Over at The New York Times' Reading Room, you can sit in on Margot Livesey, Allan Gurganus, Kathleen Norris, Gregory Cowles and Becky Sinkler digi-talking about Marilynne Robinson's remarkable 1980 novel, Housekeeping. It's a slim, strange, haunting text that I've been wanting to talk about with others since I read it two or so years ago. I suppose I could do worse than sit alongside Gurganus (one of my favorite story writers), et. al.
Robinson's book can teach me especially about narration--something I think is lost in a lot of traditional fiction writing classes, banished under the moniker of it being "telling" rather than showing.
But consider the following excerpt from Housekeeping; I defy you to contend to that it would be better if it were translated into a scene that "shows" the narrator's intentions.
If I had one particular complaint, it was that my life seemed composed entirely of expectation. I expected--an arrival, an explanation, an apology. There had never been one, a fact I could have accepted, were it not true that, just when I had got used to the limits and dimensions of one moment, I was expelled into the next and made to wonder again if any shapes hid in its shadows. That most moments were substantially the same did not detract at all from the possibility that the next moment might be utterly different. And so the ordinary demanded unblinking attention. Any tedious hour might be the last of its kind.
How might this be scene-ized? By giving us a scene with the narrator (her name's Ruth) sitting at unblinking attention while she, I don't know, serves tea? Maybe in dialogue a secondary character says, "My, you seem strangely expectant today."
Nah, the narration--the telling--is the stronger choice. More than "showing" could, this narrated excerpt takes a stance--a strong statement of intention that startles in its baldness. As well, the choice of fitting the whole of the novel in narration mimics Ruth's journey further and further inside herself, disconnecting from her community in Fingerbone, including her sister, and falling into the ways of Sylvie (their unusual aunt).
"When did I become so unlike other people? Either it was when I followed Sylvie across the bridge, and the lake claimed us, or it was when my mother left me waiting for her, and established in me the habit of waiting and expectation which makes any present moment most significant for what it doest not contain. Or it was at my conception.
I admire Robinson's ability to convey Ruth's uncertainty in prose that nonetheless holds a strong center, shaped by insight and rhythm (notice how the final fragment above hits a beat that throws the sentence before it--and the two possibilities Ruth throws out for her isolation--in weird relief), which reveals nuance on the idea of an author "taking a stance" in her or his narration. It's not merely about conveying an undiluted central point, but possessing an authority on the material--be it the first-person narrator's introspection or about God.
(Jesus) even restored the severed ear of the soldier who came to arrest Him--a fact that allows us to hope the resurrection will reflect a considerable attention to detail. Yet this was no more than tinkering. Being man He felt the pull of death and being God He must have wondered more than we do what it would be like.
To paraphrase Dorothy Day, who spoke in an entirely different context, it is difficult to find people who are willing to claim authority. That is, it seems like so many writers hedge away from owning their material, from taking a stance with it, either because they doubt themselves or because they believe that taking authority is somehow opposed to the nuance and ambiguity they hope will infuse their fiction. I know I fall into both these categories. But I think what Robinson can teach us, perhaps more than most, is that being willing to put your prose out there, to take a stance in your narration, can actually be the best container possible for multi-dimensional fiction.
Unsurprisingly, Robinson's second novel, the Pulitzer-winning Gilead, is another incredible book that offers another instance of strong narration pulling the novel forward. Of her two novels, Gilead is my favorite. While Robinson is on the fiction faculty at the University of Iowa, I venture to say that "show, don't tell" doesn't escape her lips.
Now, let's see what else we can learn.