Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Leave the Gun. Take the Cannolli.

I just finished reading The Godfather by Mario Puzo. I adore the movies and can practically recite them, but this is my first time with the book. I read it in the hope that it would explain Michael's relationship with Kay a little better -- to me, that has always been the weak spot in the first movie, and the book did clarify what happened there.

But what stood out for me most was how much the style of commercial fiction has evolved since this book first came out almost 40 years ago. Check this out:

Fanucci was impressed. "You're a good fellow," he said. He took Vito's hand and clasped it in both of his hairy ones. "You have respect," he said. "A fine thing in the young. Next time speak to me first, eh? Perhaps I can help you in your plans."

In later years Vito Corleone understood that what had made him act in such a perfect, tactical way with Fanucci was the death of his own hot-tempered father who had been killed by the Mafia in Sicily. But at that time all he felt was an icy rage that this man planned to rob him of the money he had risked his life and freedom to earn. He had not been afraid. Indeed he thought, at that moment, that Fanucci was a crazy fool. From what he had seen of Clemenza, that burly Sicilian would sooner give up his life than a penny of his loot. After all, Clemenza had been ready to kill a policeman merely to steal a rug. And the slender Tessio had the deadly air of a viper.

Look at that. Look at how the first paragraph is pure scene, and the second paragraph shifts into something else altogether. The whole thing is written in this combination of scene and an almost high-journalism-omniscient summary. The quest for objectivity dominates the narrative style.

It's not that we're blocked out of the character's internal worlds. We get all the insight we need fully to comprehend the characters. But that information is presented in this very intriguing, distant way, with frequent skips in time, frequent references to other events and people, frequent blending of details that might today be sequestered into scenes.

In the second paragraph alone, we jump in time from the present to
-- the future thoughts of Vito Corleone
-- the murder of his father many years earlier
-- then to the present again
-- then to the recent past when Clemenza stole the rug

Seven sentences. Four time periods.

Not to mention the way the narrative character is referred to by his full name here. Vito Corleone. As if there were another Vito involved, and we had to keep all the Vitos straight somehow. No -- in truth, this is another distancing move. And Puzo uses it very skillfully, this and similar tactics, to pull the reader back from the anti-heroes during their most criminal and dangerous moments.

Some might be tempted to call these "sequel" moments, these places where the narrative lapses into this omniscient exposition. I think that would be wrong. I think Puzo is actually deliberately playing with the point-of-view telescope, pulling the reader in and then zooming them back out again. He could get away with this because he was writing at a time when omniscient viewpoints were far more common in pop fiction. It wouldn't be quite so jarring to the reader then as it might be today.

This is the kind of masterful technique that makes me a very happy reader. Would it translate to a contemporary project? Hmm. Possibly. If you're dealing with anti-heroes, you might want to play with this and see what kind of effects you can create. But use a light touch. Today's readers do crave that bond with the character, and it's harder to get there with a lot of exposition or an omniscient narrator.


Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Man, the heavens are sending me messages right now... Interesting.

I am reading a book that either is trying to have a totally omniscient narrator or else is badly out of control. I'm not sure which. (and at this point, I'm only continuing to read because it's for my book club)

You've given me much to ponder, as have two other sources today, as I try to unravel what's happening in this book. Hmmm. Thanks.

writtenwyrdd said...

Lately I've been rereading old favorites and the dated styles have been a bit jarring. It's a combination of styles and preferences changing, for certain. I think that omniscient or shifting povs were a lot more acceptable back when, and now people get really picky about it. (Not that this is a bad thing.) Also, now that I write, I'm much more conscious of how something is written and it changes my reading experience.

Edittorrent said...

I've had similar experiences with old favorites. There are authors I devoured in the 70s and 80s who I can barely tolerate for ten pages now. And it's because of the way tastes and styles evolve over time.

I do miss the big, panoramic feel of those older books, but I like the intimacy of the current model. It's a trade-off!

Liane Gentry Skye said...

I've got to admit, I love writing in omniscient POV, probably to excess. I seem to slip into it when writing from the POV of particularly heinous, sadisitic villains. Maybe I need to distance myself as an artist to feel comfortable there?

Great post, as usual!

Anonymous said...

I recently wrote a crit of a story that began with a POV of a character who in the first three pages becomes 'a killer'. I had to think about what that might mean to the reader, just how close they would be with that character since that is the establishing pov. Could it be sustained. Would the reader get so down and dark that they couldn't keep it up. Perhaps Puzo had the same concern, given the concentration of really bad people in the book.

I'm about to start a book of shorts by Damon Runyon. 70 year old stories! I'm anxious to see how the master of that period created.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I thought a lot about this when rereading Testimony of Two Men by Taylor Caldwell. Some of the point-of-view techniques when never work today.

However, I'd love to write a Charles Dickens pastiche.

And have you read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell?

Edittorrent said...

Janie, yes, I read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I loved the way the author played with the omniscient narrator as a way of spoofing scholarly works.

Taylor Caldwell was one of my favorite writers when I was a kid, but I find her unreadable now.

Jan, Puzo was dealing with anti-heroes, which are not quite the same as villains. I'd be very hesitant to start a story in the villain's point of view, for exactly the reason you mention.