In the early 20th Century, third person and first person central became the only point of view that was acceptable for fiction. Omniscient was reserved for children’s books and spy/thriller genres. To my thinking, it was the only authentic point of view, acknowledging the inescapability of our subjectivity.
Editors, teachers, and writers generally contended that omniscient narrators are authoritarian, and we’d entered a non-authoritarian, post-modern age where readers didn’t want to be told what was going on. They wanted to be the protagonist of the book and figure it out on their own. Omniscient narrators were so 19th century.
But some of my favorite 20th C. books are omniscient, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude.
With the advent of hybrid genres, more people are breaking out of the mold and mixing narrators like complex cocktails. I’m seeing shifting third person and first person, changing narrative point of view with each chapter, as with There, There by Tommy Orange (about Urban native Americans in Oakland California) and The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi (about bi and trans people in Nigeria).
Jess Walter wrote The Cold Millions nimbly from multiple points of view, starting with first person narration from a minor character who dies before the book proper even starts, but whose death sets a wheel in motion. The rest of the novel is subjective omniscient narrator with some occasional first person narratives. The omniscient narrator and multiple perspectives seem better designed to give us a bigger story about people in a time and place. It asserts that people are part of their society and their landscape.
How to do it, though, without ill-timed info-dumps?
Walters did it seamlessly (after first person preface) with Chapter 1:
They woke on a ball field, bums, tramps, hobos, stiffs. Two dozen of them spread out on bedrolls and blankets in a narrow floodplain just below the skid, past taverns, tanners, and tents, shotgun shacks hung like hounds’ tongues over the Spokane River. Season work over, they floated in from mines and farms and log camps… (11).
As we see above, we get an areal view of a whole crowd of which the main characters are a part, as well as the landscape where the novel takes place. Walters has tucked backstory into the setting, which sets the stage the class warfare of 1909 in the logging, mining, and farming industries. The second paragraph introduces us to one of the two main characters, Rye:
The sun was just beginning to edge the mountains when Rye Dolan sat up, halfway down the first-base line. He looked across the field of sleeping humps, his older brother, Gig, beside him, curled a few feet from the pitchers mound (11).
Instead of action, we next go to backstory on Gig, his connections with labor unions, and a flashback to the night before that explains how they came to be sleeping on a ball field. This goes on for five pages, before we come back to the the ball field where his brother, Gig wakes up. That’s all the current-day action for the first chapter. The rest of the first chapter is backstory with flash back. It’s not until chapter two that we get real present day action with the cops descending on the hobos with “billies and bats and the handles of axes.”
I was taught the structure of chapter 1 is “a bathtub story,” (character get into a tub, thinks about stuff, and gets out. The term comes from Canadian writer Doug Glover, I believe), and that this was a boring and unacceptable way to go, yet it was the opening of what was called “one of the most captivating novels of the year” by Washington Post reviewer Ron Charles. Also– I was taught that the first person appearing in the book should be the main character. Instead, it’s a peripheral character who dies. What it did for me was set the stage: here was a book where first person narrators could die. Here was a world where you thought you were the center of it, and it turned out you weren’t, which historically, is much more accurate than the traditional 21st century first person central novel.
Orange, Emezi and Walter’s narrative structure gave me permission to explore subjective omniscient and multiple narratives in my own novel-in-progress Against the Grain, about an extreme environmental activist who falls in love with the daughter of the logging tycoon clearcutting the redwoods in northern California in 1990. As I navigate this story with a huge cast of characters (including the trees themselves) and various conflicting human interests, I keep returning to Walter’s book for guidance.
So back to the question. How to give historical and biological background without creating an intrusive and unrealistic info dump such as the ones we’ve gotten used to in the TV series Bones and the various incarnations CSI?
Standout Books reminds us not to give information until the reader really needs it, when it’s relevant, or when it’s central to an immediate conflict between characters. Certainly the backstory we get in the first chapter of The Cold Millions helps to explain why hobos are amassing and sleeping in fields, but until Chapter 2, we don’t know why that matters.
More to the point, when does my reader need to learn that giant redwoods have can live 2000 years and respire 500 gallons of water a day? In my rough draft, I’d thrown it down at the beginning of chapter where we meet the heads of Pacific Lumber out in the forest. After much deliberation, I moved it to the chapter where the main character’s father is caught in a mudslide while trying to save the trees he loves. We shall see if it works.
The adventure continues. My first novel, Blue Woman Burning, is an internal narrative, mostly third person point of view, and mostly about the life of the emotions. It feels like the right place for a novelist to start. Now, I’m enjoying the learning curve as I branch out into a novel takes place in the external world with a larger cast of characters, a broader perspective, which is not just about the internal emotional growth of my characters, but about an environmental movement, the trees, and the most important issue of our time: human caused climate change and the battle to save us and the environment from ourselves.
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Lâle Davidson’s novel Blue Woman Burning about a woman who’s mother magically disappeared on the Altiplano between Chile and Bolivia, will be published by Red Penguin Books in November of 2021. Her collection of short stories Strange Appetites won the Adirondack Center for Writing’s People’s Choice Award for 2016 and is being re-released in October via Amazon. Her stories have appeared in The North American Review, Eclectica, and Gone Lawn among others. She was a finalist for the Franz Kafka Award issued by Doctor T.J. Eckleburgh Review as well as the Black Lawrence Chapbook Contest of 2015 and The Talking Writing Award for humorous writing advice. Her story “The Opal Maker” was named top fifty of 2015 very short fiction publications by Wigleaf. She is a Distinguished Professor who has taught writing for 27 years at a community college where she recently received the Chancellor’s Award for Scholarship and Creative Activities (2018).
One strong memory I have from childhood is lying on a sprawling branch of an ancient apple tree on my father’s farm in Pennsylvania. This branch was so wide that I could lie on it without falling off. I used to imagine that some loving entity was watching me there, in the shade, like a guardian angel, or a parent, or the tree itself…
See attached video for the rest of the story. On June 23, 2020, three storytellers told at Caffe Lena for the pandemic Stay at Home series.
Barbara Palumbo tells Nathaniel Hawthorn’s story “The Great Stone Face” and Frank Stockton’s story, “The Lady or the Tiger,” at the beginning.
My original story blended with norse creation mythology, “Speaking the Language of Trees,” starts at minute 27:40.
Finally, Mary Murphy rounds out the evening with a great “old haunted house story,” starts at minute 58:00.
More than ever before, badass female protagonists populate
book and screen. From Lara Croft, to
Black Widow, to Katniss Everdeen, they kick butt. In America, the message seems
to be that true power is only gained by brute force and coercion, so women can only
be powerful if they are young, beautiful, and fight like a man.
Kij Johnson’s poetic The
Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe shows female power in a refreshingly different
way. It’s not every day that you read
a sci-fi adventure novel with a sixty-something-year-old female protagonist. Vellitt
Boe, is quiet, careful and wise—and her body aches after a long hike.
Nevertheless, her goal is achieved, and her strength is expressed in her
mentorship of a younger woman. That which has been stereotyped as feminine
weakness is revealed in this novella as revolutionary power.
In the mystery genre, there is slim precedence for elderly
protagonists whose only weapon in the apprehension of criminals is
intelligence. Take Murder She Wrote on
TV and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple
series. However, I can’t think a single
elderly female protagonist out for adventure in science fiction. Let me know if
Johnson, who was born in 1950 and is a professor at the
University of Kansas, explains in an interview for The Geeks
Guide to the Galaxythat
this novella was written in response to
H. P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest
of Unknown Kadath, which has no women in it at all. She asked herself, “What
happens to [the male fictional] world if I put females in it? Does it break
Some of my students didn’t want to read the book, fearing an
angry feminist critique of Lovecraft and all men, but what we found, instead, was
a gentle assertion of female-centered conflict and a main character who uses
other forms of power: intelligence, kindness, and patience.
The premise of the novella is that a gifted female college student
in Dreamland has thrown away her future to run off with a man to the waking
world. Because the education of women is threatened in this male-dominated
world, her teacher Vellitt Boe and her Dean determine she must be retrieved
before it causes a scandal and the college is shut down. When the Dean proposes
to send a man who has the advantage of being both young and—well—a man, Vellitt
Boe convinces the Dean that her own knowledge and her power of persuasion are
more important to the success of the mission than physical prowess, “We need her to listen, to understand what is at risk…”
The plot thickens when Vellitt discovers that the girl is the
grand-daughter of a god. The gods in this Lovecraft’s Dreamland are cruel, petty,
and beyond random. If he discovers she is gone, he might raze the entire city
in which the college resides.
Though she has to use a machete once or twice, it is
primarily the power of patience, wit, clear sight, and compassion that save Vellitt
from the murderous shantak birds and ghasts. In a feat reminiscent of the Greek
myth of Psyche with the ants helping to complete her insurmountable tasks,
Vellitt’s tears when she is trapped are tracked abroad by millipedes, and this draws
to her rescue a monster gug whom she saved when it was an infant. Thus,
Velitt’s compassion in the past bears fruit in the form of an enormous
life-saving gug (134).
If great power comes in subtle forms, so does great danger. In
the climax before she breaks into the waking world, Vellitt’s greatest obstacle
is not Dreamland’s violence, but doubt, which arrives in the form of a
violet-eyed god who tells her that her city, Ulthar, has already been destroyed
and her quest failed (142). Again, Vellitt’s power is not brutal strength, but strength
of character as well as reason: “You cannot stop me,” she tells the god. “If
you could, I would be dead already…and if Ulthar were truly destroyed, you
would have brought me visions and shown me relics. You are just a shadow here. You have no power”
Turning yet another stereotype on its head, Clarie Jurat,
the object of Vellitt’s quest, has already fallen out of love with the man she
followed to the waking world by the time Vellitt catches up to her. Clarie has
discovered on her own that she really didn’t crave the man’s love but rather
the expansive world to which he belongs. Women have historically been associated
with the unconscious and intuitive – i.e. the Dreamworld, whereas men represent
the active, external world, so Clarie’s realization of her own true intent – her
desire to leave the interior realm of the unconscious and live abroad in the
active realm shows a woman in true possession of her power.
Johnson continues to highlight a subtler form of power in the last turn of the plot. Vellitt convinces Clarie to return not by forceful argument but by providing Clarie with the facts and then just…waiting (160). Awfully passive for a heroine. However, her waiting is really trust of her student’s higher nature. Rather than coercing, she respects the independence and intelligence of her student. This form of power is based on mutual respect and has a revolutionary effect.
When Clairie realizes that the fate of an entire city rests
on her decision, she vows to return. Not just another woman sacrificing herself
for others, Clarie vows she will change Dreamland and fight the capricious
cruelty of the gods: “I have seen a world without gods, and it’s better…I will
return and fix our world…I am one of them. I can do it” (162). “Do you doubt
me?” she asks Vellitt. “No,” Vellitt says. “No” (163). Transcendently, Clarie
laughs and “for a moment it seemed as though the little house was filled with
thunder and the earth beneath them shuddered” (163).
Thus, Kij Johnson’s feminist approach doesn’t tear down Lovecraft’s world but augments it by adding women to it. While she points to how women are ignored and disapproved of in a man’s world, her protagonist shows how women are powerful on their own terms.
When I grabbed Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude off the shelf to re-read, I didn’t realize it was the 50th anniversary. Stifling my academic urge to write a long literary analysis, I’ll just tell you a few things that struck me the second and third time through.
There’s very little dialogue in the novel. It’s almost all narration, more like a vivid summary rather than a series of scenes. He’s taking a leaf from his grandmother’s storytelling oral tradition, in which the beauty of the story is in its shape rather than the individual characters’ progress. Add to this the narrative’s digressive tendency and spiraling treatment of time, and you get transported.
The narrative describes event after event, covering years in a paragraph, pausing to provide half a scene, then galloping twenty years into the future, then spiraling back to whatever the present was, and twirling off in a different direction following another character’s trajectory. Sometimes, he’ll be talking about one character and he’ll digress into other character’s life and follow them up to their death, then return to the original time period, but not necessarily the original character, and then follow the line of another character, like he’s tracing the branches of an enormous tree, which of course he is, the Buendía family tree.
He doesn’t use the past perfect tense to make clear when he’s going into flashback, or the subjective tense to flash forward, or any other signal when he returns to the main time period, as the famous first sentence exemplifies, encompassing three time periods, the first of which is never clarified: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aurelian Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice” (1). It isn’t until the middle of the book that we get to the rest of the firing squad story, and then it’s almost a side note.
This tendency casts the reader awash in time, and develops the novel’s theme of time’s circularity and stagnant pockets, much like the mythical book Jorge Louis Borges wrote about in “The Garden of Forking Paths.”
The novel traces 100 years in the town of Macondo, from its founding by the Buendía family, through 32 civil wars lead by Colonel Buendía, through the arrival of capitalist enterprises in the form of the banana company with the attendant immigration of white foreigners, prostitutes and gamblers. The arrival of the capitalists culminates in a massacre of thousands of labor union protestors which the government hushes up. Then the town is washed away by “four years, eleven months and two days” (320) of rain, ending in the wildly decadent but transcendently pure lovemaking of the last Aureliano with his own aunt.
Having just recently traveled to Ecuador and studied Ecuador’s history and modern novels, I see better how the absurdity and circularity of the novel is shaped by Colombia and South America’s history.
Just like Ecuador, Colombia was invaded by the Spaniards who imposed an oppressive feudal system on the indigenous people, and it was both oppressed and liberated by the Catholic church. While Ecuador had 17 different constitutions since its independence, Colombia had nine civil wars between its independence from Spain in 1810 and 1850. Then there was the war of 1000 days from 1899-1903 in which 120,000 were killed, and then another civil war, “La Violencia” between 1848 and 1957 in which another 300,000 were killed, all between the liberals and conservatives (Britannica).
This is what much of the novel is about, and perhaps explains the theme of solitude that is the clear center of the book, though I must confess I don’t quite understand how. In what way is/was Columbia any more cut off from the world than any other Latin American country? Was he implying that Columbia is somehow more inbred and isolated than most countries? Is the rise and fall of Macondo an analogy for the whole country or just for Columbia’s rural past? Or just a certain kind of family? Why does he say that the Buendías were a “race…condemned to one hundred years of solitude” with “no second opportunity on earth?”
Though there are characters in this novel, they keep repeating, as do their names, so there are many Aurelian’s and José Arcadios, and after a while they all get mixed up in your mind, underscoring the circularity of time.
I love the character of “active, small and indomitable” Úrsula, Colonel Aureliano Buendía’s mother, who lives to be more than 100, running the household and family business until she is blind. I love the story Remedios the Beauty, who ascends bodily to heaven, and I love Úrsula’s great granddaughter Amaranta Úrsula who has a genius “for erotic mischief” and arrives home from Europe “leading her husband by a silk rope tied around his neck” and who shouts with laughter rather than alarm when she finds the family home is total chaos.
Though I can’t pretend to grasp it all, I adore this novel because of the whimsical blend of history, farce, passion, and magic typified in this winding sentence: “Jose Arcadio Buendía…gathered the men of the village… and he demonstrated to them, with theories that none of them could understand, the possibility of returning to where one had set out by consistently sailing east. The whole village was convinced that Jose Arcadio Buendía had lost his reason, when Melquíades [the traveling gypsy] returned to set things straight. He gave public praise to the intelligence of a man who from pure astronomical speculation had evolved a theory that had already been proved in practice, although unknown, in Macondo until then…” (5).
I think I’ll have to read it again.
Gabriel García Márquez. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Harper and Row. 1970.
I never afford myself enough time to read. Yet it’s integral to good writing. Guilty confession? Netflix is my nightly addiction.
However, when you truly give into an addiction for a good 25 years, it finally gets boring. I noticed this when I began to eat while watching… clearly the watching experience just wasn’t filling me up, so I was seeking other ways to connect.
So, why do I persistently resist reading when my bed is surrounded by stacks of books that I genuinely want to read? I often buy a book thinking I’m buying the time and dedication to read it also. During the school year, I need most of my time to read for school, but I have no excuse for not reading in the summer. Actually, I have a long list of excuses.
First of all, reading is harder work than watching. The eye muscles have to do a complex activity of focusing, tracking, converging and using peripheral vision. The brain has to do a complex decoding process, then you have to create the images yourself, all the while managing your inner dialogue in response to the reading.
For some people, this process has become so rote that they don’t even notice they are doing it, like the way you can touch-type without knowing where the letters are on the keyboard, or shift gears in a car without thinking, or feed the cat and forget you did it.
For others, there is a cognitive or eye muscle coordination glitch somewhere along the complex process that creates a hardship of varying sizes. I suspect I have a slight eye muscle glitch, so that I have to apply myself and reapply myself whereas my avid reader friends do not. For others, it can be an information processing issue or a slight or severe dyslexia. It’s important to note that dyslexia is a developmental issue that can be corrected over time.
Then there’s the problem of focus. If all goes well, you get into a dialogue with the thing you are reading, but that can take you a million miles away. Fifteen minutes later, you find yourself in the middle of a paragraph you thought you were reading but totally failed to absorb. You have to backtrack to figure out where your mind trailed off.
Then there’s emotional reactions. Sometimes, you decide you don’t like the author or the main character, and that makes you angry at the book, unwilling to slog through and glean what you can or figure out what it’s really saying.
Then there’s the problem of a physical reading position. Reading in bed sends me to sleep, and I’m always amazed at people who sit in straight chairs and read with head bowed. Add to that, I’m a naturally fidgety person, and sitting still too long literally hurts my bones.
I think the biggest problem, however, is that I unconsciously regard reading as wasting time. I don’t know where I developed that idea, coming from a family of two English professors who read constantly. I worry about reading taking over my writing time. But we all know that reading is essential for life – for being a responsible citizen of the United States, and for writers especially, to learn how others have done it, to enrich our creativity pool, and to avoid cliché.
So yesterday, taking a page from my mother’s book (I’ve taken a lot of her pages from her book), I set up one of those zero gravity chairs in the backyard. Feet raised, back raised, head supported, I pulled out One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I enjoyed every minute of it. When I needed to take a break and rest my eyes or brain, I’d stretch my neck and look up at the teardrop birch leaves or cast my eyes over daisies and purple cone flowers.
I have been re-reading One Hundred Years over the past month. I have a copy on Audible that I listen to while driving or walking the dog, and then at night, when I pull out the physical book, I have to reread passages to find my place, discovering I’d missed things while I was listening. The next day, I’d re-listen to passages to find my place in the recording, and in doing so, I pick up all the things I missed while reading it on the page. It’s a great way to read the book twice as you go, which helps with keeping things straight, perceiving patterns, and remembering.
The sun faded from the sky as I read last night, and my cats came to sit quietly around me, one underneath my chair, and the other nosing the flowers and contemplating a blade of grass. My dog appeared beside me, and I calmed her whenever she began to bark. A slight breeze stirred the humid air, the last Aureliano made crazy silent love to a woman he later found was his aunt while the world of Macondo whirled into oblivion.
Even after the sun went down and I came inside, I had the satisfying feeling that I had done something deeply beautiful for the last few hours.