_The Thief_, with spoilers galore--extra long for your enjoyment

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at Proffitt.com
Sat Mar 9 20:18:11 EST 2002


On Fri, 8 Mar 2002 16:37:42 +0000, Hallie O'Donovan wrote:

>I've tried to snip this as much as I could, including our previous 
>defenses against cheating which were not the things to which Melissa 
>objected. I'm working from memory as my copy is still with Dorian. 
>It's in a good home. :)
>
>
>>spoiler space
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>>more spoiler space because
>>I don't know
>>how much
>>is
>>really
>>needed
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>>It's the issue of Hamiathes's Gift that I see as cheating, and I'll tell you
>>why.  The structural climax of the novel happens at the moment that Gen
>>reveals that he's had the stone the whole time everyone thought it was lost.
>>In order for this to be the climax, *the reader can't know the truth*.  The
>>reader has to be just as surprised as the magus and Sophos in order for the
>>climax to retain its emotional impact.  In order to do this, Turner has to
>>manipulate the first-person POV and take advantage of the reader's
>>assumptions.

>Well, I agree with Anita that Gen's having the Gift has much less 
>emotional impact than the revelation of who he is.

It's not that one has less than the other--and it's worth noting too that
*both* revelations are part of the same climactic moment.  But which one
matters more is going to be up to the reader.  I think the whole point is
that he had to hide his identity in order to find Hamiathes's Gift--not just
for some romp in the park.  So I see that as more crucial to the storyline,
which after all has been a quest for this exact item (and that item is
vitally important to a lot of people).  Though you could turn it around and
say that the *actual* story is about who Gen really is, and that the quest
is the decoy storyline, which is also an interesting approach.  In any case,
knowing either of the secrets lessens--or maybe changes--the emotional
impact of both revelations.  In my opinion.

>>While it's true that Gen lies all the time, his deceptions all center on how
>>he represents himself to others (and, due to the POV, to the reader).  But
>>at no time does he misrepresent what he *perceives* and *actually does*.
>>That is, he might lie about why he's doing something, but he won't hide that
>>he's done it--up until the skirmish at the ford.  Here's the relevant
>>paragraph:
>>
>>"The magus and I were nearly knee to knee, ahead of the others.  I dragged
>>the reins of my horse over to one side, and it stumbled into the horse
>>beside it.  I brushed shoulders with the magus for just a moment and then
>>turned the horse on its haunches...." (p. 156)
>>
>>This is the moment at which he cuts the leather thong and takes the stone,
>>but there's no mention of this key event.  Here's his later explanation of
>>how he managed to get it:
>>
>>"As soon as I'd seen the riders attacking, I'd moved my horse, never far
>>away from the magus's, until I could cut the thong around his neck with the
>>penknife I'd stolen the first or second day out of prison.  He'd been too
>>distracted to notice and had assumed later, as I'd known he would, that the
>>thong had been sliced by a sword stroke and that the Gift had dropped into
>>the stream." (p. 204)
>
>Well, you have omitted an important clue - as soon as Gen gets up in 
>the tree he says that he rebraided his hair - and in the only 
>previous mention of doing his hair he said that the braid was useful 
>for hiding small things he'd stolen.

Not entirely true.  He said first that he liked having his hair done up out
of the way AND that it was useful for hiding stuff.  So that wasn't the only
reason--it wasn't the only conclusion that might be drawn from that action.

>>What's more, this is a manipulation of what readers expect from the
>>first-person POV (something Ros noted above).  The assumption is that
>>whatever lies the POV character may tell to other characters--and whatever
>>lies other characters tell which go unquestioned by the POV--that narrator
>>will not, at least, lie to the reader; if his internal narrative is flawed,
>>there will be external evidence to clue the reader in to the discrepancy.
>>Turner takes advantage of this to keep the secret up until she can reveal it
>>to best advantage.  This isn't strictly cheating, but it's a manipulation
>>writers can't get away with very often, because it destroys the reader's
>>trust in the author's narrative choices.
>
>Oh, dear - I disagree with this both because I think there IS a clue, and
>because I think everything is a little less black-and-white than this.  I don't
>think Gen *did* lie to the reader - he just didn't disclose the full truth (and
>I see his theft of the Gift as really almost as dangerous to him as the
>knowledge of his identity - if he's allowed repress one bit of information, why
>not another?).

Who's he repressing it from?  As I asked in another post, why on earth
should he even know we exist?  In one sense, the reader has a completely
separate identity from the world of this novel, and we are peeking in on
him.  If he has no idea we-the-readers exist, he has no reason to hide
anything.  What's more, on the topic of his identity, he thinks exactly as
much as he ought to be doing at that moment.  The only reason he would have
to think something like "my father, the Prime Minister of Eddis" or "boy, I
hope the Queen has that entourage at the top of the pass" would be to inform
US.  It would be unnatural for him to think it to himself.

> But more than that, I think it's that I'm not sure we 
>should expect this particular narrative to be a certain way just 
>because it's first-person.  I'm never going to manage to explain this 
>as clearly as I want to, but it goes back to my feeling when we 
>studied _Pride and Prejudice_ last year and read in a section on 
>realism and comedy something about the "duplicitous narrative voice" 
>in P&P.  I was a bit taken aback at first, but came to see what was 
>being said.  And I think it relates very well to the narrative voice 
>in _The Thief_, on a deeper level than "if Jane Austen can do it, why 
>can't MWT?"  (Which I also feel, of course.)

I see.  Here's what I perceive as the difference.  A duplicitous narrative
voice--if I'm remembering correctly, and please tell me if I'm getting it
wrong--has to do with not being required to take the narrator's word for
things.  It's possible, and often desirable, to question what the narrator
is saying, especially when it comes to the conclusions that narrator makes.
(That's sort of rough; would you mind telling about the _Pride and
Prejudice_ discussion?  I love that book, but I never studied it formally,
so I'm not sure how this applies to _P&P_.  In fact, that might be a good
thing, because I don't know how much of that is interpretation and how much
of it is Jane Austen choosing to be duplicitous.  I would definitely like to
hear this.)  But I seem to remember that there should be ways of identifying
"the truth" within the text that don't require dependence on the unreliable
narrative voice.  In fact, this ought to mean that NOTHING the narrator says
can be taken as reliable--which in this case would include Gen's final
"true" account.

What I have been going on about has very little to do with interpretation
and everything to do with writerly technique.  When I say Turner cheated,
I'm talking about the deliberate choices she as a writer HAD to make in
order for her story to come out the way it did.  Writers have to make
choices about those things: first person vs. third person, omniscient vs.
limited.  More description or more dialogue.  Things like that.  And they
can make those choices because they have a good sense of what that choice is
going to convey to the "experienced" reader; that is, they know that readers
have certain assumptions about POV that THEY'VE derived from reading a great
number of books.  The writer depends on these assumptions in constructing
the story.  Without them, there's a greater chance that a potential reader
will simply be turned off because the book doesn't match the (generally
subconscious) assumptions she brings to the book.

I *never* make guesses about what a writer intended a book to mean.  (Almost
never.)  I figure unless I ask that writer myself, I don't have any business
saying that So-and-so wrote this book to mean a particular thing.  Plus, it
frees me to make wild guesses myself.  :)  But as a would-be writer, I *do*
make guesses about why an author *constructed* a book in a particular way.
If I don't do this, there's no way I can learn to improve my own writing.
If I read a book that I really admire, I practically *have* to be able to
deconstruct it (not in the postmodern sense) so that I can figure out how to
achieve the same effect myself.  I have to know what physical aspect of the
text--the word choice, the POV choice, the dialogue, whatever--contributed
to this effect, and how much of it stems from the experience I bring to the
text.  Is it enough just to write in first person, or do I also have to
depend on the reader being familiar with texts A, B, and C?  And then I have
to test it on other people and see if I'm right, assuming that I had enough
skill to reproduce it, which unfortunately doesn't happen as often as I'd
like.

So when I talk about "cheating" in this context--and I do recognize that's a
strongly connotative word--it doesn't mean that I got to the end of the book
and said, "Hey, that was totally unfair!  I should have been able to figure
that out!"  It just means that I recognize what techniques she used to
conceal the plot, for the express purpose of getting that "aha!" ending, and
based on my experience I didn't think they were totally kosher.  Where
interpretation comes into it is that my reading of the book places more
emphasis on the personal relationships--what the magus is really like, who
Sophos is going to become thanks to this journey, why Ambiades would turn
out to be a traitor--than on the surprise ending.  If all it were was that
surprise, it wouldn't be worth reading more than twice at most.  So it
seemed a little strange that Turner put so much effort into deceiving the
reader, because I could see a version in which the reader *does* know what's
going on, and that version seemed pretty good to me too.  There's another
open question for everyone: what do you see as the most important aspect of
the book?  Gen's identity, the theft of the Gift, the political and social
landscape, the personal relationships, or something else entirely?

>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.

>On the other hand - I agree totally with all the good things you have 
>to say about it. :)

Of course you do.  We don't disagree about EVERYTHING, you know. :)  But I
do know that you provoke the most long-winded responses from me.  If
bandwidth were paper, my government would be suing both of us for the
recovery of old-growth forests.

Melissa Proffitt
(who knows perfectly well where paper actually comes from, thank you)
(my eyes are crossed now, I have the feeling I just repeated myself about
ten times)
(crap, is it four o'clock ALREADY?)
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