Modern Australian

the all-knowing narrator in Kim Scott's Taboo

  • Written by Julienne van Loon, Vice Chancellor's Principal Research Fellow, School of Media & Communication, RMIT University

Why do we tell stories, and how are they crafted? In this series, we unpick the work of the writer on both page and screen.

The omniscient narrator – an all-knowing, third-person voice – is making a return to contemporary fiction. Indigenous Australian author Kim Scott, in choosing this technique for his latest award-winning novel, Taboo, is not alone: we can also find it in recent fiction by Zadie Smith (White Teeth; On Beauty) and Richard Powers (The Overstory).

Readers might be surprised by this trend. Isn’t the penchant to narrate in this way – like a kind of god – long dead? Curiously, the answer is no.

Along with several of his peers, Kim Scott is playing with a mode of omniscience deeply informed by the legacy of postmodernism in literature, a movement characterised by, among other things, a critique of the unreliable narrator. As with all of Kim Scott’s fiction, it matters deeply who it is that is speaking.

Literary scholar Paul Dawson has argued that the reappearance of the omniscient narrator in recent fiction can be read as “a performance of narrative authority”. He suggests one reason omniscience has returned is the anxiety many writers now feel about the role and place of storytelling in contemporary culture, where freely available digital media stories, peppered with fake news, produce and reproduce endlessly. As a result, there is very little about in the way of the consistently reliable narrative authority.

the all-knowing narrator in Kim Scott's Taboo Pan Macmillan Enter Kim Scott’s omniscient narration in Taboo. Here is a narration that is playfully performative, in part to acknowledge and perhaps counter the many problems with narrative authority in contemporary life, but also to approach a very difficult topic. This is a novel about a massacre site, and the question of how to adequately acknowledge what such a site means for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in the present. Questions around power and narration are entirely pertinent in this context. Whose history is this? And who can tell it adequately? Who has the authority? Who, even, has an adequate handle on the story? The sense of the flesh-and-blood Indigenous Australian author, Kim Scott, is ever present behind the text. Curiously, he even inserts an Afterword, a non-fiction commentary on his intentions with the novel, directly following the final page. It is an exegesis, or explanation, of sorts. But in and through the novel itself, the omniscient voice is not the implied voice of the author. It is something else entirely. Read more: From Benang to Taboo, Kim Scott memorialises events we don't want to remember Reviewing Taboo for the Sydney Morning Herald, literary critic Peter Pierce describes the novel as having an “oracular” voice. Pierce may simply mean that the voice of the novel is enigmatic, but Scott’s narration is also oracular in the sense of employing a voice that claims the authority of an oracle – a source of wisdom from some higher, more ancient order of meaning. Sometimes this makes the book feel like a work of magic realism, where the magical creeps into the real world, as in the opening pages: We thought to tell a story with such momentum; a truck careering down a hillside, thunder in a rocky riverbed, a skeleton tumbling to the ground. There must be at least one brave and resilient character at its centre (one of us), and the story will speak of magic in an empirical age; of how our dead will return, transformed, to support us again and from within. Reviewer Jane Gleeson-White has described the voice of the book as belonging to “‘undead’ Noongar ancestors who rise from the riverbed to narrate”. This is functionally correct, but Scott’s text is not a conventional ghost story, nor is the first-person plural, with its sense of a haunting presence, heavily laboured. the all-knowing narrator in Kim Scott's Taboo Author Kim Scott employs an omniscient voice in his latest novel. Pan Macmillan Read more: Explainer: magical realism For much of the novel, we are focused upon the key protagonist, Tilly, in a way that could easily be mistaken for conventional realism. Except that it isn’t. Scott regularly disrupts that notion through shifts of perspective, a regular pulling back to the bigger picture. Here is one example, where the reader’s “sitting” on Tilly’s shoulder as she looks out the window of her group’s tour bus is interrupted by another viewpoint, one she cannot be simultaneously aware of: Seen through the insect-smeared windscreen: scarcely undulating, dry and bleached ground; fence lines beside the road and dividing, at wide intervals, a mostly bare landscape. A fence is just the posts holding hands, thought Tilly, and such long arms in between them … “This place, Tilly, where we’re going” Gerry began, but Tilly was not listening and he let the words die. No one took up the conversation. Taboo’s omniscient narration is gently provocative. It prods us to think about being or existence, for the novel’s unseen collective voice is more-than-human. As an ancestral voice, it is possible to understand our narrator(s) as a life expanded beyond the human form to encompass land, water, fire and curlew. We are encouraged to shift our thinking beyond the human-centric and towards the relation between human and other forms, especially ecological ones. Consider, for example, this passage from the end of the novel, when an elderly Tilly is pictured at some point in the future, contemplating a pile of tree branches in a forest: [She] would see not timber limbs but the bones of something new and ancient, something recreated and invigorated, and would think of when she first heard a voice rumbling from a riverbed, and how something reached out to her. Did Scott just suggest that a riverbed might have a voice? That an energy without form might have reach? To some extent, the meaning we take from Taboo depends upon how we think about the whole notion of omniscience. In my view, Scott’s choice of narrative technique works to ask of us as humans an increasingly important question: where are our limits? His use of omniscient narration might therefore be understood as a not just a literary choice, but a philosophical and ethical one.

Authors: Julienne van Loon, Vice Chancellor's Principal Research Fellow, School of Media & Communication, RMIT University

Read more http://theconversation.com/inside-the-story-the-all-knowing-narrator-in-kim-scotts-taboo-117587

NEWS

VIDEO: Michelle Grattan on the government's drought policy

Michelle Grattan says the announcement of extra money for drought-stricken farmers "won't be enough" to alleviate pressure on the government on the issue of drought. ShutterstockUniversity of Canberra Deputy Vice-Chancellor...

Our ability to manufacture minerals could transform the gem market, medical industries and even help suck carbon from the air

Pictured is a slag pile at Broken Hill in New South Wales. Slag is a man-made waste product created during smelting. Anita Parbhakar-Fox, Author providedLast month, scientists uncovered a mineral...

Lambie stays mute on medevac vote after Senate inquiry splits on party lines

Jacqui Lambie has yet to announce whether she will support the bill to have medevac repealed.AAP/Mick TsikasThe Senate inquiry into repealing medevac has predictably split along party lines, with the...

Sydney's 9,189 'sister politicians' who petitioned Queen Victoria

One spring morning in 1850, over 8,000 Sydneysiders marched through town to protest the resumption of transportation – the act of sending British criminals to Australia. It was the largest...

A pioneering climate scientist skilled in the art of life

Penny Whetton, right, addressing a March for Science rally. Her death last month shocked and saddened colleagues.Supplied by familyLast month we lost Dr Penny Whetton - one of the world’s...

​The Coalition government is (again) trying to put the squeeze on the ABC

The Coalition government has reintroduced a bill seeking to mandate the ABC devote more resources to covering regional Australia – a measure that has been defeated before by parliament.Danny Casey/AAPOne...

Is your horse normal? Now there’s an app for that

Vet: are you happy? Horse: neigh.evilgurl/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SASince ancient times, horse behaviour, and the bond between horses and humans, has been a source of intrigue and fascination. The horse-lore that...

Vital signs. Our compulsory super system is broken. We ought to axe it, or completely reform it

We're taking money from people, letting it fall through the cracks, and spending no less than we were on pensions.ShutterstockThe just-announced inquiry into Australia’s retirement income system ought to be...

Might consciousness and free will be the aces up our sleeves when it comes to competing with robots?

Our advantage lies in incommensurables, and it'll grow in importance.Franck V. on UnsplashThe rise of artificial intelligence has led to widespread concern about the role of humans in the workplaces...

What is perimenopause and how does it affect women's health in midlife?

Perimenopause lasts months for some women, and years for others. from www.shutterstock.comAll women know to expect the time in life when their periods finish and they reach menopause. Many might...

a road trip reveals local museums stuck in a rut

Berry, and other tourist towns, are out of step with modern museum curation which is trying to include Aboriginal communities and their stories. ShutterstockAboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are...

Curious Kids: how are stars made?

Stars come into existence because of a powerful force of nature called gravity.ESA/Hubble & NASA, Acknowledgement: Judy SchmidtIf you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it...

Popular articles from Modern Australian

5 Italian Designers That Every Australian Should Have in Their Closet9 Effective Ways to Support your Mitochondria and Boost EnergyImportance of Skincare and Skin ChecksHow to Save Money on Heating in AustraliaBest Out of Waste in New South WalesGlamorous Gifts - 5 Luxe Giving Options When Only the Best Will DoFood for collagenIs Rhinoplasty Right for You?Winter fun in ColoradoSlots SecretsEssential Personal Hygiene Tips for TravelingTop 3 Affordable Activities To Do In Los AngelesTop 4 Reasons Why a Gas Fireplace Is an Ideal SolutionAdvantages of Using an Insulin PumpMaths – when it’s time to break free of your misbeliefs