The OF Blog: An observation on "voice"

Thursday, February 14, 2008

An observation on "voice"

I recall a Monty Python skit in which Michael Palin's character, a rather timid accountant type, goes to a career counselor and tells him (Eric Idle, if memory serves) that he wants to be a lion tamer. From there, the usual MP hijinks, but there is something about that sketch that stuck with me. Yesterday, I was finishing up a read of Mark Haddon's excellent The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time when I realized that what made this book work so well was how accurately the autistic narrator was portrayed (having been around two profoundly autistic students in my career, you begin to learn a few things about "odd" behaviors).

Last week, I had finished reading another book, Richard Dansky's debut novel, Firefly Rain. While in places the story was interesting, I couldn't help but notice that the character/setting duo just didn't mesh. Like Palin's wannabe-liontamer character, there was that sense of "offness" that permeated the novel. A good Southern Gothic novel, in my opinion, involves a rather strong sense of a decayed tradition, a palpable tension between the modern and the antebellum, all centered around a strong character who embodies such conflicts. Although Dansky sets up the events well, his main character and even more his setting fail to rise above the paint-by-numbers plot developments for a Southern Gothic. It could have been a great debut, but instead it petered out as the story progressed until I couldn't help but conclude that it was a flawed work that was merely decent when it could have been so much more.

Lately, I've noticed that with quite a few novels and stories. The settings will be intriguing, but the characters fail to have a strong "voice;" they are just there, fulfilling a role that perhaps any others could have filled. In some cases, the characters aren't allowed to "breathe," to be more than just a function of the plot and that bothers me. I love well-drawn characters. Give me some conflict or at least something that shows that the character I'm reading stands out in some form or fashion from the casting central ones. Furthermore, characters that explicitly were designed to be counters to clichés had better be written in more than a clever aside and a wink to the reader, for even that is a cliché of subversion, when little else is offered besides a twisting of yet another cookie-cutter character creation (say that three times fast!).

When I read a story that has such-and-such a setting, don't give me the timid accountant voice sputtering, stumbling, and spewing all sorts of infodumps out there for the reader to process. If the character is meant to be bold and daring, give me a narrative voice that reflects this. Otherwise, I'm just going to feel "meh" about the whole thing.


Neth said...

I read this one a while back and I can't really disagree much. Dansky seems to prefer the term 'snowbird gothic' to 'southern gothic' in what I suppose is an effort to distinguish things a bit.

For me, he did well with setting and a lot less well with the characters and plot. Decent is a good word for it.

Lsrry said...

Yeah, but I thought his NC town didn't feel "real," as in I've been to some of the Appalachian-area towns in both TN and NC and it just didn't feel anything like those towns or like the ones in the Southern Gothic stories that I've read - just a bit too bland there. It was solid, decent fare, when it could have been so much more, I thought. Perhaps in future novels he'll work on those issues and write a truly great novel.

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