Understanding Observer Narration

In the Fall, I’ll be satisfying my “later American” lit requirement for the MFA through an independent study I’ve arranged with the brilliant Pete Turchi. I’m working through a pile of novels–mostly 20th c. American, requirement in mind–featuring an “observer narrator,” i.e., a character narrator who is not obviously the protagonist of the story. I say “not obviously” because observer narrators have a way of insinuating themselves into the emotional heart of their narratives, even as they cast themselves as secondary characters, watching the real hero of the real story from the wings. This is one of the things I find weird and captivating about observer-narrator tales, and one of the aspects of the form, among others, that I’m trying to get a handle on, since I’m trying to write an observer-narrator novel and would prefer not to fuck it up.

Lawrence Buell’s “Observer-Hero Narratives” and Kenneth Bruffee’s “Elegiac Romance” offer some theoretical guidance with which to get oriented, but as far as I can tell there isn’t a ton to go on, otherwise.

Anyway, my plan is to work through the books on my list, recording my comments here as I go. If anyone would like to read along, or chip in about books they have read, I should be delighted. So here is my (evolving list) in roughly chronological order.

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 1925.
  • Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, 1926.
  • Willa Chather, My Mortal Enemy, 1926.
  • William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom, 1936.
  • Glenway Westcott, The Pilgrim Hawk, 1940.
  • Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men, 1947
  • Mark Harris, Bang the Drum Slowly, 1956.
  • Wright Morris, The Huge Season, 1956.
  • Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire, 1956.
  • Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1962.
  • James Salter, A Sport and a Pasttime, 1967.
  • Joan Didion, The Book of Common Prayer, 1977
  • William Styron, Sophie’s Choice, 1979.
  • John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany, 1989.
  • Donna Tartt, The Secret History, 1991
  • Philip Roth, The Human Stain, 2000.

Not American, but probably going to (re)read anyway

  • Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim, 1900.
  • Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier, 1915.
  • Vladimir Nabokov, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, 1941.
  • Thomas Mann, Dr Faustus, 1943.
  • Graham Greene, The Quiet American, 1955.

I’d like some more recent stuff, and would love some tips.

I’m not going to do this in order. I’ve just read The Sun Also Rises, about which more next week. I’m in the middle of All the King’s Men, which is exceeding expectations. Jake Barnes seems to me a creature of formal and narrative vacillation. Jack Burden–his combination of self-effacement and self-obsession, his incessant essaying–hits the sweet spot of my own concerns.

It’s funny that a number of the books on my list were recently recommended by Brooks, and for the elegiac tone! All the King’s Men is not, by the way, “nominally a novel about Huey Long.” Oh, Brooks.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center