The Personalities of Intrusive Narrators
Spent the evening watching a 1930s film involving Polynesians, Dorothy Lamour, and a gigantic sweeping hurricane. After experiencing something like that, you don’t go in for long posts.
Still, I’ve been pondering a little notion lately that I’d like to ricochet off your skulls for a moment. It started when I read A Tale Dark & Grimm by Adam Gidwitz the other day. The official reviews of the book haven’t started to come in yet (give it a month) so I wonder how folks will deal with the intrusive narrator.
When I say “intrusive narrator” you know that type. It’s the narrator that pushes his or her way into the discussion without so much as a by-your-leave.
It’s tempting to write off such narrators as having similar voices. They seem to call readers “Reader” with impunity, after all. But the individual personalities of such narrators, particularly when they are not actual characters that crop in the narrative, are fascinating to me.
Now when I speak of such narrators I don’t mean ones that appear in books like A Series of Unfortunate Events or The Kneebone Boy. In both cases the narrator is also a character (though this fact only comes out about Snicket slowly over the course of the series, whereas Kneebone announces it right from the get go). I mean real honest-to-god narrators.
Three of the best recent examples are probably The Tale of Despereaux, A Tale Dark & Grimm, and The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling. What I find most interesting is how similar these three narrators are, and yet my individual response to them could not be more different. Truth be told, I am not a particularly fond of Despereaux. This has more to do with the plot elements than the narrator, though. The Despereaux narrator isn’t as snarky as many of the ones that crop up in books these days. It’s a little more traditional with funny things it wants to say, and throughout the tale it seems very clear that it is Telling You a Story. If you are fine with that, all power to you. If it grates on your nerves, buckle up cause it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.
Compare that narrator with the one in Gidwitz’s tale. Not only does the narrator intrude, it goes so far as to warn little children away. Snicket does much the same thing in his books, but in Gidwitz’s case those warnings are there for a reason. While death occurs in A Series of Unfortunate Events, it’s not half so delightfully gruesome as you’ll find in A Tale Dark & Grimm. Thus the reader is appalled early on, and comes to almost clutch to the narrator. To rely on him to keep us safe and to warn us when there are rough times ahead. The narrator also goes so far as to tell as well as show. When I brought this up with a writer I know, he pointed out that Cervantes, Sterne, and Borges do very much the same thing. Point taken.
Which leaves The Mysterious Howling. Unlike the previous two books, the narrator in this one isn’t leading you like a wise old hen or attempting in a snarky way to protect you from the darkness to come. The snark is there, but this narrator is drawing more on the world of Austen than anything else, and she is your friend. You like her almost instantly. You want her to tell you more about this strange case.
Interestingly, I feel that the Grimm narrator is male and the Howling narrator is female. The Despereaux narrator, interestingly enough, feels genderless to me. Why is this?
I’m sure that there are other intrusive narrators out there, but I’m interested in the ones that came out in 2010. Are there any more? We’ve straight “narrators” galore, but I want one that plays with narrative threads. That breaks down fourth walls with impunity. Anyone in particular come to mind?
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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