f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Now That You Know the Rules, Here's How to Break Them (Part 6 of series)

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Thursday, March 04, 2004

Now That You Know the Rules, Here's How to Break Them (Part 6 of series)

I want to talk about playing around with point-of-view today and it seems easiest to do so simply by looking at books that mess with or adapt the guidelines we’ve talked about so far. (Caveat: many of these books were read a while ago and, in some cases, I may be remembering their narrative points-of-view wrong.)

The Lovely Bones - A first-person book. Should be simple enough, however, in this case, the narrator is dead. Susie Salmon is talking to us from heaven. It seems as though the book’s entire (and huge) popularity seemed hinged on this high-concept choice, but to be frank it did nothing for me. A film that takes this tack is Sunset Boulevard.

Bright Lights, Big City - In looking through stuff about point-of-view I came across this as an example of a novel told in the second-person. Symptomatic of the 80s, I suppose, that we needed a novel written featuring “us” as the stars.

Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance - This wonderful book by an amazingly overlooked author named Richard Powers is about nothing less than the entire twentieth-century. There are three narrative point-of-views—an obscure and anonymous first-person “narrator” (who isn’t the author), a modern, limited third-person account of a young man who sees a woman on the street and decides he has to know who she is, and a historical third-person account that enters the (real-life) photograph that’s used on the cover and that serves as the title of the book. Small threads link the three sections, but the cumulative effect is astounding. Here’s a ridiculously “intelligent” interview with Powers during which he comments about a passage of Three Farmers: “…the ideas here about the bi directional relation between narrative and cognition are at the heart of my various attempts to wed narrative with discursive writing, to find a form where each betrays itself as the flip side of the other. Good writers know what they’re doing—even if it is gibberish to us.

Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay - I think this one also uses three points-of-view. Two are standard, just simple third-person limited accounts of the two main protagonists, young cartoonists Joe Kavalier and Samuel Klayman. The third takes us into the narrative of the comic book (The Escapist—which is actually going to be a real life comic book written by Chabon quite soon) the two boys are working on. Chabon is so utterly talented it’s ridiculous. I’ve seen the “story within a story” thing done before, but this is a comic he’s describing. And it all comes to life vividly. You want to learn to write historical fiction, read this. You want to learn to write adventure fiction, read this.

You're an Animal, Viskovitz - Now we’re getting into the fun stuff. Here, we have a first-“person” narrator who is, how do I put this, sort of reincarnated into various animals through the book. There’s about twenty sections in the novel and in each on, Viskovitz is a mouse or a fish or a parrot. What’s absolutely absurd is how wonderful this book is. And how much it has to say about humans and love and death and life. It also proves there is simply no need to be boring in your choices of subject-matter and/or narrative devices.

Dracula, Bridget Jones, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and the book I’m reading now, Lamb - What do these all have in common? They are epistolary novels or variations on the theme. Jones uses a diary. Incident is a journal. Lamb meanwhile (and we’ll be talking about this book in a few weeks, I think) is (brace yourself) a fifth gospel, written in 21st-century St. Louis by Biff, the resurrected best friend from Jesus’ child hood days. Yep, you heard me. Epistolary novels are first-person and the intended audience of the writing determines the tone and/or content.

Poisonwood Bible - I haven’t read this, but I think it suits my purpose. Someone can inform me if I’m wrong. This book tells the same story through the perspective of three different narrators, thus offering three different takes on one set of events. The film Rashomon by Kurosawa is always held up as the archetypical cinematic example of this narrative choice.

Galatea 2.2 - This is Richard Powers again. Here he plays with the notion of authorial presence by having a significant percentage of the book told from the perspective of a first-person narrator named Richard Powers who also is a hyper-intelligent novelist. (I think there are also sections told from a third-person perspective as well. Can’t remember.) Theses are written on the intention behind such choices, so I won’t bother here, but sufficed to say it’s another layer of complexity.

So you can see that point-of-view isn’t static. And it doesn’t do much good to pretend that we can discuss outside of the novel as a whole. As you can see, most of the examples given aren’t twists of point-of-view (they’re all still first, second, or third), but rather how POV is manipulated by some other character or stylistic choice. We’ll talk about how those choices are made and the other factors within your story that you need to keep in mind while thinking about POV. Till then, ta.

By-the-by - If you can think of other examples in which POV is twisted or altered from "standard" form, please post a comment and share the book and what the alteration is. I was pulling these off the top of my head and they are in no way meant to be comprehensive.