What Makes Fiction Good? It's Mostly the Voice

I don't care about Slaughterhouse-Five's characters, but I love how the narrator sounds.
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I finished Slaughterhouse-Five last week. It is probably the the funniest book I've ever read. Here's a sample. Billy Pilgrim, Lazzaro, and Edgar Derby are prisoners in a German war camp. Lazzaro is plotting revenge against an English POW who broke his arm. In the course of explaining this he tells a story about killing a dog with clock springs and a steak:

"Anybody ever asks you what the sweetest thing in life is--" said Lazzaro, "it's revenge."

When Dresden was destroyed later on, incidentally, Lazzaro did not exult. He didn't have anything against the Germans, he said. Also, he said he liked to take his enemies one at a time. He was proud of never having hurt an innocent bystander."Nobody ever got it from Lazzaro," he said, "who didn't have it coming."

Poor old Edgar Derby, the high school teacher, got into the conversation now. He asked Lazzaro if he planned to feed the Blue Fairy Godmother clock springs and steak.

"Shit," said Lazzaro.

"He's a pretty big man," said Derby, who, of course, was a pretty big man himself.

"Size don't mean a thing."

"You're going to shoot him?"

"I'm gonna have him shot," said Lazzaro. "He'll get home after the war. He'll be a big hero. The dames'll be climbing all over him. He'll settle down. A couple of years'll go by. And then one day there'll be a knock on his door. He'll answer the door, and there'll be a stranger out there. The stranger'll ask him if he's so-and-so. When he says he is, the stranger'll say, 'Paul Lazzaro sent me.' And he'll pull out a gun and shoot his pecker off. The stranger'll let him think a couple of seconds about who Paul Lazzaro is and what life's gonna be like without a pecker. Then he'll shoot him once in the guts and walk away." So it goes.

Lazzaro said that he could have anybody in the world killed for a thousand dollars plus traveling expenses. He had a list in his head, he said. 

Derby asked him who all was on the list, and Lazzaro said, "Just make fucking sure you don't get on it. Just don't cross me, that's all." There was a silence, and then he added, "And don't cross my friends." 

"You have friends'?" Derby wanted to know. 

"In the war?" said Lazzaro. "Yeah—I had a friend in the war. He's dead." So it goes. 

"That's too bad." 

Lazzaro's eyes were twinkling again. "Yeah. He was my buddy on the boxcar. His name was Roland Weary. He died in my arms." Now he pointed to Billy with his one mobile hand. "He died on account of this silly cocksucker here. So I promised him I'd have this silly cocksucker shot after the war." 

Lazzaro erased with his hand anything Billy Pilgrim might be about to say. "Just forget about it, kid," he said. "Enjoy life while you can. Nothing's gonna happen for maybe five, ten, fifteen, twenty years. But lemme give you a piece of advice: Whenever the doorbell rings, have somebody else answer the door."

This is a pretty entertaining section, and the entire book is a string of bizarre and absurdist incidents. It has none of the complicated, nuanced characters I claim to enjoy in narrative. But I did enjoy this narrative. I think it is because, in fiction, if you like the person telling you the story—which is to say the voice, not the author—you generally will let them tell you a story.

Pride and Prejudice, for me, is all about voice. I don't find Mr. Darcy gripping at all, except when the Austen's narrator is describing him. It is as though she is letting me on a secret. Ditto for Edith Wharton in The Age of Innocence. The voice belongs to society insider, one who believes in all of its trappings but also loves to gossip about its hypocrisies. It is as if the voice is saying to you—"If you don't have anything good to say, come sit by me." Same with Moby Dick and the vagabond intellectual Ishmael. Same with The Great Gatsby and its everyman, Nick Carraway.

I've actually been struggling with this while studying E.L. Doctorow's work. Doctorow is my favorite author. The Waterworks, Billy Bathgate, Ragtime, World's Fair, I love them all. (The Waterworks is especially underrated.) But I love the voices telling me the stories in each case. I'm now trying to get through The Book of Daniel, considered one of Doctorow's best novels. But I can't get with the voice and I'm not sure why.

At any rate, this is of major importance to me because I'm teaching a class next semester called "Voice and Meaning." It's all about how writers choose voices and why they matter. Like any class I teach, this is ultimately about making things. Theory is only important in so much as it helps.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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