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.

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