Today, I sat in a Heidelberg cafe, sipped a chai latte and then a cup of vanilla rooibos, wrote, had vague thoughts about perspective and watched the world go by. I wrote notes in the very notebook where the novel I am now writing was born. As I read my initial notes, I was amazed by how much has changed in the story since then, and then I felt slightly embarrassed. I thought that was a good story? My perspective has changed! And if you don’t mind, I want to share those vague thoughts on perspective and I welcome any comments to edify and improve on them.
So I’m writing a novel and the story is seen through the eyes of three, maybe four, characters. So far, so contemporary. Then, I was at bookclub this week and one discussion that arose was this trait of contemporary writers to advance their stories through the perspective of multiple characters. There seems to be a big trend towards telling one story through many prisms: either allowing each character to advance the story, or retelling the story in different ways through each character’s experiences of it. The reader is simultaneously led through a narrative and must piece it together themselves.
I can think offhand of a whole lot of books I’ve read recently that do this: Darkmans by Nicola Barker, Mark Haddon’s A Spot of Bother, The Island by Andrea Levy and Half of a Yellow Sun to name but a few. These books are by no means the same, but they achieve a similar effect of a story being advanced or the reader’s understanding enhanced through various differing and fragmented perspectives.
What I want to know is how do you like this technique? If you read much contemporary fiction, are you tired of it? Are there ways of doing it well? Do you sometimes wish for one constant narrator to ease you through the story? Or do you find that odd and old-fashioned?
I do sometimes find that I’m so sucked in by a character’s voice, so convinced of their world, that it comes as a horrible shock when I’m suddenly plucked out of it and plunked elsewhere. I find I’m mourning the passing of the one before and I don’t give the new character a chance. Having recently read Half of a Yellow Sun, I can say that Chimimanda Adichie achieves the shift from one to another with an amazing delicacy, so that I never felt the shock of the change. It also depends if the writer uses first or third person to voice the characters, because as a reader, I find it’s possible to attain more distance from a character written in the third person. A character written in first person demands that the reader identifies more closely.
It’s seventeen years since I studied literary theory and my memory of what defines post-modernism is rusty. I think that post-modernism tries to reflect that we no longer can presume to have one concrete worldview. It acknowledges that that is shattered, that we live in a world of multiple perspectives, and no-one can lay claim to the big picture. Take 9/11 for example: everyone, from an Al-Qaeda supporter in Afghanistan, to an ordinary Moslem in Iraq, to a German, to someone in Minnesota, to a person living in New York, would have a different experience of that day. A novelist writing about 9/11 could choose to represent one person’s experience of it, or a multiplicity of views.
I keep thinking about Dickens, the ultimate storyteller. Did he worry about perspective? Or did he not just find a great story and roll with it? Within that story, he would explicate everyone’s motivation and their role in moving the story forward, but he didn’t need to crawl into their heads and feel things in their voice. I wonder what Dickens would do with my story. Would he bother with multiple perspectives, or would he find the most interesting character and take it from there?
As I sat there in the Heidelberg cafe, I thought Dickens would, like most of you, just tell me to get on with it. Bearing that putative advice in mind, I went to visit my character Lindiwe and wrote four pages from her perspective. And it was good.