point of view (pov)

insult + injury = unhappy girlchild

The good thing about all this snow, in my view: nothing. I grew up in Chicago, and there is not one jot, not one iota of snow-love in me. I cannot romanticize the stuff, not even at Christmas.

The good thing about all this snow according to the Girlchild: three cancelled school days.

Sunday night when it was established that there would be no school on Monday but the roads were still passable (if you have four wheel drive and antilock brakes and aren’t afraid of the occasional tree in the road), the Mathematician drove the Girlchild to a sleepover, the really good kind where there are just four friends. This was in town so they could tramp through the snow to the grocery store where they bought all kinds of teenager-feed, and then trooped back to cook and eat and watch television. Monday night (last night) she came home, and not unhappily which had less to do with seeing us, her doting parents, than the fact that today her new computer was supposed to be delivered.

Except today the temperature dropped and the slushy roads turned to ice. The kind of ice you don’t mess with, especially if you live on a windy county road like ours. You may remember this map from the story of the the bat, the knee, the bicycle helmet, the Mathematician and Dick, the doctor. Now in the winter there’s less worry about bats, but ice is no fun either. These last two days people have been skidding off road and down into ravines, over and into cliffs, and when none of that is available, into ditches. Some of them fatally.

So we’re stuck here in the county, while in town the Girlchild’s friends have got another sleepover going because again tomorrow: school cancelled. And the insult on top of that injury? DHL is not delivering her computer today. They don’t like the idea of skidding off the road into the bay either.

Now what we have on our hands is a very unhappy, very vocally furious seventeen year old who declared she was going to walk into town. Seven plus icy miles in the snow drifts and dark is nothing if her friends are waiting for her. She scoffs at the lack of boots. She sneers at the idea of broken bones. None of that is relevant when her best friends are all together in one place without her. Overnight. With junk food, and movies.

Sometimes you just gotta say no, and then ride out the consequences. What I’m really worried about is the power going out, because then she wouldn’t even be able to talk to her friends online, and I fear she would simply… implode. And that would be a shame. A very messy, very loud shame.

So wish us warm temperatures and melting ice and power lines that stay where they are supposed to be. Because truth to tell: after three days of on again-off again power and imploding teenager, my nerves are shot.

the ultimate first person narrator

I’m not a huge fan of first person narration. In fact, I will admit that I often pick up a book and put it down immediately upon discovering that it is in first person.

A few exceptions: first, novels that are written in alternating first person narration often work quite well. The most recent novel I can remember reading that really pulled this off was Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper. Each person in a family terribly disrupted by the serious illness of one of the kids takes a turn, and with every turn the reader’s understanding of the story evolves.

There’s one approach to first person that I truly like, and that’s the unreliable narrator.

The way to think about this, or at least a way that worked for me when I was teaching this stuff, is to imagine that the story you’re reading, the narrator whose words you are reading are not being addressed to you, but to a police officer or judge or some other authority figure. You’re listening to somebody spin a story. A narrator who has got more than the usual stake in getting their side of the story across. We’re not talking the grandma narrator, the one who just wants to amuse you with funny stories of her girlhood. We’re talking grandma in the pokey, and the first time she sits down with her lawyer.

The first grandma might start:

We were poor, but I didn’t know that until I first went to school and found out that other little girls wore dresses that weren’t made out of flour sacks.

Grandma in the pokey might start:

It took you long enough to get here. Surely you must realize there’s been a mistake. If I shoot a man between the eyes — and I’m not denying that I did just that — you had best believe I was acting in self defense. To let that man live even another minute would have been the death of me.

The first grandma may have a great story to tell, and she may write it down and sell it and find a niche audience and do very well. This Mitford-type approach is not so much my cuppa tea. I’m far more interested in the second grandma, grandma with a gun. She’s got a story to tell, but it’s only going to be one layer of a very complicated story, and I’ll have to pay close attention because now and then she’ll let her guard down and I’ll get a glimpse of what was really happening, how she came to shoot her neighbor, the one who grew prize winning dahlias, between the eyes.

You can think of a lot of scenarios where the narrator is going to be unreliable. Joan’s car is sitting in the garage with one fender smashed in, a ticket on the windshield, and the unmistakable smell of a common Illegal Substance wafting out a broken window. And the gas tank, which was full yesterday afternoon at three, is on empty.

Joan walks upstairs to the bedroom her twin daughters share and wakes them less than gently. They peek at her from underneath the covers.

Speak, says Joan. And it better be good.

And the speak. Oh boy, do they.

All first person narrators are unreliable to some extent. They are limited by their own observations and memories, by necessity. But a true unreliable narrator is exciting. That narrator is a cat in a sack. Maybe a really mad cat with very long claws and a score to settle. Maybe a desperate little cat whose been lying so long to protect herself that she’s forgot how to tell the truth. Or maybe an evil cat, one who likes to mess with your mind. Purr and slash, just for the hell of it.

Two unreliable narrators come to mind first. Eudora Welty’s “Why I live at the P.O.” is a wonderful short story with a narrator who will stick around in your head for a long time. And then there’s Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne. Dolores is a fantastic unreliable narrator, because she herself isn’t completely sure what happened, and what she wants to happen. She’s got strong opinions and she’s not afraid to tell you exactly what’s on her mind. Or at least, the parts she can bear to speak out loud.

Any unreliable narrators you’re especially fond of?

I challenge the Lit-Criterati

The Mathematician and I are not very good about anniversaries. We both forget them. Sometimes we’ll remember at the same moment and then we both get a little cranky, thinking the other one should have thought to say something. The most we ever do is go out to dinner, and usually — if he remembers in time — the Mathematician will bring me some flowers.

I’m also very bad about birthdays. The three I really should remember (my own, the Mathematician, and the Girlchild) can even cause me to pause. I would plead early onset Alzheimers, but I have always been this way.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that I completely overlooked the fact that this weblog turned three on September 13. In fact, that really isn’t important in the general scheme of things. I hesitate to write about really important things (good or bad) because no amount of logical reasoning or education can conquer the superstitious Italian in me. Who right now is in high gear, tossing salt madly over one shoulder and hissing at me to stop, for dog’s sake, before I do real damage.

Thus I point you to somebody else with a really good post. Paperback Writer has a list of ten books she’d like to read. You’ll have to go look if you’re interested because there’s no way to describe it without being reductive.

I don’t have the energy to come up with ten books, but I do have one book I can tell you about:

I’d like to read a literary novel — a novel marketed to the litcrit crowd and written by one of their established superpowers– with an unabashedly happy ending. I’d challenge Updike, Munro, Byatt, just to start with. These three are masters of their craft, and as masters should be equal to the challenge: tell a story and make the ending happy. No excuses, no tricks.

Some other rules:

  • this novel has to be written in third person POV
  • it may not be set on a university campus
  • none of the main characters may be writers, aspiring writers, editors, publishers, teachers of writing
  • it doesn’t have to contain a love story, but extra points if it does
  • it may not be a parody or satirical treatment

What major figure in the literary world would take up this challenge? Be brave enough to put aside, for one book only, the cherished no pain no gain ideology that has permeated the entire genre?

If I had $100,000 dollars to spare, I’d open up a real competition.

verb tense: does anybody take note?

I’m wondering how much the average reader notices about the mechanics behind the story. In particular I’m wondering about verb tense.

In the spoken language, a shift from telling a story in past tense to the present tense is a big narrative flag. For example:

You know how I went over to see my grandma yesterday? So I walk in and she looks up and sees me standing there and she says, Joyce, she says, come over here and help me with my buttons, I can’t reach and I’m late for work. And I’m thinking, grandma’s around the bend, she’s talking to me like I’m my mother. Like I don’t got enough problems. So I grab the phone and call the house and I say to ma, get over here, double quick.

This short bit of dialog starts off in past tense and quickly shifts to present, which signals the narrator’s degree of involvement in the story she’s telling. Present tense brings in a dramatic edge.

Now, everybody does this. You do it too, when you’re telling a story in which you’ve got some kind of investment. There’s a vibrancy to using the present tense this way. And the effect is there whether people actually notice the tense shift or not. It functions below the level of consciousness, for the most part.

In writing I shift into present tense for the most important scenes, the ones with the biggest emotional punch. I don’t think about doing it, it just clicks in.

When I’m reading I take note of that kind of thing. Tenses shift, POVs turn on a dime, exposition, whatever tricks the writer pulls out of the bag, I usually take note. And I’ll think to myself, nice transition or that was a little awkward. This kind of note taking is second nature and barely slows me down unless it’s something egregiously awful or stunningly effective. I would like, sometimes, to not take note, but it’s almost impossible. My father-in-law was a structural engineer at British Aerospace for fifty years, and he can’t just sit in an airplane. Everything has meaning to him, every sound, every movement. It’s all noise to me, but not to him.

So I’m wondering if you all (the ones who don’t write for a living) take note of what goes on in terms of story mechanics as you read, or if all that just stays below the level of consciousness.