We Out of Many - First-Person Plural Narration in 21st-Century American Novels

Dissertation Project by
Michaela Beck

My PhD project focuses on what has been described as the ‘rise’ of the ‘we’ narrator in recent U.S. literature (Maxey 2015, Cf. Costello 2012) – that is, the use of the first-person plural narrator in a growing body of short and longer narrative fiction, including Kate Walbert’s Our Kind (2005), Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End (2007), Hannah Pittard’s The Fates Will Find Their Way (2011), and TaraShea Nesbit’s The Wives of Los Alamos (2014), among others. 

More specifically, my dissertation examines this ‘we’, or communal narrator in a selection of six 21st-century (post-postmodern) U.S. American novels with a decided focus on its cultural work. Drawing on New Formalist approaches (Olson and Copland 2016, Levine 2015), I aim to conjoin two (hitherto discrete) strands of research in my project: For one, I employ formalist-narratological discussions of the ‘we’ narrator – particularly approaches by Margolin, Bekhta, Marcus, Fludernik, and Richardson – for a precise discussion of the framing and narrative use of the first-person plural pronoun in the primary texts. Importantly, in doing so, I seek to detach the formal discussion of the ‘we’ narrator in my project from the ‘unnatural’ versus natural narrative debate (Cf. Richardson 2006, 2015), and I read the communal narrator as a textual form whose meta- and/or extratextual implications necessarily depend on its specific aesthetic as well as socio-cultural frames of reference.

At the same time, my project aims to enquire into these implications by focusing specifically on the interaction between the affordances of this form and socio-cultural, economic, or political discourses or ‘forms’ (Cf. Levine 2015) in a contemporary U.S. American context. As such, the individual textual analyses within my project zoom in on the inter-relation between the different form(ulation)s of the communal narrator and the discussion of the following socio-political and cultural paradigms in the primary material: first, the conceptualization of U.S. national society as a complex, yet bounded ‘whole’; second, the proposition of attached notions of civic collectivity and national belonging which are premised on both cognitive and affective ties; and third, the idealized understanding of the American (post-postmodern) novel as a prestigious and most vital medium and forum for negotiating these paradigms in and for U.S. culture.