THIS IS MY TRUTH, TELL ME YOURS
I took the week off from manga after last weekend’s cram session, even though Gravitation vol. 4 is due on the 7/15. I may try to start that today. Haven’t been entirely lazy, though, as Scott Ciencin and I have been trading notes fast and furious.
I’ve been ruminating a lot on point-of-view lately. It’s one of my “things,” and along with metafiction, was one of the fascinations I walked away from college with. I am not sure if it’s the real catalyst, but part of it was probably a debate over one of my stories, “Lizard Lips,” in one of my writing classes—and one line in particular. The narration was third person limited—which was my strength at the time (before Cut My Hair seemed to break my brain), a technique where the story is told by the author, but he only has access to the main characters internal thoughts, not anyone else. In the story, I have the main character jump through a window to attack someone, and the line was something like, “He leapt through the window, howling like a wounded dinosaur.” The argument was over whether or not I had broken the narrative voice in that instance. The suggestion was that the character would not hear himself like that, only the author would. And though the story was being written in an authorial voice, it was viewing everything with the character’s brain, and was it okay to ever break that for effect.
The debate ended in disagreement. Some felt (as I do, to a degree) that no matter how heavily the author resides in a character’s head, if the voice is third person (as in “he did this,” opposed to second person’s “you did this” and first person’s “I did this”), then the author is always in existence, and never fully divorced from the narrative. In essence, all the experience being related is actually filtered through the main character’s eyes and then regurgitated by the author in a form of literary “broken telephone.” The other side said that this is bunk, and point of view is point of view (herein out shorthanded as POV).
I’ve become more of a purist when it comes to POV. I like having my focus character and sticking to it. In movie terms, it’s when your lead is in every scene. Nothing happens in the context of your story that the main character is not there to witness. Film language often sidesteps any one focus character or POV, and instead adopts a third person omniscient perspective, elevating the camera eye to a god-like position where it can drop in on any action at any time. The Godfather series is a good example of this. The stories are sweeping, and Coppola drops in on whoever he wants at any time. Thus you can see any of the members in the Corleone family plotting out their particular moves, while also cutting across town to see how their enemies are planning to strike. (Though, now thinking about it, I think the Vito Corleone sequences in Part II are told entirely from Don Vito’s POV. If I recall, every scene that made it to screen features the character, even though the deleted scenes on the bonus DVD reveal this was not always the case.)
Recently, I have been reading Brad Meltzer’s The Millionaires. For the first 75 pages, we are in a first person narrative, as everything is told by Oliver himself. Then on page 76, chapter 9 takes a turn. We get a two-page sequence where the unknown puppet masters are semi-revealed. We don’t know who they are, but now we know they are there, watching, planning. This new section is third person, and it’s jarring. At that point in the book, it almost feels like a cheat, a device invented to drop in exposition that can’t be given through Oliver, because Oliver can’t be aware of it.
This hangs over my head as I keep reading. Oliver picks up the prose again on page 78, and we move forward. Then on page 124, chapter 14, we’re introduced to a new character, the private investigator Joey. The writing shifts back to third person, and what appears to be third person limited—Joey is a new focus character. I even thought we were getting a little clever subversion of POV, as at the end of the chapter, Joey leaves the room, but the action in the room keeps unfolding. In a strict POV, this would not be possible, since she’d have to be in the room to witness what was happening—except then it’s revealed that she is eavesdropping, as the men in the room discover she has planted a listening device. In other words, a way for her to be privy to info she wouldn’t otherwise have.
Chapter 15 takes us back to Oliver, but then with chapter 16, we a thrown another curve. The men in the room Joey left are now taking over the third person section. But, as opposed to this being a third voice, and a second third person limited, it is in actuality—as we’ll discover as we continue to read—the institution of a third person omniscient voice, and has been since chapter 9. And while normally I’d have preferred that this device be revealed earlier than nearly a fifth of the way into the story, it’s easy to see what Brad is doing. Chapter 9 was a tease, and chapters 14 and 16 are the full reveal. His secrets in 9 were to protect the identity of the possible puppet masters, and the full on institution of this POV only comes when the possible suspects are being called into suspicion. (Brad even breaks up the various focus points cleanly. Oliver always gets his own chapters, and even when Joey and the other men (who I haven’t named to keep from revealing key plot points) are sharing a chapter, they each get distinct sections.) He is using the deft hand of an author writing a thriller and manipulating the information in order to keep his readers on the edge of their seats.
[Interesting digression: Consider pop music as an exercise in POV. Rialto’s “Monday Morning 5:19” is an excellent example of a first person narrative, particularly with its speculation on what another person is doing; Suede’s “Another No-One” is a lovely indulgence in third person, exercising one of Brett Anderson’s favorite lyrical devices, beginning as many lines as possible with the word “she.”]