I’m Hearing Voices!

John Fraim

I’ve come to believe the way forward for the modern novel is through the creation of new narrative techniques rather than the structural forms of screenplay as Hollywood would have writers believe. Experiments in voice and narrator were at the heart of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Michael Ondaatje’s Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Tolstoy, Mailer, Nabakov, Kazuo Ishiguro’s fiction in general (particularly his current Klara and the Sun). Experiments in narrative voice have been going on since the first words written to tell a story to another. Since the Odyssey and The Iliad. 

This change from voices of novels and narratives is perhaps the most important area in understanding the development of the novel. Yet our focus is almost always on the content of the novel rather than the context (or voice) the story of content is created within. Everyone forgets that looking at novels is really looking at mediums or perspectives of expression. There were always only two grand symbols in the novel, as there are in all things of life.

Within the past few hundred years, during the development of that form of literature called a novel. The early years saw a focus on the third person voice, the standoffish, all-knowing perspective from without rather than within. This is the major position of the third-person narrator: someone who is outside life and makes comment and observations about characters in this outside life. 

* * *

For as long as I’ve been interested in the magic of writing and words, there has been a drastic change from the third person narrator (perspective) in novels to the first-person narrator and perspective. I was almost an English Major at UCLA but History won by a course or so. I took all a few survey courses, and this is the change in the background I say. Slowly developing in the background like a slight breeze and then a growing wind. 

Exploration of the first-person voice is what the advance guard of the novel seems engaged most effectively with today. The collective consciousness of our times, the zeitgeist, seems to be saying to artists that one must communicate in the first-person voice rather than the third person voice. In many ways, first person communication is what Marshall McLuhan would call a cool medium as opposed to third person communication as a hot medium. Cool media allow for participation of the reader/audience/viewer with the artist in creating a final meaning for a work of art like a novel. A film. 

But the hot media of a third person narrator, is always a perspective from the outside looking in. The third person narrator shines his light around the story wherever he or she want to shine it. The light of the third person narrator is like an enemy’s searchlight. Or a stage light. 

* * *

The leading edge of experimentation with voice is most likely the incredible career of the author Kazuo Ishiguro. It has been a life of fictional experiments with various first-person narrators of his novels. He is not interested in creating some type of Hollywood “tentpole” super character and milking the character for all its worth. No, Ishiguro continues to inhabit different first-person characters in his books. Somewhat like a traveling spirit. 

He is best known for being an English butler in The Remains of the Day. His latest incarnation in Klara and the Sun is in the mind of an artificial toy waiting to be picked out of a story by the right owner. One of the more incredible things about this particular choice of first-person perspective is that it allows Ishiguro to get inside artificial intelligence today by becoming one and telling a story from the perspective of an AI robot. Not from the outside of third person. But rather, the inside of first person. 

Placing his narrator inside the mind of an AI robot today, the author sees the world in a new way. The use of words and language that convey little today – the increasing use of cliches and pop sayings and expressions and shorthand – and seeing the world with new words we have not heard before as the AI robot gazes out of the window of the shop it is in with the other AI robots waiting for owners. When new combinations of words are used, the reader is caught off-guard and forced to participate in the meaning of the words to create a new form of an image to move things along. 

Participation is needed in the first-person case, but third person author/narrators need or want little participation in their story. They are similar to the old one-way broadcast form of media in this way. The first-person narrator and narrative is the truly modern voice for literature. The real way forward (if in fact there really is) for the novel. Is it an extinct form? Has it been extinct, and we just haven’t realized it yet? 

* * *

The novel grew with this all-knowing – third person – perspective. But the all-knowing perspective has suffered being cut down to size in the modern, digital world. As various genres of the modern novel (and story, film) were defined and refined, behind all of this was a gradual shift in narrative perspective from third person to first person. Looking at stories from the outside or telling stories from within. Things could be seen from without that couldn’t be seen from within. But things could be seen from within that couldn’t be seen from without. 

Perhaps this is the great need today. Not to say something to culture. But first of all, wake people up. Arguments follow later. This is what the amazing AI robot Klara does in Ishiguro’s brilliant new exploration of voice in narrative. 

Certainly, the content of the book is fascinating. We are not going to give it away here. More than this for me, though, it is this new voice in the world that we hear in the words of Klara. The words of an author born in Japan and living in London most of his life. An alien author to the London world in ways that his creation Klara is an alien to this strange new human world. And describes it, almost in a way that John Muir first described entering Yosemite. In a sense, we are inside artificial intelligence today, looking out at the world. Rather than outside artificial intelligence looking at it. 

* * *

Klara and the Sun is about the world we are entering. Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid is now about the present and the evolving future but about our past world and hearing history from a first-person perspective. Here, the first-person voice is not a brilliant computer but an uneducated, legendary outlaw legend of the west. Billy the Kid. We hear the story of his life in verse, in pieces. It is not always grammatically correct, but it is real, and we are to be tricked into believing it is real, materials, writings from the famous legend himself.

These are the killed.(By me)—Morton, Baker, early friends of mine. Joe Bernstein. 3 Indians. A blacksmith when I was twelve, with a knife.5 Indians in self defence (behind a very safe rock).One man who bit me during a robbery. Brady, Hindman, Beckwith, Joe Clark, Deputy Jim Carlyle, Deputy Sheriff J. W. Bell. And Bob Ollinger. A rabid cat,birds during practice. These are the killed. (By them)—Charlie, Tom O’FolliardAngela D’s split arm, and Pat Garrettsliced off my head. Blood a necklace on me all my life. Christmas at Fort Sumner, 1880. There were five of us together then. Wilson, Dave Rudabaugh, Charlie Bowdre, Tom O’Folliard, and me. In November we celebrated my 21st birthday, mixing red dirt and alcohol—a public breathing throughout the night. The next day we were told that Pat Garrett had been made sheriff and had accepted it. We were bad for progress in New Mexico and cattle politicians like Chisum wanted the bad name out. They made Garrett sheriff and he sent me a letter saying move out or I will get you Billy. The government sent a Mr. Azariah F. Wild to help him out. Between November and December I killed Jim Carlyle over some mixup, he being a friend. Tom O’Folliard decided to go east then, said he would meet up with us in Sumner for Christmas. Goodbye goodbye. A few days before Christmas we were told that Garrett was in Sumner waiting for us all. Christmas night. Garrett, Mason, Wild, with four or five

Part of creating a new modern novel is via the device of surprise, or, catching someone off-guard or with their perceptual defenses down. Presenting cliches (or overly used familiar phrases) in content only puts the reader to sleep as cliches are hot media allowing for no participation by the reader/audience in creating the vision of the artist. 

Also, by the process of creating what is called an “unreliable” narrator. The above should somewhat shock the modern reader as they are hearing the words from an outlaw legend given in fragments of first-person narrative that needs reader participation to complete. As we say, the cool form of participation in media. 

By using an artificial intelligence machine as a narrator, the familiarity of cliches is done away with here as an artificial assistant sees our world for the first time. In doing so, cliches are unknowns to Klara. She sees things from her window as she waits to be taken home with a new owner. Like all the other AI robots in the shop. 

* * *

There is an incredibly emotional story told by Klara. No longer do we hear all of the usual words of our culture, kicked to death each day, butchered, by our cultural elite media. Cliches and sayings continue to grow. Woke language. An entire new language. Yet behind it all, allowing for less participation in describing the world. Using buzzwords to describe one’s feelings so that one’s feelings might become simply buzzwords. 

The old words were kicked around like soccer balls in the butchered everyday use of American words. The world is seen using the same metaphors, the same images, told over and over again and the world never seen in new ways with words. Now, an artificial intelligence robot sees this and an outlaw of the past sees this. 

In the way that Joyce explored in Finnegan’s Wake; Virginia Woolf in To the Lighthouse; Michael Ondaatje’s Collected Works of Billy the Kid; Tolstoy; Mailer; Nabakov. The list goes on and on and someday someone is going to write literature history around voices rather than the content of voices.  The grand experiment has been with Kazuo Ishiguro’s fiction so far, particularly his current Klara and the Sun. Experiments in narrative voice have been going on since the first words written to tell a story to another. Since the Odyssey and The Iliad. 

And the path forward has always been first carved by one true pioneer and explorer. This journey is always far best told from the first-person perspective than the third person perspective. By Walt Whitman. Thoreau. John Muir. The excitement is artificial, created in the third person perspective. Yet real, alive in the first-person perspective. The difference in the symbolism is one of light shone onto something and something radiating light. Light falling on and light moving outward.

* * *

It’s interesting to question if there is a relation between narrative voice and various other cultural and societal ideas and concepts like equality and freedom. Might first and third person narrative be related to political philosophy? If there are cycles in one there might be cycles in the other? Many questions to be asked. As I’ve said, research on the true narrative voice in western literature has been very much absent. This is not all that surprising since western culture operates like that light shown on a story from outside. To analyze the situation. A third person observer. This is the great thing of western culture. The third person perspective of someone looking in on something. Observing it. It is the opposite of easter culture of being inside and looking out at the world from a first-person narrative perspective. The outside observer has defined science. The inside observer religion. Literature in many ways has bounced back-and-forth between these two grand symbols of my world. Maybe cycles are involved in the whole thing? Maybe it is more haphazard than anyone suspects? 

Perhaps it is only something pondered in the pages of those remaining few intellectual publications like the New York Review of Books or the London Times Literary Supplement. Both of which I subscribed to this past year of the pandemic. But even here, I seldom see concern ever voiced over the narrative voice in literature. It is almost like that elephant in the room for many critics. Except a few like James Wood. Yet, there is a whole world of various first-person voices today that need exploring. 

* * *

If one buys into my argument that first person narrative is the modern voice of the new novel, If, in fact, a new novel is to be. What will this narrative be like in a number of years? Ishniguro has shown the way all his life in his fiction and exploration of the first-person voice. This is one of the areas that critics seem little interested. That is, the evolution and growth of these voices.

A Japanese author who has lived in London most of his life named Kazuo Ishiguro. He is the new explorer we have today in narrative voices. Pushing a perspective for the first-person voice forward in new ways not seen before. Pushing it forward so that it demands participation from readers or viewers if they want to benefit from the riches it offers in the way of insights into our world. This new way that this robot named Klara sees the world. She is naive to the slick, cliches of the current culture. The new words and short expressions, sayings, being constantly invented and tossed into the language mix-up machine. But Klara sees things in a fresh, new way. For the first time. Not via the perspective of creating a character around a “tentpole” character in Hollywood. A new way. Klara is a new type of hero in fact. 

Literature might be seen in a new perspective when it in relation to the voice of the narrator. Not surprising. As westerners we focus on content supplied by that third person narrator rather than the context of the narrative voice that the eastern cultures understand. First and third person narrative perspectives. It has never had its Charles Darwin to explore it. Jung to consider it as a symbol or archetype. McLuhan to consider it as a type of probe between his concepts of hot and cool. 

Ishniguro leads the way towards a new form of first-person narrative voice for this new world of AI technology we are entering. The search is really for a new “narrative voice” to express this new world. The world of modern narrative and perhaps not the modern novel.  Which has since disappeared as a particular form of media. This new first-person voice of our time has been embodied in Ishniguro’s narrators. It is he alone who has explored these unique first-person narrators as a literary form rather than as a short foray into various genres of literature. There are many genres but only two narrative voices to work with: first person and third person. Being two, the two voices can be considered really as symbols. What is the meaning of these two symbols? And, what is the power associated with each of the two? Will there ever be some type of “peace” between third and first-person perspectives and voices in the minds of all creators of narratives today. Authors. Filmmakers. Musicians. 

* * *

Brilliant first-person voices don’t always appear in literature. For instance, consider the band Lord Huron. Amidst musical acts like Carli B and Stallion, we now are taken back to the sounds and rhythms of the days of black and white cowboy films on early television. There is a distinct yodeling sound in the song “End of the Earth” from Lord Huron off  their Lonesome Dreams album of 2014. The immediate sound on “End of the Earth” reimagines an entire sound that is immediately recognizable to all of those who heard it at one time. It is, in fact, a signal to a particular niche group in culture. The big question of course the relationship between niche groups. I wrote a blog on Lord Huron after hearing them for the first time on the George Knapp show on Coast-to-Coast all-night radio. I learned about Lord Huron at about 2:00 am in the morning and by the next day knew a lot about them. 

This particular narrative perspective of the music of Lord Huron is startling unique. Music out of place, from a different time. The barricades listeners always erect are not prepared for this. It is difficult to immediately classify into a genre. The music has much country to it. Yet much philosophy and Dylan to it. But overall, a type of music and sound I heard as the backdrop to many of those first black-and-white tv westerns I watched. Listen to this intrusion into the standard music system of elite control today. 

I wrote about this in https://midnightoilstudios.org/2021/03/28/lord-huron/.

I wrote about a review about a review of Ishniguro’s Klara and the Sun by Peter Wood in the New Yorker at https://midnightoilstudios.org/2021/03/26/letter-to-a-critic/ Like Ishniguro, based around the belief in first person perspectives. Sometimes I’m sure Wood must feel somewhat alone amongst a lot of the critics out there today. 

* * *

The search for a new first person narrative voice in literature moves forward and onward. Ishniguro leads the way in this move forward right now. But he will not always be out in front. His function is to clear a path for others in the movement towards a new first-person perspective of narration. Klara offers the suggestion for a new type of vocabulary as well as a new way of seeing the world. A vocabulary that lacks the mind-numbing words we use each day to anesthetize and neuter each other. Klara’s words, and new emotions experienced for the first time, provide a new way and different way of looking at our entrance into the world of AI and robots. 

Told from the perspective our constant media narrator today looking at things for all of us. On our behalf. But with a first-person narrator, we are on our own and not subjects in someone else’s story. So that we don’t have to. That benevolent third-party observer of us. And ultimately, controller. The connection between narrative voice and the concepts of freedom and equality have yet to be explored. Both are really symbols and an understanding of the dynamics of this symbolism might point the way for a new type of narration. 

I guess this is why I title all of this “I’m Hearing Voices!” with that parenthesis in there. I mean it in the sense that I think I’m looking at a new type of reality as expressed by Klara in Ishniguro’s new novel. The brilliant mind of the author has inhabited most of Ishniguro’s books. But it has been a mind continually moving into new bodies to narrate their stories. Almost like a type of spirit or ghost is this incredible literary journey undertaken by Kazuo Ishniguro. One finds it difficult to imagine a more creative, imaginative author/writer living today. Certainly, the world’s great novelist right now in my opinion. The focus on context of the voices of the first-person narrator rather than the content created by a third person narrator. Not surprising that I select  “I’m Hearing Voices!” with that exclamation mark as the title to this whole thing. I think I’m starting to hear voices rather than the content of these voices. Two different things. One based on sight. Another on sound. One on linear. The other on non-linear. One on the East. Another, on the West. One on Freedom. Another on Equality. 

Anyway. I am hearing voices today and the voice is this exciting new narrative voice in fiction from Klara and the Sun. Very interestingly, Klara considers the sun a God in the same way the ancient Egyptians considered it a God. Klara watches the sun move through the window each day as she waits for someone to buy her. The sun moves across the world of the window of  the shop she is in and onto the outside world of people passing by. A machine, spouting smoke, that like a devil, blocks out the sun some days for Klara. She continues to discover this new world when she is bought by the family and given to the little girl. Klara now has a narrative task. She will tell us her experience of working as an assistant for the young girl who takes her home. 

Take a few hours out of your day to read the great piece of fiction of modern times. Klara and the Sun. 

Then, let us hear from you on this article.

Best,

John 

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