Recently I read a novel that annoyed me no end with its capricious disregard of its own genre rules. And I worry that in it, I saw the end of the current boom of fantasy/paranormal novels crossed with the hardboiled detective form, which depresses me because hey, I write that kind of book.
The novel (unidentified here because it’s symptomatic of something larger) is told in first person by a detective figure who battles unseen paranormal creatures all around us. He’s tough, world-weary and driven, with a core of decency but a sense that he’s the only just man in an unjust world.
There are two reasons authors use first-person for protagonists like this. First, the character puts on a deliberately unappealing and difficult front, and by hearing his inner voice we see the sympathetic hero behind the bluster. Otherwise, we’d be spending 400 pages in the company of a jackass. The other is that, as a detective, he pieces together the clues as they’re discovered, and allows the reader to share his insights and discoveries is a big part of the fun.
You mess with this fundamental dynamic at your own peril. For example, Thomas Pynchon’s recent Inherent Vice tries to mock this convention by telling the story in a weird third person singular voice that keeps tricking the reader into thinking it’s first person when it’s not. The result is a novel almost impenetrable in its tone, and certainly no fun to read.
Occasionally a writer will use multiple first-person points of view, to convey differing perspectives or information that one narrator wouldn’t know. That’s a valid technique, and the result depends on both the writer’s skill and the structural support for these switches. Most common, though (and endemic to the book I just read) is the lazy approach of starting a novel in first person, but when a plot point becomes too tricky to convey that way, simply switching to third person for a chapter or two.
This sort of arbitrary voice change completely negates the reason for choosing first person in…well, in the first place. And it puts the author’s limitations front and center, when the goal should be to hide those as much as possible. I’m not saying these sorts of literary tricks should never be used, just that they should never be used simply because the author doesn’t want to take the trouble to think a little harder about how to make his or her point. Or, and I suspect this is often the case, the author uses a first person voice because he or she thinks it’s a genre requirement without understanding its actual function.
Genre conventions are definitions, and when they lose their meanings, so do the genres. And one big way they lose their meanings is by being used without being understood. Western films lost their power when Europeans began mimicking all the accoutrements without understanding their relevance; pure science fiction fell apart when George Lucas mixed in fantasy elements with the hardware. The self-narrating hardboiled detective, already too ironic to ever be successfully post-modern, is a very specific creature that can change backgrounds but must retain its inherent justification for its existence. Without it, it’s just a pose, entertaining but empty.
So what do you think? Am I seeing a true sign of the genre apoclaypse, or am I just another doomsday prophet whining about the end of this minor literary world?