Who Speaks For Me?: Background information when reading Before I Burn

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Before I Burn

by Gaute Heivoll

Before I Burn by Gaute Heivoll
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  • Published:
    Jan 2014, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Bob Sauerbrey

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About this Book

Beyond the Book:
Who Speaks For Me?

Print Review

Laurence Olivier as HamletHamlet says, at the opening of Shakespeare's play:

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!

By the final act, he says:

…we defy augury: there's a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,
'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the
readiness is all:..

A question that pervades Hamlet, as well as most of Shakespeare's plays is: Where is Shakespeare here? What is his worldview? Which character speaks for him? Part of Shakespeare's genius is his ability to disappear into his characters. They are not mouthpieces for him, but speak only for themselves. We presume that in the heroic histories, Henry IV, Henry V, and Brutus articulate Shakespeare's own vision, but, in most of his plays, the characters are permitted to work out their lives without any manipulation by their creator. Shakespeare lets life be lived, not judged.

All works of fiction ask this same question: Where is the author here?, as well as the question that almost always immediately follows: Where are the author's beliefs here? Sometimes the author can sometimes be easily spotted on the page; clearly depicted in one central character and clearly articulating his beliefs of the world. But it is also true that he can be more hidden within his characters and their story, and as a result his beliefs can be hidden too. And finally, the author and his message can be almost entirely obscured within the fictional world he has created.

Invisible ManJonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" and John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress are powerful statements about significant and sincere concerns. Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, a marvel of characterization and narrative, strikes at the roots of the bigotry that still poisons our culture. Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale, while making a strong statement about the injustice of gender judgments, manages to draw the reader into an intriguing and heart-felt narrative. And no one reads The Scarlet Letter thinking that Hawthorne is inviting us into a mere slice of life among the early colonists of Massachusetts - his judgment on the hypocrisy of self-righteous morality is clear in the very structure of the book and, especially, in the final scaffold scene.

Other authors may be more subtle about their worldview, but no one deeply engaged with The Grapes of Wrath, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Age of Innocence, "The Yellow Wallpaper," or The Color Purple comes away unchanged. Having lived inside these people's hearts, it is hard not to be open to the transformation of our whole emotional and conceptual approach to the world. How is this kind of worldview offering different to the aforementioned front-and-center approach? There are a myriad of ways, from the author dispersing the message through multiple characters, to asking questions instead of giving answers, to the message taking a back seat to character and story development.

Amy Tan's The Valley of AmazementFinally, there are many writers who are content to let their characters live out their lives in their narratives without being part of a grander purpose created by the author. Of course it is true that we all - writers included - see the world through a particular lens, as philosophers like Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Susanne Langer have shown. However, many of our finest writers let life just happen in their books. Character development is of utmost focus, as are all of the elements that make a life come alive – landscape, time period, political context and sensory details. These writers invite us to join in the joys, the griefs, the triumphs, and the despairs of characters who mirror ourselves. Willa Cather, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Sue Monk Kidd, David Mitchell, and even Edgar Allan Poe are not asking us to change our worldview or our ethical orientation, but they take us into worlds we might not have experienced - and, in the case of Poe, worlds we hope we never will experience - and ask us to enter the lives of others with empathy, with wonder, even with terror, but without a prescribed message to take away.

So when, at the end of a read, when we are tempted to ask, What's the message? What's the 'moral'? perhaps the best response is that there is no one message to take away, just a wonderful or terrible or possibly awe-inspiring experience that is valuable for its own sake. Some writers have no other purpose but to delight - and that's a great gift. But even in these delightful worlds, we can still sometimes see ourselves. And so they help us make our own experiences conscious and real. No time spent in the heart, imagination, and mind of insight is wasted; our own world becomes almost magically more real. Stanley Tucci as PuckOr, as Puck says at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream…

For our dreams and our imagination create the world in which we choose to live.

First image: Laurence Olivier as Hamlet
Second: The cover of The Invisible Man
Third: The cover of Amy Tan's The Valley of Amazement
Fourth: Stanley Tucci as Puck

Article by Bob Sauerbrey

This article is from the January 8, 2014 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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