Thursday, November 17, 2005

The first-person voice in fiction

is something I'm basically obsessed with, and for this reason alone I would have found Curtis Sittenfeld's sly novel Prep an absorbing read: the narrator is often horrifying in her self-absorption and her failures of humanity, but the satisfaction of the voice means that all this is brought forth in a way that critiques as well as simply reproducing the ethical failings of adolescence. I am really still not sure what I think about this novel, except that it's very good indeed. (Here's a whole collection of reviews, but I can't say the ones I looked at were particularly illuminating: the book seems to have been widely misunderstood.)

A few thoughts, then. I found the first hundred or so pages incredibly depressing: they're impressively well-written but so bleak that I could hardly stand to read on. A Bob Dylan song makes a brief appearance (the narrator's wearing an old t-shirt of her father's with a Dylan quote on it, and one of the other students plays her an album) but Lee Fiora is astonishingly ignorant of and uninterested in everything to do with culture. She is a bad student in the deepest sense, despite the intelligence manifested in her compulsive observation of her peers and the rules that govern the community in which they live (this book has an Erving Goffman-like interest in the relationships between individuals in medium-sized groups). I was heartened at the beginning of chapter four (the start of Lee's sophomore year) by the appearance of a quotation from Kafka on the blackboard ("Literature is an ax for the frozen sea within us"), but it was also around this point that I realized the book was doing something quite different than I had been led to expect.

This is all very rambling and unformed, but the main thing I want to say is that it's bizarre so many reviewers wanted to conflate Sittenfeld with her main character. The really interesting and great thing about the book is that Sittenfeld has pulled off one of the neatest tricks a novelist can get away with. This novel looks and feels like a memoir; it's got a persuasive (partly because she's not very appealing) narrator, a convincing texture and level of detail, an excellent first-person voice, a slightly over-long but on the whole perfectly effective looking-back structure (as we get further into the book, there's more mixing-in of the present-time Lee's understanding with her younger self's). But the genius of the book is that it could not have been written by the person that we get to know as Lee; the novelist's hand is visible, in the sense that the book makes an argument about education that Lee is still even at the end of the book incapable of understanding. She has come to realize many more things about herself and her relationships with family and friends and boyfriends, in other words, but she doesn't yet understand (and is probably incapable of understanding) the moral of Sittenfeld's story about education and what happens when education fails. In this sense it's extremely reminiscent of Great Expectations, though I can't say I heard any specific allusions.

I still haven't really explained what I think, and I'm not sure I'll be able to. But let me take a biographical tack, though I think it could potentially be explained better by looking closely at passages of the novel. Sittenfeld herself is a teacher, and I randomly learned recently that at least one of her parents is a teacher as well. And reading this book as a teacher (well, that's probably where the reviewers lost the edge), and also as the child of a teacher (moreover, the child of a teacher who went to a private school--not a boarding school, but all the same--on scholarship) I see something unexpected--something that verges on the satirical--being said here about Lee's failure to learn. The biggest difference between Lee and Sittenfeld that we can really know about concerns their background, their cultural capital. Lee's father is the mattress king in South Bend, Indiana; we don't learn in the novel what Lee does when she grows up, though we know she does graduate work and has several different jobs, but it is impossible to imagine her as a teacher (and some of the saddest scenes in the book are the ones describing Lee's interactions with the young English teacher Ms. Moran). Being a middle-class student at a school chiefly populated with very wealthy students is a completely different matter depending on whether one's parents are mattress entrepreneurs or teachers, needless to say. Sittenfeld has deprived Lee of all of the school-related advantages that she herself surely possessed, leaving her only the keen observational skills and the strong personality (though both are hidden from all of Lee's teachers and many of her peers as well).

There are a number of different things that Lee fails to learn at Ault, and some other lessons that she learns in painfully effective ways, but the worst thing (or do I just think this is the worst because I care so much about education myself?) is that she fails to understand that being a student is an ethical calling as well as simply a stage of life. Even the rather off-putting children of privilege around her understand this in a way she doesn't.

(Oh, and it turns out that Sittenfeld's novel has more in common than just the boarding-school setting with Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. If you're only going to read one, read the Ishiguro, though it's hardly fair to compare this first-time novelist with a major international writer at the top of his game. But it's well worth reading both; in fact I would think it could be extremely interesting to teach them next to each other in a class on contemporary fiction. And you could put The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in there too....)

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