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Narration is the foundation for the story. If the narrator has a strong voice, the rest of the story will typically follow suit. For the most part stories are narrated in first or third person, but sometimes departing from the familiar can be a huge benefit to the story. Writers like Italio Calvino and – more recently – Caroline Kepnes have seen huge success manipulating traditional forms of narration.
Manhattan Book Review’s Faith Aeriel had a chance to speak with Caroline Kepnes, author of You and Hidden Bodies, about her stylistic choices with first person narrator Joe Goldberg. Much of the conversation was based around the idea of narratee, as described in the following excerpt from David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction:
“Every novel must have a narrator, however impersonal, but not necessarily a narratee. The narratee is any evocation of, or surrogate for, the reader of the novel within the text itself. This can be as casual as the Victorian novelist’s familiar apostrophe, “Dear Reader,” or as elaborate as the frame of Kipling’s ‘Mrs Bathurst’ … in which the ‘I’ narrator is also the narratee of a story told by three other characters who themselves are constantly swapping the two roles. Italo Calvino begins his If on a winter’s night a traveler by exhorting his reader to get into a receptive mood: ‘Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room.’ But a narratee, however constituted, is always a rhetoric device, a means of controlling and complicating the responses of the real reader who remains outside the text.”
Q. Do you feel like the idea of narratee better describes the way Joe addresses Beck – talking to her even when she is not actually there – than a traditional second person narration?
A. Yes because you are not reading this thinking you are you. (Whoa, difficult sentence.) You are reading from Joe’s perspective, his very singular perspective on Beck, the whole narrative driven by his inability to stop thinking about her, to move on from her or away from her. I started out on this with the hope that you would read this book and feel as though you were eavesdropping on his internal monologue, which is all directed at this one woman, which is why it’s captivating, because he’s fixated on her. That’s why we begin [You] with the door opening. He’s been waiting for someone to captivate him, he wants to be captivated, that level of drive was exciting to me as a writer, that the “narrate” be so unknowingly complicit.
Q. What do you see as the difference between second person narration and a narratee?
A. I know there are different kinds of second person, and for me, the kind you see the most encourages the reader to be “you.” With a narratee, “you” is a character in the story.
Q. Why did you decide to use this technique?
A. I love letters. Old fashioned handwritten, typed letters as well as our modern day equivalent, the email. It was so appealing to me to approach this book as a love letter, an unsent love letter.
I thought about that phrase that grinds on me for some reason, “live tweeting”, also the beginning of The Social Network, the way he’s blogging while hacking into the system. I wanted that energy in book form. It’s something I seek out when I read, the sense of impulsiveness and immediacy in the writing. I have read The Road so many times and I worship that book, the way every page is the page. This let me feel locked in at all times, because when you’re inside of this character’s head, this single-minded character, you have to be so careful and cautious. It’s great exercise. And I wanted to break this character’s heart, and to me, the narrate provides this direction, this sense of doom.
Q. Was this the initial style you began writing these books in or did you start with a different approach? If you decided to change to the use “you” as a narratee, at what point did you decide that and why?
A. It was always “you” from day one. I’ve written a couple short stories in the same style, and it’s something so deliberate. A conscious decision and I think the story has to really require it. Otherwise it can feel insincere or distracting. For me, this was the best way and only way to tell this story. In a book I’ve been working on, I recently got over a hundred pages in and revised and went from first person to third person. And it was like “Aaaah, now we’re on our way.” So much of writing is finding the way in. Sometimes you know right away and sometimes it’s a part of the experiment.
Q. Have you read other works of fiction that made use of a narratee that inspired you?
A. It’s funny that the paragraph mentions Calvino because my college writing teacher had us reading Calvino and it was striking to me. And I’m having such flashbacks to it, how it stayed with me and then I wrote this story where this woman is in the car with her son and the first line is “You were a baby and you were born and you…” something-something. But that story was a direct reaction to Calvino.
Q. Did you do any research before starting down the road with this less traditional narrative approach?
A. I didn’t. I try to shut down that critical part of my brain when I write. I trusted my instinct and always, I mean it was just so pleasurable to write. I was writing and smiling and it was like, if I finish this and it feels like a terrible disaster, so be it. But it will never be a waste of time because it’s so wholly gratifying.
Q. One of the reasons the narratee works so well for me as a reader is that it strengthens the storyline (the stalker element in particular) and Joe’s character by making the reader feel a little uncomfortable, as if their personal space is being violated. Clearly, this allows our reading experience to parallel Beck’s story and it almost seems to serve as another layer of characterization for Joe. Was this your goal?
A. Absolutely, I thought about that while I was writing. There are pieces of me in Beck and Joe and I liked the dynamic of her exhibitionism and his voyeurism, that she is someone who wants to be up there, on stage, she wants applause, but she hasn’t yet found her way, found her voice. And it’s so dangerous to be focused on what people think of you, to go forward with that goal because then you are only looking ahead, not looking inward. You’re making room for Joe and there is self-destruction in that lifestyle. Lisa Levy articulated this so well in this piece.
Writing it made me squirm a lot, made me feel so aware of what I was tweeting, why I was doing it, every little communication. And of course I hoped that the reading experience would be similar for others. I didn’t think of it as a thriller, just as headtrip. And yes, you feel for Joe because so much of what Beck does is criminal and frustrating and self-destructive. I think this complicates the emotions. He wants to make her happy. He is so controlling and heartbreaking because as smart as he is, he doesn’t understand that basic law of life, that you can’t “make” someone else happy.
Q. What challenges were presented when writing with a narratee in mind that may not be present with a straightforward first or third person narration?
A. The greatest challenge is the most valuable challenge because it narrows the playing field. Every word out of his mouth is directed at her. She’s his imaginary friend, really. And in the Dr. Nicky sessions, it was so important to me that we feel her presence, that he’s talking to Nicky, he’s talking to her. Same as with Benji, maintain his communication with Beck, tracking that in every moment. So there’s no, “Anyway, back to you, Beck.”
Q. How did your agent/publisher react to the use of a narratee?
A. I thought they would either give me a reference to a shrink or a deal. I got a deal!
Q. What responses have you received from readers regarding the use of a narratee?
A. People feel so close to Joe, as if he’s real, they hate themselves for loving him, feeling for him, they are wild-eyed over it. I love that. And I think that’s because he’s trying to find his way in the world. There’s nothing arbitrary about his violence and it feels tragic to readers. They want to stick with him, I love that this character has that kind of impact on readers.
Q. Why do you think the use of a narratee isn’t a more common approach?
A. Because the story has to require it. And most stories just plain don’t require it, they’re not built that way. I had no doubt that this story started with this man speaking to this woman, whispering and grumbling his way through life, that it would expand in the second book [Hidden Bodies], with him speaking to the world, and then I know his target in the next book. But I’m working on two other books right now and while I wish I could write “you you you” all day, the stories wouldn’t work. The stories are fundamentally different.
Q. Do you think that the use of a narratee affects the reader differently than reading a piece entirely in second person?
A. I think so, yes. It would be such a different book if you were reading and feeling you, the reader, are walking in Beck’s shoes. I love that as a side effect at certain moments, but it would be boring to go through the whole book that way because the book is so much about her doubt of who she is and what she wants, she wants the trophy without the work, the photo more than the reality. And it’s all an avoidance tactic to put off dealing with her own issues, and that makes her endearing to me, but it’s also what makes her so vulnerable. Joe, he thinks he’s right about everything, he knows exactly what he wants. And his drive is so critical to the story.
Q. Is there anything else you would like to add on the topic?
A. It’s a great word to have in a conversation about this book, narratee. For me, we’ve all had an experience of being obsessed with someone, not to this extent, but the great of it, the horror of it, the can’t sleep, can’t eat, can only think about this person sensation. And I loved Joe for being what we think we want, this poetry spouting romantic guy in the bookstore, but you know, he’s also death. That’s the power of the narrator/naratee, that dramatic tension that energizes the story, the classic, eternal conflict where life and death are sort of the same thing. To me, spoiler alert, Beck was dead the second she walked into the bookstore because she walked into his view. And Amy is sort of born when she walks in, going to live forever because she’s cold, invulnerable. That’s why he’s not speaking to her the way he is to Beck.
Caroline Kepnes is a native of Cape Cod and the author of many published short stories. After graduating from Brown University, Caroline moved to New York where she covered pop culture for Entertainment Weekly and Tiger Beat. She also worked as a staff writer on the first season of ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Caroline’s second novel, Hidden Bodies, is the follow-up to her debut novel, You, which was optioned by Showtime. Caroline now lives in Los Angeles, where she writes fiction, drinks artificially sweetened caffeinated beverages, and avoids freeways. Follow @CarolineKepnes on Twitter or visit CarolineKepnes.com.
Faith Aeriel is a freelance writer and journalist. She has formerly worked as Associate Editor for Manhattan Book Review, San Francisco Book Review, and Kids’ BookBuzz, during which time she was responsible for writing articles, blog posts, and interviewing authors, as well as editing and managing incoming content for the websites. Faith loves books, cinnamon rolls, and cats.