Why do we tell stories, and how are they crafted? In this series, we unpick the work of the writer on both page and screen.
The omniscient narrator – an all-knowing, third-person voice – is making a return to contemporary fiction. Indigenous Australian author Kim Scott, in choosing this technique for his latest award-winning novel, Taboo, is not alone: we can also find it in recent fiction by Zadie Smith (White Teeth; On Beauty) and Richard Powers (The Overstory).
Readers might be surprised by this trend. Isn’t the penchant to narrate in this way – like a kind of god – long dead? Curiously, the answer is no.
Along with several of his peers, Kim Scott is playing with a mode of omniscience deeply informed by the legacy of postmodernism in literature, a movement characterised by, among other things, a critique of the unreliable narrator. As with all of Kim Scott’s fiction, it matters deeply who it is that is speaking.
Literary scholar Paul Dawson has argued that the reappearance of the omniscient narrator in recent fiction can be read as “a performance of narrative authority”. He suggests one reason omniscience has returned is the anxiety many writers now feel about the role and place of storytelling in contemporary culture, where freely available digital media stories, peppered with fake news, produce and reproduce endlessly. As a result, there is very little about in the way of the consistently reliable narrative authority.
Enter Kim Scott’s omniscient narration in Taboo. Here is a narration that is playfully performative, in part to acknowledge and perhaps counter the many problems with narrative authority in contemporary life, but also to approach a very difficult topic.
This is a novel about a massacre site, and the question of how to adequately acknowledge what such a site means for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in the present.
Questions around power and narration are entirely pertinent in this context. Whose history is this? And who can tell it adequately? Who has the authority? Who, even, has an adequate handle on the story?
The sense of the flesh-and-blood Indigenous Australian author, Kim Scott, is ever present behind the text. Curiously, he even inserts an Afterword, a non-fiction commentary on his intentions with the novel, directly following the final page. It is an exegesis, or explanation, of sorts. But in and through the novel itself, the omniscient voice is not the implied voice of the author. It is something else entirely.
A higher voice
Reviewing Taboo for the Sydney Morning Herald, literary critic Peter Pierce describes the novel as having an “oracular” voice. Pierce may simply mean that the voice of the novel is enigmatic, but Scott’s narration is also oracular in the sense of employing a voice that claims the authority of an oracle – a source of wisdom from some higher, more ancient order of meaning.
Sometimes this makes the book feel like a work of magic realism, where the magical creeps into the real world, as in the opening pages:
We thought to tell a story with such momentum; a truck careering down a hillside, thunder in a rocky riverbed, a skeleton tumbling to the ground. There must be at least one brave and resilient character at its centre (one of us), and the story will speak of magic in an empirical age; of how our dead will return, transformed, to support us again and from within.
Reviewer Jane Gleeson-White has described the voice of the book as belonging to “‘undead’ Noongar ancestors who rise from the riverbed to narrate”. This is functionally correct, but Scott’s text is not a conventional ghost story, nor is the first-person plural, with its sense of a haunting presence, heavily laboured.
Explainer: magical realism
For much of the novel, we are focused upon the key protagonist, Tilly, in a way that could easily be mistaken for conventional realism. Except that it isn’t. Scott regularly disrupts that notion through shifts of perspective, a regular pulling back to the bigger picture. Here is one example, where the reader’s “sitting” on Tilly’s shoulder as she looks out the window of her group’s tour bus is interrupted by another viewpoint, one she cannot be simultaneously aware of:
Seen through the insect-smeared windscreen: scarcely undulating, dry and bleached ground; fence lines beside the road and dividing, at wide intervals, a mostly bare landscape. A fence is just the posts holding hands, thought Tilly, and such long arms in between them … “This place, Tilly, where we’re going” Gerry began, but Tilly was not listening and he let the words die. No one took up the conversation.
Taboo’s omniscient narration is gently provocative. It prods us to think about being or existence, for the novel’s unseen collective voice is more-than-human. As an ancestral voice, it is possible to understand our narrator(s) as a life expanded beyond the human form to encompass land, water, fire and curlew. We are encouraged to shift our thinking beyond the human-centric and towards the relation between human and other forms, especially ecological ones.
Consider, for example, this passage from the end of the novel, when an elderly Tilly is pictured at some point in the future, contemplating a pile of tree branches in a forest:
[She] would see not timber limbs but the bones of something new and ancient, something recreated and invigorated, and would think of when she first heard a voice rumbling from a riverbed, and how something reached out to her.
Did Scott just suggest that a riverbed might have a voice? That an energy without form might have reach?
To some extent, the meaning we take from Taboo depends upon how we think about the whole notion of omniscience. In my view, Scott’s choice of narrative technique works to ask of us as humans an increasingly important question: where are our limits? His use of omniscient narration might therefore be understood as a not just a literary choice, but a philosophical and ethical one.
The link below is to a book review of ‘Disruptive Witness,’ by Alan Noble.
The link below is to a book review of ‘Preaching as Reminding,’ by Jeffrey D. Arthurs.
The link below is to a book review of ‘The Shaping of Things to Come,’ by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch.
During World War I there was one military execution on average for every week of the war. Soldiers were executed for offences including cowardice, desertion, mutiny, disobedience, assisting the enemy or striking a senior officer. In 2006, the Labour government pardoned 306 soldiers who had been executed for desertion and cowardice in recognition that they were likely to have been victims of war trauma.
The pardons were a long time coming and lagged considerably behind the public understanding of shell shock. This discussion started almost as soon as the guns stopped firing on November 11 1918. One book which was widely influential at the time was A P Herbert’s The Secret Battle which was published in June 1919. As we mark the centenary both of Herbert’s book and of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28 we should move beyond the World War I commemoration to consider the conflict’s aftermath.
In 1928, Herbert’s book was republished in a new edition with an admiring preface by Winston Churchill. He wrote the book was:
One of those cries of pain wrung from the fighting troops […] like the poems of Siegfried Sassoon should be read in each generation, so that men and women are under no illusion about what war means.
The Secret Battle was particularly influenced by the work of the famous shell shock doctor W H R Rivers – Herbert’s novel was a kind of case history, a fictional report on his protagonist’s legal case and mental health. In his famous 1917 essay,Freud’s Psychology of the Unconscious, Rivers highlights the wide implications of Sigmund Freud’s theories of repression and the unconscious for a study of “human conduct” including criminal responsibility.
Rivers argued especially that war neurosis was caused by the repression of the natural impulse to flee the battlefield. Already written into the doctor’s understanding of psychoanalysis in wartime is the dangerous link between treatment and punishment. He understood that behaviours that were symptoms of shell shock might easily become capital crimes.
Herbert’s unnamed narrator uses the language of “battle psychology” in examining the chain of events that led his friend Harry Penrose to be executed for desertion. Herbert’s novel is in fact a fictional version of real court martial case, that of temporary Sub-Lieutenant Edwin Dyett, who was executed in 1917 despite a diagnosed history of shell shock. Herbert had also studied law and conducted court martial prosecutions and defences throughout his war service.
Make them be quick
In this highly emotional historical context, Herbert’s novel shows poignant restraint in its representation of Penrose’s death by firing squad:
The thing was done seven mornings later, in a little orchard behind the Casquettes’ farm. The Padre told me he stood up to them very bravely and quietly. Only he whispered to him ‘For God’s sake make them be quick’. That is the worst torment of the soldier from beginning to end – the waiting. He was shot by his own men, by men of D Company.
Despite his opposition to the military death penalty, Herbert also included a long fictional debate about court martial in general inspired by the intense feelings inspired by Penrose’s case held between the soldiers of his platoon, which set the tone for future parliamentary debates of the 1920s. This restrained, unbiased aspect of Herbert’s text reflects the narrator’s final summary, which deliberately refuses to become a polemic:
This book is not an attack on any person, on the death penalty, or on anything else, though if it makes people think about these things so much the better. I think I believe in the death penalty – I do not know. But I did not believe in Harry being shot. That is the gist of it; that my friend Harry was shot for cowardice – and he was one of the bravest men I ever knew.
Understanding shell shock
Despite the modesty of this final claim, the first readers of Herbert’s novel took his approach very seriously. For example, in the Times Literary Supplement, the reviewer, R O Morris, linked the book with “medical research” and the “psychoanalytical treatment of shell shock” suggesting that Herbert’s novel is the first war chronicle to deal with “the many subtle ways that fear has of getting at a man” from a “scientific understanding”.
At the same time, the reviewer struggles with the wider implications of the novel, arguing that in designing the tragedy of Penrose, the novelist “has left no stone unturned to ensure the full measure of calamity”.
In short, the novel challenged cultural beliefs about the natural justice of the military death penalty. Penrose was felt by the reviewer to be too sympathetic a character to be executed, precisely because of the complex, humanising psychological portrait Herbert offers.
But as early as 1922, a government report on shell shock admitted that similar injustices had undoubtedly occurred, as “psychoneurotic soldiers might have been court martialed and executed for cowardice before the phenomenon was understood”. It is suggested in this report that shell shock defences were rejected in around a third of cases.
American World War I scholar Ted Bogacz has argued that this 1922 report offered a direct line to the eventual abolition of the death penalty for cowardice in 1930. (Incidentally, despite Churchill’s admiration of the novel, he voted against this legislation). But fictional texts such as Herbert’s novel were just as important as the 1922 government report in raising awareness of the effects of shell shock and in reforming military procedures.