Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Bill James, first-person viewpoint, and a bit of wit

In January I called a bit from Bill James' I Am Gold “a bigger step into contemplation than is usual in a police procedural.”

The protagonist of Off-Street Parking, a 2008 novel not part of James' Harpur and Iles series, takes an even bigger step into alternating hubris and self-doubt, jumping so wholeheartedly into intense observation of herself and others that I whispered, "Hamlet!"

James being James, the self-contemplation is leavened by satire. Here's the protagonist, a young police detective named Sharon Mayfield, at the scene where a man, possibly a police informant, has been found dead and horribly carved up:
"`This isn't the kind of thing we expect in the Avenue,' another woman said. `I was devastated.'

"I could see into the car by then and thought of saying, `Not as devastated as he is,' but didn't. Many people took their crisis vocabulary from bystander remarks made to TV news cameras. `Devastated' figured often. Perhaps TV reporters handed out a list of suitable words to vox pop for their response to a disaster/crisis. In a minute, I'd probably hear someone tell me, `They kept themselves
to themselves but seemed a very pleasant couple.'

"`No, it doesn't look too good at this juncture,' a man said."
I'd read thirty or so pages before I realized what made this introspection more intense than that in the Harpur and Iles books: It's written in the first person — heady when combined with James' customary ironic detachment. But for now your assignment is simple: Think of your favorite or most memorable first-person crime stories. What does the first-person viewpoint add? Why do you like it? Or why don't you?
***
James is one of the most mordantly funny crime writers ever, and one example from Off-Street Parking demonstrates that wit can make a routine scene memorable. In this case, it's the set piece of an older man recapturing his youth by hitting on a younger woman at a club. Here's the James version:
"As I prepared to leave, a very cheerful grandfather-type grappled with me, evidently keen I should stay and help make his night a time to remember and cherish, against his looming Eventide Home future. He wore an excellent flame-coloured toupee ..."
(Read the Detectives Beyond Borders interview with Bill James.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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21 Comments:

Blogger Michael Malone said...

The first one that springs to mind is James Lee Burke and Robicheaux. Immediacy is the thing.

I've heard some people say they don't like to read 1st person. Don't understand why.

April 27, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The stakes are probably higher for an author writing in first person. He or she had damn well better make that narrator interesting.

As it happens, I've recently reviewed a novel about a serial sexual attacker whose main distinguishing characteristic is that it does not get inside the killer head. That's a good thing. Many serial-killer novels put the reader luridly and intensely inside a serial killer's head in a way that's somehow related to first-person narration in the intensity of the narrator's presence, if that makes any sense.

April 27, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Ah, that must be the one I couldn't work with. What goes on the head of the WPC is just not believable to me, given the situation. That has nothing to do with genre or first person narrative. It's just that too much of James's philosophizing and satirizing is packed into one character's head at the wrong moment.

April 27, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I will concede that this book might be a bit much for readers who don't know the Harpur & Iles books. A time or two in the opening pages, I thought, "Would a young PC really say this?" but I was having too much fun to care.

The real test will be whether James can hold my interest for 215 pages.

April 27, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

Oh, first person viewpoint is everything to me. I favor this viewpoint above all others. Obviously I read every viewpoint - except present tense which I refuse to read unless someone explains to me how this can happen.Present tense assumes that you are in the moment hanging onto the shoulder of the protagonist (s) watching over their shoulders. I can't tell you how much I dislike this. I recently took out a book by a well known writer who came highly recommended - he writes spy thrillers. Soon as I began reading I shut the book and put it on the pile to be returned to the library - present tense did the book in for me almost before I began. I can't STAND IT! I do not care who the writer is.

Anyway, back to first person viewpoint. There are series and/or stand alone books which, actually, could be improved if written in the first person. Books that scream for first person viewpoint: the Myron Bolitar books by Harlan Coben. These stories scream to be told from the p.o.v. of Myron Bolitar.

My favorite first person book or series? Too many to name.

Although I will say this: Can you imagine JANE EYRE written in any other way? I can't?

April 27, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll share your dislike of present tense. I also don't like the rare second-person narration. But I won't discount the possibility of ever liking examples of either.

April 27, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I should add that I'm surprised you came upon this book. I don't think James is all that widely read in the U.S., and I'd always had the idea that he was known more for the Harpur and Iles books than for his other writing.

April 27, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

It's funny, but I was going to take the case of Ian McEwan's Solar as an example of how first person makes a roguish character more sympathetic, but remembered in time that it is not told in the first person at all. I happen to still find Michael Beard sympathetic, for lack of a better word, but many people didn't. You aren't really supposed to like him, but I'm always surprised how many people cannot abide identifying with even a rascally character too deeply.

April 27, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Another reason readers may feel more kindly disposed toward Michael Forsythe in the Dead books is that bad things happen to him. He's a bit like the Traveler in Stuart Neville's Collusion that way, though Neville adds a slapstick element to the Traveler's misofrunes.

In the case of Off-Street Parking, first-person narration intensifies what was already a dense, word-packed, contemplation-heavy style. It's a heady experience,

April 27, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I think it was Evelyn Waugh who said that any fool could write a person novel and that real novels were always written in third person.

I don't know about that. Third person allows you to cheat quite a bit, giving you insights into the mind of other characters and glimpses of situations that you otherwise wouldnt have.


First person is quite limiting and more difficult, third person more cinematic.

April 27, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One of my desultory efforts at writing fiction was in first person. I wanted to appeal to the senses in one scene in which the narrator/protagonist is led down a flight of bare wooden stairs to a dim basement. It was pretty damned tough to describe the sound and sight of the feet in first person. I tip my hat to anyone who can write a crime story well from that point of view.

April 27, 2011  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Archie Goodwin. Travis McGee. Matt Helm. All three are 1st-person storytellers. All three are somewhat introspective, McGee probably the most. The first Helm book (Death of a Citizen) is almost heartbreaking as Helm describes how his wife can't reconcile his former life as government agent with the man she married.

April 27, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Clunk, clunk, clunk. Clunk. I heard the sound without being able to identify it. I looked down. On the steps in front of me, a pair of hidious white slugs. What are those things, I asked, aghast, to no one in particular, as everyone around clearly understood only, uh, Serbo-Croatian. No need to bother learning the language, though. After a moment's reflection, a kind of calm fell over me. Clearly, these were my own two feet. I really need to work on my tan, I thought--that is, if I ever get out of this hell hole.

That was when the light went out.


See, it's easy!

April 27, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I see the word "first" was missing in my sentence there but you understood what I meant.

If you analyse the real blockbusters of the last few years they are mostly third person novels told in the past tense. I think thats the form most general readers are comfortable with.

Its a little bit different with crime fiction where first person has become a well established method of telling the story.

I've even read a few novels which are entirely told in second person and I've sometimes sneakily switched to second person during a first person narration. Editors of course hate that sort of thing. They like consistency throughout. They also hate it when you switch tenses on them. But both of these devices can fun as long as you give yourself some rules, like only switching the narration or the tense in a new section or chapter.

April 27, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, thanks for reminding me of Matt Helm. I had not heard him described as heartbreaking or introspective, but I had read that the books were quite different from the movie amd worth reading. One does not normally think of Archie Goodwin as introspective, but he does reflect, in his impatient way, on Wolfe and their relationship.

April 27, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"The only words I knew in Serbo-Croatian were `Laku noć.' They meant `goodnight' — not the best thing to say under the circumstances."

Seana, my problem describing the feet shuffling down the stairs and coming into view in the basement is related to that problem that first-person crime novels proverbially solve by having the narrator/protagonist look in a mirror and describe himself or herself. Maybe it's just that that device has acquired a bad reputation, but I have found it wince-inducing.

April 27, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I have occasionally found a switch between first- and third-person jarring. In principle I don't mind it, though, as long as the story justifies such a radical shift.

Perhaps part of the reason second-person narration is jarring to English readers is that American English, especially, has largely lost its indefinite subject pronoun (on in French) and uses you instead. So any narrative full of yous is liable to read ambiguously. Is it true second-person, or is it indefinite (third-person)?

April 27, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

On a more serious note, people don't notice their own feet unless they trip over them. Or they hurt in some way. Or they have really cool shoes on.

April 27, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or their shoelaces are too long (I recently relieved myself of this burden), though that is related to yout first condition for noticing one's feet.

My problem in that passage related from my failure to figure out what mattered most to me: having the protagonist relate his own troubles, or describing the feet coming into view. Unlike the author who must tell the reader what his first-person narrator/protagonist look like, I could not have my character descibing his feet's reflection in a mirror. Well, I could, but I fear I would be regarded as eccentric if I did so.

In another scene, I had the character remark with rueful detachment on a photo on his desk of himself with several work colleagues. That was my version of the mirror.

April 27, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

"Christ, my feet are killing me...Wonder what fresh hell we're about to head into now."

I don't think it's an either or situation with what's noticed first person.

April 28, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Nah, in this case, the idea was that the steepness of the staircase would enhance the humorous effect of feet plunging into view -- as seen from below. It wouldn't work in first person unless the narrator/protagonist was already in the basement. I seem vaguely to recall writing the scene in both first and third for two separate assignments. (It was for a workshop.) I liked it better with the feet, which would not have worked with the story in first person as planned.

Any number of stories alternate viewpoints, of course, but the scene in question was not dramatic enough to call for that device.

April 28, 2011  

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