Friday, June 15, 2007

The moving toyshop of the heart

I feel like I've got a number of widgets or accessories as a reader, but one of the most noticeable to me is what I might call the "light reading detector." Certain books just emanate on the "read me" frequency and I have a heightened sensitivity to that emanation, there are of course many books I love that are not particularly popular and that do not set off this detector (and also there are bestsellers that are just plain bad that I have no desire to read) but I've mostly got an almost physiological instinct for which ones are going to appeal to a wide number of readers. Lee Child's Jack Reacher books set off this detector, and so does Philip Pullman; sometimes all I have to do is hear a title or a one-sentence description and I can tell it's a must-have that other people's hearts will also thrill to. (Other widgets: one that tells me at what point a piece of prose is along the 0-to-100% continuum from rough draft to completely-polished-and-would-only-suffer-from-further-tweaking; one that tells me which books I want to reread; and an "Occam's Razor" device that tells me--more about this below--about overelaborate point-of-view shifts that could be eliminated.)

All this is a roundabout way of saying that on the train to Cambridge last weekend I plunged into the most delightful piece of light reading, and I must commend it to your attention! Of course it's sort of perfect for me anyway--a novel about the eighteenth century!--but really I was imagining it might be more literary and less appealing, and it is wholly a compliment to the book to say that as soon as I actually had my hands on it it was clear to me that this was the piece of light reading I most wanted to read in the whole of my book-laden apartment. It's Sophie Gee's The Scandal of the Season, a novel about how Alexander Pope came to write The Rape of the Lock, one of the most altogether delightful poems in the history of English literature. And it exists at the happy place where David Liss's A Conspiracy of Paper meets the novels of Georgette Heyer--which is to say it is altogether wonderful and a complete and utter page-turner.

There's a mystery plot here, and sexual intrigue, and very nicely realized settings (I am also glad to see that someone other than myself has found Swift's Directions to Servants a rich trove to plunder!), but the real stunner about the book is the warmth that Sophie Gee shows for her characters. This is something that can't be faked, and it's a great part of what draws me to reread, say, Heyer again and again (Mary Stewart had that quality also). I don't share Sophie's take on Pope, I find him a mean-spirited and self-serving and generally pretty impossible guy, but I am charmed by her vision of him, and undertake an altogether willing suspension of my disbelief over the course of the novel. And I love the way she exerts her imaginative authorly sympathy on each of these characters in turn; Martha Blount and Arabella Fermor are both very well drawn.

Of course, the real drama of the poem isn't the story of Arabella's love affair (which concluded in the unfortunate episode of public hair-cutting that provided the occasion for Pope's poem) or the nascent Jacobite rebellion but rather how and when Pope's going to come to write his great poem, and it is just delightfully well handled here. Good stuff! I think people are really, really going to like this novel.

One caveat or quibble, though I think it may have to do with a peculiarity of my own as a reader. I've got a strong preference in my light reading for first-person narration or for the kind of third-person-limited voice that hews very close to the point of view of a single character. I focused a lot on this while revising the-novel-soon-to-be-formerly-known-as-Dynamite-No.-1, and it made me almost hyper-attentive to certain point-of-view shifts (similarly I have an aversion to dill, and can taste even the slightest hint of it in some otherwise delicious food). And I am not sure that Sophie Gee's managed to justify to me the to-my-eye-distracting technique of shifting within a single scene to multiple characters' point of view. It's technically well within the bounds of what's conventionally allowed, I think, I just feel as a reader that the potential benefits are greatly outweighed by the disadvantages, and it's hard for me to imagine what would justify it. (As opposed to the more neutral technique, which I have not used myself but can quite see the point of, which involves following different characters in different scenes--that one, for instance, gives you the obvious benefit of being able to tell a story in which the focal character is not invariably present.)

Here's an example:

Alexander kicked himself for speaking. Once again he had been naive, thinking that he could presume on so insubstantial a friendhsip. With all her wit and cleverness, Mary Pierrpont had made him forget that she was the daughter of an earl. She was at liberty to speak to him, and she delighted in so doing, rejoicing in her ability to flout convention. When she had addressed him earlier, it had no doubt been partly in an atttempt to make Wortley jealous. He had been a fool not to see it--not to see that however unsatisfactory a suitor Wortley might be, his intimacy with Lady Mary was well established, hardly likely to be dislodged by the son of a Catholic textile importer. The night had delivered a good number of lessons in folly to himself and to others alike. But though he knew that he should have been ready for it, Lady Mary's slight piqued him--the attentions paid to him this evening had spurred his ambitions. Now that he had been noticed at last, he could not bear the thought of being insignificant once again.

Martha watched with interest while these events unfolded. She saw Arabella's face go white when Lady Mary won; she saw Lady Mary collect the money from Lord Petre without a flicker of apology. Their reactions prompted her to reflect that even if Lord Petre had fallen in love with Arabella, the gulf between the nobility and commoners was profound, perhaps deeper even than that between Catholic and Protestant. She wondered whether Arabella would ultimately possess the iron nerve required to succeed in Lord Petre's world. But then Martha watched as she left the card tables, laughing as Lady Salisbury put a hand on her arm, glancing neither right nor left. Perhaps she would have what was needed after all.

As a reader, I experience these shifts as a perspectival disorientation that's almost like seasickness. And that seems to me not worth provoking for the mild incremental benefits of being able to enter into multiple characters' visual and emotional points of reference. In other words, the costs incurred so greatly outweigh the benefits that I wish people would avoid it as a narrative strategy unless for more deliberately disorienting or avant-garde reasons! I am mostly ignorant of film, it is not my thing, but the analogy between film and prose narration can be usefully invoked to explain why certain tricks are not worthwhile unless for very deliberate effect. Visually a scene in a movie in which the camera followed this kind of progression would be strikingly disorienting, perhaps for good reason but perhaps due to lack of technical skill; and it seems to me that there is usually a more economic solution to the problem of how to include multiple viewpoints than to switch about like this.

Enough said! A minor caveat about a really delightful bit of light reading...


  1. Since the passage you quoted is taken out of context, it's hard for me to judge, but the shift appears to be clumsy, which brings me to my point: it all depends for what purpose and how (and how well) such a shift is achieved. However, I will emphasise that I consider this whole question to be a matter of the narrative conventions we've been trained to expect. In fact, it's much easier technically for a writer to remain with one POV than not.

    Since you mention Pullman, he's very fond of such shifts. Do they bother you in HDM?

  2. No, because I am so entranced by everything about those novels that I don't care! However I haven't reread them since I've been obsessed with this, so I will have to look out the next time and see if it distracts me.

  3. I read this just a little before you did, and I wasn't so bothered by the flitting point of view, maybe because it flitted throughout so I never expected that it would settle. I find it much more jarring when a novel that has hewed mostly to one perspective moves briefly to another, howevermuch that shift may otherwise seem desireable.

    I also very much enjoyed reading the book, and it is quibblilng, but the one quibble I did have with it was the over-serendipity of Pope's all-perceiving eye.

    But it evoked an historic period without being heavy or precious, and the it was wonderful to watch these characters caught in their own delusions, tripping along.

  4. Oh, yes, it is SUCH an enjoyable read, isn't it? I really did love it--I am afraid the amount of space it took to explain the POV question disproportionately may leave the impression that I did not...

  5. I think S. has an interesting point, again about expectations. A good novel teaches us from the outset how to read it.

  6. "Martha watched with interest while these events unfolded"? Perhaps I am too impatient.

    Pullman's shifts take place from segment to segment and scene to scene, don't they? not usually within one scene. From what I remember. (Also, in the last two books, the vast number of scenes requires multiple narrators, so we get used to the multiple POVs anyway.)

  7. I don't have copies of Pullman here or I'd check, but yes, in memory I'd say that his shifts happen between segments--I'm talking here strictly about shifts within a single scene, that's where I'm not convinced it's worth it. "The Subtle Knife" hews much more closely to Will's perspective, I believe, than the other two do to Lyra's, and "The Amber Spyglass" in particular opens out to multiple perspectives (like the Jesuit assassin), but surely mostly in separate sections?

  8. I'm late to this post. But, wow, I couldn't disagree more strongly. I loved her use of omniscient. Thought it was brilliantly deployed and would not have enjoyed the book written any other way.

    How do you deal with Heyer's frequent pov shifts?

    Justine L