She just tells us she caught on fire at age 3. She doesn’t offer any justification for why she was cooking alone at the stove; she doesn’t cast judgment on the parents who left her there. She just tells us it happened, just as a three-year-old would. This was simply her life – no justification or judgment required. All action, very little interiority.
He, on the other hand, explains every thought behind his decisions. Why he wants the diary. How he feels about Veronica. His further thoughts on aging and wisdom. Almost his whole story is interior, all the thinking of an older man.
I love both of these books, and it was just this week that I figured out why I appreciate them when they are so different – it’s because the writer’s made really smart choices about how much interiority to include. The first book is The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls; the second is The Sense of an Ending b Julian Barnes. Both are written in first-person point of view, and thus, both ask the reader to ally herself with the narrator – I love that.
Wall’s story, as she writes it, allows me to get carried away by what is happening and not be asked to manage the writer’s expectation and explanations of the events. In Barnes’ work, I get all wrapped up in the thought processes of the characters and adore seeing the “whys” of their actions.
I prefer books to show me the thoughts of the narrator (as Walls does wisely by opening her book from the adult perspective) than give me only action. While I think Walls made a very wise choice to simply tell her life experience from the point of view as a child (at least so far – I’m only about one-third of the way into the book), I do appreciate seeing the thought processes of narrators a great deal, and I tend to be less invested in stories that are all plot and little thinking.
That said, there must be a balance. A book that is all interior has nothing on which to hang the story – I see this often in creative writing students, who sometimes think that being just writing about thinking is inventive or timely – it’s not; it’s boring. Barnes’ chooses to give us a suicide as the key action for the story, and thus, I can hang the narrator’s thinking on that event.
So we have to have some action . . . but without some of that interior life, and a complex interior life at that, I’m left bored often and unable to access the story much. Perhaps this is because I can’t relate to the characters very well.
That’s the key to a successful book – the ability to sympathize with someone on the pages. In Walls’ brilliant memoir, I cling to her, the child and the adult, because I can understand both being ashamed of someone and also absolutely loving them. In Barnes’ book, I relate to the narrator because I understand what it is to have things from the past that beg for answers, even as I know those answers might not exist or actually change anything.
As a writer, I would do well to remember this and make the version of myself that is the narrator both complex and likable and tied into action.
For you, when does the interior life of the characters become too much? When is it not enough? What books do you think have a good balance of this? Which do you think fail?