Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The 158-Pound Marriage, by John Irving

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Today's post, boys and girls, is about point of view.

You see, I've spent much of the past six months in writing workshops. Such workshops can provide an incredible opportunity for readership -- a captive audience willing (or at the very least obligated) to read your story the whole way through and then tell you exactly what worked, and what didn't. Some peers will take the big-picture approach to your themes, your structure, your premise. Other peers will pick at your nits and make you view the minutiae of your writing.

And some peers, boys and girls, will just not get it.

That's not to say that your work will be perfect. If it is, you shouldn't be workshopping it. No, it's to say that literature is not a carbon copy of what happens in the world. On a basic level, all literature has some kind of conceit. We are to suppose that the words on the page are in other people's thoughts, spoken between individuals not present, or written down by some chronicler (often fictionalized) who wants to give this hard-copy language some sort of context. Yet much of a workshop discussion centers around "How could this character know this?" and "Who's talking here?" and "I don't buy that he'd use this word," which are all fancy ways of discussing point of view.

First person point of view (basically, the use of "I") seems to be in vogue now, and while it is so simple to muck up, the rules of this perspective are simple: The narrator cannot reveal things that she has no way of knowing. Anything she is not present for, she must report second-hand or speculatively. Third person point of view has much more nuance: it can be limited to one character's experience, in which case the rules of first person more or less apply; or it can be what folks like to call "omniscient," though I prefer Ursula Le Guin's term "the involved narrator." This narrator has the ability to move between perspectives, seeing the world through multiple minds and eyes.

(Of course, a careful author won't just jump between characters higgledy-piggledy when writing. The shifts must be fluid in some way, so that the reader flows along with it. I like to think of the involved narrator changing perspectives as a baton-passing.)

Often, the involved narrator is not a character in the story, per se, even if it shades every perception the reader has of the story and the characters. That is to say, it's not matching any one person's voice. But if you find that you're getting into multiple character's minds, boys and girls, you might want to consider that you're dealing with an involved narrator rather than any one point of view. (I find that another recent trend has moved us as a reading public away from this omniscient voice to more limited perspectives; many readers tend to say of well-written involved narrators that they're jumping all over the place, and oh my god who is talking?)

The 158-Pound Marriage got me thinking about point of view not, believe it or not, because it has an involved narrator -- or rather, not because it has a third-person involved narrator. Actually, the unnamed teller of Irving's novel speaks purely in the first person, and yet he is incredibly involved. He relates the histories of his wife and of another couple with as much detail as a Russian spy set to tail all three of them.

I have this feeling that even if Irving brought his final draft to many workshops today, he'd be told that this narrator has no way of knowing all these facts and tidbits and stories that he details in the book. However, do you remember above where I said that anything the narrator is not present for, he must report second-hand or speculatively? Well, if you're a careful reader, you'll know not to take everything this fellow says at face-value. He acknowledges that he and his lovers spend more time talking than screwing, so there's part of his info source; more importantly, I believe, he asserts throughout that he is a historical novelist. His job is to take scraps of supposition and weave cohesive stories out of them.

That's how we get the story. Can we trust it? Nope. Can we believe it? Certainly. If you want an honest tale, as honest as any tale can be, go find an involved narrator; at least that way you'll get to hear the different sides of a story. All this contemporary belief that a limited story -- first or third, doesn't matter -- has more reliability is bunk. Every individual is biased. We all weave our own stories to make sense of our own experiences. A good storyteller in one of these limited perspectives doesn't tell a more trustworthy tale, but he'll be sure to make it a believable one.

In the end, which would we rather have, anyway?

1 comment:

  1. I am fascinated by the ideas you have presented here. Reliability vs credibility, multiplicity vs singularity, and the loss of appreciation for the omniscient narrator in popular imagination. What is it about the progression of society that we no longer tolerate or trust an omniscient voice? What are the collective experiences or traumas of the modern day that have prompted us to prefer only the single-sided "insider's scoop" as the gospel? Are we so bombarded with media voices that we seek the limited points of view just to get a breather? I'm hesitant to pick that answer because everyone is always so quick to blame technology and the media, but still I wonder...