Monday, February 21, 2011

Point of view; Fforde; Jay-Z


During this week off from school, I hope to finish a first draft of "Unearthed." Yesterday, I felt my head bumping against a low narrative ceiling as I described an interaction in one scene, and I realized I was running into a problem with my old nemesis "point of view." Since my most recent work has been told by first-person narrators, I haven't had to give any thought, in my own work, to anonymous (or "third-person") narration. I talk about it all the time in class, but point of view was a hurdle for me some years ago, and I was surprised, yesterday, to see that it still could give me trouble.

My problem is a stylistic one, a tendency rather than, strictly speaking, an error. My anonymous narrators focus on one person to anchor the point of view, but as a consequence, I get locked into that character's perspective and have trouble—in cinematic terms—hauling the camera back for a longer shot. I get too tightly bound to the protagonist's perspective. This morning I figured I'd either read a bit of someone who uses a more objective narrative voice or pull out John Gardner's The Art of Fiction to help me think through my problem.

All it took, it seems, was a glance at the Gardner, who talks about how "third-person subjective" narration has become (from his perspective in the early 1980s) a default voice for writers. What he describes isn't exactly what I do, as he demonstrates a narrative voice that, while anonymous, uses the language and interior monologues of one character to anchor the tale. My authorial voice is more distant than that. However, I rely on the senses of one character to hold a scene steady. This gives me the difficulty I ran into yesterday, of not allowing a character to see something that's happening in the room with her because she happens to look away. Again, this isn't wrong, and I don't want to, in a short story (and certainly not in these "Old Man" stories), move to what Gardner calls the "authorial-omniscient," in which I delve into the thoughts of various characters; however, I need to loosen up my narrative and—again thinking cinematically—let the camera move about more. I need to step outside my protagonist so people can see her more clearly, which requires, from me, an effort of will.


Jasper Fforde's Something Rotten is tremendously smart and funny. The fourth novel in the Thursday Next (that's a character's name) series, of which this is the first I've read, the story takes place in an England not entirely like ours, a place where the fantastic and mundane get muddled together in a particularly understated yet comic English way. Thursday is a literary detective, a rather famous one, due to the events in the previous novels, who can intervene in fictions to make sure their characters behave; her husband was removed from the present timeline by an evil corporation, and her father, too, is somewhat of a temporal uncertainty. (Her mother thinks he might not have existed.) This novel concerns Thursday's efforts to a) thwart a dictatorial takeover of England by a fictional character, b) restore her husband to life and c) find some good childcare. Fforde does a great job getting the reader up to speed in this odd world while moving forward his clever and entertaining plot.

In shorter packets of time, I'm reading Jay-Z's autobiography, Decoded. The writer is smart and insightful, and he provides footnotes to help unpack his lyrics. He takes the craft of writing seriously. I also admire the book's design, interspersing images and text, and I'm wondering whether (in a later paperback edition) I might want to assign the book to 11th-graders.

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