Every year I teach a class in children's fiction. The most difficult reads for my students to enjoy are a particular ‘middle grade’ of short novels targeted at early readers. These novels tend to employ an over-articulated style of narrative description, which means some of the natural ellipses we tend to find in adult narration are filled in.
This tendency to fill in information applies to motivation, tension, and even narrative style. Compare these two, first person, narrations of action:
1. I looked at the door, but we crossed the room to a metal staircase which led to a balcony. Mr Capaldi went first, and I followed, taking care with each step. I glanced back and saw Josie and the family, her mother still sat on the sofa. I waved but they didn’t react.
2. I thought he might take me also to the purple door, but we went to the opposite side of the room, where a different metal staircase climbed to its own section of balcony. Mr Capaldi went first up the steps, then I followed, taking each step carefully. When I glanced back down, I saw Josie, the mother and father looking up at us, the mother still seated on the black sofa. I waved towards Josie but no-one below moved.
The second example is Klara, the robot narrator of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel about a near future where Artificial Friends are employed to help ease the loneliness of children who no longer go to school. Ishiguro famously creates first person narrators with fascinatingly unreliable points of view. Klara’s non-human point-of-view creates the novel’s thematic questions: What is essential to the human spirit? But also drives its plot tension: What is happening among the humans that Klara can’t understand?
Point-of-view also defines narrative style. Read the two examples again. In the bowdlerized version (number 1), the narrator feels like she inhabits her own actions and body. This is achieved by leaving out information unlikely to be registered in the dramatic moment, and by implicitly linking action and consciousness: ‘I looked’, replaces the explicit, ‘I thought he might take me also to’. The verb ‘looked’, is a place-marker for a consciousness the reader assumes. The next part of the sentence reinforces the narrator's thoughts with one word: ‘but’. We know the narrator’s expectations are subverted and that she is not going where she expected.
One of the reasons a certain kind of middle grade novel for early readers can feel tiresome to adult readers, is the lack of room we have to inhabit the narration, and the lack of tension produced by this kind of over-articulation. Klara and The Sun feels a little slow in the reading, and plenty of plot tension is needed to compensate for this.
The fact that Ishiguro’s style suits his robot narrator so well, shows us how difficult it is to qualify writing as ‘bad’ or ‘good’. There is only the relationship between form and function. Writing style is good if its suits the function of the narration, bad if it conflicts. In our first drafts, we tend to over-compensate the reader, and in subsequent drafts, we are usually seeking to cut out the kind of redundancies and over-articulation Klara employs. To create Klara, Ishiguro needed to carefully ensure her over-articulation stayed in.
It is odd, however, that Klara’s style of narration often finds its way into the dialogue and speech of the humans around her. Without wishing to second-guess a master of his art, I wonder whether Ishiguro struggled to escape her voice in these moments. I also wonder whether the needs of the plot didn’t bear down on him here. I found the dialogue conveniently expository and not naturalistic, allowing Klara to fill in those parts of the story she needed to, conveniently, know, (or, conveniently, misinterpret). Dialogue in novels is not always mimetic or convincing of course, (in fantasy and romance especially). But the tone of the verbatim speech in this book strained credibility in too many moments and, for me, detracted from the sociological interests, and realism, of the story.
One of the most brilliant ideas in the novel is how the consciousness of Artificial Intelligence might create a religious mythos of the kind we find in early humanity. This vision of AI as proto human, allows us to forgive some of the inconsistencies in the logic behind Klara’s point of view and narration. Any reader looking for consistency in Klara might be driven mad. (How does her memory work? And how does it provide a first-person retrospective narration? How does she use the human invention of metaphor and simile, and why?).
Klara finds motivation, agency and inconsistency through her adoption of human traits, and her animistic thinking drives the plot. However, the plot tension also entirely relies on Klara’s unexplained decision to keep her intentions secret from her human owners. This secrecy becomes crucial as the plot resolves, but is never convincingly explained. Convenience again. Klara's point of view creates plot tension by depriving us of insight into human motivations and actions, it also becomes a narrative flaw if the actions of the human characters in the book appear unconvincing and implausible.