The indivisibility of the internal monologue from the external dialogue throughout The Sympathizer, and the relationship of that stylistic choice to the genre of the (then judged inadequate) confession, appears to highlight how strongly focalized to an individual the experience of being a character can be. A quotation mark implies exactitude, perfect recall of both oneself’s and another’s words. Their lack functions as a hint to the later outright acknowledgment that “Yes, memory was sticky” and the entire concept of memory’s fallibility. In a way, it depicts words and internal monologue as an individual often experiences them in retrospect—all in a jumble, not neatly recorded and written out by who said them. The narrator’s “resistance” or his inability to grasp at first that his confessional could be judged as not confessional enough reflects that jumble, in which an individual’s assessment of what is important in a personal narrative does not conform to any objective measure. The confession is not an archival record, because neither, of course, is memory. Nor is an individual character’s collection of traits, attitudes, etc. I think that the consequence of this mixture of intensely focalized but subjective memory is that strong individual focalization does not translate to an accurate view of the self, let alone of other characters. Experience of the self, sadly enough, does not lead to self-knowledge.
I was thinking about intertextuality from the first page, which called Invisible Man to my mind as soon as I read it, even before I went back and saw the dedication. That told me that the author wants the reader to keep an eye on those relationships within the text. As a subset of intertextuality, the references the narrator makes to various books, musicians, and other elements of American culture, particularly in the first chapter, seem to point to a connection between intertextuality and identity. The assumption that people make and that the narrator proves wrong is that the narrator’s ability to talk about the Rolling Stones, a performed type of enjoyment, and his admitted genuine personal enjoyment of The Temptations and other American music, translates to an American-sympathizing outlook. In a sense, the performed enjoyment is something the reader already expects to not mean what it appears, but it is harder for the reader to accept that genuine enjoyment also does not translate to an alliance with the system and country that produced the media. It does, however, “blur… the lines between us and them…” The narrator also begins to speak about performativity of enjoyment (regarding prostitutes) right after he mentions his tendency to sympathize. “Performers perform at least partially to forget their sadness,” he says. Real emotions while playing a role might appear to be an oxymoron but this suggests that there is another blurring between the real and the fake.
While reading Fun Home, I’ve been thinking about the fictitiousness of memoir, and in particular, graphic memoir. One avenue of my thoughts on this subject is the question of point of view. There’s a particular moment I noted on page 185, in which Bechdel draws two scenes in a row picturing her father and his court-ordered counselor. The first is straightforward—an imagining of her father arriving for his session. The second is more imaginative: the counselor’s eyebrow is made to give him a furtive look and he is adjusting his tie in what looks like nervousness. However, Bechdel never met that man. In her written sections, she writes that the idea that the two were having an affair was in the categories of “suspicions” and “tempting.” For two beats, Bechdel gives herself something of an omniscient POV, compounded by the visuals of something she never could have actually seen. Her hypothetical musings are rendered in images, not just words, and become a part of the memoir. She does the same thing on page 192-3, with her brother’s solo jaunt in New York. It includes the phrases, “When he realized,” and “Instinctively,” as if Bechdel is in his head. Again, she can take on an omniscient POV. By the end, in saying, “I shouldn’t pretend to know what my father’s [erotic truth] was” (230), there is an acknowledgment of the subjectivity of all of these omniscient truths. However, “shouldn’t” and “tempting” does not mean that Bechdel does not. Writing this memoir was an exercise in pretending to know the meanings of events rather than simple recall. The writer Bechdel has afforded her narrative self-character the omniscience that she (the author) lacks.
In many ways, Oedipa is a play on the archetypical character of the detective. The narrative acknowledges her position as “the private eye in any long-ago radio drama, believing all you needed was grit, resourcefulness, exemption from hidebound cops’ rules, to solve any great mystery” (124). She becomes an expert on the minutia of many things, from Jacobean plays to stamp collecting, but remains on the outside. By the end, however, her crack investigative skills that led her to publishers and professors and other people in positions of authority to confirm her clues have dissipated. Given one more article on Tristero, she has no ability to follow up when Professor Bortz says, “That ought to be easy enough to check out… Why don’t you?” But Oedipa is no longer investigating, now only relying on coincidences, which are anathema to real detective work. The one last coincidence she awaits (literally) is the mysterious bidder. Whereas before, coincidences led her to find symbols all over the city, now, within the context of the book’s lack of a decisive ending, they have no conclusion. The consequence is that grit and resourcefulness may not lead to anything at all, but luck might (and it might not). Cause and effect are unlinked. I recall the part in Todorov on how the construction of character is a consequence of the reader accepting that cause (character trait) leads to effect (character action). This conclusion upsets the process of construction of character for a post-modern novel, and for a post-modern world.
In a sense, it has been difficult to keep previous chapters of this book in mind as we read each new chapter, since so much happens in each chapter and the status and situation of the narrator change so much. However, Ellison reminds both us and the Invisible Man of what he has brought with him from his past: “And in a corner, my brief case, covered with specks of dust like memories—the night of the battle royal” (527). For the narrator and for us, it has “unexpected weight” (527). In one sense, the brief case is a shield against bird excrement “falling like rain” (534). Other characters later assume it holds something precious, like diamonds, and upon nearly losing it, the Invisible Man feels “as though something infinitely precious had almost been lost to me” (537). He uses it to defend his life (560) and feels “a wave of shame and outrage” (656) when people ask him about its contents. The overall picture is one of conflicted emotions. When burning his high school diploma and letters, the light it provides offers hope—but anger extinguishes that “feeble light” (658). The back-and-forth, give-and-take of personal history weighs on him as it continues to promise and promise and fails to deliver. Rather than learn to accept his history, as we might expect from a coming-of-age, only after leaving it behind can he even begin to think that he might be able to create a better place in society for himself than what his past dictates.
In chapter 15, the Invisible Man is subjected to a series of events that remove his narrative agency in favor of setting up a metaphor for the reader. He smashes a coin bank in the shape of a racist, stereotypical image of an African American, “very black, red-lipped and wide-mouthed” (319). It seems at first that he does indeed have control over this detail of plot, in that he picks it up and smashes it, symbolizing a response to the stereotype. However, as he tries to rid himself of the broken remnants, he finds that bad luck prevents him from leaving it behind despite his purposefulness, thus preventing him from exercising his agency. He first throws the bank away in a trashcan, “casually… and moving on” (327), with the expectation that this choice will hold. A white woman berates him and threatens to call the police on him until he removes it from her trash. He then drops it in the snow, “thinking, ‘There, it’s done.’” A black man picks it up and gives it back to him, and threatens to call the police, so the Invisible Man takes it back. The parallelism, the contrast between two types of characters making similar threats, and the image itself all point to a metaphor for the difficulty of leaving racist stereotypes behind in a society that won’t allow it. This is despite the Invisible Man’s own preferences to simply drop a package, and mirrors instead his lack of narrative agency in non-metaphorical instances of racism. As a fictional character, the Invisible Man is at the mercy of the intended meaning, and although he believes he can, he cannot simply throw a piece of trash away without some coincidence, orchestrated by the author, intervening.
Part of the Invisible Man’s relationship to the reader is as an audience surrogate, someone who is new, young, and inexperienced to the world he’s navigating just as a reader is new to the specific world of the book. This is a change from the Prologue, when he occupies an explanatory role and is giving a “tour” of his circumstances directly to the reader. But in chapter five, for instance, he has to ask the boy next to him who the riveting speaker is, and the boy’s response is “a look of annoyance, almost of outrage” (123). The Invisible Man is not in the know, and because of the limited first-person perspective, neither is the reader until the Invisible Man asks the questions. The reader is limited to the Invisible Man’s eyes and ears, as when we can no longer hear Bledsoe’s description of his youth because the Invisible Man “no longer listened, nor saw more than the play of light upon the metallic disks of his glasses…” (144). When the Invisible Man goes to Harlem and is even more inexperienced in his setting, “a stranger… just coming to town” (160) according to the policeman, the reader, again, takes in only what the protagonist takes in. As a method of constructing a character, particularly in contrast to less limited perspectives, this creates a strong relationship of identification and even reliance between the reader and the Invisible Man.