- A Further Study of Present Tense Narration:The Absentee Narratee and Four-Wall Present Tense in Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace
In one of the more poignant scenes of Richard Ford's Pulitzer-Prize winning Independence Day, narrator/protagonist Frank Bascombe laments, "only there's no one. No one here or anywhere to say this to. And I'm sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry" (217). This passage raises an important question that has been lingering throughout the entire narrative: if no one is present during Bascombe's narration, as he himself recognizes and regrets, then to whom is he speaking?1 This becomes an even stickier question considering that the entire novel is offered in simultaneous present tense narration, Bascombe narrating the events while they are occurring. Independence Day is not alone: a significant challenge of reading simultaneous present tense narration is in locating the narratee. It is this narratological difficulty that gives rise to the concerns of this essay. My goal is four-fold: (1) quickly clarify the differences among retrospective narration, historical present tense narration, and simultaneous present tense narration; (2) discuss a narratological phenomenon particular to simultaneous present tense narration, what I will term the absentee narratee; (3) discuss a hitherto relatively unexamined narrative tense form, what I will term four-wall present tense; and (4) provide a glimpse into the [End Page 427] rhetorical and political potentials of these two narratological techniques by looking at two of J.M. Coetzee's novels, Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace.
As many critics have noted, retrospective narration is the standard case: "live now, tell later" is the norm, as Dorrit Cohn notes.2 Comprised of a narrator who tells of events some time after those events have occurred, retrospective narration distinguishes story from discourse; it also foregrounds the cognitive and experiential differences between the experiencing-I and the narrating-I. Retrospective narration is what we typically encounter in fiction and what has informed nearly all narrative theory.
Like retrospective narration, historical present tense narration deals with past events but uses the present tense to narrate those past events. Take for example a passage from Truman Capote's short story "A Christmas Memory": "The wind is blowing, and nothing will do till we've run to the pasture below the house where Queenie has scooted to bury her bone (and where, a winter hence, Queenie will be buried, too)" (175). Here, and throughout the story, the narrator uses the present tense, giving the impression that he is telling the events while he is experiencing them. However, we realize from this passage that the narrator is aware of events posterior to the story-now (in the case of the above passage, Queenie's death next winter), revealing instead that the telling occurs after the events have taken place. "A Christmas Memory" uses the historical present to enhance the immediacy of the narrator's memories at the same time that the story highlights the difference between the mature narrating-self and his seven-year old protagonist-self: the narrator regrets the loss of his innocence while vicariously reliving that innocence through the immediacy of the present tense grammar. Although the narrator adopts the focalization of his younger-self, his discourse is informed by what he has experienced between the "then" of story and the "now" of narrating.
Simultaneous present tense narration occurs when a narrator tells of events as they take place; the narrating-I is the experiencing-I. The following passage from the opening to Richard Ford's The Sportswriter provides a good example: "I have climbed over the metal fence to the cemetery directly behind my house. It is five o'clock on Good Friday morning, April 20. All other houses in the neighborhood are shadowed, and I am waiting for my ex-wife" (4). Ford clearly sets this opening passage in the here-and-now, emphasizing both location and time to create an immediacy [End Page 428] of event and to reinforce the simultaneity of telling and acting. There exist very few examples of simultaneous present tense narration, and there seem to be two main reasons for its rarity. Firstly, it...