Their Eyes Were Watching God and meta-storytelling with a frame narrative

Some critics have said Zora Neale Hurston’s novel about love and loss is not “good” because the narration slips between Janie’s dialect and the narrator’s voice.

I think Edwidge Danticat’s words in the introduction to Their Eyes Were Watching God say it best, though: “Hurston herself also becomes Janie’s echo by picking up the narrative thread in intervals, places where in real life, or real time, Janie may have simply grown tired of talking.”

The novel makes use of a frame.  We start at the end of the story, when Janie is returning home after burying her lover Teacake.  Hurston generates interest immediately when we hear the villagers gossiping about Janie and where she’s been.  We find out a lot about her character when she ignores all of them and decides to tell her story to her friend Phoebe only, who can then do as she wants with it.

So, Danticat’s explanation makes sense because Janie is telling her story to her friend Phoebe “in real time.”  It also sets up the narrator as a fly on the wall in Janie’s life, someone who is telling the story of Janie telling her story.

If we look at the way Janie tells her story, she is always frank and honest, and does not sugarcoat the truth, although there are some ugly ones in there.  But, more importantly, she tells the story in her own voice–and a strong voice it is.

Although writing in dialect has gone out of vogue and is generally considered disrespectful and crass, I think it’s integral to this narrative.  Perhaps Hurston could have conveyed the same dialect and inflection without “misspelling” words, but then we would read the story in our own voices, with our own pronunciation.

By using dialect in this way, Hurston forces us to read in Janie’s voice, and in the voices of the other characters.  We have to become them, if only for a moment, to experience their stories.  That makes the narrative immersive.

Despite the frame narrative and the fact that this is a novel about a woman telling her friend a story, I have difficulty calling it metafiction, because of how immersive it is, and how wonderfully it draws the reader in without calling particular attention to anything but the story itself.

Yes, the astute reader is going to think about the way Janie tells the story and the frame narrative and what it means, but a casual reader will probably not.  After all, who hasn’t sat down after a particularly difficult experience and told the story to a close friend or family member?

I also have difficulty not calling it metafiction, or meta-storytelling at the very least, because the book does proclaim—rather loudly—that this is Janie’s story, and Janie is telling it her way, and she is not making any apologies.  Not to her neighbors, and not to the reader.  And that is a proclamation that should make us think about the structure, characters, and why we tell stories to each other.

A version of this post first appeared on my now-defunct blog about metafiction, The Narrative in the Blog, on September 7, 2010.

Friday night at the bookstore

Barnes and Noble

Some people like to spend their weekends bar hopping, or going out to the movies, or shopping for new clothes. I like to go to the bookstore. I don’t necessarily go to buy anything, though it’s hard to resist the pull of a new book, the weight of it in my hands, the smell of paper and ink and glue.

I go, especially when things get stressful, because this is my happy place. It’s true that I spend most of my days surrounded by books in the public library where I work, but therein lies the problem. I’m working. At bookstores, I can relax. I don’t have to force a smile if I don’t feel happy. I don’t have to grit my teeth and explain to the same person for the millionth time that no, I am not going to fill out their job application for them. I am beholden to no one but myself and the books.

Growing up, my favorite bookstore was the Chester County Book and Music Company, a massive store in West Chester, PA. A solid half of my Star Wars book collection came from that store. I always had to beg my parents to take me, because they knew once they got me there it was going to be hours before I was ready to leave. That store is closed now, but I can still tell you exactly which books I bought there.

Now I’m somewhat embarrassed to say I spend most of my bookstore time in Barnes & Noble. This is more out of habit and routine than anything else. In high school a new development in a wealthier part of town brought in a Barnes & Noble, which was perhaps one of the most exciting events of my young life (this is not because my life wasn’t exciting; that just goes to show you how much I love bookstores). My best friend and I would spend entire afternoons there, giggling at trashy romance books and eyeing up new editions of Lord of the Rings. I accompanied friends to midnight releases for Harry Potter books, mostly because I wanted to be in a bookstore at midnight.

I generally follow a routine for my weekend BN visits. First, I look at the journals. Then, if I’m in the mood, I’ll stop in the cafe and get something to drink. Next comes the bargain section. From there I visit the science fiction books, first checking out what’s new and then finding my favorite authors on the shelf. Even if I have all of an author’s books, I’m not immune to the draw of a new edition. Plus, stopping by Neil Gaiman’s and Ursula Le Guin’s sections feels a lot like visiting old friends.

After sci-fi I peruse the manga and comics and contemplate whether or not I should buy the next volume in whatever series I’m working on (currently the omnibus editions of Fruits Basket and Elf Quest). Then I head over to the reference section to visit the writing books. I don’t buy many writing books, but I will borrow them from the library and buy the ones I really love.

This routine, the familiarity of it, the faint smell of books permeating the air, the warm drink in my hand, lets me relax. It gives me time and space to think, to figure things out and work through whatever problem I’m stuck on. In many ways, my bookstore visits are a kind of meditation. Sometimes I even say “I’m going to church” when I’m headed to a bookstore, and it isn’t a joke. There’s truth in that. To me, bookstores are a sacred space. They hold knowledge and mystery, power and wisdom. And that’s what keeps me coming back, week after week.

 

#FridayReads: The Imperial Radch Trilogy by Ann Leckie

cover for Ancillary JusticeJust yesterday I finished reading the Imperial Radch trilogy by Ann Leckie. I enjoyed every second of it, and am excited to learn that a new entry in the series comes out in September, right after my birthday!

I’ve felt a bit out of the sci-fi loop for not having read this series since it made the awards circuit in 2014–and all of them are well earned, that’s for sure.

Science fiction has been asking the question, “What makes us human?” since its earliest days, and this trilogy continues that tradition with its own take. It also explores themes of colonization, empire, class, and gender.

The trilogy consists of Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy. In this universe, military spaceships and space stations are run by powerful, intelligent, and emotive AIs. Many of these AIs have ancillaries, which are human bodies essentially wiped of their consciousness and tied into the AI’s consciousness. It’s a brutal process that involves the death of the person inhabiting that body.

cover for ancillary swordThe leader of the expansionist Radch empire, Anaander Mianaai, has hundreds of clone bodies and has ruled Radch space for thousands of years. Several incidents with various alien species has caused her to split into multiple factions, which leads to the destruction of the ship Justice of Toren, minus one ancillary, who now goes by Breq.

The Radchaai language doesn’t distinguish genders, so all characters are referred to as “she” throughout the books, and we learn (some of) their genders through interactions with people who speak languages that do distinguish gender. Interestingly, we’re never explicitly (that I remember) told what gender Justice of Toren’s last remaining human body is. It doesn’t matter, though, and that, I’m sure, is Leckie’s point in concealing the gender.

cover for ancillary mercyBreq has set out on a mission to kill Anaander Mianaai, and thus sets in motion the trilogy’s plot. Leckie balances the demands of writing an overarching plot for the trilogy while also giving each book a true beginning, middle, and end. There’s a lot of internal tension, which balances well against the bursts of action and violence. This is definitely intellectual science fiction more than action-adventure-type sci-fi, though there’s plenty of action.

The trilogy is all about revenge, but I appreciate that the revenge Breq exacts involves out-maneuvering rather than outright killing the Lord of the Radch–which would be almost impossible, because of her many many of clone bodies (though Breq does try to kill as many bodies as possible anyway, and who can blame her?).

I could probably write at LEAST half a dozen critical essays on the way Leckie handles class, colonialism, and humanity in general, but I’ll leave this review here: If smart, well-written, character AND plot driven science fiction is your thing, you’ll enjoy these books. I can’t wait for the next one!