1/10/14 –WHO KNOWS WHAT? THE PERKS OF A NARRATOR WHO SEES ALL
Story narrators who know everything are out of fashion. Readers today want to be close to characters. They want to experience events of the story the same way the characters do—the way any of us experiences the world—knowing only what we have seen, heard, or been told. Approaching a story like this has spawned a lot of novels written from one or maybe a few characters’ points of view, but it seems to me that as readers, we’re missing something by not seeing the larger picture. And as writers, first-person and third-person limited viewpoints restrict the richness of the worlds we create.
The narrowness of many modern novels occurred to me recently as I was watching a play. I was close enough to the actors to observe their expressions and movements when they weren’t involved in the action and none of the other actors was looking at them. No one was paying any attention to them, and yet they were fully in character and reacting to what was happening on stage. As I watched, I wondered how authors can achieve that same effect in stories, and I realized they usually can’t. If a point-of-view character doesn’t see it, hear it, or know it, it doesn’t happen.
Soon after I saw the play I treated myself to reading one of Richard Russo’s earlier novels, Nobody’s Fool. I’m a big fan of Russo, and I’m filling in the gaps in my knowledge of his work with the books I haven’t read. To my delight, Nobody’s Fool is told by an omniscient narrator. And oh, the power that narrator has. For one thing, he can show what’s happening with characters when nobody’s looking at them. For example, when the main character, Sully, discovers his pick-up truck won’t start, he leans back and runs his fingers through his hair, his attention obviously focused on the truck. But the narrator tells us that his friend Rub, seated next to him, “stared at his knees, afraid. This was a hell of a time to be seated next to Sully, who was not above flying into rages at inanimate objects.” Immediately, we see Rub, we know something about him, and we know something about Sully.
The narrator is also able to journey away from all the main and secondary characters to tell us about a woman who barely steps on stage. For a couple of pages, the narrator describes Mrs. Proxmire, a car dealer’s wife. She has no role in the story really, but she’s fascinating. A devout Christian, she believes Sully is somehow in league with the devil, although “in a deep, secluded part of her heart to which [she] no longer had immediate access, she was very fond of Sully. . . . Whenever Sully appeared, something of the girl she had once been always slipped out of the fortress she’d been imprisoned in, though that girl was easily recaptured, having forgotten how or where or even why to flee many long years ago.” Maybe Mrs. Proxmire’s not needed, but she adds so much richness to the story.
Although omniscient narrators are rare among contemporary novels, they flourished in nineteenth-century writing. Charles Dickens was a master of the technique. In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway says omniscient point of view fell out of favor when literature moved downward from heroic to common characters and inward from action to activities of the mind. Still, authors like Russo find ways to use omniscient narrators and achieve closeness to characters.
According to a recent article by Kevin Nance for Tribune Newspapers, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the best-selling Eat, Pray, Love, is an ardent admirer of Dickens. Gilbert says that in her new novel, The Signature of All Things, she tried to emulate Dickens’ omniscient narrator and the great confidence of that narrator.
So, omniscient point of view is not dead. As I continue to read Russo’s works and those of other modern authors, I’ll be looking for it. I may even try it in my next novel. Fashions come and go, but techniques of good literature are constant. Do you have a favorite novel with a narrator who knows all?