Sunday, March 8, 2009

Subjective Omniscient

Being invited into a person's living quarters in New York City is a huge gesture of trust. Certainly their choice of art work, furniture, paint color, reveals much about their taste and style. But that's the case anywhere, isn't it? New York is different; it remains a city of neighborhoods built up along the lines of class and race: the Upper East Side for Old Money, the West Side for New. Downtown for the Trendies. And all sorts of strivers and dreamers and regular middle- and working-class folks sprinkled everywhere in between, snapping up any apartment that is bug-free (please!) and not too overpriced (pretty please!). But it's not necessarily the location are addressed that defines a person. You can lease a tiny, rent-controlled studio just off the East side's Madison Avenue -- or, one building over, own a massive multi-bedroom flat inherited from a wily old grandfather. In midtown offices, coworkers wonder if their peers are pulling themselves up by their bootstraps or are really just trust-fund babies. When impressions are everything, would you want any one to know the truth either way?

That's why regular, workaday New Yorkers "entertain" in restaurants. Cocktail bars. Meeting up at the museum. Oh, sure, you'll hear people say it's because of the size of their apartment. That the kitchen is too small to make a reasonable meal. But that's just part of the equation. Because unless you go out of your way to live hugely above or below your means, letting a friend, a colleague, a significant other into your home reveals everything: your attitudes, your sense of style... and the state of your pocketbook. It's one thing if your home is so grand as to intimidate, though in New York there is always someone who has more, bigger, seemingly better. Opening your apartment door invite envy or condescension. It changes the playing field.

The truth comes down to this: in a city obsessed with wealth and status, there are few gestures more intimate than being invited into someone's home.

So when Marty suggested to Anita that it would be fun to just stay in for a night, cook a meal together, and enjoy some wine, she panicked.

~~ from The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs

I've been thinking about doing little mini-units on some of the techniques employed in this book. She breaks a lot of rules, and she does it to good effect. Or, rather, perhaps rather than saying she breaks the rules, we should say that she's stretching the narrative with techniques we don't see much in genre fiction.

Here, for example, she uses a technique that Alicia discusses in her book on point of view. Those of you who have read Alicia's book might remember this. It's okay sometimes to start a scene in a more objective or omniscient point of view, and then gradually sink the reader lower down into the subjective third person.

So really, that's what the author is doing in this passage. Except her omniscient isn't exactly objective, is it? We get the sense of an actual narrator, a perspective being provided by someone outside the events of the book. This is sometimes called the intrusive author, but I've never liked that term because it implies that the author is doing something bad. Instead, let's call it subjective omniscient. The external narrator has a point of view.

One of the interesting things about the omniscient point of view is that it lends itself a little more readily to touches of formality. All the colons and semicolons don't jar in this passage, and I'm usually very sensitive to their presence. But because this passage reads in an almost academic manner, the more formal punctuation is less disruptive.

And yet the tone of the piece is anything but formal. Notice the way she incorporates an almost dialogue-like feeling in some of the prose. There are fragments, casual interjections like "oh, sure," rhetorical questions (who is asking what of whom, exactly?), and bits of slang to modernize this mini-treatise on New York apartments.

What else do you notice about this passage? Take a closer look at the way she chooses and organizes her words, and tell me in the comments what you see. And what effect it creates on the overall passage. This is highly controlled writing, and it's well worth a bit of your time to analyze it, even if this particular type of book isn't your first choice for reading pleasure.



Riley Murphy said...

‘Being invited into a person's living quarters in New York City is a huge gesture of trust.’

This 'huge gesture of trust' becomes an ‘intimate’ gesture when you invite someone into your home.

‘few gestures more intimate than being invited into someone's home.’

Same thing only hugely (she likes that word) different. By starting the reader off in a distant and formal position of ‘living quarters' instead of jumping right into the meat of the meal, with the word ‘home’(intimate), she gives the reader the time to make a connection to her overall point: Anita and Marty’s relationship is gravitating from distant to intimate and this is a big deal! The reader gets just how big, by the writer’s clever use of words like huge, hugely, massive and bigger and by the time she arrives to this point, she doesn’t need to do any extraneous explaining. We all know why Anita is panicking because we can take what we have just discovered about New Yorkers and apply it to Anita's situation.

Ian said...

Reading this passage to me feels like the voice-over at the beginning of a television episode where that kind of opening monologue is common. It reminds me a lot of the way The Wonder Years would begin with the grown-up character reminiscing about some part of his childhood. In my mind's eye I can see an opening montage of cuts relevant to the scenes set in the paragraph, leading right up to the panic reaction of the character in the last line where the action actually starts.


Julie Harrington said...

I'm a fan of this kind of narrative, especially when the author (or narrator or character) has, not only a distinctive style and voice, but also an interesting observation to make about what they're commenting on. I think that tags back to being observant in real life and how that transcends into your writing through sensory detail, description, and the like.

For me, the thing I liked about the narration is that it feels like it leads you somewhere. It feels like it leads your mind -- guiding it gently by the hand -- from a larger city perspective to a certain part of the city... to a certain set of blocks... to a certain location... then through that door with an invite into a specific apartment for a meal, always narrowing your setting like a zoom lens until you arrive at The Spot where the story takes place. It's very much like that opening narrative in a movie as I can see the camera panning across the city, then zeroing in on this area, swinging gracefully down to street level... it lets you get comfy in your brain with where you are while giving you "value" info that not only sets story tone but also character value sets.

Hm. I hope that made sense.


Wes said...

A very nice piece of writing. It's a style I aspire to where the narration subtlely transitions into third person. Reading this gives me confidence to continue striving for that goal.

The use of questions involves the reader, pulling them in and proprompting them to take a stand. I find it effective.

Murphy's comments seem well-taken.

Anonymous said...

"But it's not necessarily the location are addressed that defines a person." Is there a missing word?