We, You, I: The Wives of Los Alamos and 7 Other Books that Mess Around with Narrative Mode

Tarashea Nesbit's The Wives of Los Alamos

The Wives of Los Alamos, the debut novel from TaraShea Nesbit out today, has a hook that’s hard to ignore: Set among the makeshift homes and barbed-wire fences of a New Mexico military base, it explores the collective experience of a group of women who’ve pulled up stakes to follow their husbands, who are working on a project so secret, it can hardly be whispered about—the development and testing of the atomic bomb.

But even as it pulls us in, the novel keeps us at arm’s length. Nesbit tells the story of this community in a distinctive narrative voice—the first-person plural. The narrator is not “I” but “we.” The intimate is sacrificed for the universal, as previously unheard voices strengthen and gain resonance in unison.

Of course, there’s also a chance that some readers won’t manage to get past the distraction of a different kind of storytelling.

Most books are and will continue to be written in first or third person. It’s what readers expect, and it’s how we’ve experienced storytelling for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. When we discover books that buck the trend, we’re apt to sit up and take notice—whether the result works for us or not, the stylistic choice is impossible to ignore. Here are a few books that explore less-common modes of narration.

First-person plural

The Wives of Los Alamos certainly isn’t the first book to speak for the crowd, as it were. Here are a few other well-received novels that have adopted the form in recent years:

Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris
Ferris’ breakthrough debut, about the interchangeable drones working at an ad agency around the time the dotcom bubble burst, uses the collective voice to make a point about modern corporate culture that only underlines the fact that the “plot” more or less involves waiting around for various characters to get downsized. Though we think we are beautiful and unique snowflakes, in a sense we’re also just numbers on a spreadsheet somewhere, or in a newspaper report about 10,000 additional layoffs.

The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides
The narrators of Eugenides’ celebrated novel are a group of anonymous men still haunted by the titular event, which occurred in their youths. The Lisbon girls, who all choose to end their lives over the course of one otherwise ordinary, suffocating school year, are the supernova at the center of the universe for these men, who were then in their teens. Ever since, they’ve been indistinguishable wreckage orbiting in the wake of a catastrophic event.

Second-person

Books in second person are incredibly rare, probably because it’s likely the hardest narrative mode to get right. Do it well, and the result is something mysterious and poetic, adding additional layers and ambiguity to the story. Do it wrong, and you risk sounding like you’re writing a Choose Your Own Adventure book (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Noteworthy novels in second person include:

If on a winter’s night a traveler, by Italo Calvino
From the opening line (“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler”), it’s clear the author wants to make sure you never forget you’re reading a book, so it’s hard to argue that the narration gets in the way of the narrative here.

Complicity, by Iain Banks
It’s tricky to write a novel in which the main character is a murderer without revealing his identity. Iain Banks takes care of that by making YOU the murderer: the book alternates between first-person chapters about a journalist investigating a string of mysterious deaths, and second-person sections letting us know what the murderer is up to (you sicko!).

Halting State and Rule 34, by Charles Stross
File these two under “excellent books I found hard to like.” In writing near-future thrillers about online gamers and the internet, Stross adopts the storytelling model of classic computer role-playing games (“You are eaten by a grue”). That’s all well and good, until you realize that there are multiple narrators, and all of them are you. Ow, my brain.

First-person omniscient

Perhaps the rarest form of all, if only because it shouldn’t technically be able to exist. An omniscient narrator by definition knows everything that’s happening in the story, including what each and every character is thinking. Unless the book is simply badly written, the only all-knowing individual out there is going to be a deity of some sort (or perhaps a superhuman telepath, but don’t let me bore you with the plot of my abandoned NaNoWriMo effort). Even the ghostly narrator of The Lovely Bones, who watches over all of her still-living family members, doesn’t cut it, as she never knows what they’re thinking.

Here’s one of a very select company that actually makes it work:

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
The narrator of Zusak’s harrowing and ultimately uplifting YA novel is none other than Death himself, watching over the struggles of a family trying to survive the tumult of pre-war Nazi Germany. “I am haunted by humans,” Death tells us. There are some things it’s better not to know.

What’s your favorite book written from an unusual perspective?