How might a different narrator might have told this story?
Today, we are releasing our first post in the new Obsession of the Month series, which for the month of September, is Donald Barthelme, a novelist and short story writer from the twentieth century. Before reading this post, it may helpful for you to check out the introductory post on the Lodestone blog here.
I’ll assume you’ve read The School by now. You have, after all, had four opportunities freely given to you by me (and even now, a fifth: find it here at NPR.org). If so, then you’ve seen Barthelme offer a lighthearted and humorous look at death that spirals suddenly into absurdity, thrown off, in the end, by the most enduring existential distraction of all: a gerbil.
First, a quick summary. In The School, the narrator, a teacher named Edgar, gives a catalog of the things that have died in his classroom. There are trees, then snakes, then an herb garden, then gerbils, white mice, salamanders, tropical fish, a puppy. These poor children keep killing all the living things around them. Or rather, things just keep happening to die around the children.
The list darkens. The death of a Korean orphan the class had adopted. The deaths of some students they know. The deaths of the parents of some of the children. Finally, the class calls Edgar out to explain death to them. The children begin to speak like philosophers, asking “isn’t death, considered as a fundamental datum, the means by which the taken-for-granted mundanity of the everyday may be transcended in the direction of —,“ until everyone in the classroom is left asking Edgar to make love with his teaching assistant, because they are frightened and some demonstration of human connection would finally give them “an assertion of value.” Edgar seems unsure, is swayed, and then is finally saved by the new — and surely doomed — gerbil. “The children cheered wildly.”
I find the most impressive thing about this story to be Barthelme’s chosen narrator: Edgar. If you have a few minutes, read back through the story and pay attention to Edgar, to the casual and familiar tone he uses throughout, to his word choices and sentence structure, and appreciate how his unique perspective and personality allow him to tell this story in a particular way. Imagine how a different narrator might have told this story. What if the teacher were your mother, or the coworker a few desks to your right?
The story takes no more than three minutes to read, and yet it is so tightly crafted that it bears exponential amounts of consideration. There is a hilarity in Edgar’s little attempts to explain away the deaths: “something wrong with the soil possibly . . . [w]e complained about it,” or, “when we found the snakes they weren’t too disturbed,” or, “well, I don’t like to think about sabotage, although it did occur to us,” or, “of course we expected the tropical fish to die, that was no surprise,” and “we weren’t even supposed to have a puppy.” Even the Korean kid: “ maybe we adopted him too late or something.” Every time it touches his classroom, Edgar has an excuse for death, for why it does not in some sense “count.” Eventually, the evidence is overwhelming, and even Edgar has to admit that this has been a bad year.
Edgar's speech is also marked by an informal and conversational approach: he throws in a few “you know”s and “I guess"-es, he starts sentences with “and”, and he repeats certain phrases or sentences unnecessarily. The language used here depicts a person come to terms with, and even bored with, death.
Barthelme enjoys playing with Edgar and his students, throwing in as much trauma as he can until they break, and then, just before a moment of redemption and profound clarity seems to be in Edgar’s grasp, that moment exits, pursued by a gerbil. It is a particular type of narrator that can tell this kind of story with this kind of tone and perspective, and Barthelme constructed him particularly for that purpose.
We can tell Edgar was created so intentionally because he holds this short and fast story together. This Edgar, with his lighthearted and apologetic explanation of death’s impact on his classroom, gives us some distance from death, helping us to see it sidelong with a dark humor.
The eventual turn into absurdity, as well, is intentional and meaningful. It calls into question our own ways of approaching death, suggesting that humans can't truly face the question of death at all. Barthelme doesn’t seem to be disappointed by his characters falling back into distraction in the end. Death is not the kind of topic we can hold in front of us for objective consideration. We are too close to it, and the measure of our lives too meaningfully judged against it, to do anything but live in its shadow and…ignore it.
Barthelme's commentary on death is made clear and memorable because he chose the perfect narrator. A narrator who is not overly emotional about death, is a bit of a realist with a hopeful outlook (or why would he keep giving these children living things?), speaks conversationally with his audience, and provides distance from this otherwise heady and depressing topic. Every writer should be so careful with their narrator.
To many, this is not an obvious writerly technique. After all, many third-person narrators just watch the action, and we as readers may learn nothing about them apart from considering their word choice and the parts of a scene or character they choose to emphasize. Since we aren't used to thinking of narrators as subjects of the action, we often forget that they are a kind of character themselves.
You can think of your narrator as a type of mask. In telling the story, the author becomes an actor, playing the part of a fully-formed narrator with its own history and personality. No one person or character will ever tell the same event or story in exactly the same way, and their personality always seeps through. The best writing you can do, then, will reflect this narrator's personality. I would emphasize, then, that your narrator should be consistent.
When you write, put on your narrator like a mask and write with that person's voice, not with your own voice, which may change from time to time depending on how you feel at the moment. I can remember pieces I've written and thrown out because I started them at midnight in a moment of artistic extravagance and emotional turmoil (marked by sweeping and indistinct images with long and winding sentences) and then tried to pick them up again at nine in the morning (marked by an espresso-fueled pithiness and intellectual subtlety). Inevitably, this kind of writing fails to cohere as a single unified work. My own voice is a moody and inconsistent one, so it shouldn't be the one telling the story.
So how can you create such a narrator? The effect can be done with a little planning and intention. There is no need to flesh out the history and personality of the narrator as you would a character (unless the narrator is an active character in your story and such things are relevant). However, your narrator should be recognizable. He or she should have a unique and coherent attitude toward and manner of speaking about the action of the story. We call this tone: the way the narrator reveals its attitude toward the subject matter.
We could summarize some main elements of Edgar's tone in a few points:
1. Slightly defensive and detached attitude towards an uncomfortable topic, marked by an unwillingness to resign himself that death may have no logic.
2. Conversational word choice ("you know", "I guess", a general looseness to the logic and order of presentation of thought)
3. Long sentences at first, during periods of explanation; short sentences of almost two words later, when he doesn't know what to tell the children.
My tendency, and perhaps yours as well, is to overgeneralize these elements and to tell myself that if I were to put Edgar on as a mask, I would do so by having a detached attitude. This is much less helpful in practice than reminding myself how Edgar actually expresses that detachment: conversational word choice, tendency towards explanation, silence and terseness when awkward. These are now approaching specific things you can try out in your own writing.
When developing your own narrators, set out a list of three or more defining characteristics of your narrator's tone and voice, and come back to those throughout, making sure they are reflected every time you sit down to write. Your narrator will suddenly have a distinct and compelling way of telling the story, providing an immediate boost to the quality and interest of the piece.
As an exercise, I would encourage you to imitate the first few paragraphs of The School by constructing a narrator similar to Edgar. Have your narrator use words and sentences that convey a defensive, resigned, and detached person in light of some uncomfortable topic.
If you have never done an imitation exercise before, I should point out that my favorite way to do these is to mimic the original VERY closely. I will use at least the same sentence structure (lists where there are lists, compound sentences for compound sentences) and usually the same order of adjectives and nouns and verbs and any part of speech. At first, it may seem like there is no room to inject your personality and style into the writing, but after forcing yourself to do this type of exercise a few times, you will learn to plan your exercise before writing, and to make it your own.
You can repeat this exercise based on other pieces as well (and I may do similar analyses in the future, because the more narrators you can try out, the greater versatility you will have), so let us know if there are other especially unique narrators you want to try this out with. And feel free to share a few sentences below in the comments and let us see what you came up with! If you like this or any other exercise we post, please let us know so that we can develop more like them for you.
I truly hope you’re enjoying reading Barthelme. His short stories have proven to be surprisingly witty, if absurd. I’ll recap more of my thoughts about Barthelme throughout this series, but let me know what stands out to you as we go through it. Next week, we will look through one or two more of his short stories, so keep an eye out for those.
Have a great week, Stoners!