This was originally published here.
I’m curious as to whether or not we’re experiencing an as-yet-undefined ‘returning home’ of the tourist-as-narrator when we look at the works of Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere and Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. (Or perhaps we’re seeing the potential emergence of a narrator who is rendered a tourist in their own lives by virtue of how the economy has shown its hand over the past forty years.)
Consider: in Little Fires …, a character is challenged to stand up for their friend for the first time, a mother finds value in reporting on an untraditional ‘story’ for the first time, a couple seeking to adopt a child drop the child’s original name (where we’re told “It had not occurred to them, then or at any point until now, to regret the loss of her old name”), a daughter doesn’t realize how “unusually self-possessed her mother” is, two friends are suddenly described as being ‘as if they really were sisters,’ and a mother realizes that two interviewees were ‘unexpectedly easy subjects’ when we were given to indication as to why the mother thought that the people she was seeking to interview might be difficult, amongst others.
These are quick, broad strokes — and it doesn’t acknowledge the question that seems to linger somewhere near the heart of the novel; that is, ‘What does it mean to be a passionate mother in a ‘flat’ place?’ — but it doesn’t change the glint of the opening we see in these lines either, the sense that this narrator sometimes seems to be ‘dropping by’ in a way that borders on the casual.
We can see a little bit of that at work in the opening chunk of A Little Life as well. Consider this comparison between math and the law —
“What about something like Fermat’s last theorem?” asked Julia.
“That’s a perfect example of a non-beautiful proof. Because while it was important that it was solved, it was, for a lot of people — like my adviser — a disappointment. The proof went on for hundreds of pages, and drew from so many disparage fields of mathematics, and was so — tortured, jigsawed, really, in its execution, that there are still many people at work trying to prove it in more elegant terms … A beautiful proof is succinct, like a beautiful ruling.”
“Are you joking?” said Laurence…