I Like It When Thom Jones’s First Person Narrators Break Into Essay in the Middle of a Short Story

Posted by @ 6:48 pm on November 29th, 2010

Thirteen pages into “The Pugilist at Rest,” which is a twenty-three page story, which has up till now told a Vietnam War story, the first person narrator goes to white space, then returns with this:

“Theogenes was the greatest of gladiators. He was a boxer who served under the patronage of a cruel nobleman, a prince who took great delight in bloody spectacles. Although this was several hundred years before the times of those most enlightened of men Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and well after the Minoans of Crete, it still remains a high point in the history of Western civilization and culture. It was the approximate time of Homer, the greatest poet who ever lived. Then, as now, violence, suffering, and the cheapness of life were the rule.”

A long essayistic passage follows, and although at first it seems like a digression, it actually serves as an introduction to the reflective thought about the events from the story’s first half which will inform the way the speaker reckons with the life he has after the war, which is always colored by the things that happened during the war.

In any given first person point of view, the narrative theoretically has access to the entire range of the speaker’s consciousness, experience, knowledge, intelligence, curiosity, and powers of reasoning and association. Sometimes when I’m reading Thom Jones, I feel jarred when these things intrude. I think this is because one way or another I have been conditioned by twenty or thirty years of American short stories that predominantly don’t make use of these resources, even though they’re available. Perhaps this is a function of the writers’ ideas about narrative compression in the short form, or perhaps it is an inheritance of the “no ideas but in things” school, or perhaps it is simply a manifestation of good old-fashioned American anti-intellectualism. But — God bless you, Thom Jones — I’m happy to be reminded of what I can do if I choose to do it. Even psychological realism is more bound by perceived limitations than by reasonable ones. We can do more if we choose to do more.

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