All Saints — Karen Palmer

[asa left]156947138X[/asa] This is Karen Palmer’s first novel, and it promises good things to come from her. Set in New Orleans in the fifties, it follows three people through a few turbulent days. Each of them has misstepped badly and caused harm to themselves and the people they care about most in the world; each of them struggles with the certainty that they will never be able to make amends. Through a series of every day circumstances, their day intersects and then becomes intertwined.

The novel is beautifully written, clean and clear and bright in its prose, but it’s also a really good story. Of the three main characters, I was most engaged by Harlan Desonnier, a Cajun just released from prison and Glory Wiltz, a white nurse with a young son who is separated from her husband, a black musician. Father Frank — a Catholic priest dealing with a loss of faith — is the least well drawn of the three characters, though I still haven’t been able to figure out why he doesn’t quite work for me.

This novel has a flow and rhythm that feels almost effortless, and the resolutions were striking for their simple elegance. There is not so much a happy ending here as a thoughtful and a hopeful one. One final note: Glory’s relationship to her son strikes me as pretty much perfect, and reads as though the author understands the emotional complexities of motherhood from a deeply personal source.

omniscient point of view

POV is one of those things that beginning students of creative writing find hard to understand. The simplest way to determine POV (the one that I use when I’m confused in my own writing) is this: who’s got the camera? We’re seeing and experiencing this scene through somebody’s eyes — who is it?

For a long time it’s been fashionable to write in limited third person POV, which means simply that only one character at a time is holding the camera. You’re inside Joe’s head, watching a car accelerate toward a brick wall; then you’re in Jane’s. The contrast between how two characters experience the same event is one of the ways to use contrast to build tension. Mostly my work is in limited third person POV. Here’s Albany in 1794 seen through Elizabeth’s eyes:

The roads were crowded with housemaids swinging baskets on red-chapped arms; peddlers hawking sticky peaches, sugar-sweet melons, wilted kale; young women in watered silks with feathered parasols tilted against the sun; River Indians dressed in fringed buckskin and top hats; slaves hauling bales of rags and herding goats. It was not so dirty and crowded as New York had been, that was true. There was a pleasing tidiness to the brick houses with their steeply tiled roofs and bright curtains, but still the humid air reeked of sewage, burning refuse, pig slurry and horse dung. Elizabeth swallowed hard and put her handkerchief to her nose and mouth, wondering to herself that she had forgotten what cities were like in such a short time. Three months in the wilderness had changed her, stolen her patience for the realities of a crowded life.

And now from Nathaniel’s POV

Because they did not have any other molds, Run-from-Bears had melted down about twenty pounds of the Tory gold in a makeshift forge and cast a fortune in bullets. These Nathaniel had been carrying in double-sewn leather pouches next to his skin since they left Paradise, ten pounds on each side. In Johnstown this unusual currency would have caused a stir, but Albany was a town built on some two hundred years of high intrigue and trading shenanigans. Comfortable Dutch and British merchants had made large fortunes running illegal furs from Canada, reselling silver spoons stolen in Indian raids on New England families much like their own, and bartering second grade wampum and watered rum for all the ginseng root the native women could dig up, which they then traded to the Orient at an outrageous profit. A sack of golden bullets would raise nothing more in an Albany merchant than his blood pressure.

It used to be that authors wrote almost exclusively in first person POV (David Copperfield, for example) or in omniscient third. Jane Austen is a good example of the latter case: the author sees all, knows all, and tells all. She sees simultaneously into the heart and mind of of Jane, Darcy, and Miss Bingley and understands each of them perfectly. She is, in other words, their god. Along with what they are thinking and doing, Austen gives us a running editorial (and a sharp-edged one) on the greater society in which this is all happening.

I have wondered if I’m even capable of writing a whole story or book in omniscient POV, and I think the answer is that it would be a great deal of hard work. Like learning to write with my left hand, almost. There are a few writers now who are moving back toward omniscient POV; take a look at Ann Patchett’s most recent novel, Bel Canto (which won the Orange Prize and a lot of other critical awards last year), or the novels of Patrick O’Brien or Gabriel García Márquez.

 

An 1833 engraving of a scene from Chapter 59 o...

Here’s a lovely passage from Pride and Prejudice, which serves as an example of Austen’s perfect pitch in matters of dialog. It’s also in omniscient POV:

 

“How very ill Eliza Bennet looks this morning, Mr. Darcy,” she cried; “I never in my life saw any one so much altered as she is since the winter. She is grown so brown and coarse! Louisa and I were agreeing that we should not have known her again.”

However little Mr. Darcy might have liked such an address, he contented himself with coolly replying that he perceived no other alteration than her being rather tanned — no miraculous consequence of travelling in the summer.

“For my own part,” she rejoined, “I must confess that I never could see any beauty in her. Her face is too thin; her complexion has no brilliancy; and her features are not at all handsome. Her nose wants character; there is nothing marked in its lines. Her teeth are tolerable, but not out of the common way; and as for her eyes, which have sometimes been called so fine, I never could perceive any thing extraordinary in them. They have a sharp, shrewish look, which I do not like at all; and in her air altogether, there is a self-sufficiency without fashion which is intolerable.”

Persuaded as Miss Bingley was that Darcy admired Elizabeth, this was not the best method of recommending herself; but angry people are not always wise; and in seeing him at last look somewhat nettled, she had all the success she expected. He was resolutely silent however; and, from a determination of making him speak she continued,

“I remember, when we first knew her in Hertfordshire, how amazed we all were to find that she was a reputed beauty; and I particularly recollect your saying one night, after they had been dining at Netherfield, ‘She a beauty! — I should as soon call her mother a wit.’ But afterwards she seemed to improve on you, and I believe you thought her rather pretty at one time.”

“Yes,” replied Darcy, who could contain himself no longer, “but that was only when I first knew her, for it is many months since I have considered her as one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance.”

He then went away, and Miss Bingley was left to all the satisfaction of having forced him to say what gave no one any pain but herself.

The editorial comments (highlighted) come from the omniscient narrator — Austen herself. The tone is indeed a little bit sharp, but Austen was sharp and in this particular instance, she gives her readers what they want (because, of course she has made them want it) — the officious, pretentious, cruel Miss Bingley finally talks herself into a scolding, and a particularly painful one at that.

The other thing to point out here is the masterful balance between direct and indirect dialog; some of what Darcy says is summarized, because it’s Miss Bingley we need to hear just then, without distraction. When he speaks up finally, he is given the floor with devastating effectiveness.

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literary pretenders

The blogosphere’s literary elite are up in arms because things are changing at the New York Times Book Review, and they don’t like it. The paper is talking about more non-fiction reviews, fewer reviews of novels, and a shift in focus.

Here’s what I don’t like: first, the leaning toward more non-fiction (they had too much to start with, in my humble opinion). Mostly I don’t like the way this discussion feeds into the frenzy over that old four letter word PLOT and the idea of serious fiction.

Roget’s II: The New Thesaurus, Third Edition has this entry for serious:

1. Not easy to do, achieve, or master: arduous, difficult, hard, laborious, tall,tough, uphill. See EASY. 2. Full of or marked by dignity and seriousness: earnest, grave, sedate, sober, solemn, somber, staid. See ATTITUDE, HEAVY. 3. Having great consequence or weight: earnest, grave, heavy, momentous,severe, weighty. See IMPORTANT. 4. Causing or marked by danger or pain, for example: dangerous, grave, grievous, severe. See HELP. 5. Marked by sober sincerity: businesslike, earnest, no-nonsense, sobersided. Idioms: in earnest. See HEAVY, WORK.

The wider debate has been framed something like this: “what’s happened to the relevance of the serious novel, and how can we restore it? Or can it be restored at all?”

So the distinction here seems to be between people who write fiction that is serious and those of us who opt for the easy. The question can also be put this way: why does Stephen King sell, and John Updike languish on the shelves? The answer is (and they don’t want to hear this): you can’t. People want a story; it’s a part of the way the human psyche works. Give them a great story and they’ll come, even if the novel is otherwise deficient.

There are a few litbloggers who do see some of the bigger issues here, ala The Literary Saloon. [correction follows; wrong attribution in original post] And there’s this lovely little bit (also from The Elegant Variation):

But the other, more serious issue for me is the insularity of the contemporary fiction landscape. I find too many novels that feel like MFA projects that are little more than auditions for teaching posts to grind out more MFA students. Now, this is my own personal bugbear, but if I read one more novel about an academic or a writer I’m going to blow my brains out. Are you all so bereft of invention that this is the best you can cobble up? These arch, self-indulgent self-portraits? My question to all of you is why do you think that any reader would care? What do you offer them to connect to? How are you speaking to them? And that, in my opinion, is why it’s easy for the NYTBR to cut you – and the rest of us, by association – off. You have no constituency, no one who will not only defend the need for your work but who will back it up with their pocketbooks.

I appreciate anybody who takes on the MFA elite (also known as the MaFiA). Because they are powerful, even if they aren’t very big. Is this sour grapes on my part? Good question.
I’ve been in both camps — the elite MFA and the PLOT crowd (this may be an overly simple way to draw the distinction, I admit); I gave up the first for the second. My first novel (written under my real name) won the PEN/Hemingway award, which is pretty much a “you’ve arrived, welcome” pass from the MFA crowd. But then I went off and concentrated on this series of big, plot driven historicals, and by doing that, distanced myself. I’m a good girl gone bad. Or at least, gone easy.

Bottom line: If the NYTBR wants to give up literary gatekeeping and widen the scope of fiction it reviews, I’m pleased. But I’ll believe it when I see it.

[title size=”2″]Comments[/title]

Your attributions are skewed. The large chunk you excerpt does not come Literary Saloon, it comes from my posting.

By the way, Updike hardly “languishes” on the shelves – though he certainly doesn’t approach King’s sales. Nor does an episode of Six Feet Under draw the same numbers as an episode of Fear Factor. But I suspect you’d concede there’s a difference between them. Or perhaps not.

Serious fiction in this context, by the way, is generally agreed to be fiction that’s a bit more challenging, makes you work a little harder, go a little deeper. King may be perfectly entertaining but I doubt you’d characterize him especially challenging.

Delighted, by the way, to have graduated to the “elite.” My mamma will be proud.

Posted by: TEV at January 29, 2004 11:30 AM

Thanks for bringing the mistake to my attention, I’ll fix it immediately.

Is this the equation: Updike=Six Feet Under; King=Fear Factor? In which case, I don’t agree, you’re right.

Finally, I have found that a discussion that starts “it is generally agreed” tends to chase its own tail. If you’d like to rephrase, I’d be happy to respond.

Say hey to your mama.

Posted by: rosina at January 29, 2004 11:42 AM

Fair enough – substitute “it is generally agreed to be” with “can best be defined as”.

Better?

Posted by: TEV at January 29, 2004 01:17 PM

“Serious fiction in this context, by the way, can best be defined as fiction that’s a bit more challenging, makes you work a little harder, go a little deeper. King may be perfectly entertaining but I doubt you’d characterize him especially challenging.”

Well see, the problem is that I don’t agree with your definition of serious fiction. You like challenging fiction. What does that mean? A teenager told me recently that The DaVinci Code is the best book ever because it made him interested in history, and made him reconsider some things he held to be true. Obviously that novel (which I disliked, intensely) worked for him as challenging, and it made him dig deeper. So for him it was successful and — you can’t avoid the word — serious.

Here’s my contention: a good novel will be thought provoking (but not necessarily challenging); it will also have a good story to tell. The average reader ranks Good Story above all else. Most of the literary elite continue to act as if story and plot are to be (at best) tolerated, and more usually, disdained.

Posted by: rosina at January 29, 2004 01:43 PM

By the way, these are exactly the kind of conversations I hoped my post would inspire, so I’m delighted at the back and forth.

You say much that I agree with, and I’ll get to that in a sec. But to use your example of the DaVinci Code, the book may have inspired interest in this kid’s case, but it’s still not serious fiction. It’s a yarn, a page turner, a good time. But it doesn’t really do much to illuminate The Human Condition (an overworked phrase but one I’ll use here). The effect of that title is secondary, and owes more to the reader’s own traits.

Where we do agree completely is in the notion of disdain of plot. I think (and I argue this elsewhere, at greater length) that what happened in fiction is comparable to what happened in the visual arts. The camera doomed realist painting and forced artists to explore other realms, abstraction, cubism, etc. I personally love the modern art movement and think that despite the abstract, there is still meaningful content there. It’s only when we get to postmodernism and contemporary art where it becomes (in my opinion) empty, ironic, self-referential and purely about form.

Form questions are interesting and I like seeing the form played with. But let’s face it, after Ulysses, the form of the novel was totally up for grabs. Creative people want to push the form, to see how much it can take, how far it can bend. One of the ways to do that is to subvert traditional ideas of narrative.

And I think that’s all fine and good and acceptable – as an intellectual exercise. But when it becomes the bread and butter or novel writing, intellectual exercises that don’t connect to anything recognizably human, that’s when you lose audiences. I think the most subversive thing you can do today is write a traditional novel.

BTW, the found DaVinci completely unreadable. Could not get past the first chapter.

And my mama sends her best.

Posted by: TEV at January 29, 2004 02:24 PM

“And I think that’s all fine and good and acceptable – as an intellectual exercise. But when it becomes the bread and butter or novel writing, intellectual exercises that don’t connect to anything recognizably human, that’s when you lose audiences. I think the most subversive thing you can do today is write a traditional novel.”

Very well put. A.S. Byatt (in her essays on writing) explores this theme quite fruitfully, I think. She’s also an author who (usually) manages to challenge form and still tell a cohesive story. I think of her Possession as a mixed-media novel.

But I’m still at odds with what seems to me a fairly narrow definition of what you’ve been calling serious fiction. I agree that The DaVinci Code is a poorly put-together novel, but it has caused a lot of discussion among readers, sometimes very deep discussion of complex themes, and in that way it fulfills one of your criteria. It fulfills one of my personal criteria in that there’s a plot that engages the reader (or at least, most readers; I was highly irritated by it).

Or to put that novel aside, what about something like King’s Pet Sematary, which does address a particular aspect of the Human Condition (to use that term again) and explores it in an unflinching way? I’m choosing a King novel here only because he’s a touchstone in these discussions generally.

My point is, the distinction between “a yarn, a page-turner, a good time” and “serious literature” is an artifical one that has more to do with dogma than a real examination of what makes fiction work. I would call most of Austen and Dickens page-turners, and certainly I have a good time when I’m reading them. They are also thematically rich, highly plotted and full of interesting characters. The no-pain-no-gain approach to reading strikes me as perverse, and truly unnecessary.

Posted by: rosina at January 29, 2004 05:58 PM

Niccolo Rising, Dorothy Dunnett: my favorite historical novel of all time

[asa book]0375704779[/asa] This is from Dorothy Dunnett’s Niccolo Rising:

He departed. So, in due course did Messer Pigello, followed by Claes and his satchel. Lacking a good astrologer, no one saw any harm in it.

I have re-read this novel and the rest of the series many times, but some things never change, no matter how many times I pick them up.

First, I have to read Niccolo very, very slowly. Dunnett has absolutely no patience with lazy readers. The plot is very complex and she doesn’t coddle: you read closely, or you will be lost. It’s amazing, really, (and heartening) that these stories are so popular and widely read in a day and age where people seem to lean toward the easier options available to them.

Second, I don’t mind being a little confused and having to read slowly or even to re-read, because there are riches here to be enjoyed. She writes like a Brueghel painting: there’s so much going on, you have to dedicate all your attention but when you do, you’ll be amazed and rewarded.

Which brings me to this short paragraph I’ve quoted from Niccolo Rising. This is, of course, historical fiction. the Niccolo series starts out in fifteenth century Bruges, which was the capital city of Flanders and today is widely considered to be the best preserved medieval city in Belgium. The main character, Claes, is introduced as an awkward, good natured, good looking eighteen year old with a penchant for getting himself and others into trouble, for romancing housemaids, and mostly for surviving the beatings everybody seems to heap on him. But that’s just the early impression. Claes (who undergoes a transformation and will be known, eventually, as Niccolo) is about as complex and interesting a character I have ever run into in print.

The reason this paragraph delights me is that Dunnett manages to do so many things in a few words. She sets us up for more of Claes’ macchinations, and she also points this out, an author intrusion of the gentlest sort: Lacking a good astrologer, no one saw any harm in it. She keeps the tone and the voice of the time, which is very difficult to do. Strictly speaking, this kind of authorial intrusion should be disruptive in a novel that otherwise limits point of view very strictly (which is one of the reasons the plot comes across as so complex — Niccolo has got a handle on everything, but she rarely lets us in his head, because that would give far too much away, and Dunnett intends to make the reader wait). But it works anyway. Why? I don’t know. I do know that she’s got a truly distinctive authorial voice, something that is rare and to my mind, precious.

I adore this novel. I would love to set up a wiki and take it apart, sentence by sentence, image by image, historical facts one by one.