Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Toni Morrison on Point of View II

Picking up on my last post about looking at things from the bad guy’s P.O.V., the example of the that clearest to me is the Cholly chapter in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and that whole book, along with Beloved, are what I turned to for technical models for my narrative P.O.V.

I started out knowing that I wanted my narration to be in the third person. Partly I didn’t want to limit myself to the P.O.V. of my main character all the way through. Especially since it’s a coming of age story, so my youthful character would not be very sophisticated or a mature judge of his circumstances. I wanted to be able to say more than the character could.

Also, I didn’t want to invite comparison with other coming-of-age stories with strong first-person narrators like Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird and Huck Finn. Any story about youth told in the first person always gets summarized by some readers as either a modern Holden Caulfield or Scout or Huck Finn and I didn’t want to have that hanging over my head as I drafted.

As for second person narration, I’ve always thought that felt gimmicky and unnatural. It puts up a stylistic barrier between the story and the listener. In theory, it's a more immersive experience for the reader, but in reality I think it has the opposite effect, forcing the reader to translate through the technique.

So when I first started, I went looking for examples of coming-of-age novels in the third-person, and they are actually pretty hard to find. (If you can suggest any, let me know.) My wife suggested The Bluest Eye, but if you start reading it from the first chapter, you’ll see that her memory was technically mistaken. It starts in first person, but from the P.O.V. of someone other than the main character of Pecola. It’s sort of how Nick Carraway reports on Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby—the on-the-scene observer who is not himself central to the action. (Except that he actually is when it comes to the thematic conflict vs. the exterior conflict—I’ll parse that another day.)

But I nevertheless re-read The Bluest Eye all the way through and saw that the P.O.V. jumps around. It’s in first person a lot of the time, though with different narrators, and it's in third person omniscient a couple times and third person limited sometimes, especially in the Cholly chapter. That turned out to be a chapter that inspired me quite a lot. If you look over the Cholly chapter, you’ll see that it gets in so close to looking through his eyes and limiting the information to what he knows and how he feels about it, that it almost feels like first person, but it’s third-person limited.

That was also instructive because I knew I was going to have a technical problem similar to the one that chapter was dealing with—a character who does monstrous things but who if I presented as monstrous would come off as flat and unrealistic and incredible. With Cholly, Morrison "causes readers some dismay" (to use her own analysis--see yesterday's post) by making him understandable and comprehensible. She treats him as human, which is necessary to the art if he isn’t going to be just a tool to move the plot along. It certainly is dismaying and raises the stakes for the reader of all the conflict that follow. (That's key probably to any great narrative art and part of what I admire in Morrison's novels--when not only can the reader see something at stake for the characters but can feel something at stake for themselves.)

In the case of my own book, it would certainly be more comfortable for me to treat my monstrous character as simply a monster but the credibility of the tale would break down there, and the Cholly chapter showed me a way to create what I needed to.

But where Morrison used the third person limited in that select spot, I felt her way of getting in so close that it felt like the first person would be good for my entire story. Instead of shifting the P.O.V. and the technique, I would stick with that technique and switch from one character to another as needed in different sections or chapters.

Just about decided on that, I turned to Beloved to study how she handled P.O.V. there. I looked at the scene where the full detail of how Beloved dies is revealed to the reader—the family working the yard, the horses coming up the lane, the mad dash to the shed. If you look at that scene, you’ll see that same technique of third person narration getting in real close on the shoulder of the characters so that it feels like first person.

Except in this case, instead of it changing from chapter to chapter, the P.O.V. changes from paragraph to paragraph. We spend a few frames on Stamp Paid’s shoulder, then on Baby Suggs’, then on the slave masters, then on the nephew’s, then the white man coming up from town in his carriage and so on. In each paragraph we only see it from the perspective and limited understanding of each character and in that way get the whole story. It’s masterful. It’s the most impactful and complex—and dismaying—presentation of horror that I know of in a novel.

I've imitated that style a lot at the most emotionally intense points in my draft and overall the P.O.V. would be described as third-person limited, mostly from the perspective of the main character and occasionally, for the duration of a chapter, switching to other key characters.

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