The premise of Heather McGowan's "Duchess of Nothing" seemingly is not the most promising material for a novel, yet McGowan has fashioned an engrossing, entertaining book. She accomplishes this not through plot but instead through a stream-of-consciousness narration that beautifully characterizes her unnamed protagonist in in a voice that is by turns tragic, farcical, pathetic, poignant and hilarious.
Later in his review Scott echoes this claim about "stream-of-consciousness narration," suggesting that McGowan presents us with an "unadorned reality filtered through an unstable mind." But The Duchess of Nothing is not really a "stream-of-consciousness" novel, at least not as the term has been used in the critical discussion of this technique that has accumulated since its introduction by novelists such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Dorothy Richardson. In the work of these writers, stream-of-consciousness is a variant on, an intensification of, third-person narration. It is more or less the culmination of the movement toward psychological realism in fiction, which might be said to have begun--at least in English language fiction--with Henry James's use of the third-person "central consciousness" approach. James's fiction helped to bring about the transformation of the omniscient narrator--knows all, sees all--into the much more limited narrator essentially restricted to the vantage point of the character whose experience is being related. But the narrator is still of the third-person variety, originating from outside that experience and telling us the story on the characters' behalf.
Stream-of-consciousness takes this a step farther and attempts to provide a window of sorts on a character's experiences as they are being processed through that character's mind. Such narration is frequently fragmentary and discontinuous, in an attempt to mimic the way such processing actually occurs, or at least to mimic it as closely as written language is able to do so--it is, like everything else in fiction, ultimately an illusion created through prose. If reality ultimately exists in the mind of the beholder, then the stream-of-consciousness method is an effort to have fiction reflect what is really real.
The Duchess of Nothing is a first-person narrative, so, however much we are made to view the world through the constructions of its protagonist, it can't really be said to consist of her stream of consciousness. While I certainly agree that McGowan portrays this character through "a voice that is by turns tragic, farcical, pathetic, poignant and hilarious," it is a voice, a garrulous and idiosyncratic one, in fact, a voice that in many ways works in a manner that precisely reverses the effect created by the stream-of-consciousness strategy:
Across the cafe Toby stands at the coffee machine gazing into a silver jug. His lips move, to some terrifying soliloquy, I imagine. Behind him well-dressed citizens sip their coffees, quietly content being Italian. If you could understand the strength it takes to sit here quietly, I tell the boy, If I had the power to describe how it feels to do exactly the opposite of what I'd like. I wish you could see the storm that rages beneath my surface. I was never meant to sit quietly, I tell the boy, This sitting quietly was never my idea. I flick my skirt idly, exposing my knee. It stares up at me, a hilly rebuke. I want to leave everything behind as soon as it is a minute past new. Every night after supper I'd like to drop the plate I'm washing, turn, never see any of it again. And yet I remain. I swallow my coffee, I remain.
Although it is Toby who is described as engaged in "some terrifying soliloquy," The Duchess of Nothing itself is an extended soliloquy, its narrator's overflowing monologue interrupted only occasionally by a word or two from "the boy" (her sole companion through most of the book). The narrator may feel there is a storm "raging" inside her, but it's really the storm of words she releases that manifests her inability to "sit quietly," her desire to "leave everything behind as soon as it is a minute past new." Whereas stream-of-consciousness tries to direct our attention to the internal drama unfolding in human consciousness, the narrative strategy in this novel externalizes everything, articulates explicitly in the narrator's own language what in s-o-c would remain half-formed and implicit. It's as if the narrator literally can't resist translating into comprehensible speech every thought that comes into her head.
In his review of the novel, Richard Eder accurately notes the protagonist's "grandiloquent self-proclamation," but I cannot agree with Eder that she is an example of an "unreliable narrator." Eder believes that her reticence in fully disclosing the particulars of her past (or even of her present arrangement with "Edmund," brother of "the boy") creates an incompleteness of context that suggests willful manipulation on the narrator's part. While it is true that the novel is somewhat short on expository detail, I would argue that this is simply the consequence of the narrative method McGowan has chosen and to which she remains faithful: no "infodumps" if that would make the narrative voice ring false. I would argue further that it is this method that otherwise invokes the somewhat misshapen world and off-kilter perspective that, to me, are a large part of this novel's appeal. For the narrator to be "unreliable," we would have to believe she is deliberately presenting us with a false account of herself, her actions, and her background (and that we would be able to tell, ultimately, that the account is false), but that she is in effect working out as she goes what she thinks about her situation does not, in my view, make her unreliable. It makes her, as Scott puts it, "by turns tragic, farcical, pathetic, poignant and hilarious."
Eder is ultimately rather contemptuous of "the woman," as he chooses to call her. She is "pitiable," guilty of "track-covering, the shame that flickers beneath the arrogance." She has a "skewed and inflated vision of herself and her life." She is "cold." And indeed the narrator does seem frustrated with her situation, unable to square her sense of her own worth with the increasingly desperate circumstances in which she finds herself. She is certainly impulsive. More than anything, however, she is instinctively unconventional and incapable of settling for "normality"--confronting the possibility of accepting a normal life at the novel's conclusion, she instead lights out for the territory: "Then I go out once more, slamming the door behind me. I like the sound so much, I open the door and slam it shut several times." I suppose one could feel contempt for a woman who doesn't behave as she ought, who turns her back so decisively on domestic bliss, but I just find her a very interesting character quite unlike most protagonists of most literary fiction. Both she and The Duchess of Nothing itself are much more convincingly "transgressive" of established norms--of female behavior and of conventional "psychological realism"--than other novels sometimes accorded that label. In short: Anyone interested in a refreshingly different kind of reading experience should read this book.