Saturday

First Person, Present Tense: Robert Bausch’s Far As the Eye Can See

For the first three quarters of this colorful novel of the American West, I was completely immersed. The book is set in the years leading up to Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn, and it tells a vivid and gripping story. The reluctant hero is good company. He interacts with many sympathetic and/or interesting characters. Bausch creates a fully realized novelistic landscape that comes alive in rare and impressive ways. 

Far As the Eye Can See was the one book that I’d brought on a long trip to Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia, and I’d expected it to last me the whole time. But early in the trip, I started flying through it. I really didn’t want to put it down—and I only did so in order to savor it and make it last.

At a specific point around three quarters of the way through the book, Bausch made an unfortunate choice having to do with the mode of narration. When the story finally caught up with the events that had been narrated in the prologue, he switched the first-person voice from the past to the present tense. 

This may seem an inconsequential decision, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the way the author thought of it at the time, but for me this minor shift in perspective was a major problem. Suddenly the book went from an effortless to a more difficult to read. The guiding consciousness that had been so natural and fluid before now felt stilted and off-putting. I had increasing trouble suspending my disbelief, and from the point where the POV shifted to the end of the book I was continually thrown out of the story. What happened?

Admittedly, I may have succumbed to the hypercritical mood that sometimes overtakes a writer who reads. Nevertheless, I think it will be illuminating to try to identify what I was reacting to by looking at a few sample passages. The first is from the present-tense prologue:

“The path is thick with brush and patches of thicket full of thorns and dry, twisted branches, but it’s a path, and way beyond the two knobs of hill in front of me, I see him coming along on foot. A dark, thin shadow that might be a Indian or not. I can't tell. For my money, a soldier’s just as dangerous as a Indian.”

The second passage is in the past tense, which begins with chapter one and continues unabated throughout the first three quarters of the book:

“After I killed my first Indian, Theo bade me ride in front of the lead wagon with Big Tree every day, so I guess you could say I become a part of the wagon train because I killed a man and proved I could be useful.”

To me, this mode of narration feels natural, and—once the reader is accustomed to the quirky diction of Bausch’s unlettered first person narrator—appropriately transparent. In other words, it does what a good narrative POV should do, fading into the background so we can focus on the story.

The third passage is from the final quarter of the book, after the sudden shift back to the present tense:

“We stay completely still most of that day. I don’t think I sleep more than a half hour or so, and when the sun begins to drop behind the high hills behind us, we start off again. We move slow and quiet most of the night.”

In the prologue, the present tense was a good fit. The protagonist narrated a single event in exacting moment-to-moment detail. We were new to the world of the story. The characters as yet had no future and no past, so the immediacy of a perspective focused entirely on the present felt right. None of this was the case in the final quarter of the book, so the present tense began to feel strained and unnatural. The easy transparency of the narrative voice had been sacrificed. And for what?

Bausch’s rationale in switching to the present tense for the last quarter of the book is not entirely clear to me. Perhaps it was to delineate for himself and for the reader that the timeline of the story had now caught up to the prologue—but why be so obvious about it? The reader is smart enough to figure out the story’s timeline on his own; he doesn’t need it underlined and put in bold type. And the sudden and permanent switch had the unfortunate effect of interrupting a perfectly fluid reading experience. 

I believe that we can begin to see the reasons for this sensation in the third passage quoted above. Note that we are no longer focused on a moment-by-moment experience. Time is passing in a more typically novelistic way – sometimes faster, sometimes slower, with all the “leaping and crowding” required to tell a story on the large canvas. The story now has its own accumulated memory, an implied retrospective vantage point that is, of course, impossible to gain in the present tense. Perhaps we feel cheated that that implied retrospective vision has gone missing. Perhaps we get a subconscious feeling that the author is ducking something. And to me, chapter after chapter of present tense narration is just, well, awkward.

My takeaway from this reading experience is that present tense ought to be used sparingly. For scenes of moment-to-moment immediacy, for moments of special intensity, when what we might call “narrative memory” has yet to be established, it can work well. But it doesn’t seem to be the right perspective for filling the more abundant canvas of a larger novelistic story. And it’s probably not a good idea to switch horses midstream arbitrarily, without a clear and pressing need to do so.