Telling Stories From The Perspectives Of Objects
I’m working on a sequel-of-sorts to a previous collection of stories, Only the Animals (2014). In that book, told from the perspectives of ten animal souls, I was trying to understand the empathetic bond between humans and other living animals. It felt a tiny bit nutty to make narrators of dead animals, but there were plenty of examples of the symbolic use of animal narrators in fiction of the twentieth-century.
The new story collection, Only the Astronauts (forthcoming, 2024), will be told from the perspectives of inanimate object narrators – each of them based on a real space object that has been launched into outer space by humans. This felt like a very nutty idea. Whenever I lost my nerve, I began to cast around to try to find examples of fiction that uses objects as narrators.
I quickly had to come to terms with the fact that there’s very little serious fiction for adult readers that gives point-of-view narration to non-living objects. There are many inanimate object characters in some of the best-known fiction for children, of course (much of it in turn adapted into beloved films). There are talking chess pieces and packs of cards in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland books (1865); and talking porcelain figures, scarecrow and tin man in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900).
In contemporary children’s and YA fiction, object-narrators crop up occasionally too, for instance in Kate Di Camillo’s 2006 YA novel The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, where the main character is a porcelain rabbit who is passed from human to human over decades. Animated movies for kids made by major movie studios (like the Toy Story series by Pixar Studios) will often feature talking or (literally) ‘animated’ objects, as will mainstream food advertising (often with disturbing results, as in the Grill’d burger chain’s heavily criticised Burger Man Vigilante campaign). Yet when it comes to contemporary fiction written for adults, everybody (writers and readers alike) seems to agree that it is no longer appropriate to make the forks sing, the flowers dance, or the cheeseburger speak.
Chloe Hooper has noted that many folktales, fables and fairy tales – no matter where in the world they originated – ‘ascribe feelings’ to inanimate objects:
Objects that are seen for the first time, or aslant, seem like they could potentially come to life: a shiver-inducing idea, as the authors of fairy stories understood…The Brothers Grimm believed that the poetic ‘animation of nature’ they recorded in folk stories – as well as in old expressions, superstitions and rhymes – were fragments of an older belief system.
This ‘belief that all of nature has a life force is far more ancient’ than the Brothers Grimm could have grasped, Hooper writes. ‘Many indigenous cultures, including in Australia, consider all the natural things which are visible…rocks and water and clouds – to have an interlocking consciousness’.
In the Western world, however, the sobering message in much of the fiction that’s published is that to become an adult means repressing the child’s natural knowledge of other kinds of sentience and spirit. Perhaps because of this underlying bias, the spectre of ridiculousness haunts any fiction written for adults that features object narrators. If they’re mentioned at all (and they are but rarely), it is usually in service to the point that creating object narrators is of very bad taste. My heart sank, for instance, when I read the advice in How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them—A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide (2009). The authors tell writers never to make the mistake of creating a narrator from an inanimate object:
Writing from the point of view of a spoon, the world’s smallest mosquito, or Nero’s fiddle is generally inadvisable. The author is immediately faced with the task of accounting for the spoon’s ability to type, interest in human affairs, etc…Writing such a book is very difficult, and such strained gimmicks generally backfire. So unless you have an inner passion that drives you, willy-nilly, to sing the secret life of the toaster, it’s better to look to the toaster’s owner for you protagonist.
This sense that creating object narrators in fiction for adults is slightly shameful (and is simply not done much, for good reason, as the dearth of precedents seems to suggest) has become a guiding concern for me in writing my space object stories. I wanted to understand why there is this resistance to the object-as-narrator, and test the limits of readerly empathy and imagination. By mixing the real and the unreal – by taking a real-life space object and giving it a voice – I entered a zone of speculative realism. I decided early on that the key to keeping my readers with me was to balance seriousness and playfulness in the stories.
I also wanted to give my space object narrators the same humility, longing for love and connection, and flashes of wisdom that the best kinds of human narrators often have in fiction. I hope my object narrators might fit into Kate Rossmanith’s description of what human narrators can do, helping readers sit in places of discomfort and contemplate what is normally hidden from view, by interpreting and misinterpreting their ‘own and others’ lives’. In this passage, Rossmanith is writing about narration in non-fiction, not fiction, but there’s so much here that is relevant to my project:
The shift from ‘who is speaking’ to ‘what is speaking’ is what I am most taken by. This shift has a liberating effect for us writers. It can liberate us from our egos. If the narrating consciousness of my non-fiction is a ‘what’ not a ‘who’ then I am not worried about the voice sounding clever nor the ‘narrator’ being ‘interesting’ and worthy of ‘story / opinion’…‘Narrating-consciousness’ is how I have come to conceive of the voice of my non-fiction writing. The ‘what-ness’ and the intersubjectivity of the voice opens up possibilities for social, cultural and institutional critique. It has become an instrument of illumination.
As I searched high and low for affirmation that I was not mad to think of writing stories from an object’s point of view, I came upon an essay, ‘Talking Forks: Fiction and the Inner Life of Objects,’ in a 1997 collection by novelist and cultural critic Charles Baxter. This essay changed everything for me, and gave me the inspiration to persist in my project.
Baxter looks back over literary history to understand why ‘the fiction with which we have grown familiar has tended to insist on the insentience and thoughtlessness of things’. Like me, Baxter is perplexed by why, in general, ‘things have no presence at all in stories except as barriers or rewards for human endeavor’.
There is danger and risk inherent in taking on a thing’s point of view, Baxter acknowledges. ‘Saying that the realms of objects and humans may be collaborative…is obviously risky. It sounds like another form of crackpot New Age dogma,’ he writes. ‘To argue in this context that things may be making visible a correspondence to human feelings still sounds sentimental and weak-minded, at first hearing,’ he admits, and ‘[t]o talk about sentient trees in stories is to sound crazy’.
He traces this distaste for non-human narrators back to a turning point near the end of the Romantic period in literature, when the novel was emerging as a dominant form, replacing poetry. In a 1856 essay, Baxter tells us, John Ruskin coined the damning term ‘the pathetic fallacy’ to denigrate what he saw as the inappropriate, ‘unhinged’ response to nature by contemporary writers, who projected their emotions onto what Ruskin believed should be respected as impassive, unfeeling nature. Baxter writes, of Ruskin’s intervention:
Things, Ruskin says, should not be made to reflect the emotions of the observer. In poetry and prose, human emotions should not be allowed to discolor the integrity of the observed phenomena. Things are not people and they do not have feelings, period. Although Ruskin would not have put it this way, his objection is to an overspillage of human expression onto the things that surround the individual. Ruskin’s claim…that the projection of human feeling on things is fallacious, untrue, morbid, and frightful has all the violence of a Victorian ideology that’s meant to put certain kinds of poets in their place. Ruskin is attacking a certain kind of metaphor, used to describe messy feelings.
To be fair, Baxter writes, one part of Ruskin’s objection to this sort of projecting of human feeling and emotion onto things (and nature, as when we say a storm is ‘raging’) is that it makes humanity, in Ruskin’s words, even more ‘imperial; it’s using objects to express itself…[o]bjects are being forced to go to work…being employed as a literary workforce to carry their burden of human feeling’. Yet Baxter rehabilitates ‘enlivened objects’ as narrators in modern times, and puts forward a proposition: that it’s often in moments of extreme human emotion that objects in literature begin to speak.
These words immediately made me think of John Berger’s classic essay, first published in 1980, ‘Why Look at Animals?’ I’d read it while doing research for Only the Animals, and had been intrigued by Berger’s insight that writers sometimes turn to animal narrators, or use animals as metaphors, at moments of emotional excess. When there is an overload of feeling, such that for a human things become unsayable, or ‘indescribable,’ animal narrators still allow us to go there. As a result, Berger says, we’ve always asked animals to bear a heavy symbolic load on our behalf, from fairy tales to fables, ancient epic poems to blockbuster Disney animated films. We give voice to animals – and objects! – in order to be able to speak in symbolic terms about ourselves.
Finding this through line between animal narrators and object narrators helped me make sense of why I’ve been drawn to these non-human narrators: that it’s not to escape the rawness and emotion of human life, but to dive even further into that messiness. ‘Feeling, dispossessed by humans,’ Baxter writes, ‘moves quickly into the nearest receptacle available to house it’. As a writer, it’s sometimes okay to feel with objects in fiction.
Thanks to Baxter’s essay, I was also given an education in fiction for adult readers with inanimate narrators.
Rainer Maria Rilke is an interesting example: his ambivalent responses to objects in his poetry say much about human hierarchies of value. In the poem ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo,’ the speaker is the statue itself. Though it has no eyes, it radiates strength and energy from every part of its stone surface, challenging the humans who come to look at it with a reminder of their own impotence in the face of time.
In an essay published in 1914, Rilke channels the spirit of dolls – and finds them repulsive for being so weak and dependent on children, even long after those children have grown up and discarded them. While he doesn’t take on the dolls’ perspectives directly, and though he professes to hate them for their weakness, there are moments where he feels his way empathetically into their inner lives. He imagines how they are ‘dragged along through the changing emotions of the day, lying for a while in each; made into a confidant, an accomplice, like a dog…initiated into the first nameless experiences of their owners, lying about in their earliest uncanny spells of loneliness’.
In a sudden moment of clarity, Rilke shifts from portraying the dolls as being weak to being immensely powerful. He declares that he understands why dolls have the power they do over us: because we cannot make them speak. They infuriate us because no matter how much emotion we pour into them, they will not utter a word back – and, ‘in a world where destiny and indeed God himself have become famous mainly by not speaking to us,’ the dolls’ silence takes on a sort of holiness. At the end of his essay, Rilke imagines a doll being cremated alongside a human child. He doesn’t mean the scene to bring a reader to tears (he’s using it as yet more proof of how horribly co-dependent doll and human are), but it made me cry. ‘Does a tiny portion of soul accumulate in it then,’ he wonders, of the doll after cremation.
While I was writing my story about the imaginary Tamponauts (tampon-astronauts) and their mission to Mars (inspired by the story of the first American female astronaut, Sally Ride, having 100 tampons suddenly thrust upon her by the male engineers at NASA, for a five-day trip to space), I was thinking about Rilke and his hatred for these feminine, supposedly weak doll-objects so central to the relationship between parents and children. Yet I was also inspired by his insight that it is the silence of certain objects that makes them so powerful, even god-like. Space objects venture out so far, into places humans cannot go, and yet they are mostly silent about what they have experienced and seen out there.
In another story told from the perspective of the International Space Station, I am trying to mimic the way Virginia Woolf makes the Ramsay family house a character in its own right in To the Lighthouse, particularly in the middle section, ‘Time Passes,’ where the empty house (the humans have been pulled away because of World War I) is taken over by the sea-wind as a kind of living character. This house has seen so much living; and yet it too succumbs to the slow destruction of time and weather and neglect, just like the Ramsay family itself is fated to become acquainted with loss and death. Yet in this section, it’s the house that has become the character – the human names (and sudden deaths) appear only in brackets.
As Baxter writes of this section, Woolf manages in a brilliant feat to balance trauma and innocence; and she does this by asking us to focus not on the dead and dying humans, but on how the sea-wind is moving through the house, like something alive, making the hinges and saucepans rust and the wallpaper come unstuck and prying beneath the sheets covering the furniture. When humans die, Woolf seems to be saying, things die too: while at first they might glorify in their freedom, they cannot survive or persist without us, without the care we give them. ‘Taking care of things,’ Baxter writes, ‘is the way back to the reconstitution of the spirit’.
Over time, I gradually met a comforting array of non-human and non-animal objects who are narrators in fiction. Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red (2001), a murder mystery set within the world of medieval miniaturists in Istanbul, is narrated from many different points of view – human mostly, but also from the perspective of a coin, a corpse, and the colour red. Tibor Fischer’s dystopian novel The Collector Collector (1997) is told from the viewpoint of an ancient Mesopotamian bowl which has the unique advantage over its human counterparts of being able to blend in – as all objects do. The bowl thus becomes a witness to all kinds of human behaviour, seeing people at their best, worst, most depraved, carnal, caring and desperate.
Luisa Valenzuela’s 1976 story ‘The Sin of the Apple’ is a monologue from the perspective of an apple on a tree, anticipating its inevitable fall and being consumed by the gentlemen who wait below the tree, looking up at it hungrily. She has chosen her object judiciously, picking one that is burdened with much symbolic meaning in Biblical history (Eve and the apple), but has also played a key role in scientific history (Newton watching apples fall to understand gravity).
One of the richest repositories of object storytelling by authors of fiction is collected in the Significant Objects Project, which started out as an anthropological and literary experiment by journalists Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn in 2009. They wanted to test out what kind of value could be added to random objects (like snow globes, lost keys, and other worthless bits of junk collected from thrift stores and flea markets) once a narrative had been attached to that specific object. They invited well-known writers such as Meg Cabot, Sheila Heti and Colson Whitehead to write a very short story about one of these thrift store objects, and then they sold each object at a significant mark-up on eBay, with the short story replacing the boring, factual ‘object description’ (proceeds were donated back to the writers or to non-profit writing associations).
They eventually gathered two hundred object stories in this way. Their experiment is a clever way of demonstrating how much value we as humans put on stories – even though we sometimes don’t acknowledge this through actual financial support for the arts. As Browning writes, the point of the project was to prove that ‘the emotional value that comes from attaching a story to an everyday object is so strong that it can be measured in terms of objective, actual value’.
One of my favourites is the micro-story by Nicholson Baker about an old meat thermometer:
Everything had a temperature in those days. Cheese was cold. Avocados were warm. My heart was a piece of hot meat pierced by love’s thermometer.
Another is Kate Bernheimer’s short story ‘Pink Horse,’ in which the object (a kitsch plastic pink horse with a fluffy white mane) becomes the vessel to hold the narrator’s grief at losing both her daughters. The pink horse is also, unsurprisingly, the object that increased the most in value from pre-narrative to post-narrative: it was purchased for $1 and sold on eBay, with the story attached, for $104.50.
While not all of the stories in the Significant Objects Project are told from the perspectives of the object themselves, they still affirm the meaningful relationships we have with individual objects, no matter how ordinary.
Reaching back even further in my search for object-narrators, I discovered a delightfully strange book by Annie Carey, Autobiographies of a Lump of Coal, a Grain of Salt, a Drop of Water, a Bit of Old Iron, a Piece of Flint, published in 1870.
These inanimate objects narrate the stories of their lives (and their significance in human history) to a listening group of children. While the book may originally have been written for young readers, it should – in the Anthropocene – be required reading for adults. Here is the lump of coal describing what it once was, in its far-distant past:
I will only now tell you that there was a time when, instead of lying ‘a great, ugly lump,’ I and my friends occupied large tracts of land, where we were lords of the soil, and enjoyed a most regal life; when our children sported in the sunshine and danced in the open air with their bright green dresses that sparkled with every gleam of light, and rustled with every passing breeze, while the earth and the sky and the air supplied our wants and ministered to our enjoyments. Ah, me! that was indeed a time!…But while I gratify myself by recalling my former grandeur I shall weary you, so I will only just say that the ancient name of my family was WOOD, and that, by degrees, like many another great family we decayed, mouldered away, as it were, and that, under the pressure of circumstances and of forces that we were unable to resist, our fortunes, modes of life, places of abode, even our very characters, altered and altered again and again, till at last we sank into a sleep state, and remained, for ages and ages, unknown and uncared for, out of sight and out of mind.
I also stumbled upon tantalising references to a microform edition of a book from 1859, The story of my life: by the submarine telegraph (the Internet Archive partially digitised version of this book lists ‘Submarine Telegraph’ as the sole author). Eventually, I found a scanned version of the full microform. The human author is unconfirmed – perhaps Charles West, perhaps not – but in the spirit of respecting object agency, I’ve credited ‘Submarine Telegraph’ as first author in my citations.
As soon as I started reading, I fell under the spell of this submarine telegraph so determined to tell its story:
I am but in my childhood yet, although I am several years older than the world has been led to believe my age to be. Young as I am, however, few have undergone more suffering, and been subjected to greater cruelties during a long life, than I have in my short career. My severed and scattered limbs, now lying at the bottom of the ocean, in various parts of the globe, bear ample testimony to my ill usage.
I do not mean to accuse any of the individuals by whom I have been subjected to this torture, of any wilful or intended cruelty; it is the result, rather, of their not properly understanding me, and the peculiar requirements to fit me for my ocean bed…I am induced to publish [my narrative]…solely with the view of placing myself in my right position with the public, and of inspiring them with the same conviction that I have myself, of my being able…to bring, by my extraordinary power, distance countries, separated from each other by the ocean, into close and immediate intercommunication.
I love these object-narratives – the lump of coal, the submarine telegraph. I wish I could include here huge swathes of these long-forgotten yet precious texts. It was heartening for me to see in their similar authorial tone some of the same features of my own space object speakers: a mix of earnestness and irony; appeals to human wisdom alongside disappointed rejections of the possibility of real connection with humans.
In my view, the lump of coal and the submarine telegraph have equal dignity and gravitas as object narrators, which is quite something given that only one of them (the submarine telegraph) is designed to facilitate human communication; Carey’s job in ‘animating’ her lump of coal is much tougher, and yet she makes it come alive and ‘speak’ to humans just as tenderly. Over the course of my research, I’ve realised that many people assume that farce or satire is the only mode in which to tell stories from the points of view of objects, yet I could not disagree more. There is love, and loss, and deep emotion embedded in these object stories, if we could just open ourselves up to listening to them without judgement.
I have two final discoveries to share from my search for other writers who have written about or from the perspectives of objects. The first is Italo Calvino’s tale in Six Memos for the Next Millennium (2016) about the roundabout travels of a magical ring. This book contains the notes and draft essays that Calvino had made in 1984, preparing to give the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton poetry lectures at Harvard University the year following – but he passed away from a stroke before he could complete or deliver them. In these lecture sketches, Calvino is trying to isolate principles or values that might help literature as a whole thrive in the new millennium (the one in which we now live).
In the essay ‘Quickness,’ he recounts an ancient legend about the emperor Charlemagne, rumoured to have been bewitched by his lover, who was found to have a ring set with a precious stone beneath her tongue when she died. Charlemagne next fell in love with the archbishop who’d found the ring under her tongue; when the archbishop threw the ring into Lake Constance, Calvino says, Charlemagne fell in love with the lake. The magic ring, according to Calvino, is the ‘story’s true protagonist’. Even he – Calvino – finds it difficult to stop thinking about the ring after reading the legend, ‘as if the ring’s enchantment were still exerting its pull through the story’. This object ‘is an outward sign that makes visible the links among characters and among events’.
From here, Calvino considers other kinds of significant objects in literature, which drive plot and generate ‘a kind of force field’ around them, ‘which is the field of the story’, for instance the objects that Robinson Crusoe rescues from the shipwreck or makes with his own hands in Daniel Defoe’s classic novel. Calvino builds up to his beautiful description of what role objects can play in narrative:
We might say that as soon as an object appears in a narrative, it becomes charged with special force, becomes like the pole in a magnetic field or a node in an invisible network of relations. The object’s symbolic value can be explicit or not, but it is always present. We might even say that any object in a narrative is a magic object.
Another fruitful insight I took from these essays is that many authors set themselves strict parameters for creation that paradoxically allow them to feel free and liberated in their actual writing. Calvino describes how many authors of fiction (himself included) have used this method of setting rules to deepen their experimentation; the stricter the rules, the more innovative their writing became. He would often set himself the task of writing a story just from a visual image: an empty suit of armour that begins to move and talk, for instance. Calvino (who sadly died before he could undertake this project) also longed to write a collection of stories each consisting of only a single sentence or line, to see what would happen when meaning and poetics were compressed – or unburdened – to this extent.
He notes that Jorge Luis Borges overcame decades of writer’s block by pretending that ‘the book he wanted to write had already been written – written by someone else, some imaginary unknown author, working in a different language, a different culture – and then to describe, summarize, and review that imaginary book’. This helped me better understand – and feel more legitimate about – my own process and method of writing these story collections.
By setting myself an overarching rule or principle (only looking through the eyes of one animal or object narrator at a time), I can sort of trick myself into writing, and hope that something fresh emerges from this skewed perspective. Calvino – who himself was drawn to rewriting and reinterpreting folktales and fables throughout his career – understood his own impulse in this sense as being about seeking a necessary lightness, which to him is the point of literature:
When the human realm seems doomed to heaviness, I feel the need to fly like Perseus into some other space. I am not talking about escaping into dreams or into the irrational. I mean that I feel the need to change my approach, to look at the world from a different angle, with different logic, different methods of knowing and proving.
My final discovery is a contemporary novel by the Danish author Olga Ravn, Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22ndCentury (2022), which is set on a spaceship called the Six Thousand Ship. It’s structured as a collection of transcripts and other records from the crew, who are addressing an official committee that is investigating the failure of their mission. As these polyphonous records accumulate, it becomes clear that this failure is being blamed in part on a selection of objects that the crew (made up of both humans and humanoids) have collected from another planet.
The crew struggles to properly describe the objects: they look a bit like stones yet emit noises and fragrances. They aren’t threatening – in fact, many of the crew members like to soak cloths in the object’s fragrances and sleep with these draped over their faces. It starts to seem as if the main effect the objects have on the crew is to somehow influence them to use language that is less and less corporate and administrative (the jargon in which they’ve been professionally trained) and increasingly infused with forbidden emotions like yearning, longing and regret. This goes for both the human crew and the humanoids, who’ve not previously had access to these kinds of feelings. The emotional overload results in an anarchic confusion that leads to the murder of a human by a humanoid.
The objects, meanwhile, remain a source of comfort to some of the crew but are despised by others; believed to be alive by some, and dead by others. These objects are not narrators per se, but they are leading characters more vivid and intriguing than many of the crew, and they certainly have agency and the ability to set big things (and feelings) into motion.
Ravn’s alien, semi-alive stones are a reminder that objects might finally be worthy of being taken seriously and welcomed as narrators and characters in literary fiction for adult readers. I thought immediately of those stones when I read the following words by Laura van den Berg in her short essay ‘Object Lessons: An Exploration’ and would like to end with her ode to objects:
Objects contain worlds; troubled and fractured histories; unanswerable mysteries; forcefields of thought and feeling…Objects…have the power to communicate the matter that exists beyond the limits of language.
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