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.

Narrative and comedy in ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’

I wanted to watch The Men Who Stare at Goats for one main reason.  And if you guess because Ewan McGreggor is in it, you’re right.  Kind of.

Mr. McGreggor certainly isn’t ugly, but his main attraction for me was that he played Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.  And The Men Who Stare at Goats is basically a two hour Star Wars joke.

And I’m okay with that, because I’m the kind of Star Wars fangirl who gets X-wings tattoos, dresses up like Mara Jade at Star Wars cons and covers her office in wall-to-wall posters (my favorites being a Celebration IV exclusive print of Vader killing the Emperor, a Japanese poster of R2-D2 jetpacking over a derivative of Hokusai’s famous “Great Wave off Kanagawa” painting and a map of the galaxy that came in one issue of Star Wars Insider many many moons ago).

After the movie (Men Who Stare at Goats, not Star Wars) ended, I had a feeling that it wasn’t really a very good movie, but I thought it was awesome anyway.  The main problem I had with Goats is not that it’s one giant Star Wars joke (that part was awesome), but that the story never quite got off the ground.

I’m going to blame the complex narration and use of extensive flashbacks for that.  Ewan McGreggor narrates the story from the present.  He tells us how his wife left him and he went off to Iraq and met George Clooney’s character.

And then, throughout their journey, we get flashbacks to the 1980s when the army was playing around with making these psychic super warriors.  Sometimes we get flashbacks within flashbacks.  Eventually everything gets wrapped up, but the problem is that we’re following two, and sometimes three story lines, as the flashbacks comprise at least half of the movie.

McGreggor and Clooney do a lot of sitting around, which is when Clooney tells McGreggor his story.  Even though we don’t see them sitting around a lot because of the flashbacks, it’s kind of tiring to have them sitting in the desert alone for so long.  That being said, the flashbacks are done extremely well and are easy to follow.

In one sense too much is going on, and in another sense nothing is going on, and it creates frustration for the viewer.  I do admire director Grant Heslov’s ability to navigate these multiple layers of narration, but I don’t think they quite work here.

Another problem is that this movie is based on a documentary (you can read about it on Wikipedia here), so it’s trying to impose a narrative structure on a story that doesn’t necessarily have any.

Again, the plot does accomplish what it sets out to do in satirizing the ridiculousness of the military and war in Iraq, but it still falls flat, perhaps because it’s trying to do too much.  Or perhaps because it’s a comedy, so you can never be sure what’s included solely for comedic effect, or how much of the movie is based on the “truth.”

In the end, I think it’s worth watching for the acting (which is excellent), the Star Wars jokes and the layered narrative, but considering the title is The Men Who Stare at Goats, there were not enough goats!

A version of this post originally appeared on my now-defunct metafiction blog, The Narrative in the Blog, in March 2011.

Metafiction and the anti-war message of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five

The use of metafiction in anti-war fiction is fairly common (Slaughterhouse-Five, The Things They Carried).  Does the inclusion of the author as a character in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (and the knowledge that the “author” fought in World War II) lend credibility to the anti-war message, or does it weaken the message by taking away from the story and characters by using an overbearing delivery?

I was hoping to use your comments in my discussion this week, but no one wanted to argue!  But that’s okay, I’m fine with just telling you what to think. ;p  I’m going to be stubborn and once again attempt to open up a discussion, so I’m going to argue both points—and I do think both views are valid and very arguable.  But, first, a basic summary.

Kurt Vonnegut the character opens the book by visiting an old military buddy, where he talks about a book he’s always wanted to write about the fire bombing of Dresden, Germany, during World War II.  The book he’s writing is about Billy Pilgrim, a chaplain’s assistant who is a POW in a slaughterhouse during the destruction of Dresden, and later becomes “unstuck in time” after he is captured by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore.

The aliens can see in four dimensions (time being the fourth) and can focus on any one time in their life.  They do not believe people can choose their destiny, and Billy comes to agree with them after spending time in a Tralfamadore zoo as an exhibit.  The book has a nonlinear narrative structure and flits between different time periods in Billy’s life, with Vonnegut as character occasionally interjecting.

The inclusion of the author as a character in Slaughterhouse-Five lends credibility to the narrative and the book’s anti-war message.

Slaughterhouse-Five is metafiction at its most pure.  The author appears as a character, who is writing a book.  The author tells us about his military service in World War II and how he witnessed the firebombing of Dresden.

Since we know the author (as a character in the book) was there, we feel more inclined to believe Billy’s account of the tragedy within the book-within-a-book.  He was there, and only one a few who survived to tell about it, so he immediately becomes a more reliable narrator.

Which makes us wonder if Billy is crazy when he starts talking about aliens from Tralfamadore, or if the aliens really exist.  Wondering about those pesky Tralfamadorans leads us to a slew of other questions: Is our destiny, as Billy comes to believe, really fixed?  Are we doomed to keep fighting wars or do we have the power to stop them?  How can we stop them?

Although Billy turns to fatalism and pessimism on the topic of free-will and our ultimate destiny, we are able to recognize that he feels this way because he’s witnessed and lived through horrors that we can’t understand, having not been through them ourselves.  I felt sorry for Vonnegut the character, trying to write his book and always putting it off.  Even if he could get the words down, who would want to listen to such an awful story?

But we, the readers, because of Vonnegut the character and Billy’s viewpoints, know that we must listen to this story, so that we can do our part to prevent other stories like Billy’s from happening ever again, thus making the author appearing as a character an integral part of the book’s anti-war message.

The inclusion of the author as a character in Slaughterhouse-Five is overbearing and takes away from both the message and the story.

 

Slaughterhouse-Five is not a hopeful book, and it doesn’t really have a happy ending.  The general feeling it leaves me with is “oh well, that’s how it is,” which the book’s characters echo with the oft-repeated phrase “So it goes.”

Being a book that decries the horrors of war, this isn’t surprising.  What surprises me is Vonnegut the character’s similar depression.  He doesn’t seem to want to change the world or give a call to action to end war.  The book that Vonnegut the author writes shows a character, Bill Pilgrim, that hates war but makes little effort to campaign against it, even though he claims to know exactly when and how he’ll die.

The fatalism of both Billy and Vonnegut the character does, in my opinion, work against the anti-war message.  It is depressing rather than inspiring, and can only make the reader feel guilty for being a part of a humanity that still fights wars.

If you remove Vonnegut the character from the equation, we’re left with Billy Pilgrim, who is probably crazy.  Knowing that he’s suffering from the effects of witnessing the horrors of war, we can take his pessimism and fatalism and turn it around:  This is what happens to people who fight wars, let’s work to avoid this.

With the author-as-character in the book, that’s harder to do.  The author-as-character is, by his presence, giving us his opinion through Billy’s story.  Since that author-as-character is Vonnegut, it feels (whether or not it is is another discussion) that he’s telling us there is nothing we can do about war.  Since Vonnegut the character is giving us his opinion, it’s harder to view the book in any other light.

A version of this post originally appeared on my now-defunct blog about metafiction, The Narrative in the Blog on October 4, 2010.