I never liked dude-bro narrators like Bukowski’s or Updike’s. There’s something off-putting about voices that seem too male, or flaunt their dick in a way that seems to scream, "I HAVE A SMALL ONE." There are so many female voices that are infinitely stronger, more relatable in the way they negotiate emotions. Maybe it’s because I don’t believe gender is fully defined by body, or because the way a story is told is more important to me than what the story is. I got to thinking recently about how many of my favorite narrators in fiction are females, and how there is often something more awake and open in their tones. Below is a list of some of those favorites.
Money Breton in Why Did I Ever, by Mary Robison
Easily years ahead of its time, as Robison seems to frequently be, Why Did I Ever is kind of a portrait of the brain as a Magic Eye puzzle—it is told in 536 tiny segments, each usually no longer than a handful of lines. The book begins with the image of a lock being opened to spew forth its contents under a mesmerized constraint: “I have a dream of working a combination lock that is engraved on its back with the combination. Left 85, right 12, left 66. ‘Well shit, man,’ I say in the dream.” Such fragmentary, odd quips make up the intuitive spew that is the voice of Money Breton, a character as wry, unpredictable, and confusingly electric as her name portends, and one that grows the longer you spend inside her frames, never quite sure what kind of observation will come next. Nothing quite happens, and nothing needs to, as it is in Breton’s logic that the character emerges—how she builds her life from what goes on. Breton notates her days in fragments regarding love, art, consumption, memory, and music, and each new branch we are made part of builds into a comb of never-resolving fragments of some self. The array of these branches could potentially be in any order, and yet together build into something as vivid as it is unpredictable, almost like an actual person.
Alette in The Descent of Alette, by Alice Notley
The Descent of Alette wastes absolutely no time bending its readers’ brains into the brain of something much larger than the book itself. The book is told in rhythmic fragments, all chopped up in quotation marks that force the reader to slow down, feeling like they’ve been drugged when they enter the narrative terrain: “One day, I awoke” “& found myself on” “a subway, endlessly” / “I didn’t know” “how I’d arrived there or” “who I was” “exactly” / “But I knew the train” “knew riding it” “knew the look of” / “those about me.” As soon as we are immersed in Alette’s hypnotizing jargon, we begin to descend beside her, through a subway that continues to open into more and more fucked sorts of dreamlike scenery the deeper we go. Notley’s imagination opens widely as she piles lyric upon lyric, stringing together arcane imagery into a Dante-like quest in which Alette seeks to free herself from the tyranny of a cryptic and terrifying world. For once, it’s a book where the narrator’s quest is more immersive and haunting moment to moment than it is concerned with self-reflection, letting the endless chains of rooms with blood and jewels and animals and people fill in around you.
Helen in American Genius: A Novel by Lynne Tillman
Helen’s is a voice constructed in the manner of an encyclopedic maze. We are vaguely aware she’s been committed, or at least confined to live in a home full of people she doesn’t really know. But interspersed with her passive observations about the routines of living under confines, it is Helen’s bizarrely looping recitation of memory and fact that populates her life. In interlocking paragraphs, she floods forth the contents of her world, knitting together memories of cats, Charles Manson, breakfasts, the history of chairs, skin problems, REM sleep, sex, and on and on, building a kind of voice like what might fill the heads of hundreds buried in rest homes across the world, left talking only to themselves. It feels like looking very closely at a painting, only to then be suddenly moved back, finding a face in what at first had seemed like just a bunch of hissing colors. No matter where it leads, it is Tillman’s incredible sense of tone that weaves the book together, building a life out of anything it can. “Often I think about my dead friends,” Helen tells us, “and wonder why people who complain about the unfairness of life want to live forever anyway, since most do want to live forever.”
(unnamed narrator) in The End of the Story, by Lydia Davis
The End of the Story is probably one of the saddest books I’ve ever read, but also one of the most even-handed in its portrayal of that sadness. The book follows its unnamed narrator through an obsessive reconstruction of a relationship that failed, one the narrator can’t find a way to become freed from, while the subject of her adulation seems not to care. There is a quiet sense of desperation throughout the days’ descriptions as the narrator struggles both to find answers and to move on, though without the usual melodrama of a novel founded around a failed relationship. There is a kind of blankness to Davis’s tone, something missing right underneath each sentence as the narrator moves deeper and deeper into what seems like endless grief, almost with the tone of a museum curator. “He was doing this to me,” she writes of her lover’s image. “I felt it very much coming from him against me. But the very strength of it, the very force of it, was also the force of how much he loved me, and I felt that, too, so that in the extreme force of the harm I felt from him, I felt his love, too.” The further her meditations on what was lost go, the more strangely sick one begins to feel, but also the closer to understanding something untraceable about what exists between people.
Kate in Wittgenstein’s Mistress, by David Markson
In Wittgenstein’s Mistress it’s easy to forget that we’re being spoken to from the body of a woman. The voice is oddly neutral, and often flat, only bringing us back to the identification of gender by odd observations like the narrator bleeding from her genitals. But somehow, the obliqueness to Kate’s voice works in the novel’s favor, as the book is filled with all sorts of illusions. Kate may or may not be the last remaining person in the world. She has taken up residence in the Louvre and burns priceless paintings to stay warm. She is talking to no one, but has not given up the hope that there might be someone there. The book is incredible in its sense of weaving a world out of nothing more than Kate’s puzzling observations over what has become of everyone else, and in the wake of that, all the odd fragments of human history she remembers. Kate’s meandering logic, and the question of her sanity—her understanding of even exactly where she is—weaves around the reader a kind of world where memory is more real than air. Her voice constantly wavers between profundity and madness, wielding a sense that almost nothing she says might actually be true, but leaving only that fantasy as the ground we walk on. The more it builds the more it takes away, with the result being a book to return to again and find new edges, a mystery without a proper end.
Sibylla in The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt
The majority of my favorite books are the kind that can manage to juggle dozens of ideas and tones at the same time, and here Helen DeWitt does that in the unlikely voice of a single stay-at-home mom. At its most basic, it’s the story of that mother attempting to raise a genius child all on her own. But flipping through the novel, you see the wild range of frameworks and styles at play: etymology charts, algebraic derivations, sampled parables, monologue journaling, stripped dialogues, musical structures, fragments wrested from classic film. Sibylla, like her son, is clearly brilliant, and DeWitt is even more so in how she leads the reader through the complicated and fascinating undertaking of the unique relationship between mother and child. The book is as fun to read as it is surprising in its array of narrative tactics, and the emotionally open tone with which we are allowed into a story as fundamentally basic as searching for one’s identity both in the self and where it lies in others. It reminds you that a story can be built out of almost anything, and our emotions don’t have to be dead.
The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick
The Meat and Sprit Plan by Selah Saterstrom
In the Heart of the Country by J. M. Coetzee
The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich
Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine by Stanley Crawford
Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion
The Changeling by Joy Williams
Previously by Blake Butler: Inside the Mind of a Female Pedophile