A new kind of novel is taking over. Is the “hindered narrator” a step forward for fiction?by Leo Benedictus / February 22, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
The story of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is told by a precocious grieving boy—in other words, a classic hindered narrator. Credit: promotional and production
The following sentence may be familiar. “I decided that the dog was probably killed with the fork because I could not see any other wounds in the dog and I do not think you would stick a garden fork into a dog after it had died for some other reason, like cancer for example, or a road accident.”
That’s Christopher, of course, who narrates The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The “of course” creeps in because, if you’ve read the book, you’ll recognise his sweet robotic phrasing. If you haven’t, I’m sure you get the idea. Christopher is 15 years old and has an unspecified autism-like condition. For a published author, he writes very clumsily. Which is the point: he isn’t one. The clumsiness is a device the book’s real author Mark Haddon used, with great success, to bring Christopher’s mind to life.
This kind of novel, told in the first person by a character with a limited ability to understand the world or write about it, is the genre that defines our times. Every story told by an “I” implies some limitation, but books like Haddon’s take this further. These narrators are conspicuously powerless, often children or disabled people; usually their prose is full of (what the reader hitherto had thought were) errors. They are, in short, the world’s least likely authors. The poet and novelist Nick Laird has used the phrase “hindered narrator,” which describes it well.
And their books are thriving. You’ll want examples, but believe me, you won’t want them all. Among just the better known hindrance novels of the last ten years, we have: The Help (two uneducated maids), Never Let Me Go (a cloned girl, indoctrinated by her upbringing), Black Swan Green (a stammering boy), Vernon God Little (an outcast boy), Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (a precocious grieving boy), The White Tiger (a Dalit writing an eccentric letter) and The Long Song (an uneducated former slave). In March, with the publication of a new novel called The Land of Decoration, told by a girl in a religious sect, the list will swell. It has been selected as one of the 11 most promising debuts that Waterstones promote each year; three of the other books also have child narrators. Even in the churning sea of novels, this feels like a current.