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

THE END

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.)

Posted in First Page Critiques, Guest Post.

Peter Selgin is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (Univ. of Georgia Press, 2008). He has published a novel, Life Goes To the Movies (Dzanc, 2009), three books on the craft of fiction writing (Writer's Digest), and a children’s picture book, S.S. Gigantic Across the Atlantic (Simon & Schuster). His first essay collection, Confessions of a Left-Handed Man (University of Iowa, 2012), was a finalist for the William Saroyan International Prize. A novel-in-manuscript, “The Water Master,” won the Faulkner-Wisdom Prize for Best Novel. His memoir, The Inventors (Hawthorne Books), which won the Housatonic Book Award, was among Library Journal’s Best Nonfiction Books of 2016. He is Associate Professor of English at Georgia College & State University. Find out more at his website.

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JOHN T. SHEAWriting Links 3/5/18 – Where Genres CollidePeter SelginDario CirielloVeronica Knox Recent comment authors

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Peg Weissbrod
Peg Weissbrod

I don’t have anything constructive to say because I found nothing o criticize. While I understand Mr. Selgin’s observations, all I wanted to know as I read the last two paragraphs of this first page was the novel’s title and author–and how I can get my hands on a copy of it–because I can’t wait to read the rest of the book. I normally don’t care for dead narrators–The Lovely Bones still disturbs me–but this one drew me in with the possibility of life after death. I can’t wait to find out how and why, years after a person’s death,… Read more »

Veronica Knox

Thank you Peg. Your comment is what all authors hope for. I have checked with Jane to see if it’s okay to reveal the title and she said it was fine. My book is titled ‘The Unthinkable Shoes’ published under the name V Knox.

Paula Williams

I loved this and would have loved to have read more. I, too, don’t usually like dead narrators but this really worked for me.

Veronica Knox

Thank you Paula. I have sent an email to your website.

Jody Hadlock
Jody Hadlock

Peter was able to convey what I felt about this first page but couldn’t quite express. I completely agree with opening the story with the boy seeing his shoes in the museum. And I agree there should be more details. God is in the details, it’s been said. The reader needs to be more grounded, IMHO. Where is the museum? What kind of shoes are on display (color, how worn are they, etc). The word “visitors” is too general or sterile(?). I would like to read something more descriptive about the visitors. I love this part: “I’ve never felt more… Read more »

Veronica Knox

Thank you for commenting, Jody. I learned a lot from this critique. We’re lucky to have Jane for giving new writers such a helpful opportunity and for Peter’s expertise.

jon
jon

The first two drownings are metaphorical and both exemplify the underlying melancholia of the Irish zeitgeist and at least suggest if not exemplify the at least somewhat fabulist tone of the following text. As the first page progresses the author titillates the reader with somewhat oblique insight which arouses curiosity. Succeeding paragraphs gradually draw the reader further into the mystery. As both lead and hook, this first page hits both targets pretty well spot on. The lack of revelation of detail inspires the reader to turn to page two. I have to disagree with Mr. Selgin’s criticisms on this one:… Read more »

Dario Ciriello

I couldn’t agree more, Jon: well said. There’s also the power of a beguiling narrative voice, as I mentioned in my own comment.

Dario Ciriello

A good opening raises questions and makes the reader turn the page. There’s no such thing as too audacious a question or too many of them, and the issue of whether they’re later answered and whether the rest of the book lives up to the promise of a first page is entirely separate from the effectiveness of a first page. I think this opening page succeeds very well, and I suspect most actual readers (as opposed to critics or industry professionals) would be impelled to read more. There’s also the often overlooked question of *voice*, which Mr. Selgin doesn’t address… Read more »

Veronica Knox

Thanks Dario. I’m feeling more vindicated about my intuition. I wrote this first page dozens of times until it felt right. Your professional comment is much appreciated.

Peter Selgin

In fact I do mention the voice—which, like you and perhaps not coincidentally, I describe as “beguiling.” Can an opening pose too many questions? It can if questions outweigh curiosity. That this first page belongs to an already published work puts your critic at a disadvantage, since unbeknownst to himself he was criticizing a fait accompli. Were I a fan of the finished product—as you may be—why I’d be up in arms!

jon
jon

Excessive or gratuitous description only muddies the waters. In 1966 radio and recording satirist and humorist Stan Freberg, who described his oeuvre as “Theater for the Ear” recorded an album titled “Freberg Underground” which featured a skit where sound effects and Freberg’s voice-over drained Lake Michigan, filled it with hot chocolate and a whipped cream topping. The climax included a giant maraschino cherry dropped onto the apex of the mound of whipped cream by the Royal Canadian Air Force while a crowd of 25,000 cheered. Freberg concluded the skit with, “Let’s see them do that on television”. So, where is… Read more »

Peter Selgin

Though brief and sweeping, Munro’s description is richly evocative and entirely inhabitable. I see that landscape of sleigh-pulling horses as if Grandma Moses had painted them and I were standing before the result. The description is clear, solid, unambiguous.

trackback

[…] https://www.janefriedman.com/dead-narrators/ “Today’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.” “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… Read more »

JOHN T. SHEA
JOHN T. SHEA

A powerful and intriguing first page. While I find Peter Selgin’s critique interesting I must, like some other commenters, dissent from it and say I would not change the page. Thanks to all for this!