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, Jeanne McCullough. Most of Jeanne’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, Jeanne 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 Jeanne’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 Romans, 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)

Jeanne 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.

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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.