Monday, July 13, 2009

POV Part X: More On Shifting POV

No one uses shifts from consciousness to consciousness quite like Ann Patchett. Since she builds her fluid POV technique up gradually, it is impossible to do her craft justice in even a long quotation; by the time she gets rolling, we know the interior landscape of each major character intimately. Nonetheless, an excerpt from her wonderful novel Bel Canto gives an idea of how she wields POV.

A little background in necessary to follow the scene. A group of revolutionaries have taken over the Vice-President's house (in a country that is clearly Peru, although I don't believe the country is ever identified). The Vice-President was hosting a major diplomatic party, and now, a few days later, most of the attendees are hostages. Among these are Simon Thibault, the French Ambassador; Gen, a translator attached to a Japanese businessman; and Ruben, the Vice-President himself. Carmen, Beatriz, and Ishmael are among the youngest of the revolutionaries.

As the scene opens, Thibault, Ruben, and Gen are in the kitchen. The government forces outside the building have sent in more food, but on this particular day rather than prepared food it consists of raw vegetables and uncooked chicken. The revolutionaries confiscated all the knives from the kitched during their takeover, and the scene begins when Gen has just returned from pleading with 'The General' of the revolutionaries to provide them with knives so they can prepare a meal for everyone.

aaaaa“What about a simple coq au vin?” Thibault said.
aaaaa“They confiscated all the vin,” Ruben said. “We could always send Gen out for another request. It’s probably locked up around here somewhere unless they drank it all.”
aaaaa“No vin,” Simon Thibault said sadly, as if it were something dangerous, as if it were a knife. How impossible. In Paris one could be careless, one could afford to run out completely because anything you wanted was a half a block away, a case, a bottle, a glass…
aaaaaaaaaa[a long reverie/flashback]
aaaaa“Isn’t there some kind of coq sans vin?” Ruben leaned forward to look at the book. All these books in his home that he had never seen before! He wondered if they belonged to him or to the house.
aaaaaThibault pushed Edith’s scarf over his shoulder. He said something about roasting and turned his head away to read. No sooner had he looked at the page than the door swung open and in came three, Beatriz, the tall one, pretty Carmen, and then Ishmael, each of them with two and three knives apiece.
aaaaa“You asked for us, didn’t you?” Beatriz said to Gen. “I’m not on duty now at all. I was going to watch television.”
aaaaaGen looked at the clock on the wall. “It’s past time for your program,” he said, trying to keep his eyes on her.
aaaaa“There are other things on,” she said. “There are lots of good programs. ‘Send the girls to do it.’ That’s always the way.”
aaaaa“They didn’t just send the girls,” Ishmael said in his own defense.
aaaaa“Practically,” Beatriz said.
aaaaaIshmael reddened and he rolled the wooden handle of the knife between his palms.
aaaaa“The General said we were to come and help with dinner,” Carmen said. She spoke to the Vice-President. She did not turn her eyes to Gen, who did not look at her, so how did it seem they were staring at one another?
aaaaa“We are most grateful,” Simon Thibault said. “We know nothing about the operation of knives. If entrusted with something as dangerous as knives there would be a bloodbath here in a matter of minutes. Not that we would be killers, mind you. We’d cut off our own fingers, bleed to death right here on the floor.”
aaaaa“Stop it,” Ishmael said, and giggled. He had recently received one of the amateur haircuts that had been going around. Where his head had once been covered in heavy rolls of curls, the hair was now snipped with irregular closeness. It bristled like grass in some places and lay down neatly in others. In a few places it was all but gone and small patches if pink scalp shone through like the skin of a newly born mouse. He was told it would make him look older but really it just made him look ill.
aaaaa“Do any of you know how to cook?” Ruben asked.
aaaaa“A little,” Carmen said, studying the position of her feet on the black-and-white checkerboard of the floor.
aaaaa“Of course we can cook,” Beatriz snapped. “Who do you think does our cooking for us?”
aaaaa“Your parents. That’s a possibility,” the Vice-President said.
aaaaa“We’re adults. We take care of ourselves. We don’t have parents looking after us like children.” Beatriz was only irritated about missing television. She had done all her work, after all, patrolled the upstairs of the house and stood watch for two hours at the window. She had cleaned and oiled the Generals’ guns and her own gun. It wasn’t fair that she had been called into the kitchen. There was a wonderful program that came on in the late afternoon, a girl wearing a star-covered vest and a full skirt who sang cowboy songs and danced in high heels.
aaaaaIshmael sighed and set his three knives on the counter in front of him. His parents were dead. His father had been taken from the house one night by a group of men and no one saw him again. His mother went with a simple flu eleven months ago. Ishmael was nearly fifteen, even if his body produced no evidence to support this fact. He was not a child, if being a child meant one had parents to cook your supper.
aaaaa“So you know the onion,” Thibault said, holding up an onion.
aaaaa“Better than you do,” Beatriz said.
aaaaa"Then take that dangerous knife and chop up some onions.” Thibault passed out cutting boards and bowls. Why weren’t cutting boards considered weapons? Hold the two edges firmly in your hands and it was clear that the great slabs of wood were just the right size for hitting someone on the back of the head. And why not bowls, for that matter? The heavy ceramic in the color of pastel mints seemed harmless enough while holding bananas, but once they were broken how were they that much different from the knife? Couldn’t one drive a shard of pottery into a human heart just as easily? Thibault asked Carmen to mince the garlic and slice the sweet peppers. To Ishmael he held up an eggplant. “Peeled, seeded, chopped.”
aaaaaIshmael’s knife was heavy and long. Which of them wielded a paring knife for self-defense? Who had taken the grapefruit knife? When he tried to remove the skin he wound up cutting three inches into the spongy yellow flesh. Thibault watched him for a while and then held out his hands. “Not like that,” he said. “There will be nothing to eat. Here, give them here.”
aaaaaIshmael stopped, examined his work, then he held out the butchered vegetable and the knife. He held the blade out to Thibault. What did he know about kitchen manners? Then Thibault had them both, the knife and the eggplant, one in each hand. Deftly, quickly, he began to peel back the skin.
aaaaa“Drop it!” Beatriz shouted. On calling out she dropped her own knife, the blade slick with onions, a shower of minced onions scattering onto the floor like a wet, heavy snow. She pulled her gun from her belt and raised it up to the Ambassador.
aaaaa“Jesus!” Ruben said.
aaaaaThibault did not understand what he had done. He thought at first that she was angry that he had corrected the boy on his peeling. He thought the problem was with the eggplant and he laid the eggplant down first and then the knife.
aaaaa“Keep your voice down,” Carmen said to Beatriz in Quechua. “You’re going to get us all in trouble.”
aaaaa“He took the knife.”
aaaaaThibault raised up his empty hands, showed his smooth palms to the gun.
aaaaa“I handed him the knife,” Ishmael said. “I gave it to him.”
aaaaa“He was only going to peel,” Gen said. He could not recognize a word of this language they spoke to one other.
aaaaa“He isn’t supposed to hold the knife,” Beatriz said in Spanish. “The General told us that. Doesn’t anyone listen?” She kept he gun aimed, her heavy eyebrows pointed down. Her eyes were starting to water from the fumes of the onions, and soon there were tears washing down over her cheeks, which everyone misunderstood.

Overall, the scene remains Thibault's scene, but while we spend more time in his perspective than in anyone else's, we dip into the minds of everyone else in the scene--and even, at the end, are told that "everyone misunderstood" Beatriz' tears. There are also a few passages--such as the one about Ishmael's haircut--that are from the narrator's perspective, outside the minds of anyone present.

Patchett does all this with fine control, and I never find her movements from head to head to be confusing or jarring. But, then, I think Bel Canto is a brilliant book, while I've met some people who positively loathed it--and when asked why they disliked it, they usually cited the lack of a single protagonist to identify with. I agree that if it focused on a single character or two that it would be a very different novel; but it is the scope of POVs that makes Bel Canto such a singular achievement.


Janet said...

It was a wonderful book, for sure, although I found the ending a tad jarring. But it blew me away anyway.

I should read more of her stuff. Maybe I can absorb the talent by osmosis.

Tim Stretton said...

I've never read Ann Patchett, but I liked that extract. Not a trace of buttermilk nausea to be found...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

Yeah, the ending is bit disorienting and distrubing, which I suppose was her intent.

(I think all talent in writing, like language aquisition itself, comes via osmosis.)

David Isaak said...

Hey, Tim--

Yeah, she handles it quite well despite all of the shifts.

Figuring out exactly HOW she manages it so well is a fascinating task.

Janet said...

Oh. Well. In that case, there's not much point in reading this blog anymore, is there?


HyperGuy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--


Janet said...

Somehow, I think I'll be back anyway. I like a dash of analysis along with my osmosis. Sometimes you've got to think about craft when you're writing, although it would be paralyzing on a sentence-by-sentence basis.

And I've always just liked the way your mind works.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

I'm flattered that someone thinks my mind is working.

Usually when I try and locate it to get it to toil at some task it's up in the corner of the room snapping at imaginary flying insects.