_The Thief_ (M&H) SPOILERS!

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at Proffitt.com
Thu Apr 4 14:48:49 EST 2002


Sorry to resurrect this discussion after such a long time.  I'm afraid I've
been too ill to respond to any email at all.  And I'm tired of this
argument.  What it boils down to is what readers perceive, and that's too
subjective to argue.  I'm sorry I said anything in the first place.

I have only two comments on the more general topic of narrative structure
and authorial decisions, and one on _The Thief_ in particular.

About duplicitous narrators and _Pride and Prejudice_, Hallie wrote:

>Anyway, P&P has an omniscient narrator, seemingly completely 
>trustworthy.   But there are places where the narrative very subtly 
>plays on this to tease the reader.  One example is the scene when 
>Jane gets the letter from Caroline Bingley telling her that they've 
>left Netherfield. It starts "Hope was over, entirely over: and when 
>Jane could attend to the letter, she found little, except the 
>professed affections of the writer, that could give her any comfort". 
>The "professed" puts this firmly in the narrator's focalization, as 
>Jane still believes Bingley's sisters are sincere at this point.

"Professed" in this case does not necessarily indicate doubt; it is
synonymous with "expressed".  Or, rather, you can read it either way or both
simultaneously, which enhances the double meaning--Jane sees it the one way,
Miss Bingley meant it another.

>However, there is nothing at all to indicate to the reader that "hope 
>is over" is in *Jane's* focalization, rather than the narrator's.  So 
>in one sentence, the narrative slips out of a character's 
>focalization to the narrator's, without even a hint to the slippage, 
>causing the reader to believe something which isn't true.  There are 
>lots of examples like this, and each is small enough, admittedly. 
>But these examples of teasing the reader are examined along with 
>(again, subtle) acknowledgements in the text that memory, the 
>observing as well as the observed consciousness, are instable - are a 
>fiction.

The whole point of the omniscient narrator is the ability to tell us not
only all the action, but also all the thoughts of the characters.  There's
no slippage; the earlier characterization of the Bingley girls is the
indication that the letter is dishonest, and the earlier description of
Jane's naive and trusting nature indicates that the reaction is Jane's
mental state.  The narrator *is* completely trustworthy; the difference is
whether or not the reader applies the description of earlier events to what
the characters say and think later.

But do you see how this is relevant?  The core of the above analysis is "the
clues aren't there."  I say they are; the author of your book says they
aren't.  And back we go to _The Thief_.  I like this analysis of _P&P_ but I
disagree that it's the only way to read the book--that this means Austen is
definitely being duplicitous, as opposed to one reader believing this is the
case.

>So this may go some way towards explaining why this seemed to me to 
>have some bearing on the narrative voice in TT.  JA's readers 
>presumably assume that the narrator is trustworthy, but sometimes she 
>plays with that trust - not in any outrageously wanton way, imo, but 
>rather in the way Elizabeth likes to play and tease.  Similarly, imo, 
>the fact that we assume certain things about what will be revealed in 
>a first-person narrative, doesn't necessarily mean that those 
>assumptions and expectations have to be honoured and met.

It's not that I think authors should always do exactly what the reader
expects--quite the opposite.  It's when I have the feeling that the author
is doing it *deliberately* to be misleading that I get irritated.  It occurs
to me...maybe you have never read amateur fiction, or written it.  (I don't
mean fanfic, though some of it is like this.)  I have read COUNTLESS
'novels' by really poor writers, most of whom are just starting out as
writers and never become good enough to be published.  (It's like my name is
on some cosmic telemarketer's list.)  I would estimate that about half of
them used tricks like this, thinking they were being SOOOO clever, but the
truth is they weren't good enough to tell a real story and had to resort to
manipulations of narrative structure to get an "aha!" ending.  They also
were under the impression that the "aha!" ending is the best way to write a
story.  (In case you were thinking I was being bitchy again, I have a box of
stories like this, and they are all terrible.  So I'm a perpetrator too.)

Does that make more sense?  From my perspective, Turner's narrative choice
is very closely related to all those crappy novels that I had to be polite
about so I wouldn't alienate my friends or destroy the feelings of some
star-eyed novice.  If I had read _The Thief_ first, there is no way I would
ever have read the sequel and I would have gone out of my way to make sure
nobody else I know did either.  (More bitchiness.  Sorry.  I feel like I'm
talking in circles.)

About _The Thief_, Hallie wrote:

>Ok, to respond to the three paragraphs together:  my feeling is that 
>Turner didn't cheat, although Gen clearly did.  But rather than that 
>cheating being a case of the author's doing something not kosher (or 
>certainly, rather than its involving a "cheap parlor trick"), this is 
>an essential and central part of the characterisation in the book. 
>This is exactly who Gen IS, as well as what he does.  Although we 
>learn that he had a very unselfish motivation for going out to steal 
>H's Gift, aren't you just completely convinced that he also did it in 
>part for the sheer fun of it?  And part of the fun was in the 
>baffling of as many people as he could!

Baffling other people, yes.  The reader, no.  But I'm not going to argue
this point any more.

>  He mentions his 
>disappointment at the Magus's NOT being surprised by the revelation 
>of his identity (partly compensated for by Sophos being gob-smacked), 
>and his delight in the fact that the Magus is completely surprised by 
>Gen's having the stone.  So combined with the ending suggestion that 
>the story would be written down, I think it can be read as his 
>written narrative, written the way it was for the sheer pleasure of 
>surprising the reader.  And I think it's perfectly fitting to feel 
>that amused and exasperated affection for Gen that Eddis seems to 
>feel throughout.

Thank you for just destroying any pleasure I might have taken in the novel,
Hal.  :)  Seriously, I dislike this kind of character--the kind that fools
you and then expects you to think it was funny.  My family refers to this
kind of person as a "hoser."  My regrettable character flaw is that I lack a
sense of humor over characters like this.  If I thought Gen was one of them,
I would hate him forever.

Not to be mean or anything, but--remember our discussion of _Beauty_?  This
seems to fall into the same category.  I'm glad to understand how you read
the book, but I'm never going to agree about it.

>That's not quite all, however.  Here I may be going out into the 
>ether irretrievably, but *for me*, I think there may be another layer 
>to this.  Gen's trickery is an essential part of his 
>characterisation, but I think it could also be read as pointing 
>beyond him to the world of the book.  Gen is not just an attractive 
>rogue - a liar and a thief but you gotta love him - he has a role as 
>the Queen's Thief in his society.  And readers need to accept this 
>role to some extent, as part of accepting the world.  I think it's 
>one of the many strengths of the writing that Turner manages to get 
>this unique role accepted - well, I can't say universally, but has 
>anyone heard anybody say that he or she didn't like _The Thief_ 
>because the main character steals things and lies? 

I don't see this as a unique role at all.  The idea of the Rogue is a
mainstay of the genre: P.C. Hodgell's Jame is a thief, the Stainless Steel
Rat is a thief, David Eddings' Silk is a thief (as is his female counterpart
from the Malloreon, and I liked her better).  That's why I liked Gen; I like
reading about Rogues as main characters.  This is just another in a long
tradition.  She does do it well.

>>  >Obviously, if at the end of the day a reader feels cheated, that's
>>>how he or she feels.  But I do still have a bit of a problem with a
>>>categorical statement that it IS cheating.
>>
>>I didn't say I felt cheated.  I didn't.  I felt that Turner used techniques
>>in a way that deliberately led the reader to the wrong conclusions, for the
>>sake of a surprise ending rather than as the natural requirement of the
>>story.  That's different from feeling personally cheated.  That's one
>>(unpublished, unskilled) writer saying "You really were close to the line on
>>that one."  Turner took a real chance and succeeded, counting success by
>>sales and awards.  If she weren't as good as she is, it wouldn't have
>>worked.
>
>Ok, I see better now what you're saying on this one.  My protest 
>against your stating that Turner cheated (as opposed to saying that 
>in your opinion she cheated) was based on the fact that it seemed to 
>imply some set of technical rules about what is and is not allowed 
>for a first person narrative.

Yes.  The reason that I didn't state it as my opinion is that what happens
within the text was not in this case a matter of opinion.  Gen really did
steal the stone and he really did conceal the theft both from the reader and
his companions (though to what degree the reader was deceived was the
substance of our discussion, and that *is* the reader's opinion).  There are
stories where "what really happened" is subject to opinion; I read an essay
about _Mrs. Dalloway_ where the writer made a convincing argument that Mrs.
Dalloway is dead for the last scenes of the novel.  I think Lois Lowry's
_The Giver_ is another like this.

>  I was protesting that as there isn't 
>any such set of rules (afaik anyway!), "cheating" will almost always 
>be a matter of perception or interpretation.

Yes and no, I think.  Yes, there isn't a set of rules that writers keep on
their desks and refer to all the time.  But this doesn't mean there are no
rules at all.  The way I see it working is that "the rules" are a matter of
consensus among experienced readers and writers, and occasionally someone
breaks "the rules" in a way that readers like, which then gets incorporated
into "the rules."  Inexperienced readers often complain about writers
breaking "the rules" but they are usually corrected by their more
experienced elders, who know more about precedents than they do.  That's why
it's helpful to know the reading background of any critic (by "critic" I
mean anyone who comments on how good or bad a book is, whether formally or
informally) to assess whether or not to take their remarks seriously.  The
rules change, but they still exist.

I remember Marvel Comics had this thing they called a "No-Prize."  I can't
remember if it was all their titles or just a few, but that's not the point.
Sometimes a comic would have an error in it--something miscolored, or
somebody's name changing between frames, or whatever.  The No-Prize was what
readers got for noticing the error and making a convincing explanation for
it within the context of the comic (the color changed because of the light
that was shining on the object; the person was using an alias or had been
known by a different name in his childhood).  It was just an elaborate joke,
but you see vestiges of it sometimes in other places--like if there's an SF
convention in a movie, and somebody in the audience asks some piddly
question about an error in Episode #48 of Star Trek and tries to come with
an explanation, when the truth is that the makeup company sent a bad batch
of blue body paint and that's why all the Andorians look stripy.  (No, I do
*not* remember what episode #48 of Star Trek was really about.)

Thanks to postmodernism, everything is a text and everything is worthy of
criticism.  What we've lost, in my opinion, is the ability to say that
something is just plain bad.  In being able to make excuses--to generate
convincing explanations--for actual mistakes, we put everything on the same
ground.  THIS IS NOT ABOUT _THE THIEF_!!!  I'm talking generalities now.  I
like how the ideas of postmodernism have opened up criticism to brand new
levels, but I don't think this gives writers license to just write whatever
they please and then justify it afterward.  This puts my friends the
terrible writers on the same level as people like Megan Whalen Turner and
DWJ.  That strikes me as very wrong.

That's all I'm going to say about _The Thief_.  Feel free to respond, but I
have nothing more to say.  I am, again, very sorry I brought it up at all.

Melissa Proffitt
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