Wednesday, January 30, 2008

omniscient narrator

I want to organize a few thoughts for a new short story, and reflect on points made by Jenny Dunning in her article "Reconsidering Omniscience in Contemporary Fiction Writing," published in The Writer's Chronicle, Feb. 2008. Most of my writing has been in first person or third person limited point of view, which is perhaps typical in contemporary fiction. Now, I'm interested in experimenting a bit more with a stronger, omniscient narrator.

As Dunning states in her article, all third person stories implicitly have narrators, but many contemporary stories veil this fact by employing third person narration in which diction and syntax belong to the character. The veiling of a narrator voice is most pronounced in "free indirect discourse," which takes place as the narrative's psychic distance to the character's consciousness falls away. It's an effective storytelling technique, but narration that moves between an overt narrator and character consciousness, or one that employs a degree of such omniscience, can also be a powerful strategy, Dunning says. The trick with omniscience is to use it with subtlety, to know when and how to tell. She uses a good example by Flaubert. Dunning also feels there's a difference when we locate a story as the character's story when it is actually the narrator's story; it affects the reader's understanding of the story.

I'll need to keep in mind the following points for the omniscient story. When the narrator speaks, s/he "tells"—but not in such a way as to close down the reader's involvement in the story. Also, I want to consider how the story might originate in the narrator, a storyteller who knows more than the characters, and who attempts to discover something about human existence in the telling of the story.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

an artful novel

The Caldecott Medal was announced yesterday for "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," by Brian Selznick. I'd just finished reading (assimilating?) the book, which is an artful arrangement of text and graphics. Interestingly, the book was a candidate both for the Newbery Medal, for a written novel, and the Caldecott, for a graphic illustration book, showing a new interest in a greater blending of the two mediums for telling a story. Unlike a graphic novel, with its steady progression of graphic panels, or a typical illustrated novel with perhaps only a graphic plate introducing each chapter, 'Hugo' is interspersed with multiple pages of text followed by one and two page spreads of artistic, shaded black and white drawings. Sometimes the drawings taken together illustrate only fleeting seconds in the action of the storyline, like successive still frames of a motion picture. Indeed, part of the storyline deals with the lost career of a French cinematographer dating from the early years of motion pictures.

Hugo, a young boy, lives in the apartment of his uncle, which is buried in the labyrinthine inner passages of the massive central train station in Paris. Hugo's father has died in a fire at a museum where he worked, and Hugo has been taken in and trained by his uncle, to assist him in maintaining all the clocks in the train station in good, accurate condition. However, the uncle has mysteriously disappeared, and Hugo struggles to keep the clocks running. He does not want to report his uncle's disappearance for fear he'll be turned out of the station, but he has to pilfer his food from shop owners in the station just to survive. In addition to his timekeeper duties, the mechanically talented Hugo is trying to restore a mechanical man, an automaton, that his father found in museum discards and gave to him. The automaton, a gear-driven marvel that can write and draw pictures, becomes the key to the mystery surrounding Georges Melies, the famous cinematographer, now a poor, novelty shop owner in the train station, and his adopted daughter, Isabelle, Hugo's newfound friend.

Five hundred pages of story and art that go together seamlessly and in just a couple of evenings of intriguing reading.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

three levels of story--J. M. Coetzee

J. M. Coetzee's latest novel, "Diary of a Bad Year, is an example of some interesting, major tinkering with the typical form of the novel. His credentials for experiment include winning the Nobel and two Bookers. The reviews I've read are somewhat mixed as to whether the experiment is a complete success. The idea, nevertheless, remains interesting. A principal protagonist, Señor C, like Coetzee himself, is a South African writer transplanted to Australia, and he is compiling a collection of his "Strong Opinions" for a German publisher, representing philosophical, political, and literary positions.

Señor C enlists the help of a young Filipina woman from his apartment building, named Anya, to type a manuscript from his voice recordings. The printed novel's format consists of three, subdivided sections on each page. The topmost section is given over to the transcribed essays on the "Strong Opinions" Señor C holds (similar to actual essays Coetzee has himself previously published). The middle section of the page contains Señor C's thoughts on how and why he has come to hold such opinions, speculates on how Anya might interpret them, and how that might reflect on him. The bottom section is in Anya's point-of-view, her observations, personal reflections, and a narrative of the unfolding relationship between her and Señor C.

The page's arrangement seems representative of three stages of consciousness in the writer. Whether we refer to him as Coetzee or Señor C, the analogy is the same. The topmost section is in Señor C's fully conscious mode, with all the writer's normal strategies of academic rigor, sophistication, propriety, and political correctness at work. Too often this might lead to uninspired, stilted writing. In the middle section Señor C steps back from some of his "Strong Opinions" and thinks critically of how and why he might hold such views. I'm reminded of a current affairs radio program, called "T-U-C; Time of Useful Consciousness," described as a brief flash of time before losing consciousness, when a pilot has to react to save his aircraft after his mind is subjected to acrobatic, super-G forces. Similarly, for Señor C, the wrappings of erudition and neat philosophical packaging fall away from his "Strong Opinions" and the raw instinctual elements of his subconscious shout to him. In the bottom section of the page we have the complete submergence of the writer's thoughts into a pure story level, in the POV of a fictional person, Anya, giving her own thoughts on the "Strong Opinions" she is transcribing, and her thoughts on the developing situation between her and Señor C.

It's interesting to think of new forms for the novel, and Coetzee has given us a unique and interesting model. My own, simpler musings barely rise above forms of combined graphics and prose.
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