The I-Story (home)

The I-Story, Part II
The Flashlight Voice

by Marko Fong

About the Author

An Owner’s Manual

The Flashlight Voice


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A faceless gatekeeper greets me, “Thank you for submitting to the Literary Country Club. We appreciate your interest and we’ll get back to you shortly.”

“Excuse me,” I say, “I’m just trying to visit.”

“Are you on our list?”

“I didn’t know there was a list.”

“We can check. You might be surprised. What’s your name?”

“First Person Present.”

“Oh, dear!”

“What’s that mean?”

“We were hoping you were at least First Person Past. We’ve got a few of those here like Telltale Heart and To Kill a Mockingbird. We don’t have many First Persons Present.”

“Are House of Sand and Fog or Fight Club members?”

“Yes that’s true. It happens sometimes, but Fight Club we only let in for a fund raiser. Chuck’s not an actual member. Movie rights might be a big deal in the outside world, but not to us. We don’t let James Franco in on general principle.”

“Ouch.”

“It could be worse. You could be Second Person. We always tell them, ‘You who?’”

“What kind of country club is this anyway? I don’t see a golf course, tennis courts, or a swimming pool.”

“We’re a literary country club. Mostly the members sit around, talk, drink, take drugs, have inappropriate-furtive sex. God forbid that anything active happen around here. Every now and then, they draw and develop characters, but even then it stays inconclusive. Our members don’t like to spell things out. We’re very refined. ”

“Sounds like Chekhov.”

“Exactly.”

I scratch my underarms then spit on the sidewalk. “Is there any way I can just look around?”

“Sure, if you change your narrative voice. For instance, if you were Omniscient, you wouldn’t have to ask that question.”

“I see.”

I pull at my shirt sleeves.

“We find first person present trendy. You call attention to yourself. Even when it works, it has to be unreliable. This is a very respectable club. You might want to try the Mystery Writers Rackets Club. We hear they accept present tense narrators. Also there’s a club for writing erotica, they take all comers.”

I make a face. The gatekeeper continues, “Don’t you go stir crazy having to be cooped up in that voice alone? If it’s any consolation, Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore didn’t get in either, even with a referral from John Updike.”

“Well, sorry to have wasted your time.”

“We appreciate your interest in our club. We wish you luck finding a home for your narrative voice and with any of your non-writing endeavors.”

“Hey, wait a second! Did you even read my application last month?”

“Honestly, we didn’t have to. The first line told us all we needed to know.”

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First person present (FPF for First Person Flashlight to minimize confusion with FPP used for First Person Past) is the most intimate narrative option.

Like first person past, you’re directly in the narrator’s head. Unlike first person past, you’re also in the narrator’s body, not just his/her mind/memory. Because of this, it often has the trance-like quality of an altered state of consciousness. Meditation is, after all, a trance state where one gets into the moment by focusing the mind on the physical sensation of “Now.” First person present reproduces a similar level of focus and awareness.

The directness of FPF often gives it the quality of feeling primary and simple. This is why first person present works well with narrators who happen to be children, mentally or emotionally unstable adults, or not especially aware. It’s also a voice frequently used in diaries and journals. “Stardate 2011, a series of subplots are attacking the Enterprise. I am unable to resolve them. Starfleet Academy’s MFA program didn’t prepare us for this. I am turning into Scott Bakula.”

In third person, you can create scenes with any combination of characters at any time. As we discussed, in first person past [see “The I-Story, An Owner’s Manual”], a writer can create narrative complexity by developing a kind of dialogue between what Sue William Silverman calls the “voice of experience” and the “voice of innocence” and what I call the “Me Mirror.” In FPF, the narrator is physically present in every real-time scene and we only get his or her side of the events. There are cheats that remedy this. For example, the narrator can overhear other people talking, find notes, see a journal, have a dream, or visit a fortune teller. These are just temporary solutions though. The writer is still stuck with this one-eyed perspective. So how do we get first person present into the complex and layered world of the country club?

Ever heard of negative space? We writers often forget that we don’t hold the monopoly on “perspective” or “point of view.” In fact, we didn’t invent the notion. In the visual arts, perspective is the business of making a flat surface appear to have the sort of depth that we get from viewing the world with two eyes (stereoscopic vision). At least that was the case before the movie Avatar 3D-ed its way into cineplexes near you. Now that movie audiences can see in 3D, I’m hoping they’ll develop the technology to do the same when the same people vote for a Congressperson.

While one can create perspective by drawing a series of lines that converge to a single point or set of points, artists often use shading to render dimensionality. Instead of drawing with the point of the pencil tip, you use the edges to suggest rather than define your shapes. Look at the wear pattern on an amateur’s pencil or brush compared to an artist’s some time.

In her book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards argues that drawing in this fashion will appear more fluid and organic than the use of precise-on-the-point lines. She also makes the fascinating argument that as children grow older and more verbal, they lose the capacity to see the world as it is. Instead, they start coding visual images in much the way they learn the alphabet by coding the broad range of sounds in the world into letters. For example, a house becomes a rectangle with a triangle on the top and bodies become stick figures with circles for heads. Children are taught to “alphabetize” the visual world and too often no one ever helps them learn to “see.” (If you find this right brain-left brain stuff interesting, you may also want to check out Gabrielle Lusser Rico’s Writing the Natural Way.)

We writers forget that words suffer from simplification through symbol, aka coding, even worse than drawings do because fiction is imprisoned by language itself. Paradoxically, fiction is arguably the art of recovering primary feeling and structure through the same symbol mechanism that we normally use to abstract experiences. For example the pain of the passing of a close family member becomes, “Mom died last night.” The fiction writer uses words to restore dimension to the generic “Mom died” by expanding it back to something personal, resonant, and complex.

In order to overcome this, adult art students have to unlearn the habit of over-coding the visual world. Drawing objects upside down and backwards is one Edwards technique. (It also works for writers. Try reversing the order of your scenes and see if the progression still makes sense.)

Drawing negative space is another technique. Rather than trying to draw the chair, the student is instructed to draw the space around the chair, essentially everything he sees that isn’t the chair.

My psychologist friend, Barry, will tell you that this is sometimes referred to as figure-ground reversal. Of course, he’ll bill you to tell you that, so it’s better that you get it from me.

A more dimensional-alive image of the chair results, because the exercise has turned off the side of the brain that alphabetizes, verbalizes, analyzes and effectively deadens the visual experience. When the side of the brain that sees rather than interprets has taken over, the drawing student recovers some of its “primary” vibrancy. For those who didn’t come here for a drawing lesson, remember that FPF is the most primary or direct narrative voice.

The single greatest limitation of FPF, the very limited or “single-line” narrative POV is also its greatest asset. The omniscient narrator gets to see the entire room, everyone in it, their thoughts, their past, present, and future. There is virtually no available negative narrative space for our see-all know-all narrator. The first person present narrator is a flashlight beam inside a darkened room. You can point it at any given spot, but the extreme intimacy or on-point quality of the first person present narrator means that you’re leaving the rest of the room in shadows. If the writer draws with the shadows on the edges of the beam (the negative space) instead of that one beam of narrative light itself (the point of the pencil), first person present can pick up depth and complexity that some assume is only available through third person. The skilled first person present story often is more about what the narrator doesn’t say or explain (the sub-text) than what the narrator articulates.

I’ve chosen four first person present stories to discuss how this is done.

1) Ring Lardner’s “Haircut”

2) Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried”

3) Bev Akerman’s “Pie”

4) Pam Houston’s “The Best Girlfriend You Never Had”

I love these stories. They all also happen to be online. It makes it easier for you to argue with me and I hope you will.

“Haircut” by Ring Lardner
www.classicshorts.com/stories/haircut.html

Ring Lardner, known by many primarily as a sportswriter, was a profound influence on Hemingway, who used the pseudonym “Ring Lardner Jr.” early in his career. Hemingway’s trademark became the use of simple sentences written the way Americans actually spoke in stories where much of the critical information and emotion is implied rather than explicit (see “The Hills Like White Elephants”). Hemingway’s style is analogous to the pianist Thelonius Monk whose music made the pauses between the notes sing and Steve McQueen’s motionless-silent approach to acting in front of a camera. Notably, all three artists are often praised for developing styles that were deeply, even uniquely American. Lardner’s “Haircut” (1925) is their artistic haplotype.

The story is an uninterrupted monologue delivered by “Whitey” (aka Dick), a small town barber, to a captive audience, an out-of-town customer. Little to nothing happens in the first person present frame of the story. No one else speaks. There is no description of the barbershop itself and there is no physical description of either character. The tale that emerges from the flashlight beam of “Whitey’s” small talk is a story within the story. The inner story is technically told in first person past and it’s about small town justice. Whitey tells his customer about Jim, the town jokester, who is also revealed to be the town bully and drunk. It’s just that Whitey appears to be completely unaware of the latter. He presents the story as an explanation of why the town isn’t as fun as it used to be. The reader never sees the reaction of Whitey’s listener. The reader also never gets any clues about whether Whitey’s professed admiration for Jim is on the level. Among other things, we find out that Whitey’s been one of Jim’s victims too.

The inner-story, if told directly without Whitey’s first person present frame, would be over-sentimental with Jim as the black-hatted villain and the Doctor, the character who actually commits a crime, as the white knight who protects the innocents whom Jim has preyed on. To me, the genius of Lardner’s story is the way he makes the town the main character of the story instead of either the Doctor or Jim. Whitey’s “obtuseness”, the negative space around his words gives Haircut its texture. Lardner’s first person present narrator doesn’t seem to get the significance of his story and the narrative choice reveals an entire community (there are a lot of characters in that story within the story, btw) where the deepest feelings never get expressed directly in words. Instead Jim, his pal Hod, and by implication, Whitey the barber, do virtually all the talking in the story while the rest of the town stays silent, suffering, and seething. Jim’s oppressed wife, for instance, appears only briefly, yet the reader feels deep sympathy for her in a way that Lardner might not manage had she been described with any level of physical detail or been given something to say or do.

The message is quite similar to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, but Lardner’s technique is arguably subtler than Anderson’s grotesques rendered via third person narrator. Lardner uses the offhandedness in Whitey’s first person present monologue to reverse figure and ground in the story. The characters you root for are actually in the background and the town comes out more vividly within the story because the other individuals in the town are left faceless and remain voiceless. Lardner keeps the story’s real-time remarkably bare. The reader never sees or hears the captive listener’s reaction to Whitey’s story. For all we know, he’s fallen asleep in the chair. We also never see the aftermath for several other characters. Does the Doctor ever notice Julie Gregg? What becomes of Jim’s family? What becomes of Hod? Why does Whitey keep Jim’s shaving mug on display in the shop? Is it a remembrance or a reminder? Did Whitey get to shave Jim’s corpse? The surface of the story remains just another day in a town where nothing much happens, yet underneath there’s been a murder and cover up that no one appears to acknowledge.

Traditionally, critics have talked about Lardner’s use of the “unreliable narrator” in “Haircut,” but I think it’s more helpful to look at the way he exploits the negative space around that narrator. “Do you want me to comb it wet or dry?”, the seemingly mundane bit of dialogue that ends the story vibrates with complex suppressed emotion as the town lurks around the keyhole perspective of Lardner’s outwardly naive narrator.

“In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” by Amy Hempel
www.fictionaut.com/stories/amy-hempel/in-the-cemetery-where-al-jolson-is-buried

About a month ago, I happened to read May-Lan Tan’s first published story, “Legendary” in Zoetrope All-Story’s summer issue. As a middle-aged writer who’s labored at the craft for many years, it was one of those Salieri moments for me. “Legendary” is another first person present narrative that uses shadows, voids, and the longing for identity in artfully quirky ways that made me think, “Mmmmm, there’s another level here that I haven’t gotten into my own stories yet.” You wind up intensely jealous and moved at the same time.

The first time I felt that way was more than twenty-five years ago. My friend, Lee Ann, came back from Bread Loaf to tell me how wonderful one of the “fellows” she befriended there was. At the time, I had just started to write and imagined that I had some special talent. Anyway, Lee Ann insisted that I check out her friend’s first published story. Her friend’s name was Amy Hempel and the story was “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.” This was a moment of reckoning in my journey as a writer: I realized whatever talent I might have, there were people with more of it. Lee Ann had some weird notion that her friend Amy and I might hit it off. How do I put this? Had we been actors, it would have been like setting up Mark Hamill with Helen Mirren. I haven’t seen Lee Ann in years and my guess is that she isn’t currently working as a matchmaker. Btw, I’ve never met Amy Hempel in person.

“In the Cemetery” came out of a class taught by Gordon Lish in which the assignment was to write your worst secret. Hempel later claimed that clumps of her hair started to fall out when she composed the story. Cemetery is a story of betrayal where the reader surprisingly winds up liking the betrayer more after the act of betrayal than before. The nameless main character is unable to stay with a terminally ill friend all the way through to her death. The act is foreshadowed by one of many jokey bits of trivia that form the core of the narrative about a “good dog knowing when to disobey.” A second bit of funny animal trivia gives the story its structure. This one is about a mother gorilla who learns sign language. Animals are a recurring theme in Hempel’s stories and Cemetery is arguably a meditation on the way humor allows us to keep talking yet also frustrates the expression of our purest feelings.

Before discussing the POV choice, I should mention that it’s not a pure first person present story. Cemetery actually begins in first person past, then gives way to sections written in first person present. Even more interesting, it’s hard to say where the “present” is in Cemetery. Early in the story, it’s early in the visit to the hospital when the two friends are bantering and then it moves to the beach. At the end of the story, the present appears to be some time well after the friend has died and been buried in Al Jolson’s cemetery (Jessica Wolfson is in fact buried in the same cemetery as Al Jolson). The inconsistency is something that beginning writers get crucified for. In Cemetery, the shaky first person present adds an edginess that enhances the story’s impact. The narrator is unable to let go of her shame about what she could not do for her best friend. Just before the end, she reverts to FPF (well after the death) to tell the reader,

“I sleep with a glass of water on the nightstand so I can see by its level if the coastal earth is trembling or if the shaking is still me.”

In “Haircut,” the barber narrator is a dim bulb. In “Cemetery,” the narrator is sharp, funny, even hyper-bright in many ways—she’s a verbal laser. The two friends in the story are quite well matched. Their banter is so witty and so filled with whacked-out trivia that at points they seem more like stand-up comics than actual people. Prior to writing, Hempel studied improv and has often compared her minimalism to the precise editing and timing needed for stand-up. It’s just that it becomes apparent that the narrator can’t talk about certain things. For instance, she can’t explain to her friend why it took her so long to visit. She can’t tell her that she’s afraid of catching her disease (the masks) even though the friend is well aware that the narrator is highly phobic. She can’t say the word “death” or discuss the friend’s physical state. Instead of crying, they watch a forgettable movie on television. Instead of saying “goodbye” in a heartfelt way, the narrator leaves abruptly despite the fact that the staff has prepared a bed for her to sleep next to her dying friend. The friend reacts to the betrayal by crawling into a closet.

FPF helps sell the reader on the illusion that the jokey dialogue in the story matters and that it’s the banter that is lost or about to be lost. Hempel’s FPF ending explodes this by completing the story about the mother gorilla that the narrator never finished for her friend. We find out that the baby gorilla died and the mother signs, “‘Baby come hug’ in the fluent language of grief.” In the most basic language possible, the mother gorilla is much more emotionally advanced than our laser-sharp narrator. It’s not the loss of the banter between the friends that hurts so deeply, the narrator’s lexical facility has blocked her capacity to share the intimacy of friendship at its most primal level.

Al Jolson, of course, is known as the star of the first major talking motion picture. The heart of the story turns out to be what our FPF narrator couldn’t express.

“Pie” by Bev Akerman
www.gemini-magazine.com/akermanb.html

This is the least known of my four examples. Bev Akerman is a Canadian geneticist (if you were wondering why I slipped in the word “haplotype” when talking Lardner, now you know) who published “Pie” as part of her first collection of short stories, The Meaning of Children. I both love the story and have it here because, as the simplest and shortest story structure, it may be the clearest example of flashlight voice.

Like “Haircut,” “Pie” is a monologue. This time instead of telling a story within a story, our FPF narrator is telling an unseen listener how to make a pie. In the second line our narrator says, “My hands can’t talk” which tells the reader that our story really isn’t about the details of making pie. We next learn that she hasn’t baked one in forty years. After that, she mentions her son, Eamon who used to be in the kitchen with her when she baked pies. She then continues to mix in bits of Eamon with directions for making pie. Eamon persists as a shadow in the narrative’s blindspot. He’s there, but she’s talking about pie.

Of course, we learn that the last time our narrator made a pie was the last day she saw Eamon. The writer completes the reversal of figure and ground for our narrator by implying that Eamon died in the war. Much like “Cemetery,” FPF lets us feel our narrator’s pain precisely because she can’t talk about it directly or even say that her son died. As much as she loves baking pies, she hasn’t made one since because her loss is still so overpowering. The reader also never finds out just why the narrator decided to demonstrate making pies again or who’s listening. As a result, we feel her loss much more profoundly than if she had talked about Eamon’s absence inside the flashlight beam.

“The Best Girlfriend You Never Had” by Pam Houston
http://pamhouston.wordpress.com/excerpts/waltzing-the-cat-the-best-girlfriend-you-never-had

One of the more interesting things about this story is that it arguably has no plot. Much like the floating past-present in Cemetery, Best Girlfriend is another great story that breaks the textbooks rules for story construction. If there is any tension in Best Girlfriend, it’s the question of whether Leo and the narrator will become something more than friends, but nothing ever happens to change that stasis. The real movement is the reader’s shifting understanding of the narrator. Houston’s first person present narrator spends a postcard-romantic Sunday with a male friend in the ultimate postcard city, San Francisco. They appear perfect for one another but for the fact that neither is ready to pursue a romance at all.

In the story’s present, they read poetry to each other near the Legion of Honor while Asian couples wed in the presence of swans, they stop for drinks by the waterfront, then end their day by taking a sailboat out into the bay. Lucille, the narrator, spends most of the story either chatting with Leo or sharing anecdotes about the two of them and the people they know that expose their twin damaged histories. Leo came close to jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge after being dumped by a girlfriend only to decide against it because his death would not be a notable number in the count of jumpers for the year. Lucille has a brilliant but psychotic boyfriend, Gordon, whom she clings to out of fear of being alone. She also has a horrifying relationship with an alcoholic father who repeatedly rejected her. Along the way, a darker side of San Francisco emerges. Lucille’s anecdotes populate the city with muggers (in fact, there are two parallel muggings), urine, and a set of loading cranes near the harbor that resemble the dementors in Harry Potter. As in Cemetery, Lucille’s anecdotes have a wit and sharpness that belie her inability to act on her own insights. Like Cemetery’s unnamed narrator, Lucille is hypnotically charming. In fact the mystery seems to be that she can stare straight into her ongoing history of emotional damage, describe it accurately, but has no idea how to process the intimacy she shares with Leo because he doesn’t desire her romantically (at least not yet). On top of that, we don’t know which of her stories have actually been shared with Leo.

Perhaps most fascinating of all, we never exactly see Leo during the day. Houston uses FPF to keep Leo’s reactions and feelings out of the narrative frame. The reader has no idea what Leo really feels. It could well be “not yet” instead of “no” (I had to wonder what kind of guy would pass on an active-artistic woman who knows football). One wonders why the two essentially go through the motions of a romantic date without any of the intentionality. Lucille and Leo appear to see and know each other. It’s just that they can’t see themselves in some critical way. Leo chases women who are literally unavailable. Lucille seeks out a man whose only virtue appears to be his need to passionately claim her as “his.” At the end of the story, Leo metaphorically helps Lucille face the great mass of moving water that always threatens to collide with her life. Ironically, he then tells her, “I can’t help you” and Lucille never challenges the statement or demands an explanation.

Early in the story, it’s Leo not Lucille who utters the story’s title, “the best girlfriend you never had.” Leo is, of course, the best boyfriend she’s never had. It’s just that the narrator has spent the entire day waving her first flashlight across the entirety of her adult life without seeing what’s right next to her. Whether he’s a future boyfriend or not, she already has a positive model for emotional intimacy with a man, but can’t recognize it because she keeps longing for and demanding that it take the form of a boyfriend. Again, it’s the “narrowness” of FPF that lets the story be as complex and subtle as it is because it pushes the reader to also look at what’s not being said or thought.

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Two years ago, I bought my stepfather a high-quality LED flashlight for Christmas. It was a nice flashlight, but a relatively cheap gift for someone that close to you. I’d certainly bought him more expensive things, but he loved the flashlight for some reason and used it constantly. He died last fall. What I didn’t see then was that the flashlight was very much like him, solid, well constructed, practical, and not terribly ambitious about its place in the world, yet quietly performing its functions well. Looking back, I think he liked it so much because the gift symbolized my seeing and appreciating him for who he was. The best gifts often aren’t extravagant and they’re often about what the gift symbolizes rather than what it is physically.

FPF is the POV that often works best when the reader sees what the narrator doesn’t. They say the best way to get someone to do something is to convince that person that it was his idea in the first place. The best way to get the reader to think the writer is brilliant is to give the reader the sensation of actively mining the text to pick up connections and insights that he thinks the writer only meant to imply or suggest. FPF appears to be the most limited narrative voice in letting the reader see the entire room, yet that also makes it the most powerful way to reveal the feelings in that room. Whether you’re trying to gain admission to the Literary Country Club or just do this to share a story or two, don’t overlook the simple gift of first person present. It’s the POV I use the most in my own fiction. After all, even the greatest fiction can only aspire to be a flashlight in the darkened room we know as life.

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© 2012 Marco Fong

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