1/23/14 POINT OF VIEW: WHO TELLS THE STORY?
“There must have been some movement, a gesture, because every person in the living room would later remember a kiss.” (Ann Patchett, Bel Canto)
Sally Whitney’s lament [LLNB 1/10/14] that most contemporary stories are written from the limited viewpoint of one or a few characters, hit me in all my writerly places. Powerful stories can grab hold of me with a melody line when told with a singular voice like Yasunari Kawabata’s Thousand Cranes, or with a compelling subject like Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. But the stories I return to are those that integrate individual and universal viewpoints—how many such books are there?
In Donna Tartt’s new bestseller The Goldfinch the first person narrator sounds suspiciously omniscient at moments. “Such was my mistaken first impression of the only friend I made when I was in Las Vegas, and—as it turned out—one of the great friends of my life.” The viewpoint is always Theo’s, but he’s not restricted by a chronological timeline. Tartt cleverly begins with flash forward, and moves back and forth from that point. Seamlessly, Theo reminisces about his mother’s life before he was born, and divulges hidden details about others. The emphasis falls on the side of the individual viewpoint, but I’m blown away by Tartt’s writing in The Goldfinch.
Muriel Barbary, author of Elegance of the Hedgehog creates a worldview through alternating essay-like diary entries for the novel’s two narrators, the concierge of an apartment building who is a secret intellectual, and a 12-year-old girl who is planning to commit suicide. Barbary started the writing from the concierge’s point of view and later inserted the girl. “Only a few chapters from the end did I begin writing both characters concurrently.” In Elegance of the Hedgehog the balance teeters between universal and personal without integrating the two.
“There must have been some movement, a gesture, because every person in the living room would later remember a kiss.” This third sentence in Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto is an announcement that neither narrator nor time is fixed in the story that follows. The voices will include an opera singer, a Japanese businessman, a South American vice president, hostages and hostage takers—voices that blend in such quick succession that, like an opera, they become the voice that tells the story of beauty, fear, love, terror, loss and kindness. Patchett wrote three novels before she was able “to create a kind of Anna Karenina narration.” She says, “To my mind it’s been a progression, and that’s what makes [Bel Canto] seem fuller.” Brava.
Patchett’s ideal, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina creates a dazzling world with unlimited viewpoints. James Meek [The Heart Broke In, Canongate 2013] writes, “Tolstoy slips in and out of the consciousness of dozens of characters, major and minor. At one point he tells us what a character’s dog is thinking.” As a reader, I’m caught in Tolstoy’s thrall. I travel with Anna, her husband, her brother, her sister-in-law, her lover, Dolly’s sister-in-law and her suitor inward to experience their desires, restrictions, and anxieties— and outward to experience their society, politics, and dangerously seductive rides on the Russian passenger train. The novel is wildly individual and universal from the famous opening line, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” to the thoughts of Levin in the final pages: “Yet, looking at the movement of the stars, I cannot picture to myself the turning of the earth, and I’m right in saying the stars move.” Like Patchett, I chose Anna Karenina as my ideal, but Bel Canto is a worthy successor.
I’ve described four novels, only two of them fully individual and universal. What kind of narration makes a book appeal to you?