Written by West Camel
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In his preface to the New York Edition of The Portrait of A Lady, Henry James describes the ‘house of fiction’ as having ‘not one window, but a million’, at each of which is an author, looking over the scene outside.
This metaphor demonstrates the ‘consciousness of the artist’. All the authors in the house are looking out at the same field – ‘the human scene’. But what a particular author sees is governed by the size, shape and position of the window he stands at; and how he sees the view is determined by his unique take on life.
The image is invaluable to writers at all stages of the creative process. It has them think about how to communicate their stories to readers, forcing them to ask the question, ‘how do I describe what I see from this particular window?’ and to appreciate the importance of point of view.
In the case of T.W Dittmer’s debut novel, The Valley Walker, it is tempting to set the author and his readers outside the ‘house of fiction’ and have them look inside. This is because Dittmer, rather than seeing ‘the human scene’ from a particular angle, has created whole world – a world which resembles a room packed full of objects. The array is varied and fascinating, though it is sometimes difficult to know where to look, wanting to look at everything at once.
The Valley Walker is filled with Laotian mysticism, deep knowledge of the Vietnam War, details of the procedure and function of the US drug enforcement system and multi-faceted characters. The plot is intricate, pulling its various elements together into a single, tight rope, where everything pulls its weight as the reader is taken to a dramatic and emotional climax and resolution.
However, Dittmer encourages the reader to look at all this bounty through several windows at once. If he were to stand on the lawn outside, confidently holding the reader’s shoulders so she can only see what is bounded by the window frame, even drawing her attention to what is an important object and what is intriguing wall-paper, the experience of reading what is a truly unusual, vividly imagined novel would be much easier and more powerful.
Literary theorist Gérard Genette coined the useful term ‘focalization’ to describe what most writers would call perspective or point of view. Literary theory can sometimes be an un-necessary and unhelpful barrier for writers, making us too concerned with the structure of our own work and dousing creativity with analytical cold water. However, Genette’s neat tabulation is useful:
Internal focalization is when the narrator knows exactly the same as her character: think of how Hilary Mantel only seems to know what Thomas Cromwell knows in Wolf Hall, despite its being an historical novel.
External focalization is when the narrator knows less than his character: think how Dr Watson knows less than Sherlock Holmes.
And now think about how these examples create completely different reading experiences: the reader knows that Emma is meddling and blind to her own romantic situation; the reader sees the events of Henry VIII’s reign through the eyes of a clever, low-born, civil servant; the reader only knows what Watson works out, not what Holmes already suspects and needs to prove.
In The Valley Walker it seems that Dittmer is aiming for zero focalization. To return to our adapted Henry James image – he is inviting us to look through several different windows at the ‘room’ of his story. We see through the eyes of Special Investigator Teri Altro of the Drug Interdiction Task Force, her boss, retired army Colonel Bill Mallory, the drug lord they are fighting, CIA spooks, the members of a shady agency, and many other players in the globe-encompassing plot. Most importantly, Dittmer inhabits the consciousness of the Valley Walker himself, John Michaels – a Vietnam veteran who has a profound connection with the Hmong people of Laos and channels the mythic, all-powerful ‘Dragon’, protector of the Hmong and bringer of justice. Dittmer also delivers parts of the plot and gives his opinions on aspects of history and culture as a distant third-person narrator.
There is, of course, no problem with the omniscient third-person point of view, with moving between characters and seeing a story from many different angles. As E.M Forster says in Aspects of the Novel ‘a novelist can shift his point of view if it comes off’. But how do we writers make sure ‘it comes off’?
We need to be aware of what we are doing when moving from one character’s point of view to another. We need to know what each character knows and when they know it. And we need to be aware of who and where we are when we are between characters. To return again to Henry James: when we are between characters, we are most likely to expose to the reader our own consciousness, ‘the posted presence of the watcher [at the window]’.
Writers have been aware of this challenge and seen the difficulties it presents since they first started writing novels. This is why so many eighteenth-century and nineteenth novels take the form of memoir, letters, journals, and accounts of events told to a listener. Frankenstein is principally told by Frankenstein himself to Captain Walton in the Arctic; Wuthering Heights is primarily related to Mr Lockwood by Nelly Dean over the fire. The author disappears behind a created character.
There are writers confident enough to take on the role of authorial god, but most often they adopt a particular stance towards their story and their characters. Austen and Dickens, mistress and master of the ironic tone, appear to be balancing on the narrowest of beams as they write, choosing exactly the right register in which to mock, sympathise with, understand and relate their characters’ stories, all while maintaining a certain confident distance from the events they describe.
Some authors even address the reader directly: George Eliot, at the opening to The Mill on the Floss encourages the reader to follow her creative process as she sits in her writer’s chair imagining a bridge over a river, from which she sees the mill of her story.
The Valley Walker would benefit from such consideration of the challenges ‘zero focalization’ or omniscient third-person narration presents. Dittmer could, potentially, adopt a particular stance towards his story, but must be sure to maintain it.
Another option, which would suit the type of complex, event-driven work The Valley Walker is, would be to see the whole piece from just one or two points of view. The most rounded and interesting character in the novel is Special Investigator Teri Altro: aggressive, successful, with a traumatic past and powerful professional and emotional drives, The Valley Walker seen solely through her eyes would add a whole new layer of mystery and discovery – akin to, but not exactly the same as, a crime novel or police procedural.
Dittmer could also gain a lot from his foray into the perspective of Bill Mallory. We spend some time with him as he sets up his new Drug Interdiction Team. However, when his past impinges upon the mystery at the heart of the book, Dittmer drops his point of view. Having been inside Mallory’s head, we want to know how he feels when he realises what is going on. Without this insight, Dittmer has us brushing up against that most challenging point of view – the unreliable narrator. Any author adopting this technique needs to be sure he knows how to use it.
Seeing the novel from, perhaps, a combination of Mallory and Altro’s points of view would be to follow two interesting characters as they discover some disturbing and unlikely truths about international crime and about each other.
When it comes to John Michaels/The Valley Walker/The Dragon, Dittmer invites us to take an enormous imaginative leap: we actually inhabit the consciousness of a man taken over by a mythical entity. The language and tone work – it is not difficult to accept that his is a supernatural and mystic experience. And it is no surprise that when the possession is seen through Teri Altro’s eyes the moment is also very effective. Not so successful, however, are such moments shown from other characters’ points of view. When The Dragon is seen through the eyes of his victims – or simply from the point-of-view of the third-person narrator – the effect is rather flat.
What would be truly effective, and for this reader would be the best option, would be to tell The Valley Walker from the perspectives of Teri Altro and John Michaels. It is their interactions that are the most authentic in the novel. Their relationship is tender, cerebral and spiritual, and Dittmer’s touch in the few scenes they are together is well-judged: he seems to trust and believe in these two characters, feeling and thoroughly inhabiting them. Approaching the whole novel from just their points of view would be a serious challenge – much exposition would have to be ditched or developed in a different way, and Dittmer as the author would have to withdraw from the text – but his faith in his own creations is strong enough that I believe he could manage it, and would probably find the work rewarding.
The struggle with point of view is one all writers face: it is a rare blessing when story and point of view flow together without too much effort. This is why so many writers describe how their work ‘takes off’ when they find the voice the story they want to tell demands. These voices sometimes call from afar, and on rare occasions speak close to the ear. It is when writers listen to them that they are able to stand at their windows and confidently relate what they see of the human scene.
For all those Jamesians who want the full ‘house of fiction’ quotation and the whole preface here it is.
James Woods is great on point of view – read his How Fiction Works.
A short, and possibly too prescriptive summary of points of view – read this for interest, not to accept as absolute truth!