Recently I instructed my creative writing students to find a novel with a number of contrasting voices. This turned out to be quite difficult.
Well, we all agreed about the wealth of characters in classic novels such as Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and the work of Charles Dickens. But what about contemporary novels?
The other day I read Huid en Haar (Skin and Hair) by Dutch author Arnon Grunberg (born 1971) which features several different characters whose voices are alike. Everyone’s thought or utterance is ironic, almost cynical, and this is achieved by following a thought or saying with a similar one but more outspoken.
I will give two examples of distinctly different personages speaking with the same voice.
On page 20 Lea thinks:
Maybe he is shy, that might be it. You could write a book about shyness and anguish among men.
(Misschien is hij verlegen. Misschien is dat het. De verlegenheid van mannen, de angst van mannen, je zou er boeken mee kunnen vullen.)
On page 86 Ronald Oberstein thinks:
He didn’t want to hurt people. If he causes some hurt – he won’t deny it – it is at most because of other actions or desires. In this case pain was the main object not just a consequence.
(Zelf wil hij mensen geen pijn doen. Als hij hun al pijn doet – hij zal het niet ontkennen – is dat hooguit een neveneffect van andere wensen en acties. Maar hier was pijn geen neveneffect, pijn was het doel.)
You can find such examples on every page and you would think it wouldn’t work, everyone speaking with the same voice, but it does. Is each character representing an aspect of the author? Grunberg is famous in the Netherlands so maybe that is why it works. You get the impression that the author has expressed facets of his character through each of the personages. That’s why I think it is a wonderful book.
However I advise authors just starting out to introduce as much variation as possible between the various voices. All we need now is a good example.
Or is it a trend: to have an author dominate his book to such an extent that he plays all his characters?