Broken English

A new kind of novel is taking over. Is the “hindered narrator” a step forward for fiction?
February 22, 2012
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.

“Certainly it’s a powerful force in publishing at the moment,” Emma Donoghue says, and she should know. Room, her novel narrated by Jack, a five-year-old boy imprisoned with his mother, was shortlisted for the 2010 Booker Prize and went on to become an international bestseller. “The apparent hindrance of a narrator who uses odd English can actually be a huge help,” she says, “because such a narrator is likely to see things (even the most banal things) in interesting ways. Once I’d done the fiddly business of deciding exactly how Jack would talk in his head, Room was the fastest book I ever wrote.”

Hindered narration is not a simple formula; Donoghue’s success, and that of others, still depends on doing it extremely well. Yet there’s no denying that it helps with marketing. The greatest obstacle a literary novel faces is the question “What is it about?” Being able to answer that it is “from the point of view” of someone unusual tells everyone immediately where they are.

It’s hard to say why the kind of stories from the suffering and downtrodden that dominate the world of hindrance fiction should be so appealing to the literary market. Bourgeois curiosity and the high-stakes dramas at life’s rough end both play a part. Language matters too. One has a different relationship with a narrator who uses English haltingly, like Christopher, compared with one whose skill with it seems effortless. It makes the voice accessible and intimate, more lovable than impressive.

This isn’t new, of course. There is a rich tradition of literary hindrance, stretching back through A Clockwork Orange, Tristram Shandy, and even, arguably, to Chaucer. It remains subversive, though—even now that subversiveness is de rigueur. As long as “good English” is prized and promoted, there will always be a joy in demonstrating how much wonder can be foraged from its cracks.

Consider the first lines of Stephen Kelman’s recent debut novel Pigeon English, about an 11-year-old Ghanaian boy called Harrison Opoku. “You could see the blood. It was darker than you thought. It was all on the ground outside Chicken Joe’s. It just felt crazy.” That’s not just the beginning of a story; that’s a statement about language. It is not a boy telling us what’s happening or how he feels, exactly; it is a boy who’s losing the battle with his own inarticulacy, which—in fiction, at least—is an immeasurably richer and more affecting spectacle. Whatever else you think about the book, I’d say those sentences are hard to overpraise.

In this sense, through sheer convincingness, hindrance novels offer up a kind of fictive journalism—news transmitted through a wobbly camera from the suffering world. Reading it, we know it’s staged; but we also know this kind of thing goes on. Done skilfully, it just feels too good to be false. By grounding themselves in the cases of Josef Fritzl and Damilola Taylor, Room and Pigeon English invoke this feeling openly.


Here’s another thought: if books had only just been invented, hindrance novels would be the software you would use to show them off. By imagining life inside the most exotic minds, they exploit literature’s facility for psychic tourism—its killer app—more thoroughly than any other type of writing. This might explain their success at the expense of other forms. Maybe, set against television, smartphones and so on in the battle for public attention, the novel has to focus on precisely what the other media can’t do.

There is one more thing that hindrance fiction does more thoroughly than any other type of book; and this one matters most. It hides the author. A generation ago, the idea of a literary novel came with the idea of a literary novelist stapled to it: a titan of the typewriter, ideally arrogant and male, and packing such prodigious quantities of Knowledge, Guts and Talent that their own voice was all you ever got from them, even when they swathed it in a made-up “I.” Look at John Self, Humbert Humbert and Augie March, each one hindered in his way. For all their glory—indeed because of it—these narrators read like Amis, Nabokov and Bellow wearing balaclavas tailored carefully from cellophane. But what else can you do once you’ve decided your narrator has to speak in English only you are brilliant enough to write?

Hindrance novels need not lack style, of course. Indeed this is what’s so paradoxical about them: in striving to represent life as it really is, they deploy all sorts of flash manoeuvres. These might be the tamed dialects that Huck Finn, Ned Kelly or Harrison Opoku speak with, or they might be the kind of experimental printing games you see in the famous Powerpoint chapter of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad or in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Transposed into the third person, those two would be positively avant-garde. As it is, they are bestsellers.

Novelist Jonathan Lethem agrees that hindered narrators allow authors to smuggle in experimentation, without scaring the reader away. In 1999, to general acclaim, he published Motherless Brooklyn, whose narrator Lionel Essrog has Tourette’s syndrome. Following the path of a detective story, the novel is filled with Lionel’s outbursts of uncontrollable free-associative wordplay. Lethem says he feels a great affinity for Tourette’s, which he does not suffer from, yet he also admits that it was a way to access forbidding literary ground.

“If Joyce is radical, modernist, out on the frontier of language, then Tourette’s is the back-formation, the reason someone might actually scramble their words,” Lethem says. In this analysis, hindrance fiction feels like something summoned up to give modernism a reassuring purpose. “You might say it’s deeply reactionary,” Lethem continues, “like saying, ‘We figured out what was wrong with Van Gogh. He actually had a form of temporal lobe epilepsy that caused a certain kind of hallucination, and he was just painting what he saw.’” In the same way, the idea that a supposedly normal novelist wrote a weird book is unsettling. Knowing that the narrator is hindered, on the other hand, puts the strangeness behind a pane of glass.

Some may deplore such accessible repackaging of difficult work, and its popularity certainly won’t help. (Never underestimate the damage that extreme success can do to a book’s artistic reputation.) There is also the wry suspicion that ambitious novelists might have started scanning medical textbooks in search of hindering conditions that haven’t been ticked off yet. (I was about to say that narcolepsy’s free, but Googling reveals that it was done three years ago in a novel by Paul Tremblay called The Little Sleep.) Another danger lurks in hindrance fiction’s flaunting of its good intentions—as if it were the location of a novelist’s heart, rather than their commas that should command applause. (Watching how the reputations of Orwell and Dickens have matured, you’d think it was.)

Perspective is needed, though. There are always fads in fiction. Philip Hensher decried the overuse of the present tense two years ago, and I’m sure free indirect style must have seemed tediously voguish to many readers in the 1920s. Once a little time has passed, however, every fashion gets forgotten, and what matters is who used it well.

Nick Laird admires many of these novels for their dramatic ironies and refreshing ways of seeing. “Yet for all that,” he says, “I think the pleasure is of a different kind to that you get from reading Updike or Bellow or Joyce or Nabokov, when you see a writer employ the full armoury of his resources in order to realise the thing. And I’d also say that there are dangers of sentimentality or tweeness implicit in the enterprise of using the ‘hindered narrator’ device.” Dangers often realised, it must be said, in the thundering insouciance of some child narrators. Although here again, perspective smoothes things. Most writing of all kinds is atrocious, so it should be no surprise that hindrance fiction is often done badly too.

I have an inkling, actually, that it will turn out I’ve been looking at the phenomenon in retrospect. The list of possible limitations and impairments is long, but there is a list. After Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex and Kathleen Winter’s Annabel (told, admittedly, in the third person), the door is surely shut to hermaphrodite narrators for a while.

What’s more, the commercial advantages that have boosted hindered narration may soon become dead weight. The form has a natural tendency to one-hit-wonderism, not because its authors aren’t talented, but because the voice their readers fall in love with isn’t theirs. Endless reinvention is the pleasure and the curse of a writer’s career, but at least third-person storytellers need not always reinvent their style. Anyone could write a paedophile, but only Nabokov could write like Nabokov—a valuable monopoly.

Perhaps there is a route back to reverence for the novelist, but it won’t be easy. Cinema, pop music and television are all rightly taken seriously now—and video games soon will be—so there may be less awe to go around. “There is a longing for these giant images of the genius creator,” Lethem says. “We’ll mourn it very actively, but in fact there’s a lot of intolerance of anyone who comes in and starts acting that way.” A novel from the point of view of a neglected genius? Bitterness is due a golden age.