Tuesday, September 25, 2012

No Name's structure - two kinds of surprises

I have wondered, since the last time I read Bleak House, why no other author in, as far as I knew, literary history had adapted the ingenious structure of that novel.  Half of it is “written” by  one of the characters, telling us about her large but limited part in an unusual adventure, while the rest is told in the usual omniscient, omnivorous Dickens third person.  The innovation, again, is: first person plus omniscient third.  I see how this device cannot work for every story – most stories – hardly any stories, but it solved so many problems for Dickens.  He never used it again, either.

Wilkie Collins adapts the Bleak House method to No Name.  The novel is built out of eight scenes told by the surprisingly intrusive all-knowing narrator separated by first-person interludes – long exchanges of letters, or diary entries.  Each scene is placed in a narrow setting (a country home, or a couple of apartments on the same street) with a single line of action and a subset of the novel’s cast of characters.  The scenes can be fairly involved – one of them (“Aldborough, Suffolk”) occupies almost a quarter of the novel – but they stay put.  Curtain down, scene ends, and the characters scatter.  Then the documents cover all of the intervening time and movement.

 Action (3rd), letters (1st), new action (3rd), Captain Wragge’s journal (1st, “I open these pages again, to record a discovery which has taken me entirely by surprise”), new location (3rd), and on to the end.  The first person sections are more epistolary than memoiristic, so they are not in themselves as innovative as Esther Summerson’s narration in Bleak House, but still, No Name offers a gentle corrective to the tricksy first-person Modernists I enjoy so much: you don’t always need to be so dang pure.

The structure may sound formulaic, but Collins uses it for ingenious plotty purposes.  A third-person scene cooks along with plenty of internal twistiness and surprises.  Mr. Omniscient moves from character to character, expressing his own opinion, commenting, chiding.  The action within the scene typically has plenty of little twists – secrets, discoveries, schemes exposed by counter-schemes, the usual stuff.

The scene ends and then – this is where Collins outdoes himself – the letters present a new set of surprises.  Just as I think the story is pointed in a particular direction, something in the letters knocks it onto another track.  Collins gleefully kills off minor characters, or arranges chance meetings, or tosses in a new legal complication (the usual Victorian nonsense with wills) – whatever he needs to do.  A few of the surprises had me howling (mentally, quietly).  He even keeps a sort of shadow novel going in the letters, the novel behind the one I'm reading.  This is the fun of the tricky plot, yes, that the story never goes exactly where I think it is going to go?  At the end, the very end, it finally does, I guess.  All of the possibilities were finally closed off.  Until then, Collins kept me off-kilter.

All I am trying to say is:  telling the story one way allows certain kinds of surprises, telling the story another way allows other kinds.  Collins, like Dickens in Bleak House, figured out how to use both kinds in one story.

Geez, two days of writing to get to that.  Tomorrow I’m going to work on a single little scene.  Do some reading.  Nothing but quotations.


  1. Letters and diary entries, that's very Dracula. Curious how it's those wonderfully sensational and fantastic novels that aimed at verisimilitude using these quotidian forms.

  2. "Wilkie Collins adapts the Bleak House method to No Name" -- fascinating! There are certainly other novels that intersperse letters and other documents in otherwise 3rd-person omniscient narration, but it does sound like this is at a different level. (Moves No Name even closer to the top of her TBR pile...)

  3. "A different level" - that is a good way to put it. The "documentary interludes" are too substantial, and their purpose moves beyond supporting the verisimilitude of the fictional world.

    Stoker, by contrast, is after the "pure" documentary novel, more like The Woman in White and The Moonstone. Everything must come from testimony, from text, even if the creation of the text is highly implausible. Then the mass of text is typed in triplicate, distributed, and discussed in a meeting. Stoker also takes his device to a different level.

  4. Sophie Wilder does this, minus the documents. Half first-person narration, interspersed with seemingly omniscient third-person (which may be a novel later written by the first-person narrator of the other sections). I didn't write much about it at all but it's a very powerful device in the book.

  5. See, our authors are so corrupted by Modernism that they cannot do a straight third person narrative. It has to be identified as another text, as McEwen does in Atonement.

    No, what I mean is, good for Beha! It's a great device.

  6. Beha's saving grace (pun possibly intended) is that it is not, somehow, remotely gimmicky. If I just told someone about it, a two-sentence description, it would certainly sound that way. But he's got something to say and he's genuinely using the form to do it in a way that he otherwise could not.