ENG441b: Contemporary American Literature, Fiction
Prof. E. Joy
27 February 2008
A Meditation on the Narrator of Rick Moody's The Ice Storm
The significance of the ice storm is that it cuts New Canaan off. It secludes the town. And that seclusion makes it possible for the families to act with a kind of immunity. There can be no exterior censure. What?s more, to borrow and adapt a recent commercial endorsement, what happens in New Canaan will stay in New Canaan. But it also makes it impossible for help to arrive. From outside or within. Because it disables travel. So what is going to happen is going to happen and nothing can be done to stop it. Each of the characters experiences this in some way. Wendy and Sandy are free to experiment because no parents will arrive to stop it. Same with Elena and Jim. Same with Mike. Same with Paul.
This seclusion and what it means for the events of the novel are also exemplified in Paul, the narrator of the piece. Paul is not actually present for the events he is narrating. He is in a different town. So he can?t actually know all the things that he knows about what happens during the ice storm. No matter how thorough a story he is told by his family, it is impossible for him to know all of the detailed thoughts and motivations that he provides in his narration. He is secluded.
So why does he know these things? Why is he chosen by Moody to be the narrator? Because of his distance from events, Paul is an unreliable narrator. We can?t trust that he truly knows for fact all the things he tells us. So the ways in which Ben, Elena, and Wendy (to say nothing of the cast of minor characters) are presented are not necessarily accurate. They are Paul?s images and impressions of his family, the way he sees them in his mind and memory. Which can explain why Wendy, who is manipulative and calculating, is presented in a favorable, “good” light, and Ben and Elena come across as “bad,” thoughtless and selfish. Adolescent angst seeping through into the narrative.
Perhaps it isn?t necessary for Paul to be reliable to be a good story teller. It may be that he is telling this story to try and make sense of things for himself. He is attempting to construct a narrative about the ice storm to make sense of what happens, to provide for his family the feelings and motivations that lead them to the actions they take, since he is not privy to such private information. And if this novel is about constructing a narrative, a memory, if Moody is not interested in fact, which is concrete and immutable, but truth, which is subjective and alterable and infinitely more real and interesting, then Paul is the perfect choice for the narrator of this story.
Paul is interested in narrative, as evidenced by his comic books. He is also interested in family relations, which again comes back to his comic books. The Fantastic Four are a kind of family, found family or constructed family. And he is interested in a serial kind of adversity, one problem following on another?s heels, which mimics the style of the novel. This episodic structure could only come from Paul?s comic book mind. The cliffhanger endings of each section, the resolution in subsequent sections, and the rotating focus on characters are all comic book techniques. The structure of his family also mimics the Fantastic Four because that is the way Paul would see it. His father is the Thing, his mother is Reed, his sister is Sue and he is the Torch. Or perhaps Paul is the Thing, the outcast, his mother and father are Sue and Reed, and his sister, the sexual and passionate one, is the Torch. Or maybe he views their roles as various and shifting.
Paul as the narrator, with his distance and lack of knowledge, his focus on a particular kind of narrative, is a comment on the nature of stories and reality. The way things happen is not the same as the memory of it. An event is over quickly, but the memory lives on. And memories are constructed things. We choose what is important and what is not, what to emphasize in the telling of it, what the point of view is. Memories are stories, and the better constructed they are the more likely the are to endure. We don?t get to keep events. Events are here and gone in an instant. We are left with our memories of them, which are not the same as the events themselves. So are the events more important or the memory? The present, which is the only time we can really know the facts of an event, is so fleeting. Most of what we have, in regards to time, is the past and the future. And these are the realm of the story. A prediction of the future is a story construction, a speculative story. And the memories of the past are story constructions. And since the past and future make up the bulk of what we have to work with, since the present is so fleeting and elusive, it?s the stories that are ultimately real. Maybe they aren?t factual, but they are truer. Paul cannot know exactly what led his mother to participate in the key party, or Wendy to spend an evening naked in bed with Sandy. But he can speculate and infer and construct a story to help him remember it a certain way. And since that is all he ultimately has, that is the reality he possesses. It?s the truth. Even if it isn?t fact.