In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, George Saunders discusses “a particular Russian form of unreliable narration called skaz.” He cites the critic Robert Maguire, who writes that the skaz narrator
has little formal education and little idea of how to develop an argument, let alone talk in an eloquent and persuasive way about his feelings, although he wishes to be considered informed and observant; he tends to ramble and digress and cannot distinguish the trivial from the important.
Perhaps the easiest way to grasp skaz narration is to imagine what would happen if Dwight Schrute were the first-person narrator of a story. To quote Maguire again, for the skaz narrator, as for Dwight Schrute, “enthusiasms outrun common sense.”
Most of us, I trust, are less Dwight Schrute-ish than Dwight Schrute, but each of us, like Dwight, perceives reality through the lens of our particular mix of perceived self-interest, fears, desires, experiences, information, misinformation, etc. To paraphrase Saunders, we mistake the way we see things for The Way Things Are; we mistake the thing that’s on our mind at the moment for The Most Important Thing in the World. I’m reminded of the time Stephen Colbert broke his wrist and launched a Wrist Awareness Campaign, complete with a WristStrong bracelet fundraiser.
George Saunders continues,
I think, therefore I am wrong, after which I speak, and my wrongness falls on someone also thinking wrongly, and then there are two of us thinking wrongly, and, being human, we can’t bear to think without taking action, which, having been taken, makes things worse…
The entire drama of life on earth is: Skaz-Headed Person #1 steps outside, where he encounters Skaz-Headed Person #2. Both, seeing themselves as the center of the universe, thinking highly of themselves, immediately slightly misunderstand everything. They try to communicate but aren’t any good at it.
Consider Pride and Prejudice, a book that has been much on my mind lately. With its third-person omniscient narrator it doesn’t, properly speaking, fit into the skaz tradition. Nevertheless, skaz-headedness plays a central role in the story. I’m not even talking about the certifiable fools in the book, of whom there are plenty. The book’s good, sensible people misunderstand and misinterpret their situation so thoroughly that they escape utter disaster only narrowly and only by the grace of God.
If you’re a fiction writer, you’d do well to get a grasp of this idea of skaz-headedness. No matter what kind of mess you put your characters into, your characters’ (mis)perception of the mess they’re in is a whole nother layer of narrative interest that is yours for the taking without a lot of plot-invention. It’s the fiction-writing equivalent of the free square in the middle of the bingo card.
But maybe you’re not a fiction writer. Maybe you’re just a human being trying to understand, communicate with, and live alongside other human beings without, say, contributing to the further unraveling of our social fabric. You, too, would do well to get a grasp of this idea of skaz-headedness—both your own and that of your fellow earth-dwellers.
I devoutly believe that there’s Reality that exists independently of what any of us think or believe about it. I also believe that our skaz-headedness makes it incredibly hard for us to perceive and articulate that Reality. Language fails all the time. To me, the surprising thing is not that language often fails, but that language ever succeeds. That’s a grace. I mean that literally, theologically.
We bumble around, trying to perceive, trying to put things into words. We get it wrong a lot of the time… There’s no good way to estimate how much of the time we’re getting it wrong; in the end we just have to trust in grace. And extend grace.