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Thursday, Sep. 18, 2014

Through whose eyes?

Saturday, July 12, 2008

A story can be told from any of a number of different points of view.

The omniscient author/narrator, for example, can choose to divulge to his readers any portion of what goes on inside his characters' minds and hearts. Or he can, like Hemingway, who thought such authorial all -- knowingness untrue to nature, tell his story much as a mechanical recording device would do it, without any emotional or mental interpretation.

When Mark Twain wrote Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in 1884, he turned American novel-writing on its ear, because he abandoned the traditional omniscient point of view, from which he'd written Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), and let the plucky but largely illiterate Huck narrate his own story, a point of view directly responsible for our sense of Huck as an essentially innocent and pure-hearted 14-year-old kid. For that time to this, all American literature has benefited from Twain's split-second decision.

"You don't know about me," Huck begins telling us, in his deliciously ungrammatical, but unerringly truthful, way "without you have read a book by the name of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly." Talk about genius! In my own mind, it casts E=mc2 and the American moon landing into the shadows. Wow!!

Twain opened up the possibilities of fictional point of view. What, for instance, would The Great Gatsby look like had it been told not by that romantic yet clear-sighted Minnesotan Nick Carraway, but by his flaky cousin Daisy Buchanan? Or by her hard and utterly soul-less husband Tom? Point of view can change the whole shape and impact of any novel. (To have my American lit students demonstrate this to themselves, I used to assign each one of them to re-write a portion of any novel we'd studied in class from a point of view different from the one from which it'd actually been written. Students found it not only great fun, but dramatically revealing.)

Just recently, I came across a short (287-page) novel whose basic premise got me all charged up: John Clinch's Finn (2007). Most readers of Huck's self-told story remember Huck's no-good, drunken father Pap as the pain in the ass who barges in on his son, tries to bilk him out of the money he's inherited, and ends up dead in a whore house that's floating down the Mississippi at flood time. Only the slave Jim keeps the grisly news from his raft- mate Huck.

Well, OK. Pap doesn't play much of a part in his son's story. Twain needed him only as a dramatic device. Furthermore, Twain was aware of the risks he ran writing about such a grimy character in a Victorian- Age novel that would be read by kids and over-protected women. He'd later have his fill of censorship, but he didn't consciously court it.

What, then, would the novel have looked like had the whole bloody thing been told by the lecherous, nasty and greedy old drunken father of Huck, whose older brother and father, in this new novel, are both highly respected lawyers. I'd guess it'd look a lot like Mr. Clinch's entertaining, thoroughly researched little novel (2007).

How about rewriting an American classic, like Moby-Dick? As you may know, that novel opens with one of the most acclaimed start-ups in American literature. "Call me Ishmael," the novel's narrator announces, to start that 750-page story, most of whose sentences are a little longer than three words.

A writer can choose to have any of his characters tell the story, not just the narrator he finally chooses for its maximum effect.

Late in his career, Hemingway revealed he'd written, then rewritten, and re-rewritten again one of his most famous short stories, until he finally hit on the one he thought did what he wanted done. A writer chooses one particular point of view because he thinks it will offer him particular desirable advantages.

It's always seemed to me that the logical choice to narrate "Moby-Dick" isn't Ishmael, Starbuck (the sailor after whom an investor named his first coffee-house), or Queequeg, the fierce harpooner who doesn't seem to be acquainted with English. No, of course not. The logical choice would've been the great white whale himself. Who better, after all?

"Call me Moby! I'd been swimming these Atlantic waters for ages.

But I'd never seen the likes of this nutty Captain Ahab -- I never caught his first name -- until the wooden-legged fool shipped out of New Bedford, waving a magically jazzed-up harpoon like a crazy man. I had a premonition, even back then, that the two of us were going to finally settle our differences with one whale of a fight, that'd end up sending his ship, the Pequod, to the bottom of the sea." Say, he could've written his own story, starting off, "Call me Ahab kaput!!"