THE NARRATIVE VOICE
The narrative voice is among the most important aspects of fiction. It is the narrative voice that seduces, excites, grabs you by the throat and drags you through the story. If the narrative voice is boring or stupid, like most business and academic writing, it kills whatever interest you may have in the story. The narrative voice can be in the first, third, or second. The latter is very rare. “You went to the store. You pulled a gun. You shot the clerk.” It’s just odd.
The first and the third have ruled fiction since Walter Scott defined the novel as “a fictitious narrative in prose or verse; the interest of which turns upon marvellous and uncommon incidents.” As a devotee of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee stories, I have long been a fan of the first person narrative. But it wasn’t just the “I” talking. It was McGee’s world view, his love of tradition and decency, that informed the narrative. It was also MacDonald’s uncanny ability to evoke evil in its purest form. But mostly it was McGee’s laconic voice.
Tom Wolfe and James Ellroy own two of the most distinctive narrative voices in literature. Wolfe’s is god-like, omniscient, a wise-cracker who exposes human frailty without mercy.
At the moment Mac was in command, behind the wheel of her beloved and ludicrously cramped brand-new Mitsubishi Green Elf Hybrid, a chic and morally enlightened vehicle just now, trolling the solid rows of cars parked side by side, wing-mirror to wing-mirror, out back of this month’s Miami nightspot of the century, Balzac’s, just off Marky Brickell Village, vainly hunting for a space, he writes in Back To Blood, which does for Miami what Empire of the Vanities did for New York. Strips the veneer off a steaming pile of vanity.
Ellroy, whose L.A. Confidential is among the most influential of literary and film noirs, writes in an abrupt, rat-tat-tat prose distilled from decades of lurid pulps such as True Detective and Los Angeles gossip columns.
From Perfidia, his latest novel about Los Angeles on the eve of World War II:
Bobby De Witt was a jazz drummer. He personified the appellation “lounge lizard.” He wore high-waisted flannels and two-tone loafer jackets; he kept up with his pachuco bunk mates from the Preston Reformatory. He caught me sketching him. I convinced myself that he recognized my talent and Norma Shearer–like aplomb. I was mistaken there. All he recognized was my penchant for the outré.
He had a small house out at Venice Beach. I had my own room. I slept away months of taxing outdoor days and too hot and too cold outdoor nights. I ate myself back from the brink of malnutrition and pondered what to do next.
Bobby seduced me then. I thought I was seducing him. I was mistaken. He saw that I was growing wings and set out to clip them.
Bobby was quite sweet to me at first. It started changing shortly after New Year’s. His business picked up. He got me hooked on laudanum and made me stay home to answer the phone and book dates with his girls and their “clients.” It got worse. He held a dope kick over me and coerced me into his stable. It got much worse.
Jazz drummer is always a synonym for dope peddler and pimp. I have the knife scars on the back of my thighs to prove it.
Around the time Ellroy wrote L.A. Confidential and The Big Nowhere, I couldn’t get enough. He lost me when he moved onto his JFK trilogy, American Tabloid, White Jazz, and Blood’s A Rover. The prose had become so terse and mannered it lost all humanity. I have read his latest, Perfidia, and it is a partial return to form. But he’ll never own my heart the way MacDonald or Wolfe does.
When you think of it, all your favorite writers have strong narrative voices.