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Omniscience

January 14th, 2008

Chapter 3 of Paul Park’s A Princess of Roumania consists of a prickly conversation between two women we have never met before, in an as-yet-unknown time and place we may only assume is the Roumania of the title. It’s unclear throughout most of the scene which character, if any, is the point of view. From sentence to sentence, Park refers to the two women variously by their titles, their first names, their last names, and even their types (“this old woman” and “the woman”). As a result I have no idea who is saying what or why it matters, and I more or less skimmed over the scene without absorbing a single thing.

In almost any other situation, I would have put the book down.

But because of what had passed in the previous two chapters, and what was promised to come, I couldn’t do it. A Princess of Roumania is an unapologetic alternate world fantasy that opens in present-day, mundane Western Massachussets on a bitter teenage orphan girl (read Dorothy) and an alienated young man with only one hand (impossible for me not to read as me) meeting at an abandoned house in the woods to talk about the events of their past that have left them broken. And then we get sucked into Roumania–an alternate earth part of which includes a frontier Western Mass of wooly mammoths, mercenaries and shapeshifters. And I am hooked.

A Princess of Roumania is half surreal, Jack London-esque survival story, half court intrigue in an alternate Eastern Europe that reads like Russian epic. And the whole thing is told in omniscient POV–not just moving from head to head, giving us the thoughts and feelings of practically every character we encounter, but at times pausing to hover ambiguously between heads, commenting on truths of the human condition elucidated only by an understanding of both the character we’ve just left and the one we are about to enter.

A lot of people can’t stand omniscient POV. At Odyssey the year I attended, there was much debate as to whether Dune, as a result of its omniscient head-hopping style, was a poorly written piece of crap. I argued no–that Dune is in fact a masterpiece of world-building, intrigue and ideas. Many disagreed.

I have to admit it’s a difficult thing to do well. The very notion of trying to write a story in this way strikes me as absurdly ambitious, and at the moment, I doubt I will ever attempt it. But doing it well (as Paul Park does, despite the odd fluke of Chapter 3, which I’ll allow is probably a matter of poor editing more than poor writing) can catapult a story onto an entirely different scale of character depth and scope.

Park’s villain, the Baroness Ceausescu, may be the most complex villain I’ve ever seen in a work of fantasy. In fact I sympathize with her to the degree that (were it not for the presence of Miranda, Park’s Dorothy figure) she might well have been the protagonist. She makes me think of the protagonists of Dostoevsky. In the opening chapters, in one of his rare, startling moments as nebulous omniscient narrator, Park lays out the premise of her character as follows:

It is a myth that evil people feel pleasure at the pain of others.

The baroness is, inarguably, evil—and yet we can justify her almost every action from the perspective of someone who is merely human. And this same phenomenon occurs every time we’re tempted merely to hate or dislike a character for their actions. Park brings us into their heads and shows us how to understand them.

Reading A Princess of Roumania has been a daunting task. Yet at every turn, I find something eye-opening, some use of omniscience that elucidates the eerie strangeness of Roumania in unexpected ways—for example, experiencing the primeval woods of an alternate New England through the senses of a girl-turned-golden retriever joyfully exploring every new scent. It’s a lesson in all the things only fiction can do.

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9 Comments »

  • Maggie says:

    I agreed with you (about Dune)! While I have nothing against limited 3rd PoV, and in fact admire it in the hands of an author like George RR Martin, I have chafed at idea that it is the “preferred” method to write a story. Having said all that in a horribly long sentence, I do understand that clarity is important, and writing from an omni PoV can be extremely muddling.

  • scott andrews says:

    Don’t remember what I argued about _Dune_ at the time, but I would argue that it is at once both. The head-hopping is maddening, yet the work is still a masterpiece of world-building and intrigue. When something can succeed in spite of deep flaws, it must be even more transcendent in its strengths.

    Maggie, I’ve commented before on your chafing at the dominance of limited 3rd. That dominance came about as a direct reaction to the rise of TV and film, since they can do omniscient better than prose, and limited 3rd is the only POV type they can’t do better. Limited 3rd will always be the preferred POV until or unless TV and film fade from the public consciousness, or at least from the reading public’s consciousness, enough to make other POV types feel unique again.

    • mjd says:

      You’re right, Scott, about it being a combination of both—if I had encountered that third chapter in any kind of straight-up fantasy with elves or dragons, I would have put the book down. The omniscient POV isn’t enough to deter me on its own, but neither is it enough to endear a book to me just because it’s different from all those other 3rd person limited POVs.

      I wonder how either of you would react to the POV in _Princess of Roumania_. Erin, I think, has actually tried reading it and given up. Maybe she’ll chime in here and tell me why…

    • Maggie says:

      I do understand why it has come about, even though I was about to argue with you. But even before I framed my rebuttal (that movie and television audiences are not necessarily readers), I realized that most readers are movie and/or television viewers. But even if I accept your reasons, that doesn’t mean I like it. Also, I think omni can and is being combined with limited and shifting close PoV. Not that I’ve been successful with it yet.

      Did you read “Atonement” and/or see the movie? That’s an interesting study in transforming tight PoV to the screen. Although the film seems to have won a lot of approval, I thought it failed to carry across the novel’s themes.

  • I agree with Scott, Mike, in that DUNE is both a masterpiece for all the reasons you mentioned, but a very poor example of omni-third. The best example I’ve seen of omni-third is Mary Doria Russell’s THE SPARROW. Haven’t read the book you’re reading, but it’s never caught my eye either, for whatever reason.

    Omni-third is insanely hard to do, and I think in order to attempt, a writer must know everything about his/her world/characters/story from the inside out so that the omni is as natural as breathing. The point is for the reader to not notice it.

    And while I see Scott’s point about tv/film doing omni-third better, I’ll disagree: tv/film is all about VISUAL omni, but it does not get into a character’s head and we never get any character’s thoughts. Omni-third does that. That’s why the head-hopping can be so maddening.

  • scott andrews says:

    But even if I accept your reasons, that doesn’t mean I like it. Also, I think omni can and is being combined with limited and shifting close PoV.

    Nor do you have to like it! 🙂 You just often seem to be railing against it because it is preferred rather than because of specific characteristics about it. It is preferred for that one huge reason, which isn’t going to change any time soon.

    As for “close omni”….

    tv/film is all about VISUAL omni, but it does not get into a character’s head and we never get any character’s thoughts. Omni-third does that. That’s why the head-hopping can be so maddening.

    Film and TV do get into characters’ heads through expression and gesture.

    But the depth of omni is the inherent paradox–it can’t ever get deep inside the characters or then it becomes head-hopping and thereby maddening. The deeper an omni POV tries to go, the more jarring it is when it switches into another character’s head. There’s no way around that, so “close omni” is inherently impossible as a concept. Not that some genius can’t pull it off, but it’s not a panacea or a revolution or a viable alternative for us non-geniuses.

  • mjd says:

    I would argue that TV/film doesn’t do omniscient at all, unless it goes for the echoey inside the head chatter. Sometimes we see through the character’s eyes, in a literal sense, but that’s as close as it gets. Otherwise it is exclusively third person limited external. The POV is the camera.

    I was not really maddened at all by the head hopping in Dune. Maybe I was just too young and malleable to notice it. Nobody had explained the POV thing to me, that’s for sure. But I thought, even when we were going over that passage at Odyssey, that it was being done tolerably well, in a jarring, but not confusing manner. I am somewhat maddened by the way it’s done in Princess of Roumania because in certain rare cases I can’t tell where I am. But the argument I’m trying to make is that overall, in cases where the writer has the ambition and the skills to engage with all his characters in the necessary depth without fuddling up the pacing, I prefer the head-hopping to its lack, because it allows this unique depth.

    I often watch films or tv shows that have built-in narrative voice-over and wonder how the writers decide when to keep the narrative out of it. An example, off the top of my head, from My Name is Earl. Earl has decided to stop doing good deeds because karma hasn’t done him any favors lately. He then meets a guy who does evil and benefits by it. And for about fifteen seconds, because the writers choose to provide me no voice over, I don’t know what Earl’s reaction to this is. Since this is a TV sitcom I know this is a fairly recurrent plot point which they may or may not choose to prolong over the course of the 30 minutes. But I don’t get to find out what he’s thinking until I see him stepping in to beat the evildoer at his own game. Now, granted, I am not really watching My Name is Earl, just listening to the dialogue over my shoulder while washing dishes or whatever. I probably could have garnered the necessary internal conflict by looking at the expression on Earl’s face. But then, Earl is not particularly deep, and I know he’ll be back to status quo within 30 minutes.

    Another example, and then I’ll shut up: there’s a moment in Crime and Punishment where Raskolnikov the murderer shows up at the police station to talk to the detective. And we’re in his head for a long while, worrying, paranoid, guilt-ridden, abject–then the POV shoots across the desk into the detective’s head and we learn that the detective has his own troubles, a certain amount of respect for Raskolnikov and optimism about human nature in the face of adversity. And then, interview over, Raskolnikov gets up and walks out. Had we been seeing this a la a camera–or even if we were confined just to the main character’s head–the plot wouldn’t have been forwarded at all.

    I suspect this is why nobody ever tries to adapt Dostoevsky for the screen.

  • Maggie says:

    Scott, I am sorry that I haven’t been more specific about what causes my ire over tight 3rd person PoV. I have nothing against *reading* work in tight 3rd. Indeed, I’d be in big trouble if I did because it seems that most current fiction (say mid-80s through the present) is either tight 3rd or first person. What gets under my skin and made me defensive of omni 3rd is that I find a knee-jerk reaction among critiquers, particularly young writers who simply (I theorize anyway) haven’t had much exposure to omni 3rd PoV. (This may be why I relate to Mike’s comments about “Dune”, since I read it when I was in my early 20s and had never thought or concerned myself with PoV.)

    My problem with *writing* in close 3rd is that I often don’t know how deep into the character’s thoughts and emotions I need to know (I am often accused of presenting distant characters.) Because I dislike reading internal monologues for the most part, I’m prone to presenting brief thoughts. So while I find the limitedness of tight 3rd to be useful, I find the internal aspect of it to be daunting at times.

    I’ve read two books recently that were made into current films: “No Country For Old Men” and “Atonement”. I think they are both excellent examples at how films, even though well made and critically acclaimed, fail to capture what a tight PoV literary work does. And now, I’ll shut up!

  • scott andrews says:

    mike–visual omni in film & TV does go inside the characters’ heads because, as viewers of the visual form, we’ve been trained to interpert visual gesutres and camera moves as implying certain types of thoughts. it’s dead easy to see how deep and even unconscious this immersion is in reading the fiction of rookie writers who only know how to communicate thoughts through those types of gestures. it’s not a true narrative of the thoughts, but it’s close enough for most of the [admittedly shallow] stories that film & TV are telling.

    maggie–i’m totally with you on frustration with trying to keep the reader at exactly the right POV distance. i also agree that many young writers who’ve never read omni are militant in criticising anything that’s not limited POV. that to me is like the militant persecution of “to be”–writers who know a few rules are actually more destructive than writers who know zero rules and just write.

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