Pitfalls of first-person

I’ve been struggling through Gilead this July, trying to ascertain why I’m lukewarm, at best, toward this acclaimed book so many have savored with such pleasure from an author I respect and admire. Marilynne Robinson’s novel won the Pulitzer and rave reviews from all the large-circulation review outlets that remain in America. Gilead has earned a raft of adoring reader reviews on Amazon—too many people to have been deceived by the superficiality and log-rolling of major book reviews. But there’s a contrary subcurrent who say they were bored to tears and shut the book halfway through, which is where I gave up before deciding to soldier on.

I know that a work of art that fails for me may be another’s huckleberry. Yet I believe my minority response springs from more than mere taste or temperament—there are technical issues here of interest to writers. Gilead puts its eggs in the basket of first-person narration, which like any point of view has strengths and weaknesses, and is a risky novel in its breaking of literary and storytelling conventions.

The book is told by an elderly minister in the form of a letter to his seven-year-old son, really to the man that boy will become. John Ames knows that his heart is failing and that he will not guide his son to adulthood. The dying man rambles over his life with scant narrative thread and plot structure. Ames writes of life’s fleeting beauty—Gilead is largely a hymn to existence—and meditates upon theology. He depicts the conflict between his crazed, abolitionist minister grandfather and his mild, liberal minister father. A prodigal figure appears in the form of Ames’s namesake, his best friend’s despairing son, whom Ames is threatened by, dislikes, and fails to comfort. The novel has been called essayistic, which I suppose is a way of saying  that it explores subjects and lacks narrative drive.

There’s a difference in how literary novels unfold story and in the dominoes-falling action of plot-driven potboilers. But even serious readers enjoy discerning meaning (really, in grasping the conflict) in subtle narrative, in putting an author’s particular puzzle of existence together. Readers can feel betrayed when their efforts do not add up. That is, when there’s insufficient causality in events. Robinson has said she wrote the novel like a serial, in chunks she sent off for publication, which may account for what feels to me like insufficient authorial shaping. But it may be that Gilead is simply too subtle for this reader. I enjoyed its father-son stories but failed to find a meaningful thematic link in them.

The author’s stroke of genius was to find Ames’s voice, which gives Gilead its intimacy and its elegiac tone. Such literary ventriloquism is problematic if the author loves a narrator more than her readers do. People who adore Ames revere Gilead. I think this is affection at work rather than fascination stemming from suspense, because Ames lacks interior and exterior conflict for most of the book, interesting flaws, and even garden-variety regrets. But then I dislike Ames. He’s the central character, and I find him inane. He doesn’t spark my interest or sympathy—nothing seems at stake with him—and so his cherished truths strike me as tedious wanderings. His weary “I suppose” began to grate.

When I don’t want to slap Ames silly, I want to edit the hell out of him. Robinson uses language gorgeously, and Gilead contains some great insights as well, but too often Ames’s wistful “letter” dredges up mush. A typical passage: “If I were to go through my old sermons, I might find some that deal with this subject. Since I am presumably somewhere near the end of my of my time and my strength, that might be the best way to make the case for you. I should have thought of this long ago.” And potentially I might almost agree, were I to somehow summon a whit of interest that would overcome my waning desire to turn the page. I think Robinson likes Ames and doesn’t mean to depict a smarmy old coot, but he’s enough to make me revoke my pledge to National Public Radio and stick a National Rifle Association decal on my Prius. To others, obviously, he is wise and lovable.

Consider another first-person narrator, Nick Carraway, of The Great Gatsby, who consciously thinks well of himself—he’s full of himself—and who, in that and other ways, is deliciously human. He’s not riddled with doubt like most people, but readers identify with uncertainty’s flip side, his conceit, and thrill to the clever aphorisms and mean pronouncements of this man who claims to be totally nonjudgmental. He’s also telling us a story primarily about other people, dramatic actors in tumultuous action—affairs, negligent manslaughter, murder.

Gildead’s prodigal figure, the son of Ames’s best friend (another minister, who’s also dying, at a rate faster than Ames), is a great character, by nature an ecclesiastical man riven by his inability to believe in God and by his self-destructiveness and inexplicable meanness. The stories of how, when he was a boy, he tormented Ames with malicious pranks are compelling—he was a satanic Dennis the Menace—and funny, if Ames irks you. The best thing about the guy is that he brings in mystery and tension. Ames can’t understand him, and neither can we, and he actually gets Ames riled. But this all late in the book, after much saintly Ames and his distant memories, and by then I was skimming.

Dramas are narratives of trauma and struggle by flawed characters. This rule has special relevance for personal essayists and memoirists, who are almost stuck with a first-person narration in which the narrator is seen as being identical with the author, or perhaps with a past version of the author. The inherent self-serving nature of first-person must be addressed in some way. Another pitfall of this point of view is that it tends to pitch the balance of showing vs. telling toward telling. There’s a voice lulling us with story, yes, but that virtue is in tension with the creation of images in the theater of readers’ minds. The power of showing is that it bypasses analytical receptors and triggers emotional ones.

Art trades in emotion. As such, it always risks sentimentality, which is unearned emotion. Yet one reader’s disgust with the maudlin is another’s experience of pity and sorrow. I experienced Gilead as deeply sentimental because its narrator and structure didn’t earn what they asked from me, that I be moved by the fine thoughts of a dying man.

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5 Comments

Filed under craft, technique, fiction, memoir, narrative, Persona, Voice, POV, REVIEW, sentimentality, structure, theme

5 responses to “Pitfalls of first-person

  1. Richard,
    A notification of your posts comes to my gmail in a typeface so small that it looks like the advisory on a bottle of medicine–7 point or smaller. And I’ve noticed something. When you’ve written a really compelling essay like this one, I don’t bother to click on it. I read it “in situ.” From beginning to end, I could hear your voice and tone. This is a really well-crafted essay–and it made me want to read at least a piece of Gilead. Thanks.

  2. I’d love to hear others’ reactions to the novel and contrary views. My lack of engagement and then impatience with Gilead surprised me.

  3. Olga Khotiashova

    I have to confess at the very beginning: I like John Ames, and it explains that I join the team of Gilead admirers. Nevertheless, I understand what you are talking about, I felt quite similar while reading Home. I almost quit somewhere after first third but soldiered on and was rewarded at the end. Robinson’s books are like icebergs – a tremendous intellectual and spiritual work is hidden deeply, and the reader faces just clear and simple narration which unfolds like a spring beginning from soft, wide coils, gradually gets tighter and tighter, and finally becomes almost unbearable with sudden relief at the very end. Robinson’s characters eventually find balance, there painful reflections have not been wasteful – that is what matters.

    As for John Ames, let’s put it that way: unlike a memoir, his notes are addressed not to the public but to a single person, his beloved son. He does not pretend his life was a breathtaking adventure: he read a lot, wrote boxes and boxes of sermons, was devoted to his job and the place where he lived – that is pretty much it. His goal is not to entertain but to protect. He does not care about being sentimental or silly. He believes that the son will understand. And I can easily imagine his son reading those notes and thinking, “Oh, old man really loved me.” So everything in the book fits the writer’s design: Ames’ distinct voice, the moment which drove him to begin writing his notes, the events he had chosen to write about.

    I read Gilead about a year ago but am still thinking about it and always tempted to reply when come across a review which calls him a saint. He was not, just look at the hidden part of the iceberg! His intensive spiritual life included the whole palette of feelings.

    I recalled Gilead again when recently read The Maytrees by Annie Dillard. It appeared two books had striking similarities. Both of them are marked by the unique voice and exquisite wordsmithing. The narration is not reach with events. The characters are passionate readers and writers. Both books refer to the story of a prodigal son/husband. The reviews are polarized based on the relationships between the readers and the protagonists. But whether you like John Ames and Lou Maytree or not, you have to admit that you cannot take a single word away from these books because they are based on the monumental foundation of knowledge and belief. Both books stick in your mind as a tune, entertain you like a puzzle, deliver a message.

    • Thank you for this generous reading and response, Olga. I hope you will review Maytrees for Narrative! I love it. But, perhaps intimidated by my love, have never formally reviewed it, just mentioned it a lot.

  4. I had a little trouble with ‘Gilead’ a long time back but think I would have had trouble with it however it was narrated. ‘The Great Gatsby’ is simply a delight. For me, ‘Gilead’ lacks a tiny bit of psychological depth- it is exceptionally beautiful writing but the characters are not as engaging or as related to social change. The show don’t tell thing can be overdone because it has been the modern trend- ‘Middlemarch’, a truly great novel, actually has quite a lot of telling. And that has the psychology and social panorama which ‘Gilead’ hasn’t- hence it does not have that slightly flabby feel. Showing not telling is thus a guide not a rule in my view, and sticking to it excessively and rigidly may mean that a generation of writers churn out similar work. First person has its strengths; eg. “I am a sick man…I am an unattractive man.” a classic Dostoyevsky opening which shows the immediacy the approach can have.
    I am actually relieved to hear someone else struggled to fully appreciate ‘Gilead’- I did wonder whether I was the only one!
    Many thanks as ever,
    John.