Multiple First Person Point of View: The Pros and Cons (Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers)

English Passengers blends a funny and compulsively readable seafaring novel with a dark tale of the Tasmanian genocide. It’s an uneasy mix, I found. Whenever the story of Illiam Killian Kewley and his crew of Manxmen aboard the smuggling vessel Sincerity resumed, I felt a certain sense of relief. It wasn’t that the Tasmanian genocide threads weren’t well written — they were, quite, with sufficient tension and interesting, if not always very sympathetic characters. I guess it was that the subject matter was so bleak in the genocide sections that the humor in the sea story wasn’t quite enough to balance it. It may have also been my mood, given that I was sick with the flu for much of the time I was reading it. 

Anyway, I thought it might be instructive to weigh the pros and cons of Kneale’s choice to write the book in the first person from multiple points of view, as opposed to using a fully omniscient or alternating third person POV.


Among the advantages, it seems to me, is the fun of immersion in the personalities of many characters. We discover one character's amusingly harrowing proto-Hitlerian theorizing and explore the inner lives of a murderous convict, a sanctimonious vicar in the process of losing his handle on reality, a good-humored but increasingly beleaguered sea captain, and an entire cast of minor and supporting actors. It’s kind of like an extended role-playing game. We might be able to play a similar game with omniscience, but with first-person we can be sure that we’re experiencing these characters’ personalities in the most thorough way possible in literature: not only through their thoughts, but through their language, their actual voices. 

A second advantage, related to the previous one, is what might be called the “cultural tourism” aspect. By tuning in to the inner voices of his characters Kneale is able to present, in a subtle but pervasive way, their cultures. Thus we can extrapolate cultural mores from the Isle of Man by reading Captain Kewley’s rich manx dialect; we can learn something about nineteenth century British society by reading the pompous vicar and the dangerously theoretical Dr. Potter, who illustrates the sinister side of the same cultural hunger for teleological theories that produced Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. And, in Kneale’s most risky and perhaps least successful feat of ventriloquism, we can see the world from the perspective of Peevay, a representative of the mysterious and doomed Tasmanian aboriginal people.

The third major plus of the multiple-first-person strategy is that within each discrete section written from the limited perspective of one character, there are opportunities to illustrate the truth—a major theme of the book—that humans experience the same events in completely different ways. Kneale uses this contrasting perspective to great advantage in the hilarious escalation of competing paranoias that emerges between the vicar and Potter, in the wry and suspenseful story of how Captain Kewley and the crew keep the Sincerity’s illegal cargo from the passengers, and in the devastating account of how the historical encounter between whites and Tasmanian aboriginal people was experienced in a radically different manner by the two societies, and led inexorably to the latter’s extinction. Omniscience, unlimited in scope by definition, might have made these contrasts less striking, while an alternating third-person point of view, with its implied narrative presence, might have made them less compelling.


One downside of using the multiple first person point of view is the lack of allegiance to a single narrative voice. In difficult novels with a lone narrator, explicit or implied—Paul Bowles’ Sheltering Sky stands out as a good example—the reader develops a strong allegiance to the implied narrator. Assuming one reads past the first chapter, a certain amount of trust is surrendered to this implied narrator, whose comfortably consistent voice carries the reader, like a raft on a swollen spring creek, over difficult terrain -- and even off cliffs and spectacular Niagara-style waterfalls of death and perdition.

With a multiple-first point of view this soothing, unifying current is sacrificed, and what you have instead are many smaller rivulets, some capable of lifting the raft, others not quite strong enough to buoy it past snags and shallower stretches. There are certain voices that the reader finds more compelling than others. When one is forced to trade a favored perspective for another that is less congenial, one’s allegiance to the dormant voice may dwindle.

Not a fatal flaw, perhaps, but it is a challenge to capture and keep the reader’s allegiance when you introduce a new narrative voice every few pages. This is especially the case when there are several new or unsympathetic narrators in a row. In such cases the book may begin to feel too heavy to pick up, the urgency of the narrative having evaporated in the mists.

A related point applies to narrative tension or dramatic conflict. English Passengers doesn't lack momentum; quite the contrary, especially in the Sincerity thread. But with all the perspective-switching, that momentum is frequently cut off, stored away in the cryogenic freezer to be resurrected later in the book. The problem is that even vigorous tension, if ignored, will lose vitality and eventually dissolve as the pages turn. Perhaps the problem would be less acute if every thread had an internal plot dynamo equivalent to the Sincerity thread. But that is not the case, and the book’s narrative drive is eroded by its ventriloquistic diversity.

Understandably, telling a coherent story from many different viewpoints requires chronological gymnastics, especially since several of the threads take place decades apart. There’s a lot of jumping around, skipping from decade to decade, and backing up to see the same event twice. All this may be technically impressive, but it sometimes leads to confusion, a confusion that could easily be clarified with the use of a single detached point of view. I have no way of proving this, but I imagine the novel might have been a few hundred pages shorter if Kneale had been able to dispense with all the storytelling challenges that must have arisen directly from his choice to write in multiple first.

We’ve just stepped over the border into the land of fruitless speculation, which is probably as good a place as any to conclude this post. In the end, point of view is as much a matter of taste as anything else. It is well to keep in mind that there are both benefits and pitfalls to whatever strategy one chooses, and that in choosing one strategy we disavow the potential benefits of another.


Dramatic Irony in Fiction: Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See

Don’t you love it when you’re reading a novel and you find a passage of writing so good, so vivid or haunting or revelatory that you want to stop and read it again? I marked scores of such passages in All the Light We Cannot See:

“From afar, the smoke appears strangely solid, as though carved from luminous wood.”
“They drive a dusty track surrounded by square miles of dying sunflowers so tall that they seem like trees. The stems have dried and stiffened, and the faces bob like praying heads, and as the Opel bellows past, Werner feels as if they are being watched by ten thousand Cyclopic eyes.” 
“The tip of her cane shudders as it knocks against the runnels, finding every storm drain. She walks like a ballerina in dance slippers, her feet as articulate as hands, a little vessel of grace moving out into the fog.”

There are literally dozens of different craft topics I could have chosen to write about in this book – and in fact I’m planning to use parts of it in upcoming classes I’m teaching on the archetypal shadow and image systems in fiction – but I zeroed in on one particular issue that has been of interest to me lately, one which I noticed on the very first page: the use of dramatic irony as an engine for suspense. Consider these passages from the book’s brilliant opening:

“At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.”
“They cross the Channel at midnight. There are twelve and they are named for songs: Stardust and Stormy Weather and In the Mood and Pistol-Packin’ Mama. The sea glides along far below, spattered with the countless chevrons of whitecaps. Soon enough, the navigators can discern the low moonlit lumps of islands ranged along the horizon. France.”

It’s a killer opening, not only because of the vivid, poetic prose – we know we’re in the hands of a talented wordsmith – but because we’ve been put on notice about what’s coming. We’ve been granted a wider view than the inhabitants of the town, and so we need to read on to find out what happens to these poor unwitting souls.

And then a few chapters in we have this passage. Our characters are children in a German orphanage:

“Every evening he carries his radio downstairs, and Frau Elena lets her wards listen for an hour. They tune in to newscasts, concerts, operas, national choirs, folk shows, a dozen children in a semicircle on the furniture, Frau Elena among them, hardly more substantial than a child herself.      
We live in exciting times, says the radio. We make no complaints. We will plant our feet firmly in our earth, and no attack will move us.        
The older girls like musical competitions, radio gymnastics, a regular spot called Seasonal Tips for Those in Love that makes the younger children squeal. The boys like plays, news bulletins, martial anthems. Jutta likes jazz. Werner likes everything. Violins, horns, drums, speeches – a mouth against a microphone in some faraway yet simultaneous evening – the sorcery of it holds him rapt.          
 Is it any wonder, asks the radio, that courage, confidence, and optimism in growing measure fill the German people? Is not the flame of a new faith rising from this sacrificial readiness?”

The dread is completely our own – the characters don’t feel it at all. They don’t need to, because we perceive what’s coming. Our dread grips us, and we have no choice but to read on.

Although most of the book is written in the present tense, in what you might call “alternating close third POV,” the omniscient voice established in the opening pages bleeds through at various points, always bringing with it the chill of dread:

“The walls creak; the window between the curtains is black; the town prepares to sleep. Somewhere out there, German U-boats glide above underwater canyons, and thirty-foot squid ferry their huge eyes through the cold dark.”
“Neumann One, who, if he were not scheduled to die ten weeks from now in the Allied invasion of Normandy, might have become a barber later in life . . . ”

In a sense this whole novel is built on dramatic irony, which is probably true of any story that begins with a sequence from the chronological ending before looping back to the beginning. Throughout the book we have a sense of an accelerating rush toward a foregone conclusion, an inevitable convergence on the terrible event that is described at the beginning of the book. This is the dreadful power of dramatic irony: the idea that we know what’s coming but we’re still unable to look away.

Of course, you have to be an amazing writer to pull this off, and Doerr does so with stunning effectiveness.

A Necessary Prologue: Paula McClain’s The Paris Wife

When does a novel require a prologue? Never, many would argue. Ask any agent, editor or wizened veteran of the novel-writing craft: if you can dispense with a prologue, do. And yet, so many novels have prologues. What gives?

This is a craft issue that has interested me for a long time, the more so now, as I embark on a new draft of a novel I’ve been working on. At a recent literary event at which Paula McClain was a featured author, a friend mentioned the prologue to The Paris Wife, and how highly he thought of it. I’d read the book a few years ago and loved it, in part because of my long-term interest in the life and work of Ernest Hemingway, but mostly because it’s just such an ambitious, beautiful, readable novel. But I hadn’t paid much attention to the underlying structure, and I picked it up a few days ago to re-read the prologue.

In common with the rest of McClain’s novel, the prologue is beautifully written. It gives us our first taste of the book’s voice, which is a lovely voice steeped in the language and rhythms of the period, one that McClain succeeds in maintaining throughout the novel. But the voice could just as easily have been introduced in Chapter One, and the question I was interested in was, is McClain’s prologue necessary? After re-reading it a few times, I think it is. Here are two reasons:

The first reason is that it sets the stage for the novel’s action in an alluring way, evoking for the reader some important elements of the book’s historical setting: the lingering trauma of WWI and the legendary ambiance of 1920s Paris:

“Interesting people were everywhere just then. The caf├ęs of Montparnasse breathed them in and out, French painters and Russian dancers and American writers. On any given night, you could see Picasso walking from Sant-Germain to his apartment in the rue de Grands Augustins, always exactly the same route and always looking quietly at everyone and everything. Nearly anyone might feel like a painter walking in the streets of Paris then because the light brought it out in you, and the shadows alongside the buildings, and the bridges which seemed to want to break your heart, and the sculpturally beautiful women in Chanel’s black sheath dresses, smoking and throwing back their heads to laugh.”

This is wonderful stuff, intentionally reminiscent of Hemingway’s great final opus, A Moveable Feast. Reading it, I was irresistibly drawn to a novel set in this fascinating world. The thing is, the actual story begins when Hadley Richardson meets Ernest Hemingway, not in Paris but in the American Midwest. So without this prologue or its equivalent, we wouldn’t have had this delicious and highly seductive foretaste.

The second reason, even more compelling, comes in the final paragraph of the prologue:

“This isn't a detective story – not hardly. I don’t want to say, Keep watch for the girl who will come along and ruin everything, but she’s coming anyway, set on her course in a gorgeous chipmunk coat and fine shoes, her sleek brown hair bobbed so close to her well-made head she’ll seem like a pretty otter in my kitchen.”

I felt a kind of internal shiver when I read this passage, even for the second and third time, and I suspect most other readers did too. In an organic and strikingly visual manner, McClain has put us on notice: get ready, a life-wrecking disaster is on the way. Why would McClain reveal this important plot development, which is a major dramatic feature of the book, so early? Probably because she felt that the first part of her story wouldn’t have had insufficient dramatic tension without it. We need to experience the charming, innocent phase of the relationship, the falling in love and trying to make it work, so that we become attached to this couple and have a stake in the success of their relationship. That way it’s all the more dramatic and meaningful when the relationship is broken up by the “pretty otter in my kitchen.”

If McClain had begun the book without introducing the specter of Pauline Pfeiffer waiting in the wings, we might not have felt as much impetus to read on. As it is, we as readers have been placed in a deliciously uncomfortable state of having more information than the characters; we know what’s going to befall them, and so we are filled with dread. This uncomfortable state of foreknowledge is known as dramatic irony. It’s an extremely effective tool for creating suspense. Without the prologue, we wouldn’t have found ourselves in this position. Perhaps we would have read on anyway, buoyed by the intrinsic interest of the story and by McClain’s lovely writing. Or perhaps not.

So yes, the prologue to The Paris Wife feels necessary. And it’s brilliantly done.

At the above mentioned literary event I learned that we can expect another novel from Ms. McClain, this one about an intriguing figure from the first part of the 20th century, Beryl Markham, the author of the stunning memoir of Africa and the early days of aviation, West With the Night. Given Ms. McClain’s skill as a writer and her unusual talent for capturing the voice and feel of an age, I very much look forward to reading it!