19 September 2009

I Was a Rat’s Narrative Voice

Philip Pullman’s short novel I Was a Rat! offers an example of his unusual approach toward narrative voices, which I highlighted last Saturday at Southern New England SCBWI’s “Encore!” session.

Here’s a description of that approach from Laura Miller’s 2005 New Yorker profile, titled “Far From Narnia”:

Pullman is a partisan of the third-person omniscient narrator, which he thinks of as a character in itself—a disembodied “sprite.” This ringmaster of many a nineteenth-century novel can, as he told me, “go anywhere and do anything and see anything, and is both male and female, both old and young, wise and foolish, cynical and credulous, all these contradictory things at once. The narrative voice that tells Middlemarch is just as much a made-up character as Dorothea or Mr. Casaubon.”
Inspired by the Cinderella legend, I Was a Rat! recounts the experiences of a young rat whom a fairy godmother turned into an ersatz princess’s pageboy, and various people he encounters.

Among those people are an elderly couple who take the boy in and call him Roger, the officials and students at a school he briefly attends, a carnival showman who offers him the chance to become a rat-boy again, a gang of young housebreakers—a gamut of Dickensian types.

We also get periodic glimpses of a tabloid newspaper’s coverage of the new princess and the mysterious rat monster. I suspect those might have been the impetus for this book, published in 1999 as Pullman’s His Dark Materials series made him into a public figure in Britain, a spokesperson for both children’s literature and religious skepticism. (He’s been trying to use that prominence to speak out against “age-banding” of books and registering of all adult visitors to British schools.)

Having become a boy only a week or so before, Roger is a total naif, and he has a tendency to revert to rat behavior, such a nibbling on things. [This may be less unusual among boys than I thought when I read the book. This summer, while greeting guests at Longfellow National Historic Site in Cambridge, I saw a boy about nine years old gnaw a hefty stick into small pieces. He chewed on other sprigs as well, enough that I wondered whether to tell him that the law forbids removing flora from National Park sites.]

I Was a Rat!’s narrative voice scurries from one part of the story to another. Thus, we’re inside Roger’s head when he enters a classroom for the first time, but when the headmaster takes him away we readers stick with the rest of the class and witness what happens next through their eyes. Sometimes we follow the elderly couple, and other times the carnival huckster and his wife, and yet other times we’re detached from any character.

The result is a lively and often funny romp, yet not one that takes us deep into Roger’s experience of having turned from rat to boy. Perhaps that metamorphosis wouldn’t be so funny close up. But I can easily imagine other writers choosing a different narrative approach, focusing more narrowly on Roger’s perceptions and activities and leaving the supporting characters to the side.


Monica Edinger said...

I adore this book and read it aloud often. I also featured it in a talk I gave at CLNE some years ago on literary fairy tales (you can find it at my blog, but I don't think I can do links here) --- there's some nice stuff from Pullman in the talk (as I was in touch with him knowing it was a topic near and dear to his heart). I should say I saw the tabloid stuff as more a response to the British obsession with the royal family and with (at that time) Princess Di in particular.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, the book’s treatment of the British tabloids definitely reflects the hero-worship of Diana, who had died just two years before it was published. And those newspapers are an inescapable part of British culture. But I suspect Pullman’s own sudden new level of fame—the press’s interest in his income, his controversial statements made more controversial by selective quotations, his father’s murder decades before—had made that aspect of culture more meaningful to him.