When I was younger -- nine, ten, eleven -- I detested novels with multiple narrators. Specifically, any book that switched points of view on a chapter-by-chapter basis: losing the eyes and ears that had been guiding me through a book was unsettling, and left me feeling betrayed. At the time I didn't appreciate that these switches were providing the novel with something it needed, that each time a narrator was left behind, my curiosity about what they were doing helped ratchet up the story's tension and momentum.
Swapping voices, of course, also gives writers a chance to demonstrate the fundamental untrustworthiness (or if you prefer, unreliability) of all first-person, or perhaps all, narrators: no two people see the same event in the same way. Playing on the contradictory experiences of two or more main characters not only makes a story bigger, it suggests our own lives might be bigger -- or at least different -- than we have previously imagined. A simple structural device in fiction can hint at the enormous complexity of existence: go figure.
As a child, though, I didn't care about craft as a proxy for experience. (Or, let's be honest, as craft.) When narrators disappeared, I missed them on a visceral, emotional level -- along with the sense of wellbeing that came with immersing myself totally in another world and mind. The changes may not have jarred me out of the story completely, but they did upset my ability to graft onto it, leaving me with an uncertain sense of loyalty. Which voice should I trust? Which voice should I love? I don't think I ever ditched a novel just because of point-of-view swaps -- I've always been a reading completist -- but I did view them with a suspicious eye, always waiting for the book that would make those swaps feel worth it.
Lauren Groff's new novel Fates and Furies may just have done the trick. The story charts the marriage of young lovers Lotto and Mathilde through the vicissitudes of talent, ambition, jealousy, family, and time -- and Lotto and Mathilde each own half the book. Granted, the structure is not quite identical to the ABABAB switcheroos that made me grumble at age ten, but I think the stark exchange -- wherein AAA (Lotto's POV) becomes BBB (Mathilde's) at the halfway point -- would in theory have bugged me just as much.
Except -- except. Remember what I was saying about multiple narrators expanding the world? Welcome to that bigger place, which is brighter, louder, and full of rage.
It would do Groff a disservice to suggest that this book rests on having any particular "point"; the novel exists in its sentences, its breaths, its sliding between the human and the sublime, as when Lotto walks through a Halloween party "past a covey of witches huddled over someone's Polaroid paper, faces summoned out of the murk." But nonetheless, the moment that most astonished me was reading about Mathilde for the first time from her own perspective, and realizing how eclipsed she'd been by Lotto's enthusiasm, love, and -- let's just say it -- masculine self-regard. With Lotto guiding us, Mathilde is a beautiful woman, self-effacing and calm, if at times a bit chilly, and it's her disappointment that he fears most. She is his loving wife who works to support his failed acting career and buoys up his successful writing. He worries that she'll leave him, that his lost family money (Lotto's rich mother cuts him off for marrying Mathilde) will prove too great a burden. And then, only eventually, he fears she's deceived him by cheating. This in and of itself is a rich, if familiar, story. Then you turn the page.
Not so long ago, television was full of male anti-heroes: Walter White, Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and so on. I wondered then, and not alone, what a female anti-hero might look like; the women on these shows were always faulted with being too kind or too shrill. The camera did not turn to them, directly -- it caught them in the periphery of their men, and so their faults were not allowed to be interesting. They were just faults, the women just types: the over-achiever, the perfect wife, the worst wife, the girlfriend, the shrew. In Lotto's hands, Mathilde is another of these beloved versions. But Groff takes us all the way back to Mathilde's beginnings, long before her husband was even a twinkle in her imagination. And what we find is that Lotto's ideal woman is more ruthless and estranged than he could possibly have known, and more aware of her power over him than he seems to have believed. Groff could easily have painted Mathilde as a pure villain, revealed partway through the story to illuminate something new about Lotto and rile us into pity for him. This has been the traditional use of female characters. It is not, however, what Groff has done.
The order of revelation is important. The fact that we begin to understand Mathilde on her own terms only halfway through Fates and Furies tells us a great deal about the character -- in fact, it's rare to see a structural device in literature that is at once so functional and so evocative. Groff might have bought more cheap suspense by using an omniscient narrator all the way through (arguably, her narrator is omniscient -- arguably, it's the Fates/Furies of Greek mythology themselves -- but for ease of explanation we'll consider it alternating close third) and making us wonder how far Mathilde's actions would stray from Lotto's expectations. (As it is, we already know what happens by the time we move into Mathilde's mind.) Instead, Groff used the structure to tell us something, without having to say it directly: Mathilde is hidden. Mathilde is waiting. Mathilde always allows herself to always come second.
Ultimately, this is not a book about either Lotto or Mathilde as individuals, though I do think Mathilde's particular pathology -- which I won't reveal, to save you the surprise -- elevates the novel in an important way. Instead, the book is about the living form of their union: yes, Mathilde hides her past from Lotto, using both charm and deceit to manipulate him. But she also loves him, sometimes in spite of herself. And Lotto, with all his rambunctious charisma, effaces Mathilde's personal ambitions completely (it's clear from the beginning that she's at least as smart as he is, and clear by the end that she might have preferred to do more than manage his playwriting career), without ever seeming to think it so much as a shame. But he loves her, too. As in any marriage, each character is keenly aware of what they give up for their paramour, and less in touch with what they gain from that compromise -- and yet, each gains enough to stay, and even to thrive, in the union. The cupidity is real. The sex is good. And if in the end both Lotto and Mathilde remain strangers to each other, they also know one another better than they'll ever know another soul. Groff gives them to us both together and separately, allowing us to experience them the same way they experience themselves.
Adrienne Celt via bookslut