- Living to Tell about It: A Rhetoric and Ethics of Character Narration
To study narrative fiction as "rhetoric"—according to a classical definition—is to focus on fiction "as [the author's] art of communicating with [End Page 200] readers."1 Hence the root of the famous communication model, with its manifold levels, sending and receiving agents, implied authors, authorial audiences, narratees, that has been much debated, debunked, and seasonally rehabilitated in narratological theory. James Phelan, whose previous volume was actually entitled Narrative as Rhetoric,2 staunchly adheres to the communicative notion. "Rather than focusing only on textual features and their relationships" (rhetoric in the formal sense) Phelan is concerned "with the multilayered communications that authors of narrative offer their audiences, communications that invite or even require their audiences to engage with them cognitively, physically, emotionally, and ethically" (5). The gist of such an approach resides in Phelan's refusal to reject, as constructivist theorists are wont to do, "the notion that writers can fashion their texts to communicate stable meanings and that readers can, and frequently do, apprehend those meanings" (48). In other words, while allowing that there are diverse "flesh-and-blood" readers (Phelan's term) whose responses are dictated by the variables of cultural identity, gender, and so forth, the rhetorical approach nonetheless seeks to establish a common hermeneutical ground that readers may share when they adopt the position reserved for them by the author of a literary narrative. The vision offered of reading as a communal experience is thoroughly attractive. Who would not want to join in? "The meanings flow from author to audience, writer to reader and then back again, the miracle of literary communication. Can you share our belief in it?" (196)
Still, to my mind this does not add up so much to a narratological theory as to an attitude—an attractively anti-constructivist attitude, I would repeat—the credibility of which hinges largely on the practical readings that it engenders. In Phelan's own phrasing, Living to Tell about It is "an indirect telling, through that odd form of observer narration we call rhetorical criticism, of [his] activity as a reader" (204). As readings go, the book is a fine achievement. It should be read by students of narrative as an inspiring, lucidly put guide and an analysis of a specific corpus, distinguished by the use of character narrators: the narrator as a child in a short story by Sandra Cisneros (out of which [End Page 201] Phelan gets considerable interpretive mileage in his Introduction); the variously unreliable narrators in Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita (Chapters One and Three), or in Frank McCourt's and Kathryn Harrison's autobiographical narratives (it is Phelan's argument that unreliable narration may occur in nonfiction as well—Chapters Two and Four); and the lyric speakers of their monologues in Ernest Hemingway's and John Edgar Wideman's stories (Chapter Five). In addition, the Epilogue traces still other, tangential instances of narrator as character: serial narration (as in Faulkner's novels), observer narration where the narrator is not the protagonist (Lord Jim), or mask narration—an intriguing case where the author uses the narrator "to express his or her own thoughts and beliefs" (Phelan sees the figure of Marlowe in Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep as constituting such a mask, 201-203).
In each of his chapters Phelan remains alert to solid, textually verifiable narrative phenomena. In his meticulous reading of the Cisneros story Phelan all but leads his readers by the hand to show how a premature interpretive hypothesis "either encounters some significant recalcitrance from the text itself or is grounded less in the details of the text than in the conviction that there must be a mimetic explanation for the telling" (26). He supplies expert demonstrations how—in most cases—"disclosure functions" (attributable to the implied author) override narrator functions (as when the author imparts information to the reader behind the unreliable narrator's back in Ishiguro's novel). In...