Great Novels (an unscientific classification)

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I had an odd moment recently when Courtland Gamboge, the cynical and murderous antagonist of Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey, got mixed up in my mind’s eye with Tom Sawyer.  Shades of Grey is a unique dystopian fantasy by the author of The Eyre Affair.  You should read it.  In the book, natural color perception is rare and society is obsessed with artificial pigments.  This conceit was carried through with such thoroughness that it warped my imagination and my reading life, triggering a craving for color words and leading to my rediscovery of the poetry of Andrew Marvell and George Herbert.  I can only hope, most fervently, that Fforde musters the strength to see his bizarre project through.

The resonance of Gamboge, menacing scion of a powerful and corrupt yellow-perceiving caste, and the mischievous archetype Sawyer only appears strange.  Gamboge is seen through the first person narration of the naive hero Eddie Russett.  In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn we see Tom Sawyer from a similar first person perspective, most importantly at the end, when Tom shows a really diabolical side to his love of fun and games, such that he not only torments Jim and Huck, but hijacks the novel.

I’ve been thinking about first person narration.  I mentioned that the best of Umberto Eco’s novels are written this way: The Name of the Rose, Foucault, Loana.  In fact I’ll take a wild stab and say that the best novels generally are narrated in the first person.  Maybe other narratives stop short of the ultimate reason for reading novels, not only to be somewhere else, but to become someone else?  Consider Jane Eyre vs. Wuthering HeightsJane Eyre is first person and W.H. is a farrago.  Tom Sawyer is not first person; it’s a children’s book and a didactic one at that.  Then Twain switched and wrote the incomparable Huck Finn.  Neal Stephenson’s Anathem is the best science fiction I’ve read in a long time.  Everything of his I’ve read since has been terribly frustrating.  (I read the whole Baroque Cycle…)  Guess which of his works is written in first person.  Moby Dick is first person.  So is Notes from Underground, which is all the Dostoevsky anyone really needs.  I’m sure there is a technical reason for all this, and that writers know very well what they are doing and why certain narratives should be the way they are.  It’s still striking.