by Christopher Eisenhart
Any time we communicate, we have an opportunity to invent ourselves for our audience. Literature is no different. When we read a new story, just as when we meet a new person in our lives, we take cues from what they say and how they say it to see whether or not we trust their account, what their biases are, and whether or not we’ll decide to like them.
The following excerpts are taken from two short pieces of literature. They each carry the same purpose: to begin the story and to introduce the antagonist. But along the way, what they also do is “invent” and tell us an awful lot about the narrators themselves. And that’s where I’d like to focus our attention.
So please take a minute to consider each…and this’ll work all the better if you’re willing to read each excerpt aloud…
Excerpt #1 :Henry Miller’s A Devil in Paradise (1956)
It was Anais Nin who introduced me to Conrad Moricand. She brought him to my studio in the Villa Seurat one day in the fall of 1936. My first impressions were not altogether favorable. The man seemed somber, didactic, opinionated, self-centered. A fatalistic quality pervaded his whole being.
It was late afternoon when he arrived, and after chatting a while, we went to eat in a little restaurant on the Avenue d’Orleans. The way he surveyed the menu told me at once that he was finicky. Throughout the meal he talked incessantly, without its spoiling his enjoyment of the food. But it was the kind of talk that does not go with food, the kind that makes food indigestible.
There was an odor about him which I could not help but be aware of. It was a mélange of bay rum, wet ashes and tabac gris, tinctured with a dash of some elusive, elegant perfume. Later these would resolve themselves into one unmistakable scent—the aroma of death.
Excerpt #2: Rick Bass’ “Cats and Students, Bubbles and Abysses,” in The Watch (1989)
I got a roommate, he’s tall and skinny, when we get in arguments he says “I went to Millsaps,” uses the word like what he thinks a battering ram sounds like. He’s a real jerk, I could break both his arms just like that! if I wanted to, I’ve got a degree in English Literature from Jackson State, I was the only white on campus, I can’t use “I went to Jackson State” like a battering ram, but I can break both his arms. I got a doctorate, it took me three more years. I teach out at the junior-college—Freshman Comp, Heroes and Heroines of Southern Literature, Contemporary Southern Lit, Contemporary Northern Lit, that sort of crap. Piss-Ant studied geology, “pre-oil” he calls it facetiously, makes quite a ton of money, I swear I could tear an arm off his thin frail body and beat him over the head with it, I’m 5’6” tall, eighteen inches shorter than he but I’m thirty pounds heavier, an even 195, I played for the Tiges three years and can dead lift 700 pounds and run a marathon in under three hours six minutes.
I swear one of these days I’m gonna kill him, he may have gone to Millsaps (“’Saps,” he calls it, there, you hate him too) but he doesn’t know how to use a Kleenex. Instead he just goes around making these enormously tall wet sniffles, if you could hear just one of them you would first shiver and then you too would want to kill him. If they catch me and bring me to court I suppose I can always bring that up in the trial, I must go out and buy a tape recorder first thing tomorrow but first the cat needs feeding, he’s a violent little sunuvabitch.
I will tell you about the cat after I tell you what I did in Arkansas….
So, each excerpt accomplishes the same narrative purpose: introducing the antagonist and the conflict of the story. Both, I think, are effective. But we come away with strong and differing senses of each narrator, and we can specify why by focusing on the details they relate and on the style they use.
Miller’s language emphasizes his literary character; I mean, when was the last time you heard someone use the words “tinctured,” “didactic,” “indigestible,” or “mélange” in casual conversation? Even the words he uses to insult Conrad Moricand are very proper (e.g. “finicky”). Miller begins the work of assassinating Moricand’s character, but does so in the most civil, literary way imaginable.
The narrator in “Cats…”, however, chooses words that are vulgar, colloquial, and explicitly insulting. This piece is very conversational, and runs contrary to type: is this what we expect English professors sounds like? How does that violation of our expectations affect our image of the narrator? Do we like or trust him more, or less, for being unconventional here?
Miller uses relatively short sentences, which are precise and grammatically correct. This conveys a sense of measured consideration. Of education and even temperament. Miller’s credibility lies largely in this civility.
On the other hand, we know that Bass’ narrator is educated, but his sentences run on, and almost none are grammatically correct. He seems angry, hot-headed, and irrational. His credibility, and I think he does have credibility, is in his sincerity. We trust the genuineness of the emotion conveyed in his hateful and unmeasured rant.
What other features convey senses of the narrators? For instance, what do you make of the second narrator’s use of direct address (“you”)? Does anyone else find Miller’s characterization of Moricand as “finicky” to be somewhat hypocritical? Does it matter that Miller’s genre is creative non-fiction, but Bass’ genre is fiction?
What other ways do you find that authors invent themselves—intentionally or not—through their voices? What impact do these authorial choices have on us as readers and on our ability to identify with the text?
Christopher Eisenhart studies and teaches rhetoric as an Assistant Professor in the English Department at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth