Wednesday

Mixed Points of View & Theme in Philipp Meyer’s The Son: A Structural Analysis

Writers are used to thinking about a novel’s point of view as belonging to a single easily labeled category—be it omniscient, first person, close third, “alternating third,” “multiple first,” or something else. But point of view doesn’t have to be uniform or consistent over the length of a novel; it can just as easily be a pastiche. Phillipp Meyer’s bestselling family saga The Son is a good example of this phenomenon. It consists of a regularly alternating trio of distinct point of view types, functioning together as a unitary whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

At 560 pages this book does qualify as a saga, and its length gives Meyer the freedom to really let his characters stretch out and come alive. Each point of view shows us something different, not only about the character narrating the story but also about the particular flavor of that character’s experience. So we get to see the family that is the subject of the novel from a variety of angles and at many different moments in time, and by the end of the novel we feel as if we’ve lived through that family’s emotional history in a way that has been both comprehensive and intimate. This is possible because while the three story lines take place in different decades over a period of more than a century and a half, the characters’ lives frequently manage to bump up against one other. The major events of the past linger on in the story, resonating down the years in ways that deepen the overall experience and allow for the emergence of a unified and powerful novelistic theme.

Let’s take a closer look. (Cautionary note. This analysis is a bit longer than usual as I found quite a lot to chew on. If you’re a novelist thinking hard about your craft, you will wish to read on. Others may want to stop right here—but please know, before you go, that I consider this a highly recommendable novel, certainly one of the best I’ve read in the last year or two.)

The three major points of view are:

1. Eli McCullough’s first-person “long” retrospective. As is the case with many if not most first person points of view, this one purports to be a “found” document: an oral history recording of the recollections of a 100-year old man made in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration. Eli is the charismatic, curmudgeonly patriarch of the McCullough family, looking back on his life from 1849 to the 1880s:

“Spring 1849, the last full moon. We’d been two years on our Pedernales acreocracy, not far from Fredericksburg, when our neighbor had two horses stolen in broad daylight. Syphilis Poe, as my father called him, had come down from the Appalachian Mountains, imagining Texas a lazy man’s paradise where the firewood split itself, the persimmons fell into your lap, and your pipe was always stuffed with jimsonweed.” (13)

2. Eli’s son Peter McCullough’s first-person “short” retrospective. This is another “found” document, a daily diary written over a relatively brief span between 1915 and 1920:

“March 25, 1917. Drought is back but cattle remain high due to war. Woke up after a night of vivid thoughts, pulled the curtains expecting the green country of my youth and of my dreams. But with the exception of the area immediately around the house, there was nothing but sparse brittle grass, thorny brush, patches of bare caliche. My father is right: it is ruined forever, and in a single generation.” (264)

3. Eli’s great-granddaughter Jeanne McCullough’s third-person recollections. In effect, Jeanne’s sections of the book are rooted in the moments preceding her death in 2012, though Meyer doesn’t insist on that and it’s done subtly. Most of Jean’s story is told in the third person past, a point of view common in fiction due to its transparency and flexibility in both time and psychic distance:

“When she was a child, her father often gave her orphaned calves to look after, and, every so often, she would fold the grown ones in with the steers when they were shipped off to Forth Worth. She made enough money off her dogies to make investments in stocks, and that, she told people, is what taught her the value of a dollar.” (49)

Each of these points of view accomplishes something very specific that contributes both to the unfolding of the story and to the manifestation of its theme. Let’s consider each POV in more detail to get a feel for how they work together.

In Eli’s story (first-person “long” retrospective POV), the central event is his brutal kidnapping and subsequent adoption as a young teenager by the Comanche. The story goes on to trace the effects of this searing experience on his life and on the family dynasty he founded. In part, we are motivated read on by such questions as: What formed him?  How did he start his dynasty? What does he really believe? Eli is brutal but resourceful, and he makes his way in the world through violence. His point of view is often quite in-the-moment, and with his sometimes quirky diction, it’s the most “voicey” of the three POVs. It’s also the most prevalent in the book, weighing in at 236 of the book’s 560 pages, or approximately 42 percent of the story.

First person retrospective is capable of an up-close, minute-minute-by minute narration, such as this scene taken from shortly after Eli returns to Anglo “civilization” after his years with the Comanche:

“The judge pointed out a squirrel that was high up in a live oak and I shot it off the branch and then shot a dove off a different branch. The onlookers applauded. Not far from them was a black eye in the grass that I knew belonged to a rabbit so I put an arrow through that as well. Several of the eastern reporters looked sick at the rabbit shrieking and flopping itself into the air but the judge laughed and sad, He’s got quite an eye, doesn’t he?” (326)

It’s also capable of highly digested, philosophical, “wide-view” retrospective musings laying out the story’s historical milieu:

“The best of the Texans were dead or had left the state and the ones who’d run things before the war came back. The cotton men wept about paying their slaves, but they kept their land and their Thoroughbreds and their big houses. There is more romance roping beefs than chopping cotton, but our state’s reputation as a cattle kingdom is overboiled. Beef was always a poor cousin to the woolly plant and it was not until thirty years after Spindletop that even oil knocked King Cotton from his throne.” (499)

And the history it presents is far from dry. It’s compelling because it’s highly defamiliarized, allowing us to see the world from new and surprising angles:

“In 1521 a dozen Spanish cattle were landed in the New World; by 1865 there were four million living wild in Texas alone. They did not take to domestication; they would happily stick a horn through you and go back to chewing grass. Your average hayseed avoided them as he might a grizzly bear.” (517)

Eli’s point of view is also capable of delving into the controlling idea of the novel, which is encapsulated pretty well in this passage:

“Even if god existed, to say he loved the human race was preposterous. It was just as likely the opposite; it was just as likely he was systematically deceiving us. To think that an all-powerful being would make the world for anyone but himself, that he might spend all his time looking out for the interests of lesser creatures, it went against all common sense. The strong took from the weak, only the weak believed otherwise, and if God was out there, he was just as the Greeks and Romans had suspected; a trickster, an older brother who spent all his time inventing ways to punish you.” (505)

In sum, Eli McCullough’s first person retrospective POV gets much of the novel’s crucial work done. It tells a gripping story, gives us a well researched and interestingly defamiliarized perspective on the historical period, and it conveys the novel’s theme, which has to do with the violent nature of the species. As a result of his formative experiences with the Comanche, Eli spends the rest of his life operating on the principle that humans are essentially tribal, and that one has no choice but to fight for one’s “people.” Pity and second-guessing are signs of weakness; you have to take what’s yours or someone else will.

Now let’s take a look at Eli’s son Peter’s story, which is narrated via diary entries written in the first person “short” retrospective. Peter is in many ways the opposite of Eli: sensitive, ethical, wracked by guilt. His part in the saga unfolds when he is a middle-aged man, fearful, gripped by remorse about the violent nature of the McCullough’s ascent to fantastic wealth, and increasingly seen as a pariah within the family. The first person “short” retrospective POV is also capable of big picture thinking, but in contrast to Eli’s long-view history and philosophy Peter’s ruminations are more in-the-moment. It’s as if he’s formulating his thoughts as he writes:

“It is as my father says. Men are meant to be ruled. The poor man prefers to associate, in mind if not in body, with the rich and successful. He rarely allows himself to consider that his poverty and his neighbor’s riches are inextricably linked, for this would require action, and it is easier for him to think of all the reasons his is superior to his other neighbors, who are just poorer than he is.” (395)

Peter’s story is propelled by questions such as: What drives him? What’s going to happen to him? And, because he stands in direct thematic counterpoint to Eli’s grasping tribal-family-first philosophy, How can we reconcile ourselves to the fact that our wealth is built on an act of brutal violence?

The novel’s third alternating character arc is that of the third-person recollections of Eli’s great-granddaughter and contemporary matriarch, Jean McCullough. Most of Jean’s story can be read as straight third person past, a very common novelistic point of view, though looming in the background is our knowledge, communicated in the early chapters, that the entire story is running through her mind in the moments just before her death. There is an inherent dramatic tension in this set-up: How did she arrive at this fatal turning point? Will she die? What’s going to happen to the family when she’s gone?

In terms of theme, Jean is the contemporary embodiment of Eli’s ruthless founding philosophy. The third person POV, of course, is also fully capable of big thematic ruminations, and Jean’s are more similar in style and content to Eli’s than to Peter’s:

“A man, a life—it was barely worth mentioning. The Visigoths had destroyed the Roman, and had themselves been destroyed by the Muslims. Who were destroyed by the Spanish and Portuguese. You did not need Hitler to see that it was not a pleasant story. And yet here she was. Breathing, having these thoughts. The blood that ran through history would fill every river and ocean, but despite all the butchery, here you were.” (415)

Jean also experiences an interesting thematic sideline having to do with life after death:

“She knew she was not alone, there was someone in the room, the person responsible for her condition. I’m living through my own death, she thought, and let herself drift. A cold place. An old pond. But the mind, she thought, the mind will survive, that was the great discovery, it was all connected, it was roots beneath the earth. You had only to reach it. The great hive.” (413)

Near the end of the novel a brand new point of view makes a brief appearance: Ulises, the “lost” grandson of Peter, who basically represents the prolongation and eventual resolution of the Eli vs Peter theme/counter-theme. The ending is very smart, and I won’t ruin it with a summary.

* * *

To sum up, The Son is the saga of a family, a region, and a country. It’s an entertaining and deeply immersive story, conveying resonant truths about money, violence, the displacement of cultures, and what this all adds up to, both in terms of our country’s heritage and our basic human nature. The trio of rotating major points of view—each with its own qualities and advantages of perspective—allows us to see the family, the characters, and the setting in an increasingly holistic and three-dimensional way. The structure also allows us to piece together the theme from a variety of different angles, and in such a way that by the end we are filled with a sense of discovered meaning. That theme is a grim one; this is not a light read. But it is a gripping and beautiful read, one that I can’t recommend more highly, in part because of the finely wrought architecture underlying it.


Tuesday

Shadow Description, Image Systems, and Narrative Drive in Tim Johnston’s Descent

Why do certain so-called “genre” novels transcend the designation? John le Carré’s spy thrillers. Ursula K. LeGuin’s science fiction. Post-apocalypse novels such as Peter Heller’s Dog Stars, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. These novels explode the boundaries of category because they’re beautifully crafted, both structurally and on the sentence level, and because they resonate more deeply than certain lesser novels, which are written and read as mere “entertainments.”

It’s admirable enough, gods know, the skill of telling a cracking good story. Hats off to any author working in any genre who can actually pull it off. But if you can tell a cracking good story that exposes a deeper truth about the human condition, well then, that lifts you up to another level. For one thing, it will earn you the honorary “literary” before the appropriate genre moniker.

Tim Johnston’s debut literary thriller Descent edges into in this territory. Like most successful crime thrillers, it’s well-constructed architecturally. The life-and-death stakes, the hero-victim-villain triangle, and the well-built narrative arc give it the taut, page-turning quality you would expect from a good thriller. What makes it rare is that the language is strikingly poetic, and the themes and image systems reveal deep, dark truths about the human race and the world we live in.

Once things start rolling, it’s impossible to put this novel down. Better yet—despite and perhaps even in part because of the stylistic echoes of books such as Blood Meridian and All the Pretty Horses—the writing is top-notch. Johnston’s descriptive prose is particularly effective in imbuing the story with a sense of dread, of evil at large in the world. I suspect that this is a major factor in the novel’s admirably propulsive narrative drive. In the past, I’ve referred to this kind of writing as “shadow description.” Here are a few examples:

“She was wearing a white sleeveless top, white shorts and the word BADGERS bannered in cherry red across her bottom, pink and white Adidas, and for a moment, in that place, she had looked not like herself but like some blanched and passing spirit. A cold wanderer around whom the air chilled and the birds shuddered and the leaves of the aspens yellowed and fell.”

“ . . . in his sleep he climbed a path in the woods in the dark, making his way by the progress of the animal he followed, a dog or wolf of such whiteness it raised shadows from the things it passed, the trees and stones.”

“They both looked to the west, where the dropping sun flared suddenly between the clouds and the horizon like the eye of a great bird cracking open, round and blazing.”

“On the screen a woman stood at a rostrum in a purple robe, small black ball of microphone near her mouth. She spread her arms wide and he raised the remote and the screen went black.

And my favorite image:

“She turns to look back up the dry wash and there’s nothing but the white rising chute and the dark conical shapes at its borders. Then, arriving out of the heights, there appears a dark falling thing on the snow. Black as night and gliding down. An immense bat in the woods. A black angel on skis . . . She shoves at the empty snow, and twists, and manages to turn herself enough to see, over the edge of the depression, the last of his descent. Arms out and legs spread in flying rapture, riding the tails of his snowshoes.”


Note that all of these shadow descriptions are part of a loosely related image system that underlines the novel’s good vs evil theme: wolves and dogs, birds and bats, creatures watching and pursued, black contrasting with white. The shadow descriptions, charged with their foreboding image system, underscore the strong sense of barreling fate, of nameless dread, that pervades the book, and create a kind of existential discomfort that spurs the reader ever onward to the final page.

Monday

Backstory Entry Hatches in John Le Carré’s The Tailor of Panama: A Partial Taxonomy

I can see why this complex and richly entertaining novel isn’t as popular on Goodreads as many of Le Carré’s other books. The propulsive urgency of the story sags in places, which is the reason that I’m giving it a positive but slightly qualified recommendation. It was bound to disappoint Le Carré’s spy thriller audience, because it doesn’t do what books in that genre are supposed to. It’s not even a spy thriller, really, though it is a novel about spying. 

You could say that it belongs to a very small sub-genre, along with Our Man in Havana: the Bitingly Satirical Spy Caper. And while The Tailor of Panama doesn’t captivate the reader with the same charmingly effervescent blend of suspense and comedy as Our Man in Havana, the satire hits home just as effectively as it does in Greene’s book. In fact this novel elaborates and updates Greene’s theme, pushing it to a logical conclusion that remains all too resonant in today’s world of intelligence-targeted official violence.  

Whatever you think of its themes, I think we can all agree that Le Carré is a remarkably accomplished writer with a particular strength in the art of creating interesting, impossible-to-forget characters. In this book the imaginatively prodigious tailor himself, Harry Pendel, stands out, as does the resourceful and despicable spy manager, Andrew Osnard. 

But let's get to the writerly question at the center of this post: What specific techniques does Le Carré use to create such interesting characters? 

There are so many aspects of character creation one could talk about, but one of the things that struck me most about this book is the frequent and skillful use that Le Carré makes of backstory, and in particular of that difficult-to-pull-off subset of backstory, flashback, to endow his characters with extra interest and complexity. Each of the main characters has an emotionally charged history that constantly intrudes on the present moment, clueing the reader in about important motivations and conflicts featured within what we might call the “frontstory.” 

I’ve written about backstory and flashback before. As anyone who writes fiction knows, there’s an ongoing debate about the merits of backstory, and in fact there are prominent writers who espouse a policy of minimizing or doing away with it entirely. But the more I think and read, the more strongly I come down on the side of backstory as a richly useful tool in the task of creating complex, fascinating, novel-worthy characters. Le Carré is a great teacher in this regard. In particular, I was interested to observe some of the ways he handles the difficult transitions between frontstory, backstory, and full-fledged flashback. 

So, without further ado, here’s an incomplete taxonomy what we might call Le Carré’s “backstory entry hatches.”

Abrupt Flash. An image from the past that comes to the protagonist suddenly, often in the middle of a dialogue-rich scene:
Mickie scarecrow thin, face lopsided from a beating, eyes still fresh from hell. Mickie in frayed orange rags, no bespoke tailor available. Wet red blisters round his ankles, more around his wrists.
Marta in her ripped white shirt and jeans lying like uncollected refuse in the gutter while three members of Noriega’s Dignity Battalions, known affectionately as the Dingbats, take turns to win her heart and mind with the aid of a bloodied baseball bat, starting with her face.
But the sequence of these events remained disordered in Fran’s mind because all she could concentrate on while they were unfolding was her very first gymkhana, when her pony, which like every other pony in the world was called Misty, took the first fence perfectly, then bolted down the main road to Shrewsbury . . . 

Triggered Narrative Rewind. A memory triggered by a sensory experience in the frontstory, and entered gradually rather than abruptly by narration that begins in the frontstory and slides backwards: 
Then he would stare into the peaceful city, and very soon the flares and the red and green tracer and the hoarse tattoo of machine guns and the jackhammer rattle of cannons would start to create their own mad daytime in the theatre of his memory, just as they had on that December night in 1989 when the hills blinked and shuddered and the huge Spectre gunships flew in unopposed from the sea to punish the mostly wooden slums of el Chorillo . . . 
Sweat pouring off him, heavy as the rain. Running water gurgling under his feet. Pendel floating, upriver or down. The entire past that he has buried six feet deep, crashing in upon him . . . starting with the miracle of his birth as related to him in prison by his Uncle Benny and ending with the Day of Absolutely No Atonement thirteen years ago when he invented himself to Louisa on the immaculate all-American lawn in the officially abolished Canal Zone with the Stars and Stripes flapping up in the smoke of her daddy’s barbecue and the band playing hope-and-glory and the black men watching through the wire. 

Untriggered Narrative Rewind. You might call this the traditional method, and it might feel a little clunky were it not achieved with Le Carré’s usual panache:
And it was somewhere around this point, most likely, that Stormont, partly out of boredom and partly in self-defence, drifted off into a troubled review of his life until now:
            Stormont, Nigel, born too long ago, educated not very well at Shrewsbury and Jesus, Oxford. Second in History like everybody else, divorced like everybody else: except that my little escapade happened to make the Sunday newspapers.
How she had got here was a mystery to her, though it was a mystery now ten weeks old. “Only two ways to play this situation, girl,” Osnard had explained to her with the assurance he brought to everything, over lavish helpings of barbecued chicken and cold beer beside the pool of the El Panamá. 
Hallucinated Memory. And I end with my favorite. A full-on hallucination in the frontstory delivers us straight to the backstory:

"Harry.” It is an hour later, but Pendel is too estranged to go home, so he is back in his cutting room with his dinner jacket and Bach. “Harry.” The voice that is addressing him is Louisa’s from the first time they went to bed together, not just fingers and tongues and listening for her parents’ car coming back from the movie, but completely naked in Harry’s bed in his grotty attic flat in Calidonia, where he’s tailoring at night after selling ready-mades all day for a clever Syrian haberdasher called Alto.