Sunday

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.

Pros


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.

Cons


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.