When writing a novel, the author must consider the various points-of-view, or perspectives, that can be used. The easiest and most conventional choice is to write in the omniscient third person, in which the author takes a sort of God-like position narrating about events with full knowledge of the thoughts and deeds of all characters. “Fred eased the Jaguar into the fast lane and pressed hard on the gas pedal. Bob grimaced as he felt the growl of the engine and his back push into the leather of the passenger seat.”

Then there is the slightly more tricky first person singular point-of-view, in which the narration takes the voice of a main character. This requires a bit more work because the author can only know as much as the character knows. For example, if the point-of-view is through Fred, then the author cannot know that Bob felt the engine growl and his back push into the leather of the seat unless Bob says so, or Fred sees it. “I eased the Jaguar into the fast lane and pressed hard on the gas pedal. Bob, beside me, grimaced as the engine growled. The car surged forward and I saw the leather of his seat compress against his weight.”

Trickier yet — and as a result, seldom used — is the second person singular point-of-view. This puts you, the reader, in the narrator’s position. Or, put another way, it reads as if the author is telling your story. “You ease the Jaguar into the fast lane and press hard on the gas pedal. You see Bob grimace as the engine growls and his back pushes into the leather of the passenger seat.”

Which brings us to Stewart O’Nan’s short novel A Prayer for the Dying (Henry Holt & Company, 1999). The story is set in the 1870s — a few years after the American Civil War — in the nowhere town of Friendship, Wisconsin. The protagonist, Jacob Hansen, is the town’s constable and undertaker, a quiet family man. As the story unfolds, a devastating diphtheria epidemic breaks out, threatening to turn Friendship into a ghost town.

Although the novel is only 195 pages, I gave up at around page 70. I did not dislike the story, nor the quality of the writing. I disliked its use of the second-person singular point-of-view, which in this case was particularly jarring because it was written in the present tense.

I would hate to think that my reading eye is so blindered that I can’t handle something a bit different. Andrew Roe, however, writing in Salon, seems to agree with me, as he calls the choice of the second-person “questionable.” For me there is no question — it was a mistake.

I found the protagonist, Jacob, to be interesting and compelling, but I wanted him to be over there, in 1870-something (past tense), not over here in the mirror (second person singular). I wanted him, or the author, to tell me the story. I did not want to told that I’m living it myself. I am not a 19th century undertaker. I don’t want to be, and I can’t be. When the author forces me to try to be one, I lose interest.

Perhaps it’s a question of empathy. Compelling characters, no matter how exotic, can invoke empathy if they’re well written. But there is a difference between imagining yourself in someone’s situation and being shoehorned into it.

No matter how hard I try, I cannot read passages like the following — where Jacob is examining the body of a dead soldier found in a field outside of Friendship — as anything but false:

You’ll have to talk to Doc, see what he says. You tuck the cap and the cup into the man’s jacket, cross his arms over his belly, though they don’t want to go. This is how they taught you in the army; it’s easier on the back. You take him by the ankles, note the sliver-thin heels on his army-issue boots, the cracked leather.

Excuse me, but I don’t have to talk to Doc. Jacob has to talk to Doc. I can empathize with Jacob’s situation, and I can internalize it to some degree, but don’t tell me that I must talk to Doc. Doc, and this supposed “I” (“you”) are 2000 miles away and 130 years ago.

In a more conventional format, such as the first- or third-person point-of-view, that passage would have worked very well. I would sympathize with the character — even empathize. But after 70 pages of being pushed around by the author — of being told what I’m doing and thinking — I couldn’t take it any more.

And that’s what it comes down to. Not wanting to be pushed around. If the author writes that he or she feels a certain way, or that someone else feels a certain way, then I can choose to go along with it, depending on how compelling the story is, or what’s at stake for me to keep turning the page and suspending my belief in the here and now. But when the author writes that I feel a certain way, or I do a certain thing (not I the writer, but I the reader), then the wall comes up.

Part of the problem in the case of A Prayer for the Dying is the lyrical way in which the events and environment are described. They are nicely rendered and a pleasure to read in small doses, but they don’t read the way I would write them. As a result of the perspective and tense, I really feel like I’m being told what to think. It’s like literary fascism: here is what you will think and do. Don’t argue, this is literature, so it’s obviously better this way.

Such a format can work in short stories, where you’re not involved long enough to feel abused and where you can expect some amount of experimentation, but a novel is a different thing. Especially an historical novel. There are, of course, exceptions. Jay Mcinerney’s Bright Lights, Big City was written in the second-person singular voice, and it worked very well for me — partly because the protagonist (the “you” or “I”) was about my age (when I read it), and was living a contemporary life that I found believable and appealing.

Another thing to consider is that different people read in different ways. Some read for character, some for story, some for language. Most, I suppose, for some combination of those elements. In my case, this book did not work for my mix of needs as a reader. Yes, the writing was excellent, but the perspective was annoying. Yes, the story was compelling, but the entry into the story (i.e., the perspective) was annoying. Yes, the characters were nicely crafted, but because of the annoying perspective, I couldn’t believe them.

It’s a rare thing for me to give up on a book. I was attracted to A Prayer for the Dying by the haunting image on the front cover and the back cover’s description of the mournful story. Before buying it I read the first page to see if it would draw me in. It did. But later, a few more pages in, I began to feel like my bubble of personal space was being invaded. It brought to mind a former roommate from many years ago who was witty and engaging as a friend, but whose constant need to tell me what to do and think was exasperating. I might occasionally suffer fools, but I don’t suffer pushy people. Nor pushy novels.

9 thoughts on “Perspective…

  1. Wait, why can’t Bob feel the engine growl etc… unless Bob says so, or Fred sees it? Who takes first person perspective to that kind of strict extreme?

  2. Perhaps that’s a bad example, because I suppose Fred could see, or infer, that Bob felt the engine growl. But the point is that if you’re in the first person, there is no ominscience, so you can’t *know* what other characters are thinking.

    That’s part of the point of choosing that perspective — it creates a kind of uncertainty about other characters, the same uncertainty we have about other people in our real lives. It’s creates a verisimilitude of sorts.

    If one is going to use a certain perspective, one needs to be consistent with it. Otherwise it is confusing to the reader and the choice of that perspective is ultimately pointless.

    Unless of course you’re being “experimental,” which 90% of the time is just an excuse to be sloppy.

  3. You were right to stop reading the book. You couldn’t handle the artificiality of the style any longer, and you had better things waiting to be read.

  4. Have you read Willy Russel’s “The Wrong Boy”? The novel’s main charachter Raymond Marks is a die-hard Morrissey (ex of The Smiths) fan and the novel takes the form of a series of letters to Morrissey. As Raymond is a frustrated song-writer/poet, the style of writing in his letters is also lyrical with lots of descriptive language and a real sense of rhyme and structure. I choose to look at this and/or use of the second-person singular point-of-view as an author writing outside of the formula box and offering a chance for the reader to stretch their stubbornly locked-in perception and perspective limits. As shrek might say, “Change is good, Blork!” Please e-mail me for my snail mail address… I’ll trade ya!

  5. I haven’t revisited it as a rapidly aging fogy, but, boy, I also loved “Bright Lights, Big City” when it came out.

  6. Oh yeah, I agree. Being “experimental” 90% of the time is indeed just an excuse to be sloppy… in the old man with pants up to his armpits -“Get away from that apple tree you whipper snappers!” universe. :D

    I’m not sure about consistency being such a big hoo haa. I’ve found that it’s often a huge turn off, when you get to that point in writing and you really want to switch perspectives, but that little anal retentive voice at the back of your head says “No no, stay consistent – You must submit to the will of conformity with stainless steel grammar and perfectly disinfected format!”. Bah, format shmormat. Words are like music. There’s nothing more tone deaf than words confined by rules. :(

  7. Hate to get picky here, but I will. The second person singular is thee and thou. You is second person plural.

  8. Frabjous, I’m not convinced. This Wiktionary entry says “The form of a verb used (in English and other languages) with the pronouns thou and you in its singular sense.”

    Perhaps what I’m really talking about is “second person present,” as the tense is an issue here too.

    Rachel, I agree that, as Oscar Wilde said, “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” But I think if one is to not be consistent, it needs to be for a reason, and for a reason that the reader can “get.” Otherwise it just seems random, and you can’t tell if it was the author’s intent or if he or she is just a bad writer.

    Brian Moore, one of my favorite writers, did this thing in his early novels (late 1950s, early 1960s) in which he would switch point-of-view within a paragraph — sometimes within a sentence. But he did it in a way that was not jarring — in fact, it was very fluid.

    It usually involved switching from an omnicient third-person perspective into the mind of a character, where you’d read the character’s thoughts in the first person.

    Here’s a bad example, that I’m making up as I write it:

    Fred stepped off the sidewalk and into the clog of cars that inched up Fifth Avenue. The traffic was jammed day and night it seemed. Why don’t they take the subway like I do? A taxi honked. He turned, and scowled at the driver.

    Normally, that line “Why don’t they take the subway like I do?” would need to include “he thought” (or something like that). But Moore was a masterful writer of this kind of thing, where the reader gets right inside the head of the character, even though the story is told in the third person. So when he would do that inconsistency thing — which he would not over-do — it really worked.

    But it worked because he really knew what he was doing, not because he just carelessly waved away convention.

  9. Well, Steven King messes around with this kind of stuff all the time, disdaining punctuation and assuming

    the reader is hip to his tricks

    pretty much doing everything except use #@%^$&!@! characters in place of violence. If it’s done well and not as an affectation it’s bearable. But when the writer can’t write at all (ie. this sentence: “Plankton survived hurricanes.” from the book Selkirk’s Island, by Diana Souhami) and it all becomes laughable, patience fails.

    I recommend a book called The World Inside, by Robert Silverberg, about the future, told in the present, to test your mettle for literary devices. I got past it and loved it, but . . .

Comments are closed.