David Copperfield, the main character and narrator of David Copperfield, the novel, written by Charles Dickens but ostensibly the autobiography of the aforesaid David Copperfield, character and narrator and, it's revealed, famous novelist, begins David Copperfield, again, the novel, with what amounts to practically an apology:
"Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show."
...as if he's warning us that he's not responsible for the story he's about to tell, which he isn't, since he's a character in that story being manipulated as much as every other character by the real human being writing the story. Dickens could be routinely and almost offhandedly meta. He was always present inside his own fictions and breaking through the fourth wall as the storyteller. He never let his readers forget they were being told a story, which is to say, that what they were reading was made up, a work of imagination, not real.
Dickens wasn't strictly speaking a realist.
He was a Dickens-ist.
But never mind.
Almost immediately those pages show that David Copperfield, the character and narrator, is not going to turn out to be the hero of his own life (or book) and that station will be held by somebody but not just anybody else. His eccentric fairy godmother, his formidable Aunt Betsey, bustles her way onto the scene, blesses the infant David in his crib in the very strangest and most roundabout way a fairy godmother has ever blessed a child she will protect until they all live happily ever after, and bustles out but not without putting her stamp on the story with such force that her presence is felt for the next two hundred pages while she is gone from the book.
David Copperfield was one of the first of Dickens' books I read and I read it at a very critical time, when it was guaranteed to make too great an impression, during Christmas break my freshman year of college. From that first reading (I've read it five or six times since. I've lost count.) I learned three things.
Dickens should always be read at Christmastime.
Realism is over-rated. Real is what a novelist starts with, the way a painter starts with a glance at the scenery or a glimpse of an interesting face.
A first person narrator should not be the hero of his own story if that story is going to be something other and better than one long brag, whine, or exercise in narcissistic self-directed psychotherapeutic excuse-making.
The first person narrators of many detective novels have to be the heroes of their stories for technical and conventional reasons, but...
Nick Carraway is not the hero of The Great Gatsby. Ishmael is not the hero of Moby-Dick. Jack Crabb isn't the hero of Little Big Man . Huck Finn is far from being his own hero or, if he is, he sure doesn't think of himself that way. Heroes and villains are Tom Sawyer 's department, the stuff of Tom's daydreams and games, and Tom's interference in Huck's story, when Tom assigns himself and Huck the roles of heroes, almost gets Jim killed.
Except for Augie March, Saul Bellows' first person narrators are practically the villains of their books.
Holden Caulfield isn't exactly the hero of Catcher in the Rye, but he thinks rather highly of himself compared to every other character in the novel except Phoebe, who is his ideal not his heroine, and that's why few readers over the age of eighteen can stand him. You have to be as adolescent as Holden to appreciate the virtues he attributes to himself.
In case you haven't guessed, I read Catcher in the Rye around the same time I read David Copperfield and Salinger lost out to Dickens.
But, getting back to Dickens, Pip isn't his own hero in Great Expectations. Almost the opposite. He is the object of his own intense self-criticism and self-satire.
The job of a first person narrator, I long ago decided, is to provide a personal, intimate, emotionally engaged but naturally limited point of view. There are things first person narrators just can't know from the outset and things they will never know. Crucial information is denied them and they have to spend their stories trying to figure things out and they don't always manage to do that. Huck has to work to get to know, understand, and sympathize with Jim. Nick has to work to gain insight into Gatsby. Ishmael never figures out Ahab.
And because there are things first person narrators can't know, there are things they miss and misinterpret and just get plain wrong. Their reliability is always in doubt.
Also, because they are characters in their own stories with volition and motivations of their own, they can have reason to be deliberately unreliable. They can try to make themselves look good. They can try to make themselves look bad. They can embellish. They can leave things out. They can lie. The fun might even be in knowing they're lying, as is the case with Aaron Burr in Gore Vidal's Burr, or in our not being sure just how much of what they're telling us is the truth, as it is with Jack Crabb.
Ariel Zinsky, the narrator of Ilan Mochari's debut novel, Zinsky the Obscure, is a young man looking back on the first thirty years of his not very event-filled or joy-filled life, searching for evidence that his being alive was worth the bother to himself, at least, if to no one else, and for a reason to keep bothering for another thirty.
Don't think, though, that Zinsky the Obscure is an extended riff on Hamlet's To be or not to be speech. It's simply an honestly and objectively attempted toting up and balancing off of losses and gains in a manner befitting the autobiography of an accountant.
Zinsky is the loving and devoted but selfish, because he's emotionally defensive and withdrawn, with good reason, son of a somewhat eccentric English teacher mother raising him on her own in genteel poverty after her divorce from his charismatic but physically abusive father. Which is what defines Zinsky and his life, the secret beatings his father gave him when he was a little boy whenever custodial visits forced them into each other's company.
Naturally, this has traumatized Zinsky and left him with a lifetime burden of shame and guilt, as if the beatings and his father's rage were his fault ---Mochari does an excellent job of portraying the manipulativeness of the abuser---but he developed his coping mechanisms early and he sticks with them throughout the novel, which are to keep himself aloof from strangers in case they might guess his secret, repress his own feelings so they can't be hurt, and scale back his expectations for happiness to the point of thinking that a good day is a day on which nothing too terrible happens. Since he's a pathological homebody---home is where the heart is for most people. For Zinsky home is where no one can touch you.---and he's taught himself never to take any physical or emotional risks, this has become the routine of his life, one dull, lonely but not too terrible day after another, the high points of which are, after he reaches puberty, his extended sessions of masturbation.
Zinsky the Obscure is the story of how an isolated, lonely, alienated, unhappy, and self-loathing young man becomes in slow stages and through very little effort of his own slightly less isolated, lonely , unhappy, and self-loathing.
As you might guess then, Zinsky is not the hero of his own story, which is a plus, I guess, although it might have been fun to read a story in which a character as lacking in heroic qualities as Zinsky is forced by circumstance into playing the role of hero.
He's not his own villain either. Zinsky is even more lacking in villainous qualities than he is in heroic ones. He's, generally, a decent-hearted, well-meaning guy, just ineffectual. A six foot eight inch tall, one hundred and fifty pound, prematurely bald nebbish with one not very overwhelming desire in life.
Not love. Not romance. Not passion. Not even erotic thrill. Just the release that comes from ejaculating into something more attractive and responsive than his own hand.
I should mention, although you've probably guessed, that Zinsky's masturbatory habits feature regularly in the novel and you might want to clear a place for it in that special section of your bookshelf next to Portnoy's Complaint and John McGahern’s The Dark.
As a narrator, Zinsky doesn't brag, although sometimes he comes perversely close to bragging that he has nothing to brag about. He doesn't whine; he just doesn't have much good news to report. He doesn't go in for the sort of intensive self-analysis that leads to psychotherapeutic catharsis, mainly because he's too self-protective, but partly because he bores himself. For the same reasons, he avoids self-criticism of the kind Pip subjects himself to nor is he the object of self-satire---he would need a sense of humor for that.
Possibly not the best choice for the narrator of a 342 page novel, a humorless, passive, self-obsessed, emotionally attenuated Peter Pan who can't fly, fight pirates, tame crocodiles, dance with Indians, flirt with mermaids, or bring himself to believe in fairies.
Zinsky is the kind of character you'd expect the world to gang up on just to make him wake up and pay attention.
For the most part, the world is as uninterested in Zinsky as he is in it.
What Zinsky the character is to Zinsky the narrator is an object of obsessive study. He is his main subject, practically his only subject. He stares into his past as ruthlessly as a teenager stares into a mirror determined to count every single one of his pimples. Zinsky the Obscure is a series of self-portraits by an artist who has made a vanity out of his lack of vanity. Here you see me in all my unattractive foolishness, he declares. Here I am at five sheepishly eating a McDonalds Happy Meal, effectively accepting a bribe from my father to not tell anyone how he beats me. Here I am at fifteen losing all my hair all at once for no medically explicable reason. Here I am as a teenager working in a grocery store and getting a co-worker fired as a result of my naive sense of right and wrong. Here I am in college failing at math but somehow passing my accounting classes. Here I am learning too late to make a career out of it or play on any school team that I'm pretty good at basketball. Here I am waiting tables in Boston. Here I am engaging in anal sex for the first time. Here I am getting caught masturbating by my mother. Here I am at twenty-eight on the day my girlfriend, one of three women who let me sleep with them despite my persistent charmlessness, told me she was pregnant and wanted to keep the baby and marry me and I decided to be a selfish dick about it.
What's a novelist to do with this as his main character? Where's a novel to go with this as its point of view?
Well, if Zinsky was your creation, one thing you could do is give him a vivid and active inner life, and, amazingly, Zinsky has one. It revolves around the sport he is physically and, for that matter, psychologically least suited to play, football. Zinsky, the failed mathematician and dissatisfied accounting major, realizes that football is as much a game of numbers as baseball and this insight leads to his becoming to football what Bill James was to baseball, the best analyst and best judge of talent the game has ever seen. His one and only passion and source of joy turns out to be his one and only area of real competence and this happy coincidence spurs him to the only independent and positive action in his life.
He begins to write and publish The Quintessential Guide to the NFL Draft, which although it comes close to bankrupting him at the outset, becomes indispensible to coaches, agents, and fantasy football leaguers across the nation and sets him on the road to fame and fortune. It also leads him into adventures, of sorts. He has to commit burglaries and hack into other people's computers to get the Guide up and going. But his narrative focus remains on the surface. He tells us a lot about the business side of running the Guide but he doesn't let us see the love and imagination working together to get the Guide written. The numbers he gives us are his production costs not the numbers he uses to evaluate players. We don't see him watching a game, so we don't see what he sees when he's either at work or just enjoying the play on the field. He is indifferent to and disconnected from his ever increasing number of rabid football fan readers, so he doesn't have to share his feelings and insights with us via them. He doesn't rhapsodize about any favorite players. He doesn't tell stories about great games of the past or, as you'd expect of such an obsessive, go deep into the details analyzing a specific series of downs or single play. He doesn't even apologize for liking the Jets over the Giants.
The sections of the novel dealing with the Guide turn out to be continuations of Zinsky's preferred Here I am doing this, now here I am doing the thing that followed from that mode of storytelling. The most interesting, vital, and attractive thing about him---regardless of how you feel about football, a great passion is always attractive---is presented purely as a money making enterprise. Zinsky might as well have opened a dry cleaners. In fact, it might have been better for the book if he had because he wouldn't have been able to hide from his customers and employees or if he did it would have been funny.
So, having written your way around your narrator's inner life and given away your chance to show him as imaginatively active and engaged with at least the world inside his own head, what's your next move?
You could throw him into a plot in which he is forced out the door and to act against his instincts, wishes, and self-interest. The cops could arrive during one of his breaking and entering adventures. Obsessed fans of the Guide could invade his life and make an unwilling celebrity of him. The Football Establishment could decide, as the Baseball Establishment did with Bill James, that he's an enemy and set out to shut him and the Guide down.
I think it's clear Mochari chose not to go this route.
You could, then, put him in the company of characters who are his opposites, active, outward going, emotionally engaged, looking to find happiness or escape trouble or cause problems.
In short, you could write more of a social novel instead of a purely autobiographical one.
This isn't a strategy Dickens adopted just for David Copperfield. It was his whole reason for being as a storyteller. The constant collisions of all sorts and conditions, of types and stereotypes, of men and women and monsters and grotesques, of virtue and vice, of good and evil, in public and private but always in a crowd, is the source of most of the action and all of the plots from Pickwick through Drood.
No matter how alone and forgotten David is as a boy or how wrapped up in himself he sometimes gets as a young man, the crowd impresses itself upon his consciousness and ignites his imagination.
You're probably thinking it's unfair to compare a young writer's first novel to the greatest novel of the greatest English novelist writing in his prime, and ordinarily I'd agree. But Mochari himself invites the comparisons. Actually, he insists on the comparisons.
The full title of Dickens’ novel (and David’s autobiography) is The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account).
Zinksy the Obscure is Molchari’s title for his novel. Zinksy’s title for his autobiography, announced in large letters on a page of its own at the beginning of the book, is The Personal History and Experience and Observation of Ariel Zinsky, An Only Child From New Hyde Park, Long Island.
Note the missing note of self-deprecation in Zinsky’s title.
As if that isn’t enough, Molchari opens with an intentionally shocking epigraph taken from David Copperfield and then essentially closes the book by letting Zinsky quote another passage from Copperfield to explain his thoughts and feelings as his story comes to an end without any apparent awareness that he's a thirty year old man claiming the feelings of a very small boy as his own.
David Copperfield plays two supporting roles in his own life story. First, he's a child from a fairy tale lost in the woods, then he is the juvenile love interest in a more realistic satire. But his main job is to become the writer capable of writing this book. And he shows us how this happens by showing his emotional and imaginative involvement with the host of other characters he gets entangled with. David is preternaturally self-aware, which is why he's so reliable when relating his own feelings. But he's even more aware of others and more interested in them. Some of that awareness is that of the older novelist imposing it upon scenes in which he's portraying himself as a lonely and neglected little boy and then as a self-absorbed adolescent and young man at times when he couldn't have been expected to have been paying much attention to anyone other than himself. But on some level he must have been taking it all in or else his adult self wouldn't have the memories from which to work.
Throughout the novel, there's an ironic contrast between what the young David thought was going on and what his older, writer self now knows was happening.
There is no contrast between the younger and older Zinskys.
Zinsky sees a lot, remembers a lot, and re-imagines none of it. He can't work his way back into his own past to "see" what he failed to see at times when he was too caught up in himself because he's still that caught up in himself. As a result, he can only report the past as if it's the present. There is no difference between Zinsky the narrator and Zinsky the character at different stages in his growing up. Zinsky at thirty seems pretty much the same person he was at fifteen.
Despite all this, there is one key and redeeming way Zinsky is forced to be more like David Copperfield. As much as he would like to, he can't get away from the crowd.
No matter how determined Zinsky is to be left alone, he keeps encountering other characters even more determined not to leave him that way. His father, his girlfriends, his step-sister, and, most importantly, his mother force their way into his life and make him pay attention to them and the larger world in which they thrive. And although Zinsky is nowhere near as capable as David Copperfield of imagining his way into the heads of others, he is observant and meticulous. He gets his facts straight and he's fair, even at his own expense. He's a good reporter.
Everything Zinsky does, every place he lives, works, or visits, everyone he meets are precisely and persuasively described. We may not get an intimate sense of what makes particular characters tick, but we do get the sense of knowing what they are like. And what we know about what Zinsky's mother Barbara is like is enough to tell us that, unlike her son, she is heroic.
She's not the heroine of Zinsky's life, at least not as directly as Aunt Betsey is the heroine of David's. But she’s the heroine of her own. A tragic heroine.
Barbara is a talented and dedicated teacher who could have been a great teacher if she'd felt free to be more ambitious. But she's devoted herself to raising her strange, socially incompetent, baffling child. Zinsky is lonely by choice. Barbara is lonely by necessity and it's not only to protect Zinsky. Plenty of men who would marry her, some of whom she might even like to marry, come and go as Zinsky is growing up, but she maintains her independence for the sake of caution and self-preservation.
Having made one disastrous choice in a first husband, she doesn't trust herself not to make another.
Zinsky sees what she's going through. He recognizes her decisions are costing her in ways he can only guess at. And that's just it. He can only guess because he can't imagine his way into her heart and head. As devoted as they are to each other and dependent on each other’s company, Zinsky and his mother remain essentially strangers. It takes him the whole novel to appreciate her sufferings and her small triumphs and by the time he does it's too late, which is a second tragedy in its own right, and it's what makes Zinsky the Obscure a sad and moving story despite its obtuse and irksome narrator.