The Problem With First-Person Perspective

Prior to this past weekend, I had never heard of Tao Lin. If the reviews at the LA Review of Books and The Millions are to be believed, I'm not missing very much. The complaints about Lin's style and content appear devastatingly well-founded, but the critique puts me in mind of a broader complaint about contemporary fiction's love for first-person narration by a more or less fictionalized version of the author.

In any story that is fiction, for which there is going to be a narrator, it is important that the author clearly demarcate their control of the novel from the narrator's control of the novel, a problem much more severe when the story is being told in flashback. The usual way this gets solved--in Zola or Dostoevsky, for example--is by use of the third person: the novelist provides a perspective character, but the novelist gets a degree of remove. In highest fashion, this is the ingenious method of Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time. First person narration can do the same, though it doesn't always. To choose the most obvious example: Nick Carraway is not Scott Fitzgerald; Huck Finn is also not Mark Twain.

The Huck Finn example is instructive of the benefit given to an author: the central moral conflict involves the fact that Huck believes freeing Jim to be wrong, and Huck's view is the only one expressed. The reader, nevertheless, knows as well as the author the irony of the situation. But this is only possible because Twain creates his own space in the narrative.

Lin's problem, so far as I can tell, is that there is no such space in his writing. No one can tell if it's intended as a satire, and if so, the aim of that satire. That's a failure of writing. It hits on, incidentally, the problem I sometimes have with Lena Dunham or Louis CK: the author portrays a character who has the same name and some of the same characteristics of the author. Hence the much-praised 'realism.' But crucial questions in the work are left unanswered: is it satire? Of whom? How could we tell?

No comments: