The Narrator is Alive: On Inquiry and Conscious Reading
“You are a coward,” she said, and with that one word wrote a denunciation, a biography, and a prophecy.” ― Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
I recently got around to reading a novel that has been on my radar for quite some time: Anthony Marra’s (2013) A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Despite its dark subject matter (it is set in strife-ridden and war-torn Chechnya during the 1990s and early 2000s), Marra’s writing skills and use of language radiates in a way that at once makes you wondrous (how can the presentation of words on a page swing your heart and mind so much?) and incensed (how were these awful things happening to people and how did we let them continue to happen?). Certainly, these latter questions can be asked today about any number of areas where people suffer at the hands of systemic violence; but, infuriatingly, there never seems to be answers good enough to lead to resolutions or answers that would stop injustice against others. It is in the telling of and listening to human narratives, however, that helps us to, if not respond, at least see and hear so that we cannot claim ignorance.
The simple aim of academia and educational pursuits is to stay ignorance. For Clandinin and Connelly (2000) and others, one really important way to do that is through narrative inquiry. Narrative is what provides meaning and helps us communicate our understanding of that meaning. As a qualitative methodology in the social sciences, narrative inquiry asks questions about and aspires to realize a deeper understanding of people’s experiences based on the content and form of the stories they tell in relation to those experiences. While this doesn’t necessarily refer to narratives in novel form with fictional characters, for me, robust narrative inquiry cannot be isolated from the sort of deeper probing and theorization in which literary scholars have long been engaged. It is one thing to consider positionality “in the midst” (to use Clandinin’s & Connelly’s term) of an inquiry or in relation to who is telling a narrative, it’s another thing altogether to consider the types of narrators that literary studies have been considering. In narrative fiction or creative non-fiction, point-of-view narration is classified in its different modes and these classifications are further studied in relation to their features. So, for example, a first-person narrator may encourage immediate empathy (readers occupy the “I” as the story unfolds) but objectivity may be questioned in this mode. A third-person narrator (of which there are a number of different types) tells the reader that “this happened, then that happened” and though they may objectively be witnessing and describing a story as it unfolds, they may also not bring us “into” the story as much.
What would be the purpose of a distancing effect in narration? Why might an author choose one narrative voice in preference to another? What are the effects of shifting perspectives when a novel has multiple narrators? What do we make of the “unreliable narrator” who wittingly or unconsciously deludes the reader? These are questions that would enrichen narrative inquiry studies, the questions that literary inquiry into narratives have been asking for awhile. Of course, narrative inquiry into realistic situations is not the same as it would be in novelistic form, but literary scholars talk about the idea of verisimilitude in the realist novel and how it (albeit in a more aesthetically pleasing form) aims to mimic real life. When we conduct inquiry into the stories we or our research subjects tell in everyday life, we can see how novels follow the same arc. Because much of my own research is centred in narrative inquiry, I think it is beneficial to utilize concepts from narratology (Bal & Boheemen, 2009) in order to inspire a more robust engagement with my subject matter. And I’m continuously inspired by novels I read that have, for some reason or another, engender conversations for their important subject matter.
As such, I thought about the narrator in Marra’s book. What might they say about conflict and its ramifications in Chechnya? The voice telling the story would fall under the classification of the third person “omniscient” narrator – one who is all-knowing, and can describe not only plot points or setting but who can also know the inner emotions of the characters. Such a narrator may move from character to character to show how each one moves the plot forward. What is really interesting about the narrator voice in A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is that they even have knowledge about what happens in the future – beyond the pages of the novel’s prerogative – and there isn’t a sense here that the narrator is overly concerned with describing feelings or emotions of the characters. The narrator’s tone is not sappy, even as it is beyond eloquent; the narrator’s voice speaks blunt truths (that are beautifully worded!), even as readers must recognize that these are fictional characters and the story elements “fit” together more conveniently then they ever would in reality. To clarify what I mean, a brief excerpt:
“I retired ten years ago,” Deshi said. Another ten years would pass before she acted on it. Three after that she would die of throat cancer, but not before falling in love with her oncologist.
Dour Deshi has provided much of the comic relief in the novel and spent much of her lines joking about how terrible being in love with an oncologist would be so that the narrator’s revelations give the readers the sense of coming full-circle.
So, in beginning to analyze the choice of such a narrator, one might ask, why? How does an all-knowing narrator serve this particular story at this particular point in time? Certainly, different readers will respond to the novel in different ways but we might all agree that the choice of the narrative voice is a deliberate one, meant to do something in the present even as it imagines the past. Oftentimes, students of literature will analyze canonical novels or ones where the author has long passed and cannot say anything about why they made the choices they made. Thankfully, A constellation of vital phenomena is contemporary and, in fact, the latest addition of the novel includes extra material, meant to supplement reading group or book club inquiries into it. Herein is published a conversation with Marra in which he tells the reader about his inspiration for writing the story. He talks about his fascination with Chechnya and how it “is a setting that magnifies and dramatizes the moral conflicts of characters in extraordinary ways” (p.391). Indeed, this is a story about the meaning of family – the ones we are born into and the ones we find ourselves a part of during difficult times. Marra talks about his own family being his biggest writing inspiration by teaching him that “stories are how we understand one another, how we preserve the past, and how we make meaning from the chaos of our lives” (p. 393). Marra is not asked about his choice of narrative voice but if I had to guess, I’d say that there is something in the decision of omniscient narrator that points towards how country conflicts and the moral dilemmas they necessitate are dealt with in the future too. Examining narrator voice is ultimately about asking what we, as narrative inquirers, might learn from the stories and suffering of our participants (the characters in our ‘novels’ of study) in order to be better allies and more conscious readers.
Bal, M., & Boheemen, C. (2009). Narratology: Introduction to the theory of narrative. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Clandinin, D. J., & Connelly, F. M. (2000). Narrative inquiry: Experience and story in qualitative research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Marra, A. (2013). A constellation of vital phenomena: A novel. New York: Hogarth.