"One doesn't discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time." -- Andre Gide
We have spoken before about the Vitruvian Narrator, and so this week, I would like to talk about The Interpretive Reader. Most in the review game know what that means, so I won’t explain it.
Most reviewers also know that to be an interpretive reader it takes a certain amount of theoretical knowledge, a bit of skill, a certain mindset, a lot of practice and patience, and it must be learned if your reviews are going to be worth their salt. I follow quite a few review blogs, and I chose them specifically for their thoughtful and interpretive analytical style. For more information about interpretive reviewing, see here.
Now, I am not condemning the literal read as a lesser read. You know, the books wherein everything is nicely plotted, the characters motivations are all out there in the open (often jammed down your throat), and the descriptive detail is so elaborate and lengthy that very little is left to the imagination. This sort of book is a pleasant diversion. We are given all the facts, and so we can just relax and enjoy the read. And, while I like a good beach read every now and then, my preference leans towards the challenging interpretive piece. I am also of the opinion that literary critics and reviewers owe it to their readers to be interpretive in their approach, beach read or not. When it comes to art as fiction, we can’t afford to miss anything: Less is often more, and what isn’t said is often more important that what is. I will share a few examples from past, present, and some self-published.
First, we can look at Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants. This piece, written in the “dramatic” or objective point of view, reveals very few facts about the characters, and it never explicitly states what the couple is arguing about. The reader must interpret their dialogue and body language, as nothing is told of their backgrounds and their attitudes towards the situation or one another. However, in one sentence, early on in the story, Hemingway writes that the man we have been observing thus far: “drank and Anis at the bar and looked at the people. They were all waiting reasonably for the train.” Ooops. Did Hemingway actually violate the cardinal rule of dramatic point of view? Yes, he did. With the word reasonably, he went against everything maintained about POV consistency. A mistake? I think not. In that one little would be err, he gave us a world of information about the man we were observing. He gave us the man’s opinion. In that opinion, that one little word, the reader can now make a world of assumptions about the man's character. Nothing beats character insight, especially in a story where all the insight has to come from the reader.
In Madame Bovary, Flaubert’s first-person narrator enters into the minds of all the other characters. Did Flaubert absentmindedly forget he was writing in First-Person? I don’t think so, since the spots of forgetfullness span the entire three parts of the novel. An Omniscient First-person narrator??? Not possible, not correct, an abomination -- It's heresy, I tell you, Heresy! No, I am kidding, this is Flaubert we are talking about here, and this is a prime example of multiple narrative techniques used within the same body of work. A first person narrator can be omniscient, especially if the narrator is one of the characters and the story is told in the past tense. The narrator in these cases has had ample opportunity to reflect back on the events and the opinions of those involved—up close and at a distance, accurately or not. With care, using the techniques of limited and omniscient POV in conjunction with each other is not only possible in a FP narrative, but downright brilliant. Anyone who says otherwise has obviously never opened a book on Literary Theory, so I am not sure how much I would trust their opinion. Now for something even more risque; how bout this one from Bowen’s The Demon Lover, which is much more overt in its shift: “Resuming work at the chest, she set about making up a number of parcel in a rapid, fumbling-decisive way. These, with her shopping parcels, would be too much to carry; these meant a taxi—at the thought of a taxi her heart went up and her normal breathing resumed. I will ring up the taxi now; the taxi cannot come too soon: I shall hear the taxi out there running its engine, till I walk calmly down to it through the hall. I’ll ring up—But no: the telephone is cut off … She tugged at a knot she had tied wrong.” Hmmmm. Did you notice the switch? Instantly intriguing, isn't it, how it just catches you off guard? But now we know that the narrator and character are the same person. Gives a more authentic feel to the manic mindset of the narrative.
In the less is more and what goes unsaid is more important than what hits the page department: In Sturgeon’s Some of Your Blood, we are privy to the exposition of George Smith's life through an essay, an essay written in third person dramatic POV by George himself. In said essay, the main character’s girlfriend becomes pregnant. George states that: “She missed her period two times already, well, he knew that really before she did, she never used to keep track.” So how did he know? It's a backwoods story, so it wasn’t like George had a calendar. We do find out during the course of the novel, but we never find out directly how he knew, and we never find out directly what sexual proclivity he had that allowed him to know. It remains utterly unsaid and must, again, be inferred by the reader. One must interpret every subtle nuance of this story, every word, just as George’s psychologist had to with the essay. The devil is in the details, especially the subtle ones.
In Roger Sakowski’s From an Otherwise Comfortable Room, which I am reading for review now, we are introduced in the first chapter to a character by the name of Tailspin. “And so it was, his profound weight of secret expression settled on him in folds of morbid obesity and age[…]. What a figure he made. […] his head completely shaven except for his burly, white eyebrows billowing over his wobbling eyes. His poor, poor eyes, looking in diametrically opposed directions.” Now, one might think this is arbitrary character description, but to the interpretive reader, it makes a profound statement about human nature. To have a diametrically opposed point of view, well, that my friend, is human, in all its wonderful conflictedness. It’s amazing we can see straight at all for all our inner turmoil.
Then we have Shannon Yarbrough’s Stealing Wishes. The book is littered with cliché similes. Life, and everything in it, is like something else, something we have heard a million times before. Some might scoff and declare it bad writing, novice writing, but an interpretive reader will instantly see the pattern, a pattern flawlessly true to the main character, Blaine—an OCD main character who readily admits that he is: “A man with no opinion of his own.” This "would be" novice error gives us more insight into Blaine’s psychology than anything he directly admits within the confines of the narrative. Regardless of whether or not the author did this deliberately or subconsciously, it was brilliant.
Lastly, we have one from my own novella The Thin Wall. In the first chapter, we are eavesdropping on five friends at a London pub. Julian is the first to offer up any dialog: “So,” he said as if already demanding an answer, “We all still headin’ out to the ole family plot for holiday. I have confirmed … we’ve got the run of the place. We can paint the walls chartreuse should we feel so inclined. Hell, we can douse the place with petrol and light a match for all I care. Ha! I don’t care … let’s do it … burn it to the ground.” With that statement, one might assume that I am setting up a scene to come later in the story. One might also assume it’s nothing more than idle chitchat, or one might assume that I am exposing the character’s bravado. As far as the first assumption, I try very hard not to be that obvious. Secondly, the cardinal rule of dialog is to refrain from idle chitchat, and lastly, sure, on the surface it does expose a character flaw, that being Julian’s tendency towards bravado. However, if one were to look a bit closer, a bit interpretive, one might see the true intent. We might be told in the next paragraph that Julian feels no love loss for his parents, but the depth of that loss has already been revealed by him in his own chosen words: “family plot.” The fact that Julian referred to his childhood home as an interment site tells us all we need to know about his particular affectedness: In essence, he said: The place where I was buried. I might have revealed more about the whole crap affair, but I felt that would have diminished the poignancy of Julian's own words. That was as much as his pride would ever allow him to say, and a character must be true to themselves.
Even though these are just a few scattered examples, this is why I advise against strip-search reviews. We all know what those look like. Reviewing is a craft in itself. We aren’t just regurgitating the blurbs here, and people who read, appreciate, and base their buying decisions on reviews are looking for insight and opinion. They are looking for something beyond a plot synopsis. For interpretive reviewers, having a subliminal mindset is our speciality. It’s what we do best: We see beyond the style-guide rules—we see beyond the words. We can see the meaning behind the medium with clarity and depth. Personally, I read interpretively simply because I just don’t want to miss anything interesting. More importantly, I am recommending books to other readers, and I don't want them to miss anything interesting, either.
Thanks to the LLBR for the library link.
Cheryl Anne Gardner