First Person Narrative and the Problem of Memory

Often many of the most important choices a writer can make about a work of fiction are unconscious ones; the decision to use first or third person narration can seem more like intuition than anything else. There are times when I agonize over it, particularly when I’m heavily invested in the raw material (if I’m writing in the semi-autobiographical mode, for example). It’s not enough that it “feel right”; the choices I make also have to work with whatever point I’m trying to make, with whatever themes I’ve (consciously) chosen to include. For A Temporary Life, my novel-in-progress, one of the themes—or maybe it’s more accurate to say “problems”—I’m working with is that of memory.

Using the first person form of narration came most naturally, but I’m not satisfied with how most writers present dialogue in first person narratives. Let me give you an example from a book I actually quite like, Michael Helm’s The Projectionist:

She stands and collects our plates, though I haven’t finished yet, takes them to the kitchen counter and returns.

“What’s the biggest secret you’ve kept?” she asks.

“This won’t be easy, will it?”

“You’ve never asked me why I didn’t come back home all those years.”

“Some people don’t. It’s not that unusual.”

Do you see anything wrong with that passage? Probably not, but I do. Not in terms of Helm’s novel, of course, but in terms of my own. How can I create a narrator with an untrustworthy memory and allow him to quote dialogue with such precision? The answer, of course, is that I can’t. How many people do you know who can remember conversations with that kind of accuracy? I can do it for moments of extreme emotional intensity, but otherwise I can’t recount a conversation that I had an hour ago, never mind years or months or weeks ago. I make exceptions for this “problem” in works of what I think of as “Dear Reader” or “Gentle Reader” fiction, so named for the somewhat antiquated convention of the narrator (not necessarily the author) directly addressing the reader and thereby explicitly indicating an awareness of the novel as a specifically written construction, rather than a representation of memory or an oral retelling of events.

It would be easy to say that I’m frustrated with or dislike or am in some way in conflict with the conventions of realist fiction. Nothing could be further from the truth; all form of fiction have their conventions and great art can be made working both within and against those conventions. I quite enjoyed the Michael Helm novel that I quoted from above, and though it sticks rather rigorously to the conventions of the realist novel, it’s also elegant, inventive, and challenging. It’s a very strong work of fiction.

In the instance of A Temporary Life I’ve come to the conclusion that using the standard realist presentation of dialogue isn’t the right choice; instead one of the things I’ve done is stripped nearly all the dialogue from the piece, and I’m even contemplating removing all the quotation marks and using long dashes like William Gaddis or James Joyce or any number of authors you could name. When (note the optimism) my novel finds a publisher I have no doubt that it will be called experimental (should it even receive any attention), though that’s not at all my intention. As an artist I don’t feel like I’m obliged to reinvent the wheel (or the novel, as it were), nor even to work outside of the conventions of whatever genre I’m working in (I would love to write some urban fantasy or science fiction some day). What I feel it’s most important for me to do is make the choices that are most appropriate for what I’m trying to say with (or in) any particular work of fiction. If it means abandoning traditional forms of dialogue in one piece, or being relentlessly true to convention in another, then so be it; the only yard-stick I use is whether or not it’s appropriate to the spirit of the work.


Writer. Editor. Critic.

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