Jeffrey DeShell

The term "experimental" in fiction covers a very broad range of strategies and effects, and some distinctions between different kinds of literary experiment and between works manifesting experiment to different degrees could certainly be made. Just to consider "experiment" in fiction at the most general level of adherence to convention--convention understood as a definable feature that has come to make fiction recognizable to most readers as fiction--it is possible to distinguish between works that set out to transform our conceptions of the nature of fiction in toto, and those that focus in a more limited way on producing innovative changes on specific conventions. The former might be called "transgressive" experiments that overrun the extant boundaries observed by most readers, critics, and other writers, while the latter might be regarded as "local" experiments that challenge "normal" practice but do so from within the boundary that otherwise marks off the still-familiar from the disconcertingly new.

Novels like Samuel Beckett's The Unnameable or Gilbert Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew would be good examples of the former, while Jeffrey DeShell's The Trouble With Being Born (FC2) is more appropriately considered as a local experiment. Readers of The Trouble With Being Born would probably find it accessible enough, a family chronicle that traces the lives of a husband and wife from their youth to their extreme old age. Its autobiographical roots are explicitly exposed, as the family is the DeShell family and the couple's only child is named Jeff, but the book's most provocative feature is undoubtedly the way in which the couple's story is related. The husband and wife tell their own stories in alternating first-person narratives, but while Mrs. DeShell's story is presented in reverse order, beginning with her affliction by dementia in old age and proceeding backwards into her childhood, Mr. DeShell's story proceeds in the opposite direction, from childhood to lonely old age. The two stories meet at numerous junctures, and the overall effect is to provide a convincing account of a mostly dysfunctional marriage.

The novel's twinned first-person narration spares us the kind of tedious psychologizing to which we would potentially be subjected through the use of a third-person narrator "going inside" the characters' heads in order to understand them, but it does pose a problem shared by other first-person narratives that do not make clear their source in a plausible narrative situation--the narrator committing his/her story to the page directly (albeit in any number of possible forms of notation), or speaking it directly to some identifiable audience. Both Mr. and Mrs. DeShell tell their stories in seemingly disembodied voices that represent neither their attempts to reckon directly through writing with the direction their lives have taken nor the recitation of their experiences before at least a potential audience. It is understandable that the author wished to explore these characters' sense of themselves through ventriloquizing their voices, but such an unmotivated mode of narration occasionally calls attention to itself in a way DeShell probably doesn't intend:

My fiftieth birthday. I don't look fifty. I'm driving Jewell's Firebird with her to meet Tommy the Rock at Mr. Z's, a nightclub in the Springs. Tommy the Rock will be sure to have some broads with him. Too bad Dominic is sick. I told Frances that I was going down to the Knights of Columbus, but I don't think she believed me. Screw her. She doesn't know fun. If she hadn't gotten so fat, maybe I'd be with her more often. She can watch the fireworks at home with Jeff. The two of them deserve each other. My wedding ring is in my pocket.

In a passage like this, DeShell is forced to use his narrator to present information so transparently and so implausibly (no one really says such things to oneself) that narrative continuity is broken. Since it seems to me that DeShell is ultimately attempting to maintain the illusion of realism in character and narrative voice, and is not indulging in postmodern tricks by calling attention to narrative artifice, this storytelling strategy can make suspension of disbelief difficult to grant.

Perhaps it was necessary to employ this style of narration in order to allow the characters' voices their necessary role both in the unfolding of their separate stories and in the larger story those stories together create. Both perspectives must be provided. And despite the awkwardness occasioned by the choice of point of view (and by the consistency of its application), the novel's aesthetic strategy essentially does succeed in making The Trouble With Being Born a compelling read and in chronicling the fortunes of what is probably an all-too-common American family. It succeeds in turning our notions of chronology and contiguity against themselves to create a locally satisfying narrative experiment, even if in the final analysis narrative itself as the central focus of interest in fiction is not challenged and the protocols of point of view are actually reinforced. Such a book won't revolutionize the art of fiction, but its does perhaps help remind readers that the requirements for creating this art are not fixed in place.


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