Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Ones Who Walk Away

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about Ursula K. Le Guin's short story, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. Partly it's been on my mind because I assigned it to my "Telling the Story Queer" class as a nice example of a story with an unconventional narrator.

I'm not even sure how to classify the point of view in the story. It doesn't quite seem to be third person objective, because the narrator doesn't feel neutral to me. Third omniscient seems closer, but the narrator isn't all-knowing, her ability to tell/create the story is limited and she knows it. What I love about Omelas is that tho' the narrator does not take part in any of the action of the story, she is for me the one fully formed character in it. If you're not familiar with the story, read it now and see what you think. (To entice you away, know this: it is short; it is powerful; it is creepy.) Here.

 Le Guin's narrator is somewhat similar to the overarching narrator of my WIP. Neither of them are protagonists or even minor actors in their stories, yet both are fleshy characters (at least I hope One Potato is fleshy...tee hee.) I think Le Guin's narrator feels so real to me because of the particularity and forcefulness of her voice, and because she directly confronts the reader, telling us we have to help her envision the utopian nature of Omelas. (An aside, I usually hate the fourth wall being broken, but, I think because this is a parable, it works here.) My main narrator is a sentient potato, and so her voice has to be, well, potato-y. If I've done my work well, readers will feel a kinship to One Potato, even though really all she does is sit in her hill telling stories to her spudlets. So one reason Omelas resonates with me: I'm trying to play around with narration in Once We Were Bears and I adore Le Guin's breaking-the-rules narrator.

Clearly, another reason I would like Omelas is that Le Guin is asking a very core philosophical question: should the happiness of many be sought after, even if that requires the misery of a few. This is at base the debate between Kant and Mill. And Le Guin, as a fiction writer, captures what's at stake in this debate more successfully than any professional philosopher I've ever read. When the cellar child pleads with us, when Le Guin writes "It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the...poignancy of their music.... It is because of the child that they are so gentle with children," at those moments in the story, the debate comes alive for me. In my WIP, I'm using fiction to reflect on my own philosophical questions about what it means to be human in the more than human again, what Le Guin does here models for me the very best of the sort of thing I'm attempting.

A final reason I've been pondering Omelas. I was recently posed the question, would I rather live forever or die happy. That's such a no-brainer for me. Living forever would take all the horrible ephemeral-ness out of life, but I kinda think it is that horrible ephemeral-ness that makes life so wonderful, so full of wonder. I like to play the Sunday Puzzler with Will Shortz on Sunday mornings. But some Sunday mornings I forget, or am busy, and so don't get to play along. For awhile I subscribed to the podcast. But then listening to the puzzle wasn't special anymore. I could do it whenever I wanted. So I stopped with the podcasting, and now every couple weekends I get a thrill of anticipation--today I get to hang with Will!--and the show itself feels, well, special. So, here's to our own mortality, bringing the special to life.


Jon said...

Great post, Lisa, and a great story. Really creepy and cool. I love the question posed, too. I think people would like to think they'd "free" the child, or at least be one of the ones to walk away from the whole thing, but I really don't think most people would. A great voice.

These are completely unrelated, but this was such a good story and I ran across another one last night, but I wasn't sure how I was going to share it and then...

Anyway, it's "Houses" by Mark Pantoja. It's a good time.

Great post!

Mark Teats said...

Enjoyed the post, Lisa. Also checked out both short stories. Good stuff.

Lisa said...

In Houses, I loved the "nod-nod" etc. that the bots used to verbally express non-verbal behavior.