Breaking the narrative circuit
by Aaron Cox
In today’s blog I am going to briefly discuss the relationship between narrator and character by looking again at Favel Parrett’s Past the Shallows. Taking a structuralist view of fiction, it is possible to identify key narrative levels (author/reader, narrator/narrate, characters) that create narrative circuits. Pulling apart a story into its various narratological components can provide some really useful analysis of how a story hangs together. In particular it can help you identify and understand moments of transgression between narrative levels, whether intended or not, and what effects they might have.
Today, I am going to look at the relationship between the third person (external) narrator and the direct speech of a character. Of course this division is a fabrication. The narrator (arguably, as a proxy of the author) provides the situations and events and the architecture of the world in which a character speaks. However, it is a line that shouldn’t be crossed if the suspension of disbelief is to succeed and therefore the narrative is to be believed as a realist text.
If this separation of narrative levels is transgresses, you can inadvertently destroy the illusion of reality and draw attention to the story as artifice. It can lose its sense of plausibility.
Direct speech should seem to be the words uttered by the character. If it isn’t the character speaking, the risk is that it may seem that the character is not embedded inside the text but is rather saying what the narrator wants him or her to say. As such, the character can seem like a reader of the story he or she is meant to be part of with a kind of meta-awareness of the narrative itself.
That’s all well and good if you are interested in Brecht’s A-effect or plan to write meta-fiction that messes about with how a story is framed, but it can otherwise make a realist story seem contrived.
As discussed in my last blog, Favel Parrett uses close third person narration in Past the Shallows to great effect, splitting the narrator’s gaze between two key characters, Harry and Miles. Although this form of narration sees the world pretty much through the eyes of one character (or in the case of Parrett’s book, one character at a time), when it comes to direct speech it is still important that the division between the narrator and the characters’ voices remains clear. Direct speech is the purest expression of a character’s voice, thoughts, attitudes, point of view etc.
In the opening scene of the book, Harry is at the beach with his two older brothers Miles and Joe. While the others are out surfing, Harry forages and has an epiphany that I find quite jarring because it seemed like an observation of a much older character and seems heavily laden with an ideological point of view from outside the story.
Harry picked up an abalone shell, the edges loose and dusty in his hands. And every cell in his body stopped. Felt it. This place. Felt the people who had been here before, breathing and standing alive where he stood. People who were long dead now. Long gone. And Harry understood, right down in his guts, that time ran on forever and that one day he would die.
A few moments later he tells Joe: “This place is old.”
On the one hand, this could be read as a boy feeling a sense of his own mortality. Death is present in his world. We learn that his mother has died, for example. However, there is more to this revelation than that. He seems to feel as though he is an interloper, made other by the history of landscape. It seems to me unlikely that picking up a shell would trigger such an observation in a boy of his age (I assume he is younger than ten, possibly as young as seven).
He seems to perceive something bigger in a kind of spiritual sense of place that is more akin to indigenous mythology than the musing of a young boy on a beach. Although not overt, there does seem to be a nod here towards the Aboriginal Dreamtime, a place beyond time and space accessed during dreaming and altered states of consciousness. When reading this scene I wondered if Parrett was in some sense working within a particularly Australian canonical tradition which obliges writers to create a sense of place that confirms something about the Australian identity and how a sense of Australianess is conveyed in literary and artistic works. This in turn confirms the book as “Australian” satisfying a desire for cultural confirmation that seems to prevail among local publishers and readers and seeks to actively resist outside influences.
Looking at this scene in the context of events to come, I am also concerned that he seems to foreshadowing his own death, which makes the epiphany seem especially contrived and offers that sense I mentioned earlier about a character being a reader of the story itself. Again, it seems to show overt intervention rather than something earned or borne out of the story organically.
Is this short scene an example of authorial intervention? Is this an example of indigenous Australian culture being appropriated by the mainstream? There were enough of these qualities on the page to make me step back and wonder about these things. Rather than coming organically from the story, the sense of place and its inherent cultural identity seem somewhat forced upon Harry. But I am aware that my reading is just that, my reading. Others may beg to differ. I am an interloper here too, reading the book through my own lens.
I guess it hits home to me that when writing, maintaining a sense of authenticity about a character’s perspective, no matter how artificial, can be very challenging and there are lots of paper-thin walls that you can inadvertently pass through.
 Favel Parrett, past the shallows, published by John Murray, 2011, pg. 4
 Ibid., pg.5