Tom Sutcliffe: From prejudice to enlightenment

The week in culture

It's always nice to have a prejudice overturned, if only because it's proof that your mind is still a changeable thing. Or rather "my" mind, since that use of a second-person possessive – like the use of "one's mind" would be – is just a way of trying to insist that a personal experience is a general one. Which is pertinent, as it happens, to the prejudice overturned – a fairly engrained dislike of any narrative voice except first-person or third-person singular. This is about grammar, and how awkward it can make us feel, and the book that overturned the prejudice was Julie Otsuka's The Buddha in the Attic, an odd and entirely individual piece of writing that hovers somewhere between fictional history and a novel. A description of the experience of Japanese "picture brides", travelling to California in the first half of the 20th century to marry men they'd never met, The Buddha in the Attic is narrated in the first-person plural, so that none of the things that happen in the book are happening to an "I". Everything happens to a "we".

It isn't an unprecedented narrative mode. Jeffrey Eugenides used it in The Virgin Suicides and Joshua Ferris in his tragi-comedy of office life Then We Came to the End. But it's still rare enough to be disconcerting. As readers we slip inside the first-person singular very easily. It isn't just that thousands of novels have taught us how to do it (and from some literary perspectives it's something you have to get used to). "I" fits our solipsism as comfortably as a slipper, that unknown sensibility and consciousness closing round ours. This is the lens through which we're used to looking at the world. "We", on the other hand, is far more awkward – an oversized new shoe in which we slip and bump. "We", paradoxically perhaps, is more claustrophobic than "I" because it conscripts us into a community of apparently identical interests. That's one reason Ferris adopted it in his novel. "It had to be in first-person plural," he told an interviewer, "if it was going to illustrate how the individual becomes part of the collective." That's another clue to its discomfort I think. As we read we sense a loss of sovereignty.

Otsuka has a subtly different reason for employing it I think. In the early pages of her book, "we" creates a sense of huddled anxiety, a shared experience of a world that has suddenly become strange. One way of putting it would be to say that these are women for whom "we" can no longer be taken for granted. It stands in opposition to an unstated "them". But it's still very odd. Arriving in America, disembarking from the same boat to meet husbands they've only seen in photographs (and often out-dated photographs too), the brides are subject to a collective deflowering. And Otsuka combines the the detailed specificity of all those first nights – which range from rape to tenderness – with a grammatical form that seems to deny individual uniqueness: 46 times a sentence begins with the words "They took us.." and ends with a description that seems to derive from one memory alone.

The effect is incantatory and accumulative, each individual sorrow (or delight) adding itself to the shared experience. But the real strength of Otsuka's book, which leads up to the outbreak of the Second World War and the experience of internment, is how adeptly she controls the changes in voice. Because – and I don't think this can really count as a spoiler – the "we" at the end of the book is entirely different from the "we" at the beginning. On a first reading, you don't even notice where the switch happens, though you may be aware that she's captured the process of naturalisation beautifully with other shifts of grammatical form. To assimilate in a new country, you're reminded, may involve moving from being dismissed as a "them" to being recognised as a "him" or a "her". And finally, "we" may mean something quite new, not a badge of your alienation from a place but a sign that you share enough with everyone else there to accept that you're part of a plural. It may also implicate you as well, suddenly enlarging its scope from a word that appears only to describe a collectivity of others to one that includes you. A prejudice defeated, anyway. I wasn't sure I could finish a book written in this mode. But I did and (I'll risk speaking for other readers too) we're very glad.

The Labour leader could learn from novels

I don't know whether it's actually true (as reported) that Ed Miliband can't see the point in novels because they're "all made up". But, if it is, hehas, surely, overlooked just how much real-world information gets through into fiction. I was reminded of this by reading a publisher's blurb for Will Wiles's debut novel Care of Wooden Floors, which apparently does actually contain some usable tips on the care of wooden floors. Genre fiction has always been very good at instructional passages – informing the interested reader on everything from how to field-strip a Uzi to how to fake yourself a birth certificate (Frederic Forsyth's Day of the Jackal). But even literary writing can harbour practically applicable knowledge. Off the top of my head I'd cite Ian McEwan's Saturday (which offers a perfectly decent recipe for Mediterranean fish stew) Herman Melville's Moby Dick (which tells you more about the flensing of whales and the processing of spermaceti than many readers care to know) and Patrick Suskind's Perfume, which, I seem to remember, includes a detailed explanation of how to distil essential oils from flowers. Samuel Beckett also included instructions for a kind of toasted Gorgonzola cheese sandwich in his story "Dante and the Lobster", specifying the exact brand of mustard to be used.

There must be countless other examples, though. And if Milibandian utility was your only guide, and literary style followed a close second, what would the great classics be?

Pull back and reveal...

Are jokes subject to evolutionary pressures? I found myself asking this the other day after a reading a Tweeted gag which had a highly distinctive Twitter-esque shape. The essential structure is this: deadpan statement with an embedded link. Then, when you click on the link, the joke snaps shut – not because there's anything inherently funny in what has popped up (it's often funnier when it's solemn) but because the connection between the two is unexpected and witty. In one sense, of course, there's nothing innovative here. There have been bi-partite jokes (feed and punchline) since men in caves first exchanged bantering grunts. But even so there's something that feels fresh and sui generis about this form. Trying to place it in the taxonomy of pre-existing jokes the closest I could get was a certain kind of birthday-card humour, which exploits the fact that you read the front first and only then open the card to see what's inside. Or a caption gag on Have I Got News For You (except here you get the caption first and the picture second). Like those, this is a joke which requires a hinge to work – and once you find out how the mechanism operates you know how to make more of them.

But is this a joke that has genuinely speciated – or is it just that an existing form has found a novel ecological niche in which to thrive?