Why choose to write an anonymous narrator? According to Dylan Hicks, the choice to leave the narrator of his new novel Boarded Windows without a name was deliberate, and we are happy to share his writerly insight with you today! Get to know his elusive narrator a bit better with the “Music and Lyrics” bundle—which includes a signed copy of the book and a signed, limited edition CD or LP of the companion soundtrack “Sings Bolling Greene.”
A few people have asked me why I didn’t give the narrator of my novel a name. In some cases I’ve probably answered as if the narrator’s namelessness was always crucial to the book’s construction (and maybe it was), but in truth the narrator, for quite a while, had a name. The thing I liked most about this name, which will here go unnamed, was that it wasn’t introduced until the middle of the book. Actually, that was the only thing I liked about the name. I didn’t talk widely about the book while I was writing it, but on the occasions when I both talked about the book and was forced to say the narrator’s name, I would mumble it. Or I’d pronounce it clearly but, perhaps to forestall laughter, immediately add that it was strictly provisional (though it had been in place for over a year).
One of the reasons I let the name stand despite my aversion to it was that it was being echoed—interestingly, I thought, or at least amusingly—by two characters who were tied in biological or spiritual ways to the narrator, and whose names were simply variants of the narrator’s. (These kind of nominal reverberations remain in the published book, but aren’t as widespread.) I liked one of the variants a fair amount, though I felt I couldn’t just give the narrator this preferred name, since that would involve saddling another member of my trio with the ridiculous name I’d given my narrator, a name that, besides being ridiculous, never felt remotely like the narrator’s name, that seemed to suit him about as well as the name Ralph would suit the biblical Moses. Finally I realized that, in contrast to, say, the Bee Gees, one member of my trio was expendable, that the other could be renamed, and that narrator didn’t need a name.
Surely this is what I’d unwittingly intended all along. One of the books I’ve cited as a model for Boarded Windows is Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story, whose unnamed narrator, like my own, struggles to make sense of long-past events in the face of conflicting accounts and her own unreliable memory. Davis’s narrator (again like my own) seems on the surface to be an authorial surrogate. Like Davis, she’s a writer, translator, and teacher, and her tone, perhaps her worldview, is often of a piece with the tone found in much of Davis’s short fiction. Unlike Davis, however, the novel’s narrator is childless, and though I know little about Davis’s life, it seems likely that the book’s central drama and many of the narrator’s problems are wholly invented. This mode allows Davis to sometimes write with the self-disclosing intimacy of a fine personal essayist—the book is filled with notes on translating and writing that are presumably drawn from Davis’s experience—and to turn that essayistic I—already something of a fiction in the hands of most essayists—into a bona fide, richly imagined character. I love this blurring; the personal essay or memoir with no obligation to truth, because never presented as truth, may be the form I’m most ineluctably drawn to. William Maxwell’s short novel So Long, See Your Tomorrow, though more autobiographical than Davis’s book, follows some similar procedures, and I’ve loved and taken inspiration from the intimate, unnamed narrators found in books by Dostoyevsky, Borges, W.G. Sebald, David Markson, Michael Krüger, and many others.
(All that said, I’m glad to be currently working on a novel in the third person about a group of named characters.)
Another justification for leaving my narrator unnamed is that although he’s not a cipher, he’s sometimes mistaken for one. He’s often overlooked, interrupted, and, in some cases, cast aside. He’s the sort of guy you’ve seen twenty times, met four times, but whose name you can never remember—and it was too late to ask him directly over a decade ago. You could consult someone else or check on Facebook, but you never seem to get around to it. If I’d given him a name, then, a possibly memorable name, I’d have given the reader the wrong impression.