clever. One can hear the two young Harvard grads blowing off steam over beers at a noisy bar in Brooklyn, working to top each other with their insights about women and life. Then, at the end of the night, one of them goes home and puts it in a book.
Passing by Nella Larsen
An on-looker, Irene reflected, would have thought it a most congenial tea-party, all smiles and jokes and hilarious laughter.
Passing, Larsen’s classic Harlem Renaissance novella about a black woman passing herself off as white, is a case study of one woman’s struggle to manage impressions. But Larsen’s prose, as this sentence shows, is also furiously managing the reader’s impressions. The unidentified “on-looker” here is clearly us, Larsen’s reader. And who are we? A paragraph earlier, a party guest announced that the one thing he would never abide in his wife is any hint of racial taint. “I draw the line at that,” he said. “No niggers in my family. Never have been and never will be.” We, the smiling on-looker, not only see this as “most congenial” tea-party chatter, but apparently find it “hilarious.”
But we are also, as Larsen’s grammar makes clear, blind to everything that matters. The sentence seems to focus on the on-looker and what he or she thinks of the party, but the heart of the sentence, the only active part of it, is Irene sitting off to one side watching and reflecting. She is, in this sentence as in the novella as a whole, hidden in plain sight, tucked away in an independent clause that seems to carry no grammatical weight, but in fact governs the whole sentence. Why would we, the clueless on-lookers, be fooled into thinking this was merely another “congenial tea-party” full of other happy, socially prominent white folks like ourselves? Because Irene quietly, invisibly, at the cost of great mental strain, has used all her good manners and finishing-school diction to make it appear that way.