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Descent with Modification: Point of View and Literary Ancestry in “White on White”

Descent with Modification: Point of View and Literary Ancestry in “White on White”

An interesting, if somewhat recondite, corner of the great novelistic universe is the study of literary ancestry:where a work comes from, what it grows from, and what grows from it—be it in theme, perspective, narrative, or technique. By studying the descendants and antecedents of a given novel, one can learn much about how the art form writ large evolves; not to mention the amusement and the challenge of making those determinations to begin with. The best books, naturally, build from a well-crafted and deliberately-chosen foundation to expand into something, as it were, novel — and the trouble for the author comes in fitting herself into a cogent tradition while, also, expressing something new and true to her own vision. These qualities of originality and classicality, each necessary to the other even as they cause difficulties in their respective creations, are abundantly found in Ayşegül Savaş’ bright, perspicacious, and elegant White on White

Most notable for its sterling point-of-view and the literary ancestry it invokes, White on White  primarily, although not exclusively, trails along these technical lines, namely in its clear evolution from Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, most especially the title piece in that series. While it similarly follows an unnamed woman living in a borrowed apartment in a foreign European city during a formative period in her life, what marks White on White as a true branch of Outline’s fictive tree is the Cuskian point-of-view employed, together with a similar affinity for and comfort with the observant manner and sparse tone of a slightly disaffected narrator. This approach — one which makes up a large part of the revolution in the modern novel’s use of point-of-view that Rachel Cusk has waged throughout her career — allows for a discursive, intimate first-person narrator to, via dropping authorial flags and bleeding syntax and diction into each other, thrust a secondary character into immediacy with the reader. When done properly, as it frequently is in White on White, this method is a subtle and effective one:

I told her I’d been to the gallery myself; I wondered whether the paintings I’d seen on display were made in a similar state of mediation. 

“No,” she said, “those paintings are very old.”

They belonged to a time in the narrator’s life when she had just decided to be a painter, and set to work on the type of thing she thought of as painterly. This was part of her history in the city, when she was desperate to know what was considered tasteful. Thinking back, what she remembered most was how keenly she mistrusted her own judgment, and how much she’d set her intuitions and inclinations aside. The works I’d seen at the galley were from this period, and she often had the sense that she had tricked people into accepting her as an artist.

One of several dozen possible examples, this exchange demonstrates Savaş’ abilities in this fairly uncommon, inwardly-angled, point-of-view. In an early scene of an early chapter, much of the raison d’être of the book is found — the ways in which art intersects with life, the quest for personal fulfillment and reckoning with ambition, the establishment of self-identity amid gender constraints and pressures — along with the principle technical method that will be employed. This is a prime example of the Cuskian eliding of a nameless narrator, the smooth backgrounding of the searching, pensive heroine as she simultaneously negotiates and relates a scene with a momentarily predominated secondary character. Notice how the quoted passage opens with conventional first person past tense narration before moving, in the Outline tradition, nearly imperceptibly to the language and history of the other character; here, Agnes, who quickly becomes a focal point of our protagonist’s narrative (indeed her voice at times takes over for pages on end, a modification of Cusk’s approach), after her early introduction. While Savaş perhaps does not possess the same electric prose, razor-sharp precision, or mechanically flawless use of, as this reviewer has termed it, first-person free-indirect (something that can be said of all Cusk’s contemporaries), she is nonetheless a more than legitimate literary descendant and engaging practitioner of the craft. 

So what does this approach offer? How does Savaş make use of it within the larger concerns of her work? White on White explores the story of our nameless young heroine who has moved to a new city in order to further her graduate work; she studies Gothic nude sculptures of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, a course that is both resisted, we are told, by her advisor and comments, and, we come to see, on many of the book’s thematic concerns too. She is connected with Agnes, an artist in her own right and the owner of the flat along with her husband, with whom she lives with in another city. When the protagonist meets her host for the first time, the two begin a conversational friendship, one that allows Savaş — making use of her pitch-perfect choice of point-of-view — to move her narrator’s studies from primary storyline to narrative foundation, a scaffolding system to hold up and occasionally throw into stark relief the mounting tensions, intrigues, and histories present in Agnes’ marriage and past. It becomes quickly apparent that both the book and the narrator are most interested in her host-cum-confidante’s slowly unraveling life and intriguing past.

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The focus on a single secondary character is facilitated by the pensive and smooth narrative abilities of Savaş’ protagonist. She enriches and deepens the fictive world she relates through observantly noticed and carefully portrayed descriptions: what Agnes wears, the goings on of the gradually-awakening city, the furnishings and layout of her temporarily permanent home. These details work on multiple levels, at once providing verisimilitude to Savaş’ novelistic universe, colorizing and idiomizing the point-of-view, and imbuing the book with an intimate, if somewhat antiseptic, mood. As in Outline, the world comes to life principally as a function of the mechanics of the point-of-view; a protagonist at once able to provide the biased access to the self of a first-person while granting the narrative space of a third-person requisite for the development of Agnes’ story. While here the focus stays more tight-knit than in the wide-angled Cuskian trilogy — Savaş has truly adopted the earlier means to suit her own, original ends — the lineage and inspiration are nonetheless evident throughout. 

That being said, of course, this is not Outline, and Savaş is not merely aping Cusk. Indeed, we are given more direct knowledge about our protagonist in the brief opening chapter than is provided in several hundred pages of the earlier trilogy. The focus, too, stays on the protagonist’s uncovering of the truth about Agnes (indeed her graduate studies are only briefly and sporadically mentioned after the opening, and her advisor is in full support of her work — no complicating of that storyline needed here), a more linear and narrowly-drawn plot line than that of Outline. But Savaş is comfortable with the technique, and it shows. Protagonist and reader alike are drawn into the mystery surrounding Agnes and her personal life, a direct result of the employment of the Cuskian first-person free-indirect. Propelled by a rich voice and sharp eye, and ultimately offering an insightful study of the decay wrought by time on relationships and identity, White on White stands as both a well-defined and well-executed work in its own right and a prime example of the evolutionary process of the novel as an art form, the employment of an extant technical-mechanical route to reach a new and enlightening destination.

White on White
By Ayşegül Savaş
Riverhead Books
Published December 07, 2021

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