The Challenge of Pulling Off a Dead Narrator

dead narratorsToday’s post is by regular contributor Peter Selgin, the award-winning author of Your First Page. He offers first-page critiques to show just how much useful critical commentary and helpful feedback can be extracted from a single page—the first page—of a work-in-progress. Learn more about getting a first-page critique.

First Page


FINN – APRIL 10, 2012

I drowned three times. First, in the relentless rain of Ireland, second, in the deep gloom of mourning that settled over my mother, and third, in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic.

Even when the sun blazed down fierce as the devil there was the bleakness that settled in our bones like a great damp. Once in a blue moon Mam would pull me into her lap, rocking and singing and hanging on to me for dear life, calling me Michael, her wee angel, and ask me where we were going because sweet Jesus she was lost at sea.

It’s sad, how in moments of despair when all a body wants is hope, a still small voice will tell you the truth you don’t want to hear. Because, you see, I’m NOT Michael! I’m Finn, and it’s sad how precious-few blue moons there are.

Yes, those are definitely my shoes, there in the museum case. Now who would have thought the likes of me would be famous for my shoes. And such a sad pair as that. I wore them the day I stepped onto the Titanic and the day I floated free of it, April 15, 1912.

I’m not sure if I was five or almost six when it happened, but after my death I discovered that time is an inexact measurement. Time raced ahead of me, pulling me backwards and spun me around so I met myself arriving. Even now, as the centenary of Titanic’s maiden voyage approaches, it continues to fling me forward, years speeding past me until I come to a full stop without my growing an inch or aging a single day. I’ve never felt more like a child but I’ve never been wiser. I’ve never been more me. And now, I’m almost free. I have five days to keep a promise. Five days to break a spell.

Visitors come to marvel at the miracle of my shoes, awed that a pair of innocent shoes survived the terrifying chaos when hundreds of people perished. The little shrine of the shoes celebrates a moment in time. But not what they imagine. I know their secret. You’d think a dead child’s shoes would make them grief-stricken, entirely. But then I’ve known miracle shoes before and I know how they can capture a soul with magic. I’ve seen them cast a spell. I’ve seen them break a mother’s heart. I can’t go back to Mam shoeless. Sure, she’d skin me alive. Losing my shoes is a sin and I lost TWO pairs in the one day.

First Page Critique

Though more than a hundred years have passed since she struck an iceberg and sank, the story of the Titanic has a perpetual hold on the imagination. It is our modern Fall of Man myth, the Industrial Age’s answer to the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. But whereas Adam and Eve’s sin was eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, modern man’s transgression took the form of hubris: specifically the audaciousness attendant to building the world’s largest floating object, calling it “unsinkable,” and naming it after a race of mythological giants who, overthrown by Zeus, were consigned to the depths of a watery underworld. And though today it may seem as if the myth was born on that cold April night in 1912, the fact is it took forty years—until Walter Lord published A Night to Remember in 1955—for the Titanic to resurface in memory. Blame two world wars.

Since A Night to Remember was published (speaking of first pages, Lord’s masterpiece has one of the most captivating prologues ever written, guaranteed to send shivers down your spine), countless works of fiction have—I was going to say “exploited”—have availed themselves of the Titanic legend. The heroine of Danielle Steele’s No Greater Love survives the sinking. In Richard Peck’s YA novel Ghosts I Have Been, Blossom Culp can see into the future: too bad, since she’s on the Titanic.

A more recent example of “Titanic lit,” The Girl Who Came Home by Hazel Gaynor, concerns a group of Irish immigrants. Beryl Bainbridge’s Every Man for Himself was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The oddest of all fictional treatments of the Titanic legend must be Donald Newlove’s yet-to-be-published The Welles Requiem. It takes place aboard a passenger train on which a fictional Orson Welles directs a movie that in turn is set aboard the doomed liner (n.b., the set occupies a series of flatcars).

But by far the most interesting fictional treatment of the Titanic disaster was one written fourteen years before she sank. Futility tells the story of the world’s biggest ocean liner and how, on its maiden voyage, on a freezing April night, it strikes an iceberg and sinks, carrying its cargo of fabulously wealthy passengers to the bottom of the Atlantic. It was penned by a struggling sci-fi writer named Morgan Robertson. The name of his fictional doomed passenger ship? The Titan.

In this Titanic opener, a narrator who is either Michael or Finn greets us with news that he has “drowned three times.” According to my dictionary, to drown is to “die through submersion in and inhalation of water,” meaning our narrator is dead and hence speaks to us from the Great Beyond.

Since I first saw Sunset Boulevard, in which (speaking of drowning) it comes to pass that the man lying face down in a pool turns out to be none other than William Holden, whose voiceover narrates his story and who is indeed dead, I have had mixed feelings about ghost narrators. As narrative sleights-of-hand go, it strikes me as a little too easy, a bit too glib. It also requires suspension of all four laws of thermodynamics.

Which isn’t to say there haven’t been successful dead narrators in fiction. To know the opposite one has only to examine the sales figures of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. Sebold’s novel, narrated from heaven by a teenage girl who has been raped and murdered, was a huge—and hugely influential—bestseller, spawning dozens of novels whose narrators are likewise free of this mortal coil. Published the same year, Orham Pamuk’s My Name Is Red begins, “I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well.”

Lest you conclude that dead narrators are strictly a recent phenomenon, the narrator of Brazilian author Machado de Assis’ 1881 novel, The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, dedicates his memoir “to the worm who first gnawed on the cold flesh of my corpse.” More recently, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief takes the dead narrator concept a step farther, with the Grim Reaper himself narrating, though some (including me) would argue that his “Death” is nothing but Omniscience wearing a hooded cloak and carrying a scythe.

The next two paragraphs of this beguiling (and beguilingly written, in a lilting brogue) opening evade the drownings flourished by the first paragraph, and read somewhat like non-sequiturs. Only with the fourth paragraph do we come to realize our ghost narrator is visiting a museum wherein artifacts from the Titanic wreck are on display—including the shoes he was wearing when the ship went down with him aboard.

As for the narrator’s presence in that museum, it’s treated informationally (“Visitors come to marvel”) rather and as a particular experience (“Museumgoers crowd around me, jostling each other for a better view”). The “little shrine” holding that pair of shoes is labeled, but not described. Is the display case set into a wall, or on a table? What do the shoes look like? How badly worn are they? We’re left to imagine such things with no help from our ghostly narrator, who doesn’t see for us through his eyes. Nor do we know where this museum is located, or the nature of the exhibit. We are subsequently told that the narrator “has five days to keep a promise,” and furthermore that the dead child’s shoes on display have secret magical qualities, that they have “cast spells” and broken “a mother’s heart.” How much of this is to be taken literally and how much is metaphorical remains to be seen.

A dead narrator (whose name is both Finn and Michael and who has drowned thrice, lastly aboard the Titanic); a pair of magical shoes dredged up from the depths of the North Atlantic; a spell to be broken; a promise to be kept. It’s an awful lot to digest in one page, perhaps too much. It raises so many, too many, questions, chief among them: beyond that a child met his fate aboard the Titanic, what more can one look forward to in this story? The fantastic opening gambit puts an enormous if not impossible burden on whatever is to follow it, since whatever else is revealed about Finn (or Michael), his life must turn out to have been at least, if not more, interesting than his death, which is already a given, and which will be a hard act to follow for the duration of a novel. Can all the promises held out by this opening possibly be kept?

Your First Page SelginAs for the museum moment in question, speaking of floating vessels, it wants ballast in the form of grounding in time, space, and event. Were this opening mine, I’d establish the action right up front, with the first sentence: our narrator looking at a pair of vividly described shoes in a tactile museum display case. The museum should be particular and not general. It may be crowded or empty, but it should be real and not, like our narrator, spectral.

To sum up: a well-written and compelling if convoluted opening. Maybe there’s a great story to go with it, maybe not. But for me the promise of that story is overshadowed by a surfeit of imaginative devices.

Your turn: How would you assess this opening? (Be constructive.)

Share on:
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments