One of the articles in the most recent issue of The Writer’s Chronicle asserts that contemporary fiction has lost its appreciation of the omniscient narrator. The idea got me thinking about whether or not this was true. I won’t go into a critique of the article but I think the author actually ended up contradicting herself a little – at first saying the omniscient was lost, no longer taught in writing programs and then intimating that most readers actually confuse the omniscient with a 3rd person limited. She then went on to give examples of numerous contemporary novels which use an omniscient point of view to great success. So, I think we can safely say that an appreciation of the omniscient point-of-view isn’t lost at all. We might not be pegging it correctly each time, but it is still being explored in contemporary fiction.
Nevertheless, I think the author was right to bring our attention to what a skillful use of the omniscient narrator can achieve. One of my favorite examples of this point-of-view in action comes from Part I – Collies – of Julia Glass’s 2002 novel, Three Junes.
“Collies” is actually a novella, the first installment of the triptych that forms Three Junes and it is one of those unique pieces of fiction that manages to get many things right – an interesting POV, careful use of metaphor, no cop outs on exploring difficult emotional situations. It’s a story about the contradictory emotions of anger and relief, freedom and regret inherent in the process of grieving for a loved one. It is a softly-told story, recounted by a discerning narrator with an immense amount of compassion for the novel’s characters.
Structurally, it is also interesting, as the forward action is limited to a short holiday trip in Greece, a week in the life of a grieving widower, while the past tense back story covers nearly a lifetime. It’s very neatly done and worth looking at for anyone struggling with how to appropriately place back story. Glass plays the two time periods off one another quite expertly, giving just enough of the past to make the present meaningful and vice versa. Writers can get so caught up in the pasts of their characters, inventing scenes and events for the pure delight of discovery. Knowing how to trim that to the essentials takes hard work and a merciless finger on the delete button.
But I wanted to talk about the omniscient POV. At first glance, it seems that “Collies” is written in the 3rd person limited – we are allowed access into the consciousness of our grieving widower, Paul – which is true, and we do get frequent and in-depth access. But actually, the front story taking place in Greece has an omniscient narrator which dips into other people’s minds from time to time as well as moves far enough back to grant the reader a nicely broad view of the scene and its animated trimmings.
This is a completely different tactic from what I talked about in my last post in regards to Don Delillo’s The Body Artist (also a book about grieving). With the front story of “Collies” the reader is given a lot of space, freedom to watch and wait and see what Paul will do with himself, to get to know him slowly, as it were. That isn’t to say the novel doesn’t get the reader involved with Paul and his grieving. It’s just a very different process. In many respects, Glass’s omniscient narrator presents the story of Paul’s grief through a prism – with each insight adding another layer of depth to our understanding of his sorrow. The Body Artist gives us one intensely concentrated perspective and holds us fast.
The back story of “Collies”, however, is written with a close 3rd person limited. This slight narrative shift between the present story and the back story does a marvelous job of rendering the past scenes with a greater degree of intensity than the front story scenes. Which I think mirrors Paul’s state of mind quite nicely. He’s in Greece to sort through his grief, part of that sorting is a sifting of his memories and they don’t belong to anyone else. The difference between the two narrative perspectives is so subtle, so smooth that without careful reading you don’t really see it. And that’s good. The reader shouldn’t really notice it – they should only feel the difference in the impact of the story.