Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Point of View


I finished reading Christopher Priest’s The Prestige a couple of days ago. I came across it because my son and I were having a discussion about a particular video of a quick-change-costume act that appeared on tv recently. In spite of watching several times and taking my son’s advice to not look at the two principals, but to watch away from them, I still missed seeing whatever trickery they were up to. Whatever it is they do to achieve their extraordinary quick changes, it’s superbly done.
Anyway, Ben mentioned Priest’s book because it talked about illusion and distraction in magician’s acts. But it turned out to be a lot more than that: a marvellous tale of deception and feuding between two rival magicians with some strange electricity thrown in, and quite a bit of distracting of the reader away from what the author doesn’t want you to see; well, at least not until he’s ready.
In the end the story is just a little over the top, leaning towards fantasy - and yet there are no cheap flights of fancy; it’s all told in a seemingly pragmatic way. That the events in the story are often much less than pragmatic is another thing altogether.
Priest manages four different storytellers very successfully (or is that six?), conveying the contemporary laidback attitude of the first narrator, the slightly bumptious and curiously doubled storytelling of the first magician, the background to the events told by another modern character, a woman this time, and the last long section told by the other magician – who has more than a few tricks up his sleeve, and isn’t anything like the character the other magician makes him out to be.
We get the same story more than once, and yet each re-telling peels back more layers of strangeness, showing that Priest, while not exactly leading us the garden path, is certainly not giving us all the information all the time.
Telling a story from four points of view is an achievement in itself. I know how difficult I’ve found it to successfully switch back and forth between two characters in the most recent novel I’ve been writing. (It has the working title of My Twin is Dying, but isn’t likely to finish up with that.) Priest has the advantage over me of retelling his story; I’m trying to tell a chronological story but varying who’s doing the telling as it moves along.
A friend of mine – she calls herself Sanchona on the book cover – discussed point of view at length with me (and other writers apparently) while she was writing her book A Family of Strangers. It’s one of those subtle things in writing that most new authors don’t quite see the need to deal with; great writers seem to do it without thinking.
Sometimes I think writers in discussion groups on the Net go overboard on how point of view should be achieved, and are too restrictive. Take any decent classic novel and check out how they’ve done it. I can guarantee there are as many ways of doing pov as there are of telling stories. The thing is to know what you’re doing in the first place.
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