I see you (2)
Last week I mentioned how useful the first-person observer could be as a writing tactic; this week I’ll look at some ways authors have deployed the “I see you” technique.
There’s a useful double edge to the observation: “I see you”. In one sense it means that I acknowledge you as another human being which implies empathy and compassion.
In another sense it suggests that “I am watching you”. I am observing your behaviour and the way you respond to certain events. I am recording and reporting your life.
There is another element, too, and that is that the observer needs to mix in some of her/his own life with the main story. This is where more complexity and suspense can be created.
A refresher course
In “I see you” Part 1, I noted some novels that I turned to for a refresher course in how to use the first-person observer. I’m now going to pull out some examples of how those authors – Elena Ferrante; Arturo Pérez-Reverte; Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Joan Didion, and F Scott Fitzgerald – went about things.
Elena Ferrante first. My Brilliant Friend starts with an introductory chapter to create suspense – a phone call between the narrator, Elena Greco, and the son of Elena’s long-standing friend, Lila. Lila has disappeared. She is in her sixties. What has happened to her? Elena knows Lila always wanted to disappear and after the phone call begins to tell Lila’s life from the moment they first met as children. And this begins a chronological narrative:
“My friendship with Lila began the day we decided to go up the dark stairs that led, step by step, flight after flight, to the door of Don Achille’s apartment.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Arturo Pérez-Reverte and Joan Didion have their first-person observers revisit the stories many years later: two decades in Chronicle of a Death Foretold; about the same in Purity of Blood and ten years in The Last Thing He Wanted. This allows for memories, interviews, research to play a part in the recollection of events that go to make up the story. The “I see you” tactic is about collating the evidence.
“I saw him in her memory. He had turned twenty-one the last week in January, and he was slim and pale and had his father’s Arab eyelids and curly hair,” reports Garcia Marquez’s unnamed narrator. Towards the end of the novella, the narrator recounts how he got involved in writing about the murder that had occurred in that remote village.
“Much later, during an uncertain period when I was trying to understand something of myself by selling encyclopedias and medical books in the towns of Guajira, by chance I got as far as that Indian death village.” And there he sees someone central to the story and more information is revealed.
The observer as a child
Pérez-Reverte has a young narrator, Íñigo Balboa, witness the life of Captain Alatriste but he tells the story two decades later to unspecified authorities, referred to as “Your Mercies”. “I swear to Your Mercies that I was a well-mannered and discreet young lad. I am not a meddler, nor was I then. But to a boy of thirteen, the world is a fascinating spectacle and he wants to taste every morsel.”
It also becomes clear that Balboa seeks out other sources to embroider his telling of Alatriste’s life when he is not able to directly observe the captain’s plight. Balboa is as much an observer as a researcher.
The observer as a researcher
So is Lilianne Owen in Didion’s novel. “When I first heard this story there were elements that seemed to me questionable, details I did not trust. The facts of Elena McMahon’s life did not quite hang together. They lacked coherence. Logical connections were missing, cause and effect. I wanted the connections to materialise for you as they eventually did for me.”
And so she begins putting the story together from documents: “depositions, testimony, cable traffic, some of it not yet declassified but much in the public record.”
The observer in the story
These stories are all told many years after the fact. In Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the narrator, Nick Carraway, tells things more or less as they happen. He describes his neighbour Gatsby standing alone one night staring out across the waters of the sound that separates his property from that of his beloved; he records “whispers” about Gatsby, and, in the end, he speculates about Gatsby.
Speculating is something all the first-person observers do. It is one of the decided advantages of this writing strategy. Your observer gets to set the scene, give it context, describe what happens, and interpret the consequences. Without a doubt, that first person observer is a powerful tool. And a magical way to tell a story.
Get more out of your writing.
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