Archive for the ‘Jim Crace’ Category

Crace, Jim.   The Gift of Stones.  1988.  New York: Scribner’s, 1989.

Okay, I am admitting defeat on this one.  I have absolutely no idea why this novel for adults makes use of alternating narratives.  All I can say is that it certainly isn’t for any of the usual reasons I’ve been identifying in all the many novels I’ve looked at for this project so far, both ones for young people and other ones for adults (like, say,  Julian Barnes’s Arthur & George, Joseph Boyden’s  Three Day Road, or Audrey Niffenegger’d The Time Traveler’s Wife).

The fact that the novel involves alternating narrative is itself kind of slippery.  While there are two alternating narrators here, there’s nothing too terribly obvious in the way of typographical convention, etc., to make that clear, or to separate them from each other.   The bulk of the book is a story told by someone unnamed about the life of the man she calls her father, a man of the late stone age whose life is shaped by the loss of an arm in childhood, an accident which renders him useless at most stone age pursuits, and eventually, drives him into the role of storyteller to his village.  So it goes for five chapters. But then the sixth chapter begins, “Listen here,” my father said.  I’ll tell you what occured.”  And he then continues his own story, in ongoing quotation marks, until the end of chapter 13, at which point the quotation marks end and the novel return to the original storyteller.  The same thing then happens once more, with the father’s story in quotation marks inside the original storyteller’s story from the beginning of chapter 26 to the end of chapter 28, followed by three more chapters from the original storyteller.   So while the father’s sections are separated from the rest in discrete sections, they’re nevertheless clearly connected to the rest in being double-voiced: the original storyteller includes them in her story as quotes from her father.  In a sense, the novel then both involves alternating narratives and doesn’t involve them: its single-focalized and double-focalized at the same time.  Very slippery, and ambiguous, and hard to grasp or understand.

That’s particularly true because I honestly can’t say that I notice any significant difference or opposition between the two narrative voices.  They both talk about the same thing: the events of the father’s life.  While the main narrator appears in both as a young child, she is a minor character in both, and she spends almost no time explaining herself or her own feelings, focussing almost exclusively in what her father did and what it meant to him and others.  furthermore, he does the same thing, focusing on what he did and what it meant to him and others, and she often says that she’s just reporting what he has told her, and in fact, their voices sound more or less alike, except that she speaks of “he’ and he speaks of “I.”  If they’re going to be so much alike, and if he doesn’t say anything or add anything different to her view of who he is, then what’s the point of switching from one to the other?  I don’t know.

But I can say at least that there’s a lot of conventional ways an alternating narrative might have worked here that don;t actually happen. The book is rife with oppositions that might have been mirrored in alternating focalizations or points of view.  There are the practical stone workers and merchants of the village as opposed to the protagonist’s role as bard and encourager of imagination.  There is the comfort and organization of the stone-worker’s village as opposed to the wilder place on the shore where the storyteller meets the woman he falls in love with, Doe, a deserted survivor who sells herself to keep herself and her daughter alive.  There is the age and gender difference between that daughter and the man she comes to call her father, the storyteller.  There is the difference between the stone age stonecutters of the village and the orderly traditional life they lead, as opposed to the new ways implied by the bronze arrow that kills Doe, and that quickly kills the village’s livelihood.  All of these, key oppositions that the novel’s imagery makes much of,  might have been mirrored and represented by characters who would each give us one point of the view of the dualism.  That’s what happens in just all the other novels with alternating narratives.

But it doesn’t happen here.  I have a glimmering of the sense that it has something to do with one of the most central of the novel’s many binary opposites: the one between was might really have happened to anybody and the wonderful, exciting things the storyteller is able to make of those bare bones of fact–between truth and story.  A point made often in the novel is that, once the storyteller learns the art of storytelling and uses it keep himself alive, there is no longer any way of knowing if he is ever really telling the truth.  The daughter can report of his life before he enters it or even, after that, while she was a young child, only what he has told her about it, and always in the context of the knowledge that his habit is to embroider, to tell different stories to account for the same facts, and so on.   You might then expect that his sections might allow insight into the actual facts underlying the embroidery–tell us what really happened and how he really responded to it.  And they might, if they were giving us insight into his actual thoughts.  But they don’t.  Instead, they represent in a slightly different way what he has told his daughter, so that they are just as suspicious and slippery as the rest, even though the father starts his first section by saying “I’ll tell you what occurred.  I’ll keep it simple too.  I won’t tell lies.” Which might not be true.  Later, he offers three different versions of Doe’s death, in one of which he kills her himself–but none of these has any more status as truth than the others. So his sections merely confirm what hers have already established–if we expect truth, we’re not going to find it here, in this man’s version of events.  Paradoxically, both narratives agree on the undeniable fact that he is not to be trusted–and that therefore, nothing we have been told in the novel and think we know is to be trusted (the daughter never invites us to mistrust her veracity as a narrator–but how can we not, when the novel insists on the uncertain status of storytelling?)  So the narrative alternate to make the point that there is no story truer than another, or falser than another?  Once you start storytelling, you’re stuck with uncertainty?

And all of this uncertainty is in the midst, as I said, of many binary opposites and alternatives, and their status as opposites isn’t actually questioned: the village is different form the wild, the bronze age is different from the stone age, and so on .

Fori nstance, especially, one of the most interesting oppositions is that two central characters are hit by arrows that lead to great change.  The stone arrow that hits the boy’s arm early in his life leads him on journey out of the village into wild, new places, and into his life of storytelling as he returns to report on the strange things out there; it opens him, up to a new life, and the villagers up to a new life of the  imagination.  The bronze arrow that hits Doe later on, ther first seens by these people, forces them to give up their trade and allow the storyteller to move them out of the village and off into their own wild adventures in a changed and changing world.  There’s something here about the parallel between the wildness of stories and the less pleasant insecurity of being forced to give up what one has always known and depended on.  Being in the wild, whether it’s imagination or reality, is both exciting and unsettling, freeing and dangerous, satisfying and uncertain.

But still, I don’t get the reason for the alternating narratives–even though I do have a pretty firm sense that they do work and that I might after more thinking come to understand how.  In other words, the novel seems to possess a complexity and a subtlety I haven’t yet mastered.  I don’t get it.  What’s most instructive to me about that in terms of my project is that, even though the presence of alternating narratives in books for young people seems to imply a surprising degree of innovation and sophistication, I can’t think of a single example of an alternating narrative novel for young people that so studiously avoids the obvious thematic implications of this sort of construction and that makes so complex and subtle a use of it.  As I’m coming to realize more and more, the most interesting thing about such novels for young people is how, for all their apparent innovativeness, they express and confirm the conventions of literature for young people–how the genre works to pull innovation back into the same old ideas and ideologies.  Literature for young people, especially young adults, is certianly now more complicated than it once was, andm ore sophisticated–but it still tends to repress real innovation or individuality beyond what the genre has always reinforced and allowed.  The Gift of Stones makes that obvious to me simply by not being so constrained or repressed.

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