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First Person Singular

Let me try my hand at the first-person book review

Read in Ned | March 15, 2018

by Tom Lambrecht

I was musing the other day about why more book reviews aren’t written in the first person, given that so many books are written from the standpoint of an omniscient first person character (and aren’t all of us who review books all-knowing as well?). My guess is that most professional book reviewers probably visualize themselves as analytical, even clinical and wouldn’t sully their critique of a book with any taint of personal inflection or bias. Or maybe this is just projecting on my part? But I digress — let me try my hand at the first person book review.

To enhance the effect, my subjects will be two recently published books written in the first person. The first is the aptly titled Spy of the First Person which, in retrospect, started this entire train of thought rolling. Authored by decorated playwright and actor Sam Shepard who passed away last year, this, his final work, was dictated to family members as he had lost the ability to put pen to paper. The protagonist in Spy encounters and becomes fixated upon the actions of a shadowy neighbor who has lost the ability to care for himself. Interspersed with ruminations on aging, human social interactions and even immigration in the current political climate, I found echoes of Shepard’s previous works. Knowing of his passing, I suspect from the beginning (even though the narrator is never explicitly identified), that the protagonist is indeed, Shepard himself. As the story progresses, the boundaries between the narrator and his neighbor become more and more nebulous, and by the end of the story, the protagonist’s circumstances finally confirm my suspicion as to his identity.

The effect is unsettling, even hallucinatory and in this sense, Shepard’s book borrows from the grotesque. I’m reminded of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis in which an oppressed salesman changes into a large, helpless insect, leaving him and those around him at a complete loss.

On the strength of the title alone, I reached for Wioletta Gregg’s Swallowing Mercury the moment it caught my eye. The novel draws from the author’s childhood in the upheaval of 1980’s Poland and is alternately charming and chilling. Young Wiola’s rites of passage are a little more vivid than most of mine, but still echo my own memories of childhood illnesses and accidents, oppressive playmates and the terrors of a visit to the doctor. This contrast of a lively young girl coming of age in the squalor of Soviet-dominated eastern Europe makes for colorful reading in the style of another favorite title of mine, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.

In a lucid moment while writing this whimsical review, I experienced the revelation that we are all omniscient in that every reader shapes the narrative in his reading of it, forming their own mental construct of a novel regardless of what the author may have intended. In the act of reading a book, each of us is a reader, a reviewer and a narrator in the first person singular.

Tom Lambrecht is a Library Assistant at the Nederland Community Library.

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