Friday, April 24, 2009

Naivete, ironic distance and Lynda Barry

God, I haven't read Lynda Berry in forever. Something else I was reading last night reminded me of her and reminded me of how much I am influenced by her writing. Do you ever have that experience with a writer where even if you don't read them frequently or recently, they are still with you in a very strong way? It's been 20 years since I devoured the few books she had out at the time. (She's published more in the meantime that I now have a hankering to go find.) But I still feel like I'm intimately familiar with the writing.

She writes a comic strip that is so dense with narration that the language itself is notable, and she's also written a couple of short novels. In her case what I remember so powerfully is the naive first-person child narrator. It's so effective because the voice is compelling on its own while the naivete effectively provokes a counter-narrative for the more sophisticated reader. We notice everything the narrator is missing or failing to interpret. Her own perception of the situation is full of pathos, but our more mature perspective intensifies that pathos. It's sympathy plus.

The technique is a working example of irony in the sense that the implied meaning is in excess of the literal meaning. We get more than is actually said. It's a good example of how irony in the voice or POV creates dramatic irony. We see dangers that the character can't, just like in classical Greek theater. (Watch out, that's your mother you're about to marry!) Or classic horror film. (Turn around! He's right behind you!)

Lynda Berry isn't inventing this technique of course. It's kind of the whole reason for having a first-person child narrator and the reason that Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield are so sympathetic. What's compelling in this case is the particular voice of this narrator--how energetic and lively and untamed a girl she is. It's like Ramona Quimby without the middle class polish. Like I say, I can still hear it years after I read it, and I think that whenever I've written in the first person I've unconsciously imitated it.

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