Wednesday, June 13, 2018

First Person Posthumous

I stole that from Laird Barron, the horror writer whose new crime novel Blood Standard is a blast. It started with a tweet (rather like the upcoming world war) where he said it amused him that readers assumed that his protagonists would survive, when he writes about them in the first person.

You might assume this as well. I wrote a story in high school set during the Civil War, possibly inspired by "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," where a deserter tells us his story as he dies, impaled on a cavalry saber. It wasn't very good, I'll admit, but the only feedback I received from my English teacher was "you can't kill this character and write in the first person." Her reasoning was that he was telling the story, so he had to have survived to tell it, write it down, pass it on.

But the character isn't telling the story. The writer is.

Now that I think on it, I had recently read Grendel by John Gardner, which flips Beowulf and tells the story from the monster's point of view, and he of course dies at the end. The Viking hero tears his arm off and he bleeds to death, staggering across the countryside:

They watch on, evil, incredibly stupid, enjoying my destruction.

"Poor Grendel's had an accident," I whisper. "So may you all."

Now, I am not defending my story, which was crap, but the use of the First Person Posthumous. We've seen it in film plenty of times. Sunset Blvd., Double Indemnity, D.O.A., Carlito's Way off the top of my head. I remember a wonderful Lawrence Block story (I remember many of them, that fellow has a knack) titled "Miles to Go Before I Sleep" about a man who cannot rest in death until he solves his own murder. It's in his collection Enough Rope, which you should read anyway. It's a doorstop of a collection, full of delights. A few of Mr Barron's stories that are in first person are "More Dark," the finale in his excellent story collection The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, and the title novella in the collection The Imago Sequence, about art that is too terrible to contemplate. I'll leave it to you to figure out if the protagonists live happily ever after.

What are your thoughts on this? In another tweet, editor Jim Thomsen said that he finds it hard to feel concern for series protagonists when he knows there are 23 more novels after the one he's reading, or if he's convinced that the author won't kill off the series character this early on. Who has done a two book "series"? You'd have to be a well known author to trick readers who expect a trilogy and kill off the guy in book two. I can't imagine a publisher going for it. Perhaps Tana French could get away with it, since her Dublin Murder Squad series jumps protagonists? I haven't read them all, so I don't know if she's done it yet.

David Morrell argued in The Successful Novelist that first person is not as easy as it looks, and you should have good reason when using it. Others like Lawrence Block almost write novels in it exclusively. Almost all I've read by Octavia Butler is in first person, and she creates such empathy for the character with it that I recommend her as a lesson for any who prefer that point of view.

Do you have strong feelings about this? Let's hear it.


Thomas Mattheos said...

I wrote a story a number of years ago where the 1st Person narrator died at the end. I really liked it. It was about an aging hitman who is haunted by his dead sister who keeps trying to lure him into joining her in hell. Fun times!

sandra seamans said...

I had to chuckle when I read this. There was an online zine years ago that didn't want stories written from the dead person's point of view because dead people can't tell stories. And yes, I've sort of done it, my character wasn't quite dead when he told his story :)

Thomas Pluck said...

I write my Denny the Dent stories in 1st present and past to differentiate between now and his childhood, as they always weave two stories. I had one editor demand that I change both to past tense because he didn't like that tense (It was a bit popular in crime fic at the time, especially in Brit Grit stuff) and of course, we had to come up with paragraph markers and edit it because it became difficult to tell what was then and now. I have since restored it. The other Denny the Dent stories had no such complaints from editors at Crimespree, Plots with Guns, Ellery Queen, etc.

It amuses me, the little crap that we think is important. I don't really like second person stories, but it's the story that matters. I've read several in second person that are excellent.

Kristopher said...

I commented on Facebook, but there is an upcoming novel - which is already out in other countries - which will cause folks to rethink the concept of "series" in new ways. What this author does - and it's not a firmly established author - is unprecedented, I think (at least within my reading history). I am going to be very interested in 1. seeing how this book does and readers reaction to it and 2. seeing how the author talks about this series without getting spoiler-y.

earl javorsky said...

In my first book, Down Solo, Charlie Miner wakes up looking down looking down at his body on a gurney at the LA County morgue. When he moves closer to the body, it pulls him in and he is able to make it get up and walk around (and tell his story). Down Solo relies on a paranormal element, but only to the extent that, generally, people don’t reanimate their bodies and continue daily life. Otherwise, the novel is more or less a straightforward (well, slightly convoluted) Chandleresque mystery.

Thomas Pluck said...

Kristopher, you're a tease! :)