Thursday, March 29, 2007


Point of view.

Who is:

(a) telling the story

(b) holding the camera

(c) holding the brush

(d) leading the orchestra

(e) directing the drama

(f) choosing whether to rhyme or go on to blank verse


You get the concept. A five-three photographer, shooting a pro basketball game is either going to get a lot of shots of knee caps or wake up the next day with a stiff neck.

T. S. Eliot in one mood is wondering about the mechanics of eating a peach and in yet another mood is observing how "The Rum-tum-tugger is a curious cat."

We have first-person point of view, which is to say the "I," of which two splendid examples are Huckleberry Finn and Great Expectations. In a splendid example of naive narrator, which I will address in a moment or two, Agatha Christie betrays the first-person POV with her early venture into crime fiction, Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?

We have the second-person or "you" POV, spectacularly employed in fiction by Jay McInerney in Bright Lights, Big City. In non-fiction, you could find amazing grace in the prose of any of John Sanford's books; he even managed a three-volume autobiography in second-person!

There are any number of lovely third-person approaches, the "he" or "she" approach, so elegantly deployed by Louise Erdrich.

Not to forget the multiple-point of view, a combination of often competing voices, a number of hes or shes. Before he got off on his iconic Travis McGee series, John D. McDonald ramped this approach up toward perfection in his novels of suspense.

And of course there is the William Trevor point-of-view, which is to say the omniscient, in which any number of characters have the vision, the director's chair, seemingly all at once. Trevor "owns" this point of view because he renders it so seamlessly, giving his characters a sense of a remarkable civility as a denominator to many, many darker motives.

All of which leads the trail of crumbs to the witch's house of the reliability of a given point-of-view. Thus:

Reliable narrator: He of she whom the reader implicitly trusts

Naive narrator: as in Mr. Stevens of The Remains of the Day or the protagonist of D. H. Lawrence's epic short story, "The Rocking Hourse Winner," or any youngster who supposes when Mommie groans so deeply from behind the bedroom door that Daddy is strangling her rather than having found her G-Spot.

Unreliable narrator, as in George W. Bush telling us--well, telling us almost anything, or what about Ann Coulter asking if we can't all find a way to get along together?

To all of this canon, this more-or-less dramatic convention of how and under what circumstances story points are released, I nominate The Alzheimer's Point-of-View, in which it becomes apparent (later, rather than sooner--please) that the narrator has an increasingly tenuous hold on what actually happened and has begun to file dispatches and accounts from a different battlefield, perhaps even from a different war, with a different set of combatants and allies. 

This is not to make fun of those afflicted with Alzheimer's, because that undercuts the purpose, which is to examine and make fun of all those who are so rooted in the certainty of their vision and morality as to be intransigent. Call them Fundamentalists, call them Republicans, call them Conservatives, even call them Ishmael. My goal is to make fun of THEM and their unwavering certainty. Men and women of faith--the real saints in my book--constantly question reality and their own relationship to it. Men and women of politics who have earned their place among our national lares and penates step forth with willingness to listen and to admit the possible wrongness of previously held positions. 

Men and women of the academy and of science are constantly building hypotheses which they hope will work but which, in the meantime, they are attempting to derail with doubt. Men and women of poetry are knowingly or not repeating the mantra from Ezra Pound's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly" where it is written: All things are flowing, Sage Heraclitus says..."

So how's this for a story: A man named John begins to grow suspicious when his wife of , say, fifty years, begins to call him Ed. His suspicions lead him to the discovery that he is not his wife's first husband, that there was, indeed an Ed in her life at one time, an Ed who has emerged from the shadows of memory. As John uses Google and other virtual and (this is an important nuance) real-time search engines to delve into Ed's background, the reader slowly learns that the narrator has begun to suffer from the delusion that he is now the embodiment of the late, gifted story teller, W. Somerset Maugham.

POV. The teller in the tale. The I/eye in the narrative. The decaf or the leaded in the latte.

In thinking this story through, I find myself once again connected to the late, lamented Nathaniel Hawthorne.

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