There is surprisingly very little information on the internet about using dead narrators as a fictional device. It is a facet of storytelling that I find fascinating, partly because I am very anti-social and don’t get out much, but primarily because I have been thinking about killing one of the main characters in my novel, and having him continue to narrate his story. Perhaps there’s a reason people don’t return my phone calls. Or my texts. Or my Facebook messages.
I have been told that this kind of narration is akin to burping at the dinner table or having a unibrow on a first date: something beneath the refined and well-groomed writer of literary fiction, but commonly used by those uncouth and low brow Young Adult writers as they smoke that hashish in their trailers while drinking Hennessey out of brown paper bags.
Young Adult authors, unfortunately, don’t get their props. And I’m about to take away what little props they do get by re-distributing the art of the dead narrator to other genres.
Some of the reviews on YA books like The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold irritate me because they reference Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga as using a similar technique. And she doesn’t. Vampires, while technically dead, are not really dead narrators. Unless someone drives a stake through Edward’s heart (I am so there for that book and that movie) making him cease to exist, and then he continues to narrate the story, I don’t think the Twilight series should count as having a dead narrator. He is, in Meyer’s reality, alive. Sort of. Also, it’s a rubbish book, with rubbish characters, a rubbish plot, and rubbish writing. Sorry, had to get that out.
Using a dead narrator will either cause people to think of you as a very clever writer (ideal) or someone using a gimmick and that too a clichéd gimmick (not ideal).
I’m not going to tell you which genres each of these books have been marketed under – God invented Google for a reason – but you can probably guess based on the description. I’m sure there are loads more, but here is a list of writers, in no particular order, that have helped me sharpen up my execution (couldn’t resist) of the dead narrator technique:
1. My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk:
This translated Turkish novel focuses a bit too much on form, but is definitely interesting, even if the storyline is a bit complicated. Part of what makes it difficult to follow is that every single chapter uses a different narrator, making the development a bit choppy. But the use of the dead narrator technique is interesting. The story is about miniaturists in the Ottoman Empire. In the very first chapter, one of them is murdered, and he later re-emerges as a narrator. On a side note, Pamuk even uses animals as narrators, if you’re into that sort of thing. I liked the way he announces the narrator, almost like Herman Melville in Moby Dick, “Call me Ishmael.” Pamuk uses openings like, “I am Esther,” or “I am a Corpse.” Not a subtle bloke, but he is undeniably a talented one.
2. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
The Lovely Bones relies solely on the voice of Susie Salmon, the 14-year-old protagonist, to carry it through. Susie is raped and murdered in the first chapter, and tells the rest of the story from beyond the grave in a surreal afterlife that is not exactly Dante’s, or any religious doctrine’s version of purgatory. The underlying theme of the novel is hope and faith, so despite the extremely dark subject, with the skilled use of the dead narrator, the mood is never down beat, and that is an incredible feat to pull off with a 14-year-old narrator who is raped and murdered! What was even bolder than simply using a dead narrator in Sebold’s case is that she takes it a step further by suggesting not only that there is an afterlife, but by vividly describing it. This goes horribly awry in the film version, but works adequately well in the novel. The actual place she describes is very strange and may even be in her head. The plot was predictable, and the characters, including motivation, certainly had flaws, but I’m not reviewing either of those things in this post =)
3. Transparent Things by Vladmir Nabokov
Nabokov in no way makes the claim that he invented metafiction, but this work of metafiction is pure genius. It is barely 100 pages, but is probably one of the most complicated books I have ever read and enjoyed without feeling like it was going out of its way to be seen as avant garde. It is written, I think deliberately, in a stream of consciousness narrative, making the reader work much harder at understanding what is going on. The story is basically about an American editor named Hugh Person, who talks about his memory of four trips to Switzerland over 20 years. The reader is as active in the story as is the narrator, who is eccentric, to say the least, and eventually becomes mad. He also becomes dead. Nabokov has some of the most beautiful prose I have ever read, especially the passages about the relationship between the living and the dead.
4. The Book Of Skulls by Robert Silverberg
There is absolutely nothing original about the plot when you break it down. But the story becomes really engaging the second it shifts from the seemingly simple narrative into the multiple character narrative. And it doesn’t just stop there, not one, but two of the main characters die towards the end of the book. That doesn’t stop them from continuing to tell the story though. So it’s a blending of narrative: a multiple-dead-narrator technique, which I’m almost positive I will not be attempting for this novel, but it is great for learning about technique. The story is about four college students who discover a hidden manuscript called, you guessed it, “The Book of Skulls.” This manuscript mentions a certain order of monks who live in a monastery in Arizona and have discovered the secret of immortality. So the next logical step for these students is obviously to go to Arizona and locate these monks. Once they find them, they also find out that the ritual to obtain immortality from the monks involves the death of two of the college students. A little dramatic, yes, but excellent use of the dead narrator. Oh, and also, they all have deep, dark secrets.
5. Naming the Spirits by Lawrence Thornton
This is an extremely powerful and riveting sequel to a book that hit every nerve ending in my body, “Imagining Argentina.” His first book was about the disappearances that occurred in Argentina during the years of the dirty war when 30,000 people simply “disappeared” the same way thousands “disappeared” in Punjab when K.P. Gill served as the Director General of Police. The main character in “Imagining Argentina” was Carlos Rueda, who spends the novel trying to find his wife after she disappears, and he develops psychic powers where he is able to see who was taken, most of the time anyway. There are no dead narrators in that first novel.
In the sequel, “Naming the Spirits,” the fact that Thornton uses the dead narrator technique really heightens the emotions and makes this already powerful story, even more moving. This time, Thornton tells the story of the one girl who survived the killing fields, and her eleven companions, or rather, the spirits of her eleven companions, who died. The style of the prose and the mystical elements are things I don’t plan to use in my novel, but who knows? I wasn’t planning on killing my main character and then having him still narrate either. So we’ll see. But what interests me about this book is that it has used a horrible event that took place decades ago and in a completely different country, but made it relatable to people. And I think a large part of that was the use of the dead narrators.
6. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
When I first started reading this book, I wasn’t sure Markus Zusak could pull off having a character, not just be dead, but be death, the entity, and be taken seriously. But the more I read, the more impressed I became with the way he handled the “character” as well as the point of view shift. It is a very trickly spot to be in, to write about an entity that people have a pre-conceived notion of, and not have them dwell too much on it. Instead of a grim reaper, or someone who took what he did lightly, Zusak creates a very thoughtful character. The story itself is also very original. It is set in Germany during World War II, when a young girl, Liesel Meminger, steals a book called The Grave Digger’s Handbook in retaliation to her little brother being dead. The plot, the characters, and the use of Death as a narrator, all sound like ingredients to a very silly book, but this is very lyrically written. And while I probably won’t use a mythical element as blatant as a character named Death, a lot of the techniques used will certainly come in handy.
7. Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra
Last, but definitely not least, this is actually a very unlikely candidate for researching narrative strategies for my novel, and yet this thriller involving a dead Bombay gangster and divorced Sikh police officer is extremely riveting, well written, but for my purpose, well narrated. The novel, just to warn you, is absolutely massive. It’s 1000 some pages. Like a Bollywood movie, it has every mood you can imagine, shifts genres whenever the mood strikes, but eventually follows the narrative, as well as tying up the million subplots. The dead narrator in this story dies very early on. He is the gangster, Ganesh Gaitonde, the most dangerous gangster in the seedy underworld of Bombay. I’m definitely going to be taking another look at the way Chandra manages to pull off a dead narrator from so early on without even setting up the character properly in reality! That takes either skill or brass. Or perhaps a combination of the two. The main story is relatively simple: Inspector Sartaj Singh, a Sikh member of the Mumbai police force, has been tracking Ganesh Gaitonde for years, and he finally has him trapped. They trade witty remarks on life, and then he finds Ganesh and an unknown woman dead. Yes, it’s masala. But it is masala done well.