Have you ever read a book where not very much happens, there isn’t any particular narrative drive or mystery or puzzle to be solved, but regardless you still find yourself desperate to know what’s going to happen next? This often results in trying to explain the wonders of the book to a fellow reader, but whatever you say sounds a bit dull because not very much happens and there’s no mystery or puzzle to be solved so you have to say, you’ll just have to trust me, it’s good.
This is where I find myself with The Genius of Little Things, by Larry Buhl. The good thing about the lack of plot means I can summarise in a sentence. Geeky orphaned teenage boy with obsessive behaviour does whatever it takes to get into the college of his choice, while trying to emancipate himself from his foster parents. That’s it, in a nutshell. Of course things happen, he gets a job in a care home, has to take a cocktail of prescription drugs to stay awake or go to sleep, and has a faltering romance with the lovely Rachel. But none of this is what kept me reading.
The key to this novel is the voice of the main character, Tyler. He is one of those rare narrators that has a slightly different view of the world, and manages to convey an array of neuroses with an entertaining turn of phrase and a naivety that sometimes had me shouting at him as though he was right there beside me (think Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory but more endearing).
Here’s an extract, a scene with Tyler and his foster mother (or FoMo to use Tyler terminology):
“How was the first day of school?” I noticed Janet and Carl often asked the same questions separately. I wished they would be in the same room at the same time so I could avoid redundancy. I stopped next to an enormous Indonesian cabinet and told her nothing terrible had happened.
She laughed. “No bombs went off?”
I assured her no bombs had exploded. I didn’t know what was funny about bombs. I wondered whether there had been bomb threats at Firebird High in the past. I made a mental note to research that.
She started talking about her day. After a minute, it still wasn’t clear what her job was. I narrowed it down to something sales-related. My small talk session with Carl hadn’t gone as well as I had hoped, so I tried to be more proactive in chitchatting with Janet. “The bees are still dying,” I said.
I explained colony collapse syndrome, in which honeybees were leaving their hives and dying by the billions. The latest research showed that the die-off could be caused by anything from an undiscovered fungus to cell phone signals that mess up their internal radar. I segued into an explanation of why bees were so important. For the record, they pollinate a huge variety of crops. Take away the bees and you take away up to one third of the human diet, from almonds to zucchini.
“Guess we’ll have to live on granola bars pretty soon,” she laughed.
I was silent. I could have pointed out that some granola bars have almonds, but chose not to.
It is this voice as well as Tyler’s thoughts on life and the people around him that for me is what drives the story forward. There is something reassuring as well as exhilarating for a reader when you believe in someone so much that it doesn’t matter what they do or where they go, you will follow them anywhere.
Other compelling first person narrators that stand out to me are Rose and Ruby Darlen in The Girls, by Lori Lansens, and Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture The Castle, by Dodie Smith. What is common in all of these books is the off-kilter way the main characters view the world around them and the way they express themselves. They think differently to me, and this helps me to view the world and my place within it in a different way too. The ability to change a reader’s perceptions is a powerful one, and goes a long way to explain why stories and novels will exist for as long as we do.
So for anyone interested in character-driven stories with a quirky and original voice, give The Genius of Little Things a try. You’ll just have to trust me, it’s good.
2 thoughts on “The Genius of Voice”
For me, Ian McEwan regularly demonstrates how to project different thinking, and I think it’s down to portraying a character’s rationality; how they reason, then what they plan to do about it. In 1st person it’s an inner monologue, but McEwan somehow does it in 3rd.
That’s a great way to describe it – a character’s rationality (or lack of). I’ll be thinking about that next time I create a new character!