Among the more interesting trends in contemporary fiction is the rise of present-tense narration, notably in the first person. Perhaps as a response to a shifting, uncertain world, both within the literary community and among society at large, there has been a proliferation in the use of discursive narrators relating a story moment to moment across a rapid plot. This new present tense is notably unconcerned with the temporal tightening that traditionally came with the (relatively rare) use of the form—a compression of how long a period of time the book covers, usually in order to focus a work’s immediacy—pushing the novel in new directions, opening up fresh blind spots, and on balance representing a method welcome in its originality. The most recent offering in contemporary first-person vintage—taking its place alongside Lynn Steger Strong’s Want, Jenny Offill’s Weather, and Elizabeth Gonzalez James’ Mona at Sea—is Louise Nealon’s lithe and limber debut, Snowflake.
Nealon’s first-person present tense is the defining feature of Snowflake, both for what it offers her and in the ways it limits the book. We first meet our protagonist, Debbie, in a very effective prelude of sorts, a decade younger than the first-year-of-university-aged heroine who will dominate the story and remembering a representative moment with her uncle Billy, himself encamped permanently in wilds of the family farm and serving as the grounding, if somewhat stumbling, force in her life. Debbie, Billy, her mother, and her mother’s young farmhand-cum-beau James all live on the working farm, a setting near to Nealon’s own life and which allows her to showcase considerable descriptive abilities while offering a nice contrast to the bustle of Dublin to come. The book opens in earnest in the weeks before Debbie heads off to college, and that is where the action lay throughout. As we move through the heart of the narrative, we slip into the study in opposites that define Debbie’s life and Snowflake as a literary effort—at her uncle’s insistence, she goes off to university in the city while still living at home on the farm; her mother’s deteriorating mental state offsets a burgeoning worldview that she is acquiring at school; friendships and social encounters in Dublin pull against Debbie’s lasting attachment to Billy and the way of life he both teaches to and from which wishes to free his niece. Throughout it all, Nealon’s honest and candid method provides verisimilitude and depth—it is clear we are dealing with a novelist who is both willing and able to turn the details of her own life into compelling fiction. At the same time, her tense serves as a steady drumbeat in the background, the technical approach that resonates across the narrative.
The strongest feature of the present tense in Snowflake and, one suspects, the reason for its use, is the amplification of Debbie’s sense of vulnerability throughout her wide-eyed introduction to the world beyond the farm. Nealon covers a fairly large amount of time, and in order to do so must rely on strong inter-scenic pacing. Happily, her structuring, to give it another name, is more than up to the task, allowing the narrative to skip rapidly across the significant months in our heroine’s life. Debbie moves through her first year of college almost unnoticed by the reader, much in the way she feels to be perceived herself on campus and in Dublin as a whole. The secondary characters are often finely and richly drawn, foremost among them being Billy, and we are rarely bogged down in a moment due to the present tense’s fixation on action and Nealon’s confidence in her movement. These forces create a strong relationship between reader and protagonist, and give Snowflake much of its sapience and weight.
The structure and tense do, however, create some difficulties. Without the guiding force of a temporally-removed protagonist looking back to frame her life story, the narration occasionally lacks focus, testing readerly interest on a global level as plotlines weave through and around each other without an always-clear sense of direction. From time to time, we lose the thread of Debbie’s burgeoning collegiate experience, and while a book that eschews conventional plotting and rote recitation of events is always welcome, there may have been a touch more room within Snowflake to witness our heroine as she stumbles out into the world, to access to an inner life that we see only in glimpse and aside. Paradoxically, first-person present tense is most vulnerable to a lack of interior development and psychological depth with regards to the protagonist. That risk is run, and once in a while encountered here, as Debbie’s relating of events occasionally slips into something closer to a reporter giving a live update from the field than the central character of a novel opening her mind and consciousness to her reader.
Indeed, Snowflake at times feels more Nealon’s story than Debbie’s; without the retrospective abilities of a past tense central character, the author must insert herself as artificer—any and all choices as to information release or general pace of storytelling bear the writer’s fingerprints, simply because there is no one else to make them. In Snowflake, then, what we gain in the present tense’s ability to bring us along in the moment with Debbie during this transformational thrusting from the nest is mirrored by cuts from the other side of the blade, a sporadic and recurring loss of focus by the narration on the protagonist herself.
However, the journey—be it Nealon’s, Debbie’s, or in reality, both—is a compelling one, and some of the gaps opened up by the point of view lend an added effectiveness to the plot. The reader’s experience in many ways mirrors the heroine’s; the uncertainty that is so prevalent as to be the basis for her life during these months is given added gravitas through the clipped, somewhat sporadic lens through which we watch. While we are never quite given enough time in a single moment or with a single storyline to secure our narrative footing before moving to the next—her mother’s mental and emotional health, her relationships at school and in her hometown, the state of the farm and the secrets in the family’s past all make their way to the fore as the book progresses—this creates a sensation very true to life, and results in a work of perhaps surprising resonance. Ultimately, while some may wish for a more traditional plot progression or extended scenic moment, the reader who, like Debbie, allows herself to be carried along by the swift and unexpected world of Snowflake will be rewarded in the end.
By Louise Nealon
Published September 14, 2021
D. W. White writes consciousness-forward fiction and criticism. Currently pursuing his Ph.D. in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, he serves as Founding Editor of L’Esprit Literary Review and Fiction Editor for West Trade Review. His writing appears in 3:AM, The Florida Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Necessary Fiction, and Chicago Review of Books, among several others. Before returning to Chicago, he lived in Long Beach, California, for nine years.