Friday, November 2, 2007

You Have a Point There

Deciding which character or characters to whom we delegate the telling of a story--particularly a longer one--is more complex a matter than it sounds. A large percentage, forty at least, of short stories are told by the first person, the narrative I. In less than skillful hands, that I becomes variously unreliable, naive, or confessional, not by any means negative qualities, but nevertheless qualities as important to the writer as, say, cadmium blue or alizeran crimson to the painter. Those short stories not told by the I are told by the he or the she, the third person. Alice Munro has for some years taken to rendering her longer stories in terms of they, which is to say a multiple point of view. Margaret Atwood has joined her, followed by Antonia Byatt.

Along comes the splendid Irish writer William Trevor, who takes the they point of view all the way into omniscience, meaning he shifts from the sensitivity of one character to the point of view of another, seemingly at will and with a great skill. Of all the points of view, omniscient is the most difficult. Unless the writer is careful, omniscient can be a bumpy, jarring ride. Trevor dispenses with the bumps and jars; it is preternaturally smooth with him.

The longer narrative, the novel, can support any of these points of view and adds the temptation to expand on the multiple point of view, switching from one character to another as the narrative develops. This multiple point of view has a particularly effective result, causing the characters, their agendas and reactions to see even more lifelike because of the way multiple point of view introduces the great condition of our times, ambiguity.

A major element to any story is the who aspect; who is telling the story? Who is the teller of the tale?

This being late into 2007 in the year of our ambiguity, one convention emerges with as much emphasis as a pregnancy-testing kit in a sorority house: The author must delegate and may not serve. There may have been a time when the author could address the reader and one of the great things about conventions is that even now, someone is out there, writing alone in the dead of night, talking directly to the reader, and equally certain is the notion that in doing so, the author will start off a new round of conventions. But not for a while.

Who's telling the story? This is as important as the story itself.

The next big question is why. Why is this character (or these individuals) the better ones to tell the story?

Look what would happen if the Twenty-third Psalm were written in third person. The Lord is his shepherd, he shall not want. Please!

Look what almost happened if Gatsby had been told in multiple point of view instead of from the eyes of the arguably naieve Nick Caraway.

Call him Ishmael.

You wouldn't have paid much attention to him if you hadn't known about The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain's adventure story for boys. But that shouldn't interfere with your grasp of this tale about Tom's more notorious friend.

Last night she dreamed she returned to Manderly.

And not to forget the train wreck disaster if Sir Arthur had allowed Sherlock Holmes to speak for himself. It would have been like Giuliani and Sarkozy instead of Newman and Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

he mind boggles because it was hard wired to do so. The mind boggles under the effect of story because the effects were set in place when the writer spent some time considering the implications of who the teller should be and why.


R.L. Bourges said...

"in the year of our ambiguity" lovely is that? So good to read you again, Shelly.

Smiler said...

I really appreciate this post today more than ever. There's just so much to think about isn't there? I feel like someone who's just figuring out how to make omelets and salads and is suddenly asked to prepare a seven course gourmet dinner for twenty people.
But wait...
Yikes! Omelets and salads really ARE all I know how to prepare*!

*Just a slight exaggeration to emphasis my point.

lettuce said...

this makes me think about "hermeneutics of suspicion". I love the way you introduce and illustrate this.

and yes, also love the year of our ambiguity