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Episode 327

Stories Told Through Diaries

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Posted by Mary Ann

“A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki is an extraordinary book, and one thing that makes it vivid is the voice of Nao, the teenaged girl whose diary the novelist “Ruth” finds washed up on the British Columbia shore. It is such an original, funny and sad voice. It got me thinking about how novelists use this form as a very effective device to convince you that you are hearing the voice of a real person, even though it’s entirely made up. It’s so personal; it’s like the character’s voice is traveling directly from his or her mouth to your (readerly) ear.

This got me thinking about other books that have used this technique to great effect.

The first is a book that you and I have talked about before – “Dracula” by Bram Stoker. This book was an absolute sensation when it came out in 1897.

Much of this story is told through journal entries from at least two different people. Jonathan Harker is the hapless English lawyer who is dispatched to Transylviania to clear up some business with the shy, retiring Count Dracula, and we read of the horrors he experiences through his journal entries.

One very effective use to which this diary-journal form is put is to chronicle Jonathan’s mounting terror as the days pass, he remains imprisoned in the castle and he experiences any number of very inhospitable encounters. It also puts you squarely in the moment, as Jonathan marshals the will to escape.

And then there’s the journal of Mina Murray, Jonathan’s fiancée. Oh, Mina. Such a good hearted young woman; the very flower of English womanhood, and of course, she becomes Dracula’s main target. Again, this technique puts you in her shoes, as she experiences the horror of the attacks on her friend Lucy and, eventually, on herself. You really are seeing it through her eyes, and it makes it all the scarier.

“Dracula” intersperses the direct accounts of Jonathan and Mina with more indirect and distanced reports of events, including letters from solicitors, nurses and letters to and from the main characters. The net effect is very disorienting; with these multiple perspectives, you are never quite sure what is going on, which of course works to the advantage of Dracula. To a point.

Another very poignant use of the diary in a piece of fiction, this time a short story, is the classic “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes. This story, published in 1959, is a staple of high school literature classes, and for good reason.

It tells the story of Charlie Gordon, a man with an IQ of 68. He is working as a janitor when he is selected to be a part of an experimental drug trial that winds up tripling his intelligence. Charlie’s diary entries vividly display both his growing intelligence and his growing awareness of why people around him act the way they do. Then, heartbreakingly, the drug loses its effectiveness, and we witness his deterioration in the same way. The diary form is like documentary evidence of his ascent and his decline; it also brings the reader heartbreakingly close to his predicament.

Let’s move from the tragic to the wildly funny. “Bridget Jones’ Diary” by Helen Fielding. The first book in this series, published in 1998, introduced the diaries of the completely loveable (and fictional) Bridget Jones, who smoked too much, drank too much and wasted a lot of time on a futile crush on her womanizing and manipulative boss. Of course, she is so blinded by the charms of her boss she won’t give the time of day to Mark Darcy, a wonderful man who is….now you’ve got it, based on Mr. Darcy of Jane Austen’s “Pride & Prejudice,” as is the entire book.

Bridget’s voice – counting calories, reciting self-help maxims – is particularly astute when it comes to her observations of human nature, is presented in diary form, as are the sequels to the first book, which I’m sorry to say are reported to be not quite as good.

Of course, the first book was made into a wonderful movie starring Renee Zellweger, Hugh Grant as the feckless boss and in a masterpiece of character referral, Colin Firth as Darcy, who played exactly that character in the wonderful TV version of “Pride and Prejudice.” “Brigit” started out life as a newspaper series similar to Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City,” an author we hope to have on “Well Read” soon.

Finally, my book nerdy son informs me that almost a third of Jonathan Franzen’s novel “Freedom” is written in diary form, as one of the characters, Patty Emerson, writes what is called a “therapeutic diary” in hopes of exorcising her demons! And she has plenty, especially for a certified liberal from St. Paul, Minn.

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