Reading Like a Writer: First-Person Omniscience in Duplex
Editor's Note: One of the new features on our blog is the monthly Reading like a Writer column. The column features craft-focused book reviews by Allison Wyss.
I'm fascinated with the POV of Kathryn Davis's Duplex. It's omniscient first-person—an unusual choice and one that's illogical for a lot of readers. (Just how can this person know all this?) So why did Davis choose it? Trying to answer this question illustrates some interesting advantages of different styles of narration.
First, I should give a brief summary of the book, but I'm at a loss. Let me just say that it's about the suburbs, and also about robots and sorcerers and sex. And that it reimagines space and time and lives and bodies. Also, it's fantastic. The world is dreamlike yet absolutely real.
It's easy to see why Davis would want an omniscient narrator for a novel of such ambition. The omniscience allows her to follow multiple characters, to show them when they are alone, and to show what they think.
The omniscience also makes it easier to play seamlessly with time and space. Because an omniscient narrator knows everything, that narrator must decide which parts to tell—whose head to look into. Even a more traditionally omniscient narrator requires particular confidence to make decisions that might otherwise seem arbitrary or pointless. Davis's narrator uses that same poise to move not just between characters but between time periods. The assured transitions are necessary to guide the reader through a story shape that is unexpected and unconventional.
It's harder, at first, to see why Davis chose to let her narrator speak in first-person—perhaps especially because it's an "I" that doesn't play much of a role in the novel. We learn exceptionally little about the narrator who, beyond listening to stories, doesn't interact with other characters.
Because the narrator is so effaced, it seems as though Davis could have left the "I" out entirely and just gone with a third-person narrator. She might have saved herself some trouble. But she didn't.
It's possible to see any third-person narrator as a first-person narrator who is completely effaced—an "I" who never influences the story or uses the word "I." It's also true that the most intriguing omniscient narratorshave distinct personalities. Perhaps Davis sprinkles in the few "I's" to make this point—that even an omniscient narrator is a character.
Still, I think an articulated "I" is easier to imbue with personality. Easier than an unnamed, un-pronoun-ed narrator. The pronoun becomes like a name, giving specificity to the speaker. It's even helpful when writing an omniscient narrator to start with an "I," then edit it out later.
Because, of course, once a particular speaker is imagined, its personality will shape the telling of the story, even if the character doesn't actively influence events.
But I think Davis uses the "I" for at least one more reason and that's to create a sense of its opposite—the "you." The listener. I'm not talking about the reader. Neither am I talking about "you" in its colloquial sense, meaning "one." I'm talking about the fictional listener—the one the fictional narrator talks to. A sense of this listener shapes Duplex in wonderful ways.
Let's look at the first page. Duplex begins on a suburban street, the first two paragraphs evoking what seems to be a safe, familiar world.
The narrator first indicates a different type of world in the third paragraph, which describes Miss Vicks: "She was a real woman; you could tell by the way she didn't need to move her head from side to side to take in sound."
The sentence is fresh and startling. A complete surprise. Yet it ensnares the reader with its confidence—it expects to be believed.
I think it is the listener who enables this confidence. Davis conjures the expectation of belief by creating an implied listener who already knows the world of the story. The narrator doesn't say, "There are robots," because the listener already knows that. To this listener, who knows about the robots, everyone is suspect. Therefore, the narrator explains that Miss Vicks is not a robot and proves why she's not.
Davis knows, of course, that her readers aren't yet familiar with the world and so she's careful to give us enough clues to piece it together. Because the listener needs to be told that Miss Vicks is human, we figure out that not everyone is and that it's difficult to tell.
In many fantastical narratives, world building gets tedious—so many rules, so much history. I don't hate elaborate descriptions, but I resent when they take me out of the story for long periods. Or when they give me time to doubt. The in-world listener helps Davis avoid this obstacle.
And don't get me wrong—Davis does pull away, at times, from the pattern I've described. Sometimes her world does require heavier description—but for the most part, the imagined listener helps her evoke the world quickly and confidently—with just a few bright details that we extrapolate into an entire, brilliant world.
There's another (oh goodness, at least one!) truly fascinating method of storytelling at play in Duplex—the Janice scenes, in which the world's mythology is related and refined. I might write about those scenes another time.
When has a novel's narrator captivated you? Have suggestions for future book reviews? Join the bookish conversation on Twitter with hashtag #ReadingLikeAWriter.
Allison Wyss is teaching "Six Weeks, Six Drafts: Demystifying Revision" at the Loft this March. She earned her MFA from the University of Maryland. She has also studied creative writing at Vanderbilt University, Breadloaf Writer's Conference, and Grub Street Independent Writing Center. Her stories have appeared or will appear in [Pank] Magazine, Metazen, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, MadHat (Mad Hatters' Review), The Golden Key, and The Southeast Review.