A Bibliophile’s Miscellany: First-person Plural
“The house of fiction has many windows, but only two or three doors. I can tell a story in the third person or in the first person, and perhaps in the second person singular or in the first person plural, although successful examples of these latter two are rare indeed.” (How Fiction Works, James Wood)
One of Jonathan Franzen’s rules for fiction is “Write in the third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.” So, third-person preferred (“he/she”), first-person tolerated (“I”), but what about authors who play around with more experimental modes of narration? For instance, Jennifer Egan tells the best chapter of A Visit from the Goon Squad in the second person (“you”). I’ve also noticed lately some great books told in the first-person plural (“we”).
There are both benefits and drawbacks to this unusual narrative perspective. The first-person plural foregrounds collective experience and shared responsibility, and lends a sense of weight through its echoes of the Chorus in Greek tragedy. Yet it can also feel impersonal if the narrative body is made up of nameless individuals. When few characters are given names, and the novel traces not individuals’ stories but the shared experience with its variety of paths and outcomes, readers may feel like they are only being given generalizations. Perhaps an experimental point of view works best with quite a short book; otherwise the first-person plural can quickly become wearing and repetitive. It might be the case that I only really warm to stories that are told in the first person or third-person omniscient. Nevertheless, I am intrigued by experiments with first-person plural narration. Here are my top five.
1. We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen (2011)
I spent days utterly submerged in this magnificent Danish seafaring epic. From the first line onwards, the book is an enthralling combination of history and legend: “Many years ago there lived a man called Laurids Madsen, who went up to heaven and came down again thanks to his boots.” Jensen traces the history of Marstal, a small island off the coast of Denmark, from war with the Germans in the 1850s through to the aftermath of World War II. Over the decades readers meet four generations of fathers and sons, whose journeys reflect the island’s dependence on the sea.
Jensen also includes first-person and third-person omniscient sections, but his predominant use of the first-person plural is particularly clever because the identity of the narrating group shifts as the story progresses: first it is Marstallers generally, then it is schoolboy peers, later it’s the widows left behind on the island. Having this mutable body of observers – almost like the chorus in a Homeric myth – allows Jensen to show every situation from the inside, but also to introduce occasional doubt about what has happened. A good example is the masterfully postmodern chapter following a central character’s death. Here are a few lines: “We don’t know if that’s how it actually happened. We don’t know what [he] thought or did in his final hours…We don’t really know anything, and we each have our own version of the story.”
2. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides (1993)
In Eugenides’ debut novel, the boys of a Detroit suburb recall the year when all five Lisbon girls killed themselves. A melancholy story of teenage angst is lifted by strong writing and a carefully maintained air of black comedy. Looking back at that annus horribilis, the grown men who form the narrative pack remember what it was like to idolize the Lisbon girls. It is sometimes easy to forget that the point of view is first-person plural rather than third-person omniscient; the boys liked to think that they knew everything about the Lisbon girls, but ultimately they couldn’t understand them at all. The motivations behind the suicides remain a mystery, and rightly so – depression, mental illness, and plain old unhappiness are things that can rarely be explained away.
Otsuka follows a group of Japanese women who travel to California in the early decades of the 1900s to marry fellow Japanese emigrants. They have families, work in the fields or in family shops, and try to carve out a space for themselves in a country where they don’t belong and are increasingly unwelcome. Whole paragraphs, whole chapters even, are made up of sentences that begin the same way. Although this does make for occasional numbing repetition, there are some truly exquisite passages, such as this striking set of superstitions that linger despite transplantation into a modern industrialized country: “We gave birth to twins, which were considered bad luck, and asked the midwife to make one a ‘day visitor.’ You decide which one…We gave birth but the baby was both girl and boy and we smothered it quickly with rags.”
The first-person plural allows Otsuka to reveal the breadth of the Japanese immigrant experience. It also makes for a great twist in the last chapter, when the “we” becomes the white observers rather than the Japanese. It opens with “The Japanese have disappeared from our town” – they have all been removed to internment camps. As in We, the Drowned, the narrating body is mutable; here, this effectively gives voice to the culpability of average Americans, in whose name such an unspeakable thing was done to ‘keep the country safe.’
Torres’ debut novel is another achingly sad tale told largely through the communal perspective of the first-person plural, which, thanks to the novella length, mostly stays fresh and effective. Readers meet a family of three boys, half Puerto Rican and half white, who have to ‘tumble up’ like Dickens’ Jellyby children due to the hapless pseudo-neglect of their working class parents in upstate New York. Mostly the boys cling to each other for support and identity. They are somewhere between savages and babes in the wood. The sadness of the book lies in the fact that there seems to be no way out of their situation; no American dream will free them from poverty, give their parents meaningful work, or deliver prospects beyond the deadbeat life they seem to be headed for. Torres skilfully maneuvers between perspectives (even including a short section of second-person imperative) and strikes a careful balance between innocence and hopelessness. He has a distinctive voice, and a deep well of bittersweet experience to draw from.
This one’s a bit of a cheat; I didn’t make it past page 24. But I suspect that if I had encountered it at the right time (serendipity plays a surprisingly large role in a life with books) I would have loved it in the same way I loved Douglas Coupland’s JPod, as a delicious satire on North American office life. Here’s a taste of the group’s experience: “Might it be true, as we sometimes feared on the commute home, that we were callous, unfeeling individuals, incapable of sympathy, and full of spite toward people for no reason other than their proximity and familiarity? We had these sudden revelations that employment, the daily nine-to-five, was driving us far from our better selves. Should we quit? Would that solve it? Or were those qualities innate, dooming us to nastiness and paucity of spirit? We hoped not.”
Can you think of any great first-person plural novels I’ve forgotten? How about second person? Do you think these narrative experiments work?