Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The narrator in experimental novels

Though the experimental novel can be defined in terms of a plethora of different qualities, one aspect that has presented itself in all of the works we have read is our inability to completely trust the narrator. Through  their use of language and style, the narrators in the novels have given us doubt in their own abilities to relate their stories. While most narrators possess at least some bias or subjectivity that must be considered when interpreting the story, the narrators in experimental fiction are beyond biased. They undermine, contradict, exaggerate, and leave out details that make us question their motives and roles as narrators. Whether it is Bernard, encompassing the other narrators in The Waves, Molloy, questioning his communicating ability, Kathy's blotchy memory, the end of Loving, James's unquestioning loyalty, Anna's cracking up, etc. Almost all of the narrators must be read cautiously. The only novel I couldn't immediately add to this list was Women in Love, and I would argue it was experimental for different reasons.

Why do so these experimental works  want us to question their narrators? By questioning the narrators we are forced to question the novel. Not the events in the novel (though those may be questioned too), but the intention, the motivation behind writing the novel. In most "standard" novels, the intention of the novel and what it is trying to convey are easily made clear to the reader, even if not stated directly. In the experimental works, we must pry deeper and interpret more in order to discover the underlying meaning. In doing so, the novel as a whole begins to become a part of its own story, creating a sort of entity that interacts on another level with the reader. In this way the experimental novel sets itself apart from the standard literature and defies or goes beyond the traditional narrative.


  1. I think the distrustfulness of the narrator in Women in Love comes in the fact that everything we read is an interpretation of the characters actions made by the narrator. In his forward Lawrence talks about a "struggle for verbal consciousness," referring to the way an individual strives to know and understand what is happening, even in his or herself. This is clear in several characters as they try to understand their feelings for each other. Throughout the whole novel we have this narrator who is telling us the things the characters' words cannot. In fact, the narrator seems at times to enter the consciousness of a particular character to give the reader additional information on their motivation. As a result I think one could conclude that the trustworthiness of the narrator in Women in Love is only as trustworthy as the character whose consciousness is being entered at a particular moment.

  2. I would agree with your assertion that one way in which our narrators perform their unreliability is through undermining (which might top a list of words most likely to be heard by people walking by our classroom at any given moment), and I would posit that it is this subversive process which most distinguishes “experimental” from “conventional” literature. If we choose to define experimentation in opposition to convention, then the experimental must by necessity challenge the limitations established, and perpetuated by, literature itself; it must actively dismantle the edifice of convention—the agreed upon rules--whether through narration, style, form, content, or what have you. But undermining doesn't always result in an unreliable narrator, for, as you point out, it is difficult for us to characterize the narrator of Women in Love as such, and yet the Levenson article demonstrates how the narration adopts a post-Hegelian schematic (on the level of the paragraph but also the chapter), moving from thesis to antithesis to counter-antithesis (as opposed to synthesis). This movement, I would argue, undermines both literary and Western notions of logical coherence because it does not represent a progression of thought—a syntactical hierarchy which subordinates the thought process to its conclusion. “Alogical” (directly opposed to logic, rather than nonsensical) is not synonymous with “unreliable,” since as readers we don't distrust the narrator.

  3. Zulu, by the way, is actually me (William Repass). How experimental of me. *blows raspberry*

  4. First I'd like to mention that I read William's comment in his voice, and therefore found the following raspberry quite hilarious. Thanks for that, hahaha.

    Anyway...Would you apply this overarching inability to trust the narrator to the novel Crash? That's not to say that Crash isn't experimental, for I think it's experimental in delving into a "taboo" subject. But--and I guess this may just be reader's ignorance--I don't feel that Ballard is particularly sketchy as a narrator; to me, it seems that Ballard doesn't have anything to hide, alter, or twist, but is instead simply telling his story. But maybe someone else can provide evidence to the contrary?

    Tangent aside, I agree with you, Brad. I think that, on the whole, the narrators of these "experimental" novels tend to shy on the side of untrustworthy. I like to think that this distrust of the narrator, however, leads to dual interpretations of each novel. We have, on the one hand, the story at face value, the story told by the narrator left unquestioned. On the other hand, we have the ulterior motive, our interpretation of the story in regards to the narrator's possible untrustworthiness. I think there is something to be gained from comparing the two, and perhaps that comparison is what encourages the "experimental" label that has been attached to these novels.


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