Emily Hall’s The Longcut and the Dujardin Problem of Consciousness in First-Person Narration
D. W. White
As with all art forms, there are to be found in fiction various movements, lineages, schools, questions, and, indeed, problems. For those who, with any degree of seriousness, study, consume, and attempt literature, there is an infinite supply of specific areas of investigation, turns within turns, subterranean Undergrounds of rabbit holes. One such niche that must be of particular interest to at least several people is that which can be called the Dujardin Problem, a particular set of ontological difficulties and occurrences that arise in specific types of first-person narration. Taking its name from a short, obscure novel published nearly one hundred and fifty years ago and promptly forgotten, this phenomenon is a strange and vexing branch off the point-of-view family tree.
In 1888, the French writer Édouard Dujardin published a novel called Les lauriers sont coupés, a title taken from a line in a popular children’s song and later translated into English as We’ll To The Woods No More. Following a young dilettante as he strolls around Paris one flowering evening, the book almost certainly would have remained in the quick oblivion in which it fell had it not been come across, quite by chance, fifteen years later in the bookstall of a railway station by a twenty-one year old James Joyce. It was two decades on, in correspondence regarding Ulysses, that Joyce mentioned to a literary friend his awareness of and apparent indebtedness to Les lauriers sont coupés, in that the novel served as inspiration for his use of the stream-of-consciousness stylings he perfected. Dujardin, for his part, capitalized on his good fortune by styling himself as the inventor of the famous technique to anyone who would listen.
As many literary theorists and commentators have noted, Dujardin and his book have, despite the Joycean boon, become the sole domain of, essentially, themselves—virtually all modern interest in Les lauriers sont coupés stems from a study of stream-of-consciousness writing, Ulysses, or some combination thereof. The issue here, however, is at once more general and more specific. Put simply, the Dujardin Problem involves the level of verisimilitude in first-person interior narration.
True instances of consciousness exploration are in fact quite rare in first-person; instead most are Proustian discursive approaches, with the narrator serving as a tour guide through their own past lives, allowing indirect insights into their psyche to be gleaned via language, interests, and the like. For the ones that do, then, the Dujardin Problem presents a pitfall, manifesting in awkward expository attempts at helping the reader along and wedging in the (often superfluous) information that a narrative entity typically would seamlessly provide in third, where the vast majority of true consciousness-first writing is done.
Paradoxically, then, when fiction begins to enter the lower more immediate, levels of consciousness representation—involving techniques such as free-indirect style, inner monologue, monologue intérieur, or other “stream-of-consciousness” methods—first-person narration becomes either completely unable to function or jarringly inelegant in its approach. Third-person narration is far better suited to verisimilar, unfiltered representations of characters’ mental processes. While a first-person protagonist can quite naturally explain what they were (or are, in light of the recent rise of present-tense writing) thinking, feeling, or doing, on the mechanical level the writing is necessarily presented as dialogic with the reader, as conversational, ultimately aimed outward. What, then, about the first-person narrator who wishes to capture Woolf’s ‘stuff of life’, to present their mind as it is, to render their thoughts as they occur—not outward, but in?
What so excited Joyce in 1903, and what has inspired scholarship in the twelve decades since, is the direct and immediate presentation of the hero’s mind in Les lauriers sont coupés. The difficulties with Dujardin’s novel are readily apparent to any, especially a modern day, reader, even if they are somewhat more difficult to define than to spot. As his hero moves about Paris—having dinner, calling on his nominal date, contemplating the street—he relates, in clean, direct, grammatical present-tense prose, everything he sees and hears, thinks and feels:
Illuminated, red, golden, coffee; sparkling ice cream; a boy in a white apron; the columns laden with hats and overcoats. Is there anyone known here? These people are watching me come in; a thin gentleman with long sideburns, what seriousness! The tables are full; where will I settle? over there a void; precisely my usual place; one can have a usual seat; Leah wouldn’t have anything to laugh about.
While a revolutionary departure from the approaches that had been used to relate the inner lives of fictive characters up to that point, the technical-mechanical style of Les lauriers sont coupés suffers from a major and, ultimately fatal, flaw: believability. Dujardin’s work fails to convincingly portray his protagonist’s inner life (as is clearly the goal) because, to put it simply, no one thinks like this, in complete sentences and neatly ordered progressions. While Dujardin’s concept was an important step in the modernization of the novel, aiming to capture moment-to-moment interiority, his execution left much to be desired. Beyond Joyce’s rediscovery of Les lauriers sont coupés, there is another reason why the book remains of interest into the present day—the continued presence of the Dujardin Problem in contemporary fiction.
There is of course a difference between a protagonist ‘talking to the reader’ and a faithful depiction of an inner thought process; in Episode Eighteen of Ulysses, when Molly Bloom spends forty-odd feverish pages free-associating through her psyche, there is little to make the reader feel as though they are the intended audience. The vast majority of grammatically correct narrations in the first person however, are framed as a dialogic between speaker and audience. The interesting exceptions—identified as Autonomous Monologue by the theorist Dorrit Cohn—include Joyce’s ‘Penelope’ and Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, from 2019, which adopt a similar style. But, as Cohn herself notes in the discussion, despite Autonomous Monologue being a first-person technique, its ungrammatical running of thoughts—what most people think of when they think of a true ‘stream-of-consciousness’—is only comprehensible in a broader third-person context, an external guiding hand offering a few redirections to the stream.
There is an important different to be drawn at this point between tense and narration when speaking about first- or third-person. Tense is a mechanical issue, concerned with grammar, syntax, and diction. Narration, on the other hand, is a technical issue, dealing with style, approach, and philosophy. Third-person narration can employ first-person tense within it (Autonomous Monologue being one example), just as a first-person narration can utilize third-person tense when, for instance, describing another character. It is those attempts within first-person narration to look truly inward, to foreground the interiority of a narrating protagonist not as simply relating her story to the reader, but expressing with fidelity her inner mind, where basic problems are found. Heavy-handed exposition and awkward backstory are all too often attempted to be welded into early moments in order to guide the reader with information of which the narrator herself would never need to be reminded. Even after more than a century, the Dujardin Problem is ever-waiting to snap the suspension bridge of disbelief, pulling a novel off the cliff of verisimilitude and into the abyss.
In one of the most refreshing, engaging, and inspiring debut novels of recent vintage, The Longcut, Emily Hall crashes through this treacherous obstacle without a second thought. The precision, power, and authenticity of Hall’s language manage to come as close as possible to that unfiltered representation almost exclusively achieved by third-person. While our heroine surely speaks to the reader, she does so in such a manner that the unabridged essence of her inner life is truly captured, leaving Hall with an incisive, provocative solution to the Dujardin Problem.
Our guide through her own turbulent inner life is The Longcut’s suitably nameless protagonist, a young woman working in a painfully vapid office job on a quest to understand what exactly the nature of her artistic pursuit may be. While the device of withholding the names of first-person narrators is quickly lapsing into trite cliché in contemporary fiction, here it is a smart and effective use. In so tight a focus to her mind, there is never the need, or even the logic, in the protagonist naming herself—she knows her name. This is but one element The Longcut shares with the most proficient close third-person writing. The total renunciation of useless exposition or superfluous backstory marks Hall’s approach, trusting as she does that her reader will figure out what’s going on and who’s being talked about, a confidence well-founded.
As she asks with a repetitious humor, the narrator is on a mission to discover ‘what her work is’. She is something of an artist; this much is clear. Her friends and acquaintances in the art world are all of them seemingly focused, driven, sure, productive. Our heroine, meanwhile, can barely manage to avoid her lurking boss and his slant looks, let alone determine the nature and direction of her art. With an in medias res of which Homer would be proud, the narrator’s mission has been going on long before the book begins, and the reader is plunged immediately into the chaotic underworld of her obsession. With her fictive similarities to Dujardin’s hero—not the least of which their shared proclivity for walking about their urban home, a tendency towards loquacious auto-locution, and a manic search for an elusive goal—Hall’s heroine is a fitting literary descendant and technical evolution.
As the book progresses, the narrator’s frenzied thoughts leap down and around a mind that seems to have been sketched by MC Escher. A fascinating technique is Hall’s temporal flexibility—although a unifying past tense delimits the audience and helps to corral things, her narrator often moves through a Russian nesting doll sequence of memory. The first two-thirds of the story follow the protagonist as she walks towards a meeting with a gallery owner set up by an artist friend, simultaneously obsessively remembering everything that’s gone on in her Odyssean travails through the office and the search for her work:
How did other artists discover the truth about any object or in fact answer the question of what their work was, I asked myself near raise plow, nearly walking into a person crossing the street in front of me…The truth was that I had no way of gauging my seriousness or unseriousness, I was forced to admit near the steam and raise plow, my seriousness being a variable or provisional sense causing me thus on some days to seem serious to myself while on others the reverse seemed equally or exclusively true, my serious-seeming enquiry into the question of what my work was seeming to others to be flakiness, a failure to buckle down, to be dicking around, as another friend, a British print maker, would say, dicking around being what she had called it in her blunt conversational style…Where would I go to meet some unserious or appropriately less serious artist-photographers, I had found myself considering at the time, I recalled as I walked.
Although the past-tense offers an overall frame to the narrative, The Longcut’s focus is so completely on the internal over the external, about the self rather than towards the reader, that the Dujardin Problem is utterly solved. The epistemological difference between this and so much ostensibly interior-driven is found in Hall’s ability to locate her narration as looking into the mind of her protagonist—even as that narrator is the same character at a temporal remove—rather than looking from the eyes of a first-person narrator towards the outer world.
We can see, then, that Hall indeed does attempt to render consciousness in a first-person narration, but achieves authenticity and success by her exacting prose, her focus on specific details, and the frame of memory. She is also able to overcome the questions of bias and credibility that first-person narrators always face in telling their own story, because the language and diction her protagonist uses in telling us about herself mirrors the characteristics she says she possesses—frenetic urgency, philosophical exuberance, witty intelligence.
We follow our narrator down the boulevard as she at once hyperventilates over her imminent meeting, frets over her job and money, recalls meetings with friends, and expounds on the nature of art, reality, existence, and the self. The Longcut is Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine turned up to hypersonic and ran through a David Foster Wallace amplifier—relentless, fearless neuroticism strung at the highest possible pitch. The upshot, as it is with the best interior-focused fiction, as is indeed in some ways the point of interior-focused fiction, is an immediate alignment with our heroine, a deep and swift investment in her quixotic journey of agonized thought down the street.
The plot, too, is another way in which Hall’s debut enjoys a shared genetic makeup with foundational third-person High Modernist literature. In its radically ordinary raison d’être, one can see the une action banale that is a common trademark of interior driven fiction, a focus on everyday events that allows for a true exploration of human nature. From Clarissa Dalloway’s dinner party to Leopold Bloom’s errand-running to Benjy Compson’s field trips, the quotidian has often staged the sublime.
There is more here than mere technical marvels for the craft-obsessed, and Hall’s humor and skilled prose paints an eminently sympathetic character who is both enjoyable to read and entertaining to witness. The bolts of artistic and philosophical wisdom are profound and well-balanced, and many young artists will find much truth in her musings and observations. At one point perhaps approaching an answer to her central question, the narrator encounters the ever-present question of marketability:
I understood in the immediate moment that if I was determined to make unreasonable objects that reasonableness would constitute an impediment, even as I also however understood in the same or subsequent immediate moment that a failure to partake of or consider reasonableness might or would lead to the objects not being made at all. This possibly constituting an impediment of a higher order.
While her character may agonize over such matters, Hall herself need not. In a remarkable display of the near-total purposelessness of the type of hand-holding narration that is far too common in fiction, The Longcut never relents but also never presents too great a challenge. Hall’s debut is both an enjoyable, readable book and a polished, intellectually sophisticated work of craft. The Longcut will doubtless not serve as a final answer to the Dujardin Problem, as first-person works of questionable effectiveness and verisimilitude in the portrayal of inner life will surely continue to appear. But it is an answer nonetheless, a captivating and illuminating example of how much truly fearless and inspired fiction can accomplish.
D. W. White is a graduate of the M.F.A. Creative Writing program at Otis College in Los Angeles and Stony Brook University’s BookEnds Fellowship. Currently seeking representation for his first novel, he serves as Founding Editor for L’Esprit Literary Review and Fiction Editor for West Trade Review, where he also contributes reviews and critical essays. His writing further appears in The Florida Review, The Rupture, The Review of UnContemporary Fiction, Necessary Fiction, and Chicago Review of Books, among several other publications. A Chicago ex-pat, he now lives in Long Beach, California, where he teaches writing and frequents the beach to hide from writer’s block.