Friday, September 26, 2008

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

A very funny novel about an office in decline narrated from what I always thought of as a collective first person (we) but turns out to be called first person plural. First person plural had a celebrated appearance twenty years ago (good grief) in Jeffrey Eugenides first novel The Virgin Suicides but I hadn't really seen it much since. It is a strange beast because a reader has to first figure out is this actually a single narrator who is talking about a tribe in which he is a member (much the way you might say, "We ate dinner" when talking about yourself and, you know, somebody else) or is this supposed to be somehow the voice of the group. Intellectually it seems in both this novel and Eugenides it's supposed to be the voice of the group but it's impossible to read it as anything other than a single individual speaking for the group. So every character who is a named member of the group is excluded as a potential narrator and you're left assuming the narrator is this observer who never actually does anything but is part of the group all the same. Eugenides avoids this problem by not naming the members of the group (or very few) and almost never identifying single actors--all actions are committed by "we". Eugenides got away with that because the novel is driven by the girls of the title who are indivualized, and do not have relationships with any of the narrators except in a collective way. But Ferris can't do that, he needs individual characters who are group members (the novel is as much about the group as it is about what the group observes)... all a long way of saying, I really read this as first person singular with the group as a subject observed by one unidentified member. So why then make it "we" and not "I"? Because if it had been "I", readers would most likely demand insight and knowledge into the narrator. First person narrators never really get to observe without identifying who they are and why the story matters to them. So Ferris avoids that by having us all pretend there is no first person narrator.

Now don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the novel tremendously and think the "we" was the right choice, but one choice I do quibble with is when two-thirds of the way through Ferris instead goes with third person limited for a section. It's to track a character who is outside the group but who is much speculated on by the group and who has secrets much speculated on by the group. So he follows her so that readers can know what the group can't. And it's the kind of point of view cheat that writers consider forbidden but tend to do anyway when they want to. But my issue is the only reason for the rule breaking is because Ferris wants us to have her story--which is less silly and more poignant than what the group can observe. So it's his only cheat. But it felt to me both unnecessary (much more interesting to leave us wondering as the group wonders and then have us find out what the group finds out) and a little too easy--I would have loved to have seen him find a way to make the character's story as poignant and compelling without violating the rules he set for the novel at the start.

Then again this is the kind of thing readers barely even notice. But I swear it bugs them without their being able to identify why.

1 comment:

eric b. said...

Weirdly, Madame Bovary starts with a "we" (I just read it this summer, but was shocked yet again when I started it this week). It quickly fades to a coldly ironic third person with lots of free indirect discourse...but that "we" is a weird one. Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" is also a "we" communal narrator, but a confusing one. Is Emily part of this "we" or not? The plot seems to put her as definitively part of the "Old South" community that the town represents...but they don't seem to see her as part of the "We." I love these kinds of questions. Give me a good "second person" book any time too (Written on the Body, If On A Winter's Night A Traveler). Fun with pronouns!