The Trouble With Literary Device Abuse

My sincerest apologies for this prolonged absence. I’m still around and still excited to talk to you about books, I promise.

I was overwhelmed with work for a bit there, and there was little time for reading, let alone blogging about reading. But I did manage to polish off Michael Cunningham’s The Hours about a month ago. 

I’m a little distanced from it now for an overview, but I’m not so distanced that I don’t have things to say about it. This should have been the perfect book for me, folk. It’s got Virgina Woolf. It’s got rage against the cult of domesticity/feminine mystique mindset. It’s got introspection and character-heavy (and non-plot-heavy) writing. Heck, would have recommended this book to me.

So, my personal opinion is that this set of ingredients, which should have formed the most delectable layer cake, was totally wrecked by the wrong chef. (Also, you will be burned out by all cake metaphors by the end of the book, and I don’t know how I even stomached making that one. More on that later). I feel awful saying it. To have devoted so much of himself to a very women-centered, introspective, and deep-feeling book, I’m sure Cunningham is a wonderful man. But The Hours contains some of the most exasperating (professional) writing I think I’ve ever encountered.

Anyway, I looked at what I thought about The Hours and extrapolated to get a list of literary device abuses. These misuses apply to a lot of writing I see.

I Will Never Get Back The Hours I Spent Reading This Book (But Some Don’t Want Them Back)

The Hours CoverQuickly, let me say this: as I was reading The Hours, I thought that surely I must be batty to dislike it, and that was pretty much confirmed. A number of judges thought this worthy of a Pulitzer. I started googling reviews and scholarly articles on the book, and it did nothing to convince me that I’m sane. The overwhelming consensus is that this book is excellent, with me all alone on the sea-salty island of curmudgeon.

So take this all at face value–I personally felt these things, and most other people didn’t. But my minority opinion shall not be silenced, and by that, I mean I have a blog that’s pretty much an Amanda brainstuff soliloquy. I will be the one person to say, albeit nervously, that my thoughts that this was bad writing were reaffirmed on every page as I read.

By bad, I mean excessive. Obnoxiously thorough examination of every thought in a character’s head. Concerted efforts to make everything “deep.” Pushing symbolism past the point of being meaningful and into the realm of bang-you-over-the-head insulting. And that leads us to…

Literary Device Abuse 1: Symbolism

There’s a section where a housewife is cooking her husband a cake, and the author makes it clear that this cake is a reflection of how she felt in her role–imperfect, trying too hard, a failure. Cool. I like symbolism. But this one is drawn out to the point of being rage-inducing. Chapter after chapter is about this cake, I kid you not. The author would veer into another subject, and then there would be a paragraph that started, “She thought of the cake at home” or something and I would think “STOP.”

In fact, I was looking through my notes in the Kindle book as they pertain to this. It moves from “Ug” to “Please stop” to “AHEM, metaphor, are you getting this meeettaaaaphooooooor” to, finally, a big fat “ENOUGH WITH THE [censored] CAKE.” This is what I mean by the writing being exasperating.

This is not the only instance of literary device abuse.

Literary Device Abuse 2: Pretzeling Yourself to Describe a Character

What I mean by “pretzeling” is that an author bends in all sorts of weird ways so they* can include a description of a character without a paragraph that’s something like, “John was medium height with brown hair and bushy eyebrows, and he liked long walks on the beach and ice cream.” The classic (and awful) way of trying to more naturally integrate character description is to have them look in a mirror. I do think there are creative, unusual ways to do this that can work, and I’m not saying no one should try. They just should fix it if they fail.

In The Hours, there’s no looking in a mirror to describe oneself. But there is a character that has been living with someone for many years, and to describe that person she’d lived with, Cunningham says, “for a moment–less than a moment–she sees Sally as she would if they were strangers. Sally is a pale, gray-haired woman…” etc. Ug, this is so obvious and gimmicky! It’s just a hair better then the mirror tactic, and it’s not natural at all. You don’t have to see someone as if they are a stranger to know what color hair they have.

I think this could have been better done with something like “Sally’s gray hair, the harsh features–all were as familiar to Clarissa as her own face, yet an unspoken distance between them made her feel almost like a stranger” or something like that. You can integrate description in natural ways.

I didn’t find character development and description done right all throughout the The Hours. All of the tactics used to develop characters seemed obvious, not just the tactics used to describe them physically. There was a scene where Virgina’s relatives come over, and they find a dying bird. “Oh boy,” I thought. “Here comes a character-development device.” You could just sense it. Reader, we are about to enter a character’s brain and learn over the next three pages of inner monologue (see device three) that Virginia thinks things, deep, life/death things, because of this bird. Sigh. Indeed, that then happened. Color me unsurprised.

Literary Device Abuse 3: Inner Monologue

The dialogue in this book was excellent. It was minimal, curt, and left a ton to the imagination. Unfortunately, there was about a 1:10 ratio of dialogue pages to inner monologue pages, and the inner monologues contained so many literary sins.

First, everyone’s inner monologue was exactly the same voice. A depressed, self-consumed, prone-to-overthinking voice.

Second, we got to hear many characters’ inner monologues, even the ones that barely show up in the book. That’s a problem when combined with the first sin of them all having the same voice. It’s also a problem because it gives the reader whiplash. We are in and out of way too many heads. I picture the reader as a spirit being plunged in and out of brain after brain, eventually needing to reach for the Dramamine.

Third, god, inner monologue: there’s just so much of it, and it’s so, so tiring. There would start to be a scene–someone would walk into a room to say hi to the occupant there. But as they entered, they would need to pause for two pages and have big thoughts. Then comes the hello. This is not only exasperating, it’s hard for a reader to reconcile with real time. No one would walk in the room, think quietly to themselves for five minutes, and then greet the person on the couch.

Fourth, inner monologue will quickly send you into the danger zone of telling and not showing. An author needs to be careful not to diffuse a potentially powerful scene with a “Character realized she felt sad and depressed.” I found The Hours to be brutally tell-y and almost never show-y.

Conclusion: I am a Bummer

I feel bad, getting so negative on so universally loved book. I loved the idea behind it, and I especially loved the cultural message behind it. But I just could not deal with the writing. I thought about sharing my notes from the book, but just the sample I shared with you is probably enough. Most of them are like that. There is a lot of cussing. It was a tiring, eye-rolling read, despite the subject matter being serious and, to me, invigorating.

Anyway, if you loved The Hours, please crucify me in the comments. Just kidding. Please don’t. I can dish it out, but I can’t take it.

*I am taking a cue from all the style guides changing over to the singular “they,” and now writing is like one big sigh of relief, not having to re-read and look for spots that should unnaturally say “his or her.” You should try it.

Vote on My Conundrum!

question mark

Gentle reader,

I wanted to start documenting what it’s like to start doing entrepreneurial things–bootstrapping an online swag store, marketing a self-published book, etc. I was thinking that, since I’m in the valuable position of being a total ignoramus, it might be valuable to record my experiments starting from the ground up and to talk about what went well and what didn’t. I feel like someone out there might find this perspective, paired with my findings, useful. And it would be a nice way to record my thoughts and results.

Here’s the conundrum, though: to split off into two blogs, focused on the niches, or to build on this current blog?

I thought I’d let you tell me.

Here’s the need-to-knows. Very little (if any) of the material I would be introducing would be literature-focused. I would probably clean up my categories and tags to make sure people could find the content they want that way.

With that in mind, would you be interested in hearing about entrepreneurial journeys? Or would you prefer that I keep things neatly literature-based here?

Don’t feel like you need to be a regular reader to vote, either! If you want, just let me know what you think I should do–that’s welcome, too.

Thanks for weighing in!

Hyperion: Overview

 

Cover of Hyperion by Dan SimmonsBlog post subjects over the last four years will show that science fiction hasn’t historically been my jam. I read much of Jules Verne’s works over the years, and the husband and I were putzing through the Stranger in a Strange Land audiobook. (We stopped because there was a glitch in the app we were using, and we never picked it back up–no knock on the book, really.) But that’s about where my sci-fi journey ends.

We bought Hyperion on Audible because it was a favorite of my husband’s when he was younger. The way he described it was intriguing–an involved, imaginative system of future worlds imagined by author Dan Simmons, conveyed through the personal stories of pilgrims off to see the world’s creepiest deity: the Shrike. So into the car speakers it went.

Tl;dr Synopsis

With a war that may destroy humanity on the horizon, seven people are summoned to go on a pilgrimage to see the Shrike, a giant, walking Ginsu knife set who probably didn’t get very many hugs as a child, what with the being made of sharpness and all. (Just kidding. The Shrike was probably never a child. It was never innocent.) To pass the nights on the way to see this metal nightmare, the pilgrims decide to tell their stories. Most of the book consists of the personal stories, and each pilgrim has a strange, usually sad connection to the world of Hyperion and this uber-terrifying Lord of Slicing and Dicing.

Writing Style

You know, the writing (other than the obnoxious use of ellipses as throat clearing) is way better that I would have thought. This is terrible of me, but I assume books that are very plot/action-centric will be designed with writing quality taking a backseat to various happenings–that, at best, writing will not get in the way of the plot. But the writing style of Hyperion was consistently elegant and creative, I thought. The dialogue could be over the top, especially in the beginning when the author was trying to establish the different personalities of the seven pilgrims. But to be fair, that’s a really hard thing to do: introduce seven characters and expect your reader to keep them straight. It was when Simmons wrote the lines for the poet that he went most over the top, but I also found the poet’s lines were the ones that most often the showcased what Simmons could do with the written word. I also think Simmons is a well-rounded reader himself. His many references to classic and contemporary lit weren’t lost on me. Much of Hyperion revolves around John Keats, and I thought that was a nice touch. Simmons’ writing did his references justice.

Characters

The characters won’t be your life-changing new best friends, but they’re decently developed and seldom cliche. All are quite serious, with the possible exception of the poet. I was quite pleased with the woman character being second on the list of most capable fighters on the quest and that Simmons made her of a stocky, muscular race.  Some of the characters are obnoxious–the poet is bawdy and full of cursing. And while the scholar is in possession of a heartbreaking story, there’s a current of pretentiousness and self-importance that runs just under the surface of all that he says. But overall, I think Simmons did a pretty good job with the people who populate his book.

Highlights

I personally found the very first story the most moving (and the most horrifying). The poet’s story is fascinating as well, and so much understanding of the Shrike, the history of Hyperion, and why things are the way they are come in his chapter. The last story is a little male-gaze-y (please, make sure I’m always up-to-the-moment on the texture of the female character’s breasts), but it becomes very moving at the end. It’s also a familiar story. The cruelties of colonization is a song being played on repeat throughout history, and I think Simmons would argue that it will continue playing as long as humanity is around.

Who Should Read this Book

I don’t think you have to be a sci-fi fan to love this book. It’s a fabulous choice if you’re looking for an “escape novel,” one you’d read every night to take a break from your own life. It isn’t exactly uplifting, but reading it was a great experience.

For What It’s Worth (A.K.A. My Opinion)

I just adored some things about this book. One: there’s a skillfully executed mimicking of The Canterbury Tales‘s structure. Two: I thought the in medias res intro left enough to imagination but not so much that it was too confusing. Related: the way each story filled in blanks bit by bit was quite satisfying. It was generally a great device for story creation. I’m having trouble thinking of anyone who’s done this in the same way. The mini-stories themselves are all very involving and inventive.

As you saw, I have a few bones to pick with the book. But it’s really very few. As few bones as you’d have attached to your skin after the Shrike fillets you.

Ew.

On Ellipses as Throat Clearing

Salutations, literos and literas. Welcome to another edition of your favorite show, Stuff Amanda Hates! If you ask the husband, this show is on all day every day at our house, so enjoy a little piece of our life today.

So, here’s something that’s likely a familiar device:

“Can you tell me what happened before the…the incident?”

“Well, I was allowed in that bar once, but then there was some…unpleasantness”

Ellipses here act as euphemism alerts, being perfectly substitutable with throat clearing. Not so bad, right? Especially awesome when portraying mafia bosses or uncomfortable co-workers.

Gangster Looking Threatening

“If you don’t pay up, see, your pet hamster, he may have a little…accident.”

This technique exists for a reason in writing. The intricacies of our everyday dialogue are easy to take for granted until you try to replicate them in speech. With an ellipsis, the author want to convey maybe an awkward “ahem” as the speaker looks for a word that will soften the blow that would come from a more representative description. Or perhaps the author wants to portray a pause as a character struggles to define something that defies being boiled down to language. It might even just be used to emphasize the word that comes after the ellipsis. In any case, the ellipsis is a tool that allows authors to paint an in-text picture of what real, spoken or internal dialogue looks like.

Or does it?

(Hint: NO. Though I suppose that’s a more of an answer than a hint.)

It took listening to an audiobook for me to realize this isn’t realistic at all. We’re listening to Hyperion, which is a fabulous book. It’s completely unjust of me to nit pick the one thing I haven’t liked about it, so please don’t be dissuaded. But Hyperion is chalk full of this use of ellipses, especially in the section we’re listening to now—Brawne Lamia’s story, if you’re familiar. It’s used in the first paragraph (“merely…beautiful”).  It’s used 30 times in the first 12 pages of the section. I stopped counting after 30.

The sheer amount of times it’s used here is made much more obvious by listening to real humans read the text and “act” through the ellipses. And it’s here that I realized that the ellipses aren’t doing anything to make dialogue reflect real conversation patterns at all. Take this:

“It’s like that. Memories that feel…hollow.”

Read that aloud, like you’re a voice actor. Give the amount of pause you would if you were reading a script. You can hear how it’s supposed to be said, right? You’ve probably watched T.V. shows or movies that act as your instructor. Think of Spock from Star Trek. Then, think about how you’d talk to your friends about a memory that felt empty. Even if you were struggling to come up with a word, would you just leave a long, empty pause in there as you thought of the word? You would say, “the memories feel kind of, I don’t know, empty” or something similar.

Now, I’m not at all saying authors should write in all manner of vocal pauses in an attempt to make their conversations as real as possible. You edit out the cruft of everyday speech. But I’ll tell you what you probably shouldn’t do either is write in a supposed-speech-mimic device that’s actually something only employed by actors, i.e., people who have fake conversations.

Listening to the voice actors in the audiobook speak to another with these prolonged pauses struck me as unnatural at best and melodramatic at worst. I can’t think of many instances where it wouldn’t be better to apply italics for emphasis or a phrase like “I don’t know” or “[character] paused to think” to indicate struggle. Check it out my earlier examples.

“Can you tell me what happened before the, er, incident?”

“Well, I was allowed in that bar once, but then there was some”—he raised his eyebrows—”unpleasantness.”

And it’s not even necessarily that this way is more natural. It’s just less obviously unnatural, and it’s way easier reading. It’s an opportunity to be more descriptive and ignore the temptation to be lazy with language. Meanwhile, ellipses to indicate pause also draw attention to themselves and interrupt the text. Don’t take readers out of the moment!

Now, I’m not completely against the ellipses as “ahem” or “insert deeply thoughtful pause here.” You might prefer it to the tactics above, and that’s fine. Also, there are cases that I think really call for it. Take this, out of the same section in Hyperion, when Brawne has been asked to call another character by his first name:

“Yeah, M…ah, Johnny, most of my work falls under that category”

I’d say that the ellipsis is right choice to portray this corrected speech in writing. But know that it in no way represents real speech patterns. If you feel like it does, pay attention to whether or not you’re hearing it being said in your inner actor’s voice. The pause doesn’t represent a part of real speech patterns. It represents overdramatization.

Like its friends the exclamation point, the cliche, and other potentially obnoxious devices, the ellipsis should be used very, very sparingly—if at all.

Interpreter of Maladies: Overview

Interpreter of Maladies CoverI’ve actually had Interpreter of Maladies on my bookshelf since it was published. I think maybe my grandmother gave it to me right when it came out. The cover is very familiar to me, but I’d never read it until now. My loss.

This will be short, but don’t take it as a knock on the book. It’s good. It’s no Crime and Punishmentof course. But I liked reading it.

Tl; Dr

This is a easy, quick read. It’s series of short stories that focus on the intersection of Indian and American culture. Many stories are about marriage and the comforts found in reminders of home.

Writing Style

Though the book is vivid at times, it’s mostly subdued and quiet. The first story, about a couple who has experienced a recent miscarriage, was the most haunting for me. But many of the stories had the same echoing resonance as this first one, kind of clanging around in my head after they’ve concluded.

Lahiri’s style is indistinct to me, but that’s not really a criticism. Her writing does not get in the way of the stories. She conveys them with ease, without including the distractions more amateur writers will throw in. She is a teller of interesting tales, and while her style is elegant and serious, it is also not the kind of voice you would recognize if you read something she wrote.

Characters

There aren’t a lot of characters that stand out to me. It’s hard to develop deep characters in a short story, and I think only the most masterful of short story magicians (ah, Karen Russell!) can do such a thing. There are some unusual and interesting folks that you’ll meet in Interpreter of Maladies: the observant interpreter himself; Bibi Haldar, the outcast old-maid-in-the-making; and eccentric Twinkle, who so obliviously leaves her husband feeling alone in the marriage. But I had to really think about it to remember characters that I thought stood out. It’s the stories that stick with you.

Highlights

I kind of think that these are nicely ordered from fantastic to medium to good, story-wise. The biggest snoozers in the middle, and the first three stories are especially gorgeous.

Story one, “A Temporary Matter,” is the pinnacle of Interpreter of Maladies, to me. The couple’s sorrow and emptiness is heartbreaking, though not as heartbreaking as their hope, if that makes sense.

“When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” the second story, is about a child whose family has a visitor that treats her with kindness. Over time, she realizes that he has his own family far away and she could never serve as a replacement for his flesh and blood. It’s piquant and sweet.

The eponymous story, story three, is about a translator turned tour guide. For just a moment, he becomes wrapped up in a family’s life as he drives them around India. But in the midst of the trip, he sees to the heart of the family’s dysfunction.

These three stories especially are worth reading, though I also have a soft spot for “This Blessed House” and “The Third and Final Continent” as well.

FWIW (My Opinion)

Most stories contained in Interpreter of Maladies are sad ones, tinged with homesickness, showing characters reaching out to the place of their roots. There is lots of cooking and lots of market shopping in the books, and there are many ways that the characters feel caught between two cultures, even if they can’t articulate what they’re feeling. I thought it was a great read. I’d recommend it to anyone looking for something short, especially if they have interest in Indian culture. It isn’t lighthearted, that’s for certain. But most good lit isn’t.

Aaaaand Updates!

Moving on…lord, I’m trying to read The Stranger. It is going badly.

The Pulitzers came out recently, and I figured I had a bit of catching up to do (plus I missed one when I was skipping through the early 2000-aughts). So I snagged The Stranger, winner of 2016’s prize, thinking I’d take a detour for a more recent bearer of the gold seal. I don’t know if I can make it. It is utterly uninvolving.

Also, the husband and I are audiobook-reading Dan Simmon’s sci-fi opus Hyperion. That is going way better. I’m thrilled with the imagination of this author. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read. But more on that later.

 

 

Empire Falls: Overview

A Twitter user with the handle @writing_class tweeted this picture:

Problem

That’s a perfect way to describe how I’ve been feeling about everything I’ve been reading lately, Empire Falls by Richard Russo being no exception.

Tl;Dr Synopsis

In Empire Falls, a mild-mannered but frustrated Boomer protagonist watches his life fading away. He wonders how to reach for more than running a diner in the small, fading town he never really left, full of people he grew up with. Over the course of the book, he begins to understand things about his past and how people in the town may be more strangely interconnected than he first suspected, and he sees that he will have to fight to give his daughter something better.

Writing Style

Russo’s style is dry. You won’t get a lot of editorializing from the author, certainly. But that’s not necessarily a knock. The thoughts and speech and actions of the characters are what move the book, and the author does a really great job of letting the conversations sculpt the characters instead of their stories or the author’s description. His style’s ancestor is Hemingway, and a more recent comparison I’d make is to Elizabeth Strout. The main thing that sets him apart is humor. Russo is funny, in a serious way. This shows up right near the beginning of the book:

Whiting men, all of whom seemed to be born with sound business sense, each invariably gravitated, like moths to a flame, toward the one woman in the world who would regard making them utterly miserable as her life’s noble endeavor, a woman who would remain bound to her husband with the same grim tenacity that bound nuns to the suffering Christ.

And the characters he’s really poured love into (those will be obvious when you read the book) are immensely snarky. They’re passive aggressive and get walked all over, but it’s great when they talk back. It’s another way he puts humor into the book.

This story moves very slowly, and Russo is a quiet writer. Much like his characters, you have to listen up to hear him.

Characters

Empire Falls CoverMiles Roby and his daughter Tick are the previously mentioned characters the author loves. Really, nearly everyone else in the book is perfectly hateable. Janine, Miles’ ex-wife, is vapid and childish, though it’s sometimes easy to take her side when you see what she’s been handed. Her fiancee (who likes to call himself the Silver Fox) is a preening boar. Jimmy Minty, the town cop, is close to pure evil–a result of crippling insecurity and a never-ending persecution complex. Ug, and Miles’ father Max is just insufferable. He’s so pathetic and obnoxious that it almost makes it hard to get through the book. Luckily, Miles and Tick are there to quietly hate on everyone under their breath for our amusement.

In this fading, formerly industrial world located in rural Maine, there’s still a Rockefeller figure that owns half the town. She, too, is pretty evil, but she’s very fun to read. Clever, jaded, and sharp as a tack, this old queen of Empire Falls plays puppetmaster throughout most of the story. The plot involving her, Miles’ mother, and the old mill-running family is the real draw of the book, but there are a number of good things happening throughout. There’s a strand that follows Janine and one that follows Tick at school. There’s of course the day-to-day for Miles, though that’s hardly interesting. And maybe that’s the point.

The pulse behind all the characters in the book is that they feel trapped in a town that’s dying and the’re powerless to do anything except watch minute after minute go by, everything always decaying–fast enough to depress you but so slow enough to be boring. That’s what molds all the characters into who they are.

If they made Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” into a book, Empire Falls would be it.

Highlights

Miles retells a story from his childhood, when he and his mother went to Martha’s Vineyard and she met someone that made her blossom. The vacation, as told from the child’s perspective, reveals so much–including Miles’ fascination with the place as an adult. It’s really beautifully written, and I can vividly remember much of that chapter because it was told in a way that was so memorable.

Who Should Read the Book

Not everyone. As I said, the book is slow. The characters are largely infuriating and not at all a joy to experience. Even Miles is a frustrating character to read. It’s hard not to want to shake him.

But despite all this, I loved Empire Falls. I think a lot could be said for the symbolism of the river that the powerful family in the book tries to reroute–so much of what makes Empire Falls tick is how fate and free will plays a part in the characters’ lives. There’s a great discussion to be had there, and if I were better at blogging more frequently, I’d love to have started it.

The people who will enjoy this are people who like minimalist style and slow-moving plots. Think slightly faster than The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is a long book with lots going on but a base plot that could be boiled down to a sentence. It’s a subtle book, minus the kick-you-in-the-face climax. Deep thinkers and introverts will connect. People who like a lot of zest and action will absolutely not. And that’s okay.

FWIW (My Opinion)

This was a sensitive, sad piece with a lot of complexity and just the right amount of straight-faced humor to not make things too maudlin.  I really enjoyed some of the more undercover strings running through the text. This puppy could really come alive for people through discussion and analysis.

Have fun getting “Peter Frampton Comes Alive” out of your head now. Wait, here.

Piano Man!

Start humming. That’s really the song you should leave Empire Falls with.

Jeffrey Eugenides and the Omniscient First Person

I Capturepolished off The Virgin Suicides a bit ago, and I don’t really have the time (or the memory, at this point) to post an overview. But I wanted to talk about how Eugenides continually combines two perspectives without causing a disaster.

I spoke a bit about this in my last post, which was on MiddlesexEugenides does this magical thing that allows him to cheat normal literary rules. More about this in a second. First…

The First Person

When your narrator introduces her/himself to you, the reader, as “I,” the story is being told in the first person perspective. It adds a humanizing element that’s harder to capture in other points of view. You get to hear what the narrator is thinking about everything that’s going on, and it gives you a chance to see things through someone’s eyes in a way that’s natural and tinged with personality.

It’s easy writing. I’m wretched at writing fiction myself, but whenever I attempt it, I seek the shelter of the first person immediately. But it can also be a clever device. It’s been a long time since I read Fight Club, but I’m certain it’s in the first person—it’s a great way to hide things you don’t want readers to know yet, in a way that doesn’t seem suspicious. And I’m sure everyone remembers being taught to look for The Great Gatsby‘s unreliable narrator. It’s the first person point of view that allows these kinds of nuanced relationships with the reader.

But there are constraints when you pick this perspective. First, you’re really committing to this character, and no other, for the long haul. You’re also committing the reader to a lot of time with him/her, so you better write someone who’s enjoyable (or at least interesting) company. And in adopting one character’s point of view, you mostly cede that of others.

Omniscience

Like God, or Santa, the omniscient perspective sees all. It is, in fact, watching you right now.

It can dive into the minds of other characters. It can describe facts and events without worrying the reader with bias. It can describe a thing inside, outside, up close and far away.

Mostly, the omniscient view will be told from the third person perspective. It’s a good storytelling perspective, but it puts can put a space between the reader and the story, whereas the first person uses a character’s voice as our portal to the story and thereby brings the reader close. In some cases, like in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, this distance is important to the atmosphere of the book, but in other cases, it can make writing for engagement a bit of an extra challenge.

And the Second Person Omniscient?

It’s the creepiest of all points of view.

(Sorry, that’s something my husband said that makes me bust out laughing every time I think of it.)

Why they shouldn’t work together

Pronouns. First person: “I.” Omniscient: “he/she.”

I’m being facetious, though. If you’re telling the story from one perspective, you can’t just switch to another when it’s convenient. Or you can, but it will be jarring unless you do it really, really well. Most authors who try this don’t do it well. It just comes off as distracting and gimmicky.

Why they do for Eugenides

Eugenides does something really interesting, though. He writes from an omniscient point of view, usually reserved for the third person, and tells it via the first person voice. Twice now I’ve seen him execute it in a book, and it’s fascinating to watch how it works.

In Middlesex, the main character speaks as “I” but claims traces the past for generations before him. He’s able to speak to the reader with the closeness that first person provides but not about things he could have possibly experienced. He explains this is possible because he did exist, as genes inside his ancestors, watching all that went on. This character frequently describes floating around in the DNA of his grandparents. It really works.

In The Virgin Suicides, the story is told from the perspective of one of the boys that watched the main characters (a group of repressed sisters) as children. As watchers from outside the house, outside the minds of these girls, how could readers come to know the story as well as they do through this boy’s perspective?

Well, one of the premises of the book is that these boys were infatuated with these girls. Even when the young men became adults, the sisters haunted their thoughts. So they sought out and interviewed people who knew the girls before they died, people from their pasts, and pieced together all the information given them to fill in the holes left by memories from the outside perspective. That’s how Eugenides once again tells a complete omniscient story from the first person perspective.

It’s great fun to watch, and I welcome you to look for how he does it if you wind up picking up these books.

Signing off for now to go read my new delight: Empire Falls by Richard Russo. I’m having a great time, and I can’t wait to tell you about it. It has the most wretched characters. Look forward to hearing all about that.