The Crying of Lot 49 opens with a disorienting account of Oedipa’s discovery that she has just been named executor for her recently deceased ex-boyfriend, Inverarity. Though the novel is not written in the first person, Pynchon works through Oedipa with a narrative style that is at once extremely evocative and jarring. Take for instance this long, run-on sentence,
“She thought of a hotel room in Mazatlán whose door had just been slammed, it seemed forever, waking up two hundred birds down in the lobby; a sunrise over the library slop at Cornell University that nobody out on it had seen because the slope faces west; a dry disconsolate tune from the fourth movement of the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra; a whitewashed bust of Jay Gould that Pierce kept over the bed on a shelf so narrow for it she’d always had the hovering fear it would someday topple on them.” (1)
These are the thoughts that assail Oedipa as she reels from the strange news and all of it is telling and yet the reader has almost no sense of Oedipa as a character at this point. Within the first page of the novel, Pynchon lets the reader into many moments that are important to Oedipa–things worth remembering when she thinks of her ex, and yet there is a distinct lack of any words that might identify how Oedipa might feel about any of these snippets. The hotel door slamming seems to carry some sadness with it or dread with the words “it seemed forever,” but why is this significant to Oedipa–perhaps it is their break-up but there is no real confirmation for the reader here, just a barrage of thoughts that hint at a greater interiority which is kept private from the reader. There is a strong sense of disillusionment and dread throughout this bit of narration and the reader might be led to understand Oedipa as somewhat of a cynical, lost, and disenchanted individual but for how much information Pynchon gives the reader about key points of remembrance for her, he reveals very little of her actual selfhood.
The stripping of the Sympathizer from the narrative voice was rather interesting, and I thought, at first, that he was being striped of his faces. The opposite seemed to happen though, as the narrative voice returned to him and he began referring to himself with pluralities. It seems like the stripping removed not the faces but the arbitrary boundaries the Sympathizer set up between them. This goes back to his fear of representation, and leads me to wonder whether he mis-represented himself previously or if he ended up losing his representative faculties in the end. The former would be supported by the return of the narrative voice, while the later would be supported, I think, simply because he was usually understood in the terms of others, with the relevance of his mixed cultural heritage being the prime example.
After the narrator realizes that the faceless commissar is Man and so undergoes the “final revision” (336) of his confession, the narrative abruptly shifts from the first person to what seems to be the third person omniscent. It is unclear whether the narrator (what we have, until now, called the protagonist) is still really the narrator, as the narrative suddenly refers to him as “the prisoner” and “the patient.” (339) It seems as though he is not, especially since the novel had been framed as a confession to the Commandant, but we know that the narrator has already submitted his confession to him and that the confession had been rejected. We learn that “later, sometime in the bright future, the commissar would play the patient a tape recording of his answer [to the question about the female communist agent], though he had no memory of the tape recorder’s presence,” (349) which seems to further indicate that the narrator is no longer in charge of the narrative. However, we shift back to the first person, from the perspective of the narrator, over the course of his confession of the gang rape. Especially after our discussion of the Foucaultian concept of confession in class on Monday, I think that this strange break in the interiority of the narrator reflects the gap between the loss of his previous identity, as someone who did not witness the gang rape, and the construction of his new identity, as someone who does remember participating in the incident. It is through the confession that he realizes and regains his sense of interiority. The confession is now not for the benefit of the Commandant, but rather for himself, as a method to come to terms with his self and his memories.
After reading Zunshine’s essay “Cognitive alternatives to interiority”, I was quite interested in how this historical contextualization of “mind-reading” relates to the identity of immigrants in Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. In describing a particular dinner scene with the Congressman and an English professor, the narrator describes most immigrants as “the greatest anthropologists ever of the American people” as they “know white people better then they knew themselves” (258). In Zunshine’s essay, this literary phenomenon is known as “third-level cognitive embedment” (153) and involves a fictional character’s ability to represent their own interiority as well as another character’s perception of their interiority. For the unnamed protagonist in The Sympathizer, this ability manifests itself as a survival technique for immigrants who are forced to decipher and present that which is most desirable for the white American, whether it be laughing at their jokes or refraining from talking in a foreign language while in their presence.
This particular moment of the text is a clear reflection of Zunshine’s belief that a character’s decision of whose mind should be reflected is an “ideological, culture-specific choice” (160). With that being said, I’m not entirely sure what to make of the reader’s involvement the process. Now confronted with a character whose representation of himself and other fictional characters is somewhat distorted or altered, it makes the reader’s job even more difficult in grasping (and trusting) the interiority of a particular character. It’s possible that this is another literary device used to reflect the post-Vietnam war era and shifting American identity, but the narrator’s inclusion that family members read their “anthropology notes” with “hilarity, confusion, and awe” (258) seems to suggest something else. Much like 18th-century fictional characters who used third-level cognitive embedment to elevate their social status, it seems like the protagonist views this ability as a source of power and subversion within the typical parameters of a Vietnamese immigrant living in the United States.
As the narrator of The Sympathizer recalls when he studied in America, he particularly remembers the experience of reading the line by Emerson that “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” (12) He concentrates on this sentence as describing both America and Vietnam, “where we are nothing if not inconsistent,” (12) but it is also interesting to consider in relation to the broader theme of inconsistency within the novel. The narrator immediately introduces himself as a “man of two faces [and] perhaps not surprisingly … a man of two minds … able to see any issue from both sides.” (1) Both his external (two faces) and internal (two minds) identities are deeply and inherently inconsistent, as a half-French and half-Vietnamese man who must grapple with his roles as immigrant and undercover communist agent, and so it is as though his identity is constituted by its absence. He is defined through his inconsistency — to the extent he is not American or Vietnamese, immigrant or political operative, and instead somewhere in the middle — which is interesting to consider in relation to what we have discussed in regards to fictional characters having consistent interiority and moral codes. The Sympathizer reveals that humans do not have to be consistent, in the sense that our identities depend on more than our stable qualities and motivations. We have the ability to “sympathize” with many different people and ways of thinking — and it is through this process of defining ourselves against others that we fully realize our own identities. How we understand fictional characters then relies on more than how they are constructed as individuals, but to the extent that they are defined in relation to others.
The Sympathizer defines himself in the gaps between two opposing sides. But does this confession admit to the Sympathizer’s interior? Even when he questions the morality of neutralizing a falsely accused man, he occupies some pace between the conflicting voices of duty and conscience. Even though he admits his conscience is the only thing more abused than his liver, he also burned the journals with all his past thoughts and beliefs, as if destroying his concrete interior was the only way for him to fit into the role of “a man of two faces” (1). It’s as if the Sympathizer could not play to both sides without crafting an interior, or two, that accepted both sides, while the corresponding mask was needed for both sides to accept him.
Blade Runner sets up a world where humans live alongside replicants—AIs almost identical to humans and lacking only in emotional response and personal history. These beings are therefore considered distinctly not-human, though in every-day life they function in much the same way humans do. When replicant-hunter Deckard meets Rachael, an advanced replicant who believes she is human, his concept of what is and isn’t human is thrown into question. Though Rachael fails the Voigt-Kampff test, she is by no means devoid of emotions, and though her memories are transplanted, she truly believes that she has a personal history. When she confronts Deckard about whether or not she is truly a replicant, and he callously recites a few of her transplanted memories for her, we see genuine pain in her eyes, and she even begins to cry. This begs the question of what make a person human — and whether the delusion of memory is really all that different from real personal history. I find it especially interesting that we are given almost no backstory for Deckard himself, and he is never portrayed as having deeper emotions than any of the replicants he is hired to kill. For me, this called to attention the position that we, the viewers/readers of media, are placed in when it comes to judging the interiority of fictional characters. There is really no tangible difference, in the eyes of the viewer, between characters like Rachael and characters who are presented to us as human in Blade Runner. Both have constructed memories/personal histories, and we can interpret the true interiority of neither, because we only see portrayals of interiority through exterior expression of emotion.
Throughout this novel, Pecola has been described to us through the people around her. We know only a few things about her by her own telling; we know that she loves Shirley Temple, that she wants to disappear because her home life is pretty horrible, and that she wants blue eyes. In the last chapter section of the book, we see the closest thing that resembles Pecola’s inner monologue and thoughts: her conversation with an imaginary friend. This conversation is at times conflicting and at other times self-assuring. Her imaginary friend switches from telling Pecola how lovely her new blue eyes are to making her feel worried that someone else has bluer ones. First the imaginary friend says, “They are the prettiest I’ve ever seen” (201), but then a few lines later she says, “Well, I am sure. Unless… Oh nothing. I was just thinking about a lady I saw yesterday. Her eyes sure were blue” (202). She also repeatedly brings up what Cholly did to Pecola: “How could somebody make you do something like that?…He made you didn’t he?” (198-199). I think we can take this imaginary friend as a way for Pecola to maybe shed some of the conflicting thoughts she has about herself and about her father. By doing this, they are no longer her problematic thoughts but the teasings of a friend. It’s like she has split herself in two: herself and all the stuff she’d rather not think about. The end of this conversation, where Pecola’s imaginary friend says that she’s leaving for a while, is so sad to me, but I am not quite sure what to make of it. It’s so heartbreaking when Pecola keeps asking if the reason her friend is leaving is because her “eyes aren’t blue enough” (204). I am not quite sure why her imaginary friend decides to leave, and what this means concerning Pecola’s psyche. The title of this section implies that this is Pecola’s only friend, and now she doesn’t have anyone, not even really herself.
In The Bluest Eye, the plot is not centered around just one character, but two, both Claudia and Pecola. It is almost difficult to determine who is the minor character in the other person’s story. So when beginning to think about writing a post, I was surprised that I didn’t quite know which character was the main character. If you read the summary added by the publisher on the back of the book, it makes it quite clear that Pecola is the main character, the primary person of interest. No other character is mentioned. But when we read the actual novel, we find that we get none of Pecola’s interiority or internal thoughts, only her outward behaviors and actions. At the same time, we get all of Claudia’s internal thoughts. We can track Claudia’s development on a personal level, but we are always somewhat removed from Pecola. We never hear her internal voice. She is a minor character in her own story.
In the Forward, Morrison writes that, “Begun as a bleak narrative of psychological murder, the main character could not stand alone since her passivity made her a narrative void. So I invented friends, classmates …” (x). How is our understanding of Pecola affected by this status as a ‘minor’ main character? Does it limit the reader’s ability to connect with her? Does it inform the reader’s understanding of her relegated position in society?
It is also interesting to think about the strange things the narration must do in order to have Pecola’s story told by Claudia. There are some instances where Claudia is very clearly the narrator, and where she is talking about thoughts and experiences in first person, many of which have nothing to do with Pecola, like when she is narrating her interactions with her mother or her thoughts about Maureen Peal. However, there are other sections of the story where Claudia is absent, and the story is centered just on Pecola, like the scene with Junior and the cat or the time Pecola goes to buy Mary Janes. These are all narrated in third person. Are we supposed to understand Claudia, perhaps an older Claudia, narrating these stories, or are we supposed to understand them as coming from an outside, third person narrative voice?
In Fun Home, Allison spends a majority of the first four chapters investigating her father through his actions, but instead of immediately compiling them to create a coherent person, she first breaks them down into pieces of a sexuality. While Alison acknowledges her father is defined by his actions, she attempts to form a character instead from what she sees as the similarities between her and him. We see this a few times, most notably on page 97, on which a blank box reads “It’s imprecise and insufficient defining the homosexual as a person whose gender expression is at odds with his or her sex”. She follows this with a panel where her back is turned, captioned “But in the admittedly limited sample comprising my father and me, perhaps it is sufficient.” The end of chapter four continues with this mirroring, with the two photographs of Allison and her dad respectively, taken in their twenties.
By using her own narrative of her own sexuality, Allison can find traits of what she can conceive as her own character and construct a new character out of those pieces. Passages that would at first to appear to be about her own narrative are really about her father. We see this with the panels on page 97, where a drawing where Allison’s sex is indistinguishable because of the direction she is facing is captioned with text describing the sexuality of her father – only through her own development can we reimagine what interiority could be contained in the exteriority of her father.