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Craft based Analysis of New Yorker Stories

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Point of View: How to pass the baton of perspective in a short story.

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Point of View: How to pass the baton of perspective in a short story.

A Flash Critique of “The Erlking” by Sarah Shun-Ben Bynum

The New Yorker’s 20 under 40 Series

This week I’m going to a tackle a story I’m not actually crazy about, despite the fine craftsmanship the author employs to achieve, a compelling ending.  This is an important lesson, for while we all write, and we all aspire to write something great, there is much that goes into that process, part of it craft, and part of it sensibility. For me, the sensibility of the characters in “The Erlking” felt off, but that does not detract from the author’s ability to handle a variety of craft issues, including what is undoubtedly one of the more difficult ones – alternating points of view in a short story.  This is no small feat, and Ms Bynum added to that the complexity by making one of those points of view a small child.

So first a word on pov (point of view). There are a number of ways to approach this issue, but for this flash critique we’ll focus on third person limited point of view   This pov tends to follow one character around from scene to scene –(She felt something stir inside her, an old anger that she thought she’d long buried) – or in alternating third person point of view, characters trade points of view. Novels often employ the latter – sometimes mixing in first person, and third person pov, as in David Mitchell’s masterpiece Cloud Atlas. When we encounter alternating third person pov in a novel, chapter changes often signal a point of view change.  Sometimes a chapter will be titled something like “Edward” and then the reader hears everything from Edward’s point of view, then it’ll switch to “Bella” and the reader will get her point of view (this of course is not how the first Twilight book manages pov).

This is much more challenging to accomplish in a short story. A writer doesn’t have chapter breaks with titles. Instead, a writer needs to indicate when the point of view has changed, and the writer needs to do it quickly, efficiently, and smoothly – all things Ms. Bynum accomplishes.  So let’s take a look at the variety of tools Bynum employs.  The opening line of the story is a great example of clearly setting point of view:

It is just as Kate hoped (61).

We are firmly in Kate’s (the mother) head.  Stories, where a pov switch does not occur, would perhaps not make such an obvious point of pov in the opening sentence. Bynum does so because the pov changes in this story and this opening firmly establishes that the reader is moving through the world via Kate.  The description of an Elve’s Faire held at a local Waldorf school is infused with her sensibility – her sticker shock at the cost of the stuffed animals (seventeen dollars!). The other thing to note is that all of the scenes we see through her pov are based on Kate’s identity as a mother (we learn nothing of work she may do, of a husband, etc – it is all about being mom). She worries if she is giving her daughter the right education, whether her daughter will fit in, what she can afford for her daughter versus what she wants to give, and more.

This conflict rubs up against her daughter’s own wants (this Flash Critique will not be about conflict but note:  a great way to think about conflict is to see it as two character’s desires butting up against one another).  The conflict, and the pov change that is impending, is introduced in the fourth paragraph of the story

“Ruthie wants to take one home with her, a baby giraffe.”

That could indicate a point of view shift, but it actually doesn’t, as the following paragraph is all observational of Ruthie (seeing her from the outside).  However, that line introduces us to the conflict, and to the idea of another character’s vision of the world.  Here, Bynum is laying the groundwork for a pov switch.  The actual shift comes a few paragraphs later, right after Kate buys the giraffe Ruthie wants. We then shift to Ruthie’s point of view:

She says to Ruthie, “This is a very special thing.  Your one special thing from the Elves’ Faire, O.K.?”

“O.K.,” Ruthie says, looking for the first time at the animal that is now hers. She knows that her mother likes giraffes at the zoo . . . . (61).

This is a great way to shift point of view – and actually common – the use of an object to alter perspective. In this case, it’s the giraffe, and we switch from Kate’s dialogue about it (already a move away from her ‘interior’ consciousness) to Ruthie’s take on it. It’s subtle, but highly effective and allows the reader to become comfortable with the change.  Also note that the last line from Kate (O.K.) becomes the first line for Ruthie.

Bynum also moves us nicely out of Ruthie’s pov a few paragraphs later. The last line of Ruthie’s point of view in this section is:

“Mommy,” Ruthie says, “Is my birthday before Christmas or after?”

“Well, it depends on what you mean by before,” Kate says, unhelpfully.

With that one adverb, unhelpfully, we know we are still in Ruthie’s point of view, but then as we move to the next paragraph, Bynum makes a very subtle change, this time by having the characters touch.

“Holding hands, they leave the elves’ lawn . . . . .Kate guesses that this . . . .” (61)

This is also a great way to alter point of view. Bring the characters into a scene jointly, pan out (as in camera angle) and then move back in via another character’s point of view.

Also note that in this scene Ruthie’s point of view is contained within it.  The reader is not moved via big section breaks, but by subtle machinations of character, objects, and space and the most important thing to note is that point of view is fully under control throughout the story.  Ruthie’s voice and view of the world don’t arise from nowhere.  I challenge you to look at each shift and find the other tools Bynum uses, but I want to come back to the larger implications the pov shift has on the story as a whole (honestly, if I had more space, I could touch on each change).

Over the course of the story, Ruthie’s attention becomes focused on a mysterious character, (an easily believable presence at a Waldorf fare).

“The man is tall and thin, with a cape around his neck that is not black or blue but a color in between, a middle-of-the-night color, and he pushes back the hood on his head and looks at her as if he knows her.”

This is the Erlking, a malevolent being who brings death and he is the harbinger for the ending of the story where the reader is firmly in Ruthie’s point of view.  This is the crux of the story, for we are at the heart of a typical day for this mother and child, one filled with all the minor distractions and misbehaviors, but the mother is unaware of what is going on inside Ruthie’s prescient mind. Ruthie sees the Erlking and feels a pull towards him a pull, the end of the story promises, will result with Ruthie’s death.

The story can be read as a child’s first awareness of death, and a beautifully rendered one that requires that we be in the child’s point of view.  But it is also a reflection on the relationship between mother and child, how fraught it can be with the parental desire to make the right choice when what awaits us all is death; the story also holds a commentary about the desire of a culture (as epitomized in Waldorf) to keep a child safe from the world, and how this safety can be seen as not only psychological, but as a kind of biological imperative, much like Ruthie’s desire to pee. She knows it will happen, the mess and all of it, and yet there is a thrill in the knowledge, a secret, that makes life thrilling.  This is why Bynum opted to alternate pov rather than simply stay wedded to one.  She needed the interplay of perspective to tease out all these themes.

Ultimately, the reader ends the story in Ruthie’s as she is the one who as a seeing, epiphanic, moment. What she sees – her absence from the world, from her mother’s hand, from everything – creates a wonderful dissolution of point of view as well.

So although I don’t feel character worked fully in this story, and that sometimes there were easy, or far too subtle attempts to raise certain character issues, Bynum did an excellent job on the craft level by managing the reader’s experience of character.  Let me know what you think?  Do you differ with my opinion?  Comments on point of view?  And thanks for reading!

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Written by newwordsmiths

July 9, 2010 at 7:15 pm

Imagined Audience and your fiction

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Flash Critique of Nicole Krauss’s “The Young Painters”
The New Yorker’s 20 under 40 Series

Let’s look at a piece that just appeared in the New Yorker’s “20 under 40” –Nicole Krauss’s “The Young Painters.” This piece is an excellent craft tutorial for several reasons: Ms. Krauss is an extraordinary wordsmith, she uses craft effectively to raise important questions about the role and responsibilities – if any – of the writer, the reader and the interplay of imagination, mystery and intrigue between the two. How much can we borrow from real life and what are the costs for doing so? This is a very real dilemma and in fact it came up for me in a conversation this weekend, but I want to focus again on craft and how one point of craft helps to put this issue to the fore, but also transforms Nicole Krauss’ story from just a ‘tell all’ to a morality play with no clear defining moral.

One craft technique Ms. Krauss uses to help accomplish this feat is the use of the ‘imagined audience.’ This is a technique that has been employed throughout history in a number of fictions, including by Boccaccio in The Decameron, where the imagined audience is a group of exiles escaping the plague. Many of Chekhov’s stories also use it by using an implied ‘you.’

As an author, it is immensely useful to have an audience in mind, sometimes even a specific reader so we can then write to the assumptions that reader holds. T.S. Eliot, for example, assumes an audience of ‘highly educated’ readers and therefore plants allusions in his poetry that well-read people will be able to identify. So the first suggestion I have is decide on the kinds of knowledge you want your imagined audience to have and then write to those kinds of ‘people.’

However, an audience can become a part of the fiction, as in The Decameron. This technique of placing an audience within the fiction offers an opportunity to complicate the fiction by layering a variety of predetermined relationships between the teller and the tale. In The Decameron the stories revolve around topics of social and institutional decay because the plague is asking everyone to rethink the institutions that supposedly hold society together. These stories can generally be described as either stories that support the moral authority of the social contract, or subvert it. That’s a broad sweeping example, but it provides the basis of the principle.

Let’s look at how Nicole Krauss does this in “The Young Painters.” I’m only going to focus on the four times Ms. Krauss brings her audience to the forefront – the opening sentence, the closing sentence and twice in the middle of the story. Please do note that the appeal to audience is used quite sparingly (a separate lesson) and by the end of the story we are surprised when it appears – and this surprise has great pay off.

“Four or five years after we got married, Your Honor, S. and I were invited to a dinner party at the home of a German dancer, who was then living in New York. (59)

The first sentence does so much, as great first sentences should. It clearly establishes the location (New York) the occasion, (an invitation) and a sense of the narrator’s own personal life (married four or five years beforehand). But it also identifies a very specific audience and by doing so, the terms of the story are elevated from mere ‘story’ to a story with a purpose to explain some complex legal or moral situation. We don’t yet know what that is, hence adding to the mystery (did she kill someone, did someone kill the dancer, is the husband, named only S. the murder, or something worse?). The reader is both properly off balance, and firmly centered in place and with characters and with a broad understanding of ‘why this story is being told.”

“Viewed in a certain light, that is the kind of work I do, Your Honor.” (59)

The next line appears about an eighth of the way through the story and proffers a defense of the act of writing. It follows a description of the process where the author takes someone’s experience, embellishes, replaces, and ultimately re-imagines that experience to create a story. This one line in this one place, ‘thickens the plot.’ The ‘trial’ is not because of a human legal transgression; rather it revolves around some aspect of a particular artistic process. The argument is not fully developed yet, but the inclusion of the imagined audience right after this line is the first indication that the reader is not pursuing facts, as one would in a mystery, but rather is reading about the very act of writing.

“In her work, the writer is free of laws. But in her life, Your Honor, she is not free.” (60)

The narrator then goes on to describe another fiction she created based on the life of her father; a piece of fiction that made her quite famous. This line follows a defense of the writers’ craft as being separate from any kind of moral compass, but then comes the twist. This use of audience is both an opportunity to reject the laws many people want to apply to writers, as well as an opportunity to acknowledge that the laws of the universe are not a part of these writerly laws. This sets up the following scene, where the universal law of coincidence, or even karma, brings our narrator back in contact with the dancer.

To follow this, you’ll have to put up with a short explanation of what happens next. The dancer runs into our narrator, and lets her know that he has read her story about his painting, as well as everything else she’s written. Upon their parting, he lightly touches the narrator on the cheek, smiling slightly, and then departs. He exerts no overt judgment but our narrator, when left alone with the gesture, begins a process of interpretation (an imaginative act itself and one that is tied to the very act of creating pieces of fictions). She finds in the gesture a sense of demeaning criticism she can’t shake. Then, she hears the cry of a child (her first story was about the death of a child), and this makes her begin to doubt herself, and her position on ‘writing.’ This sentiment is expressed in that final line.

“And slowly, Your Honor, I began to distrust myself.” (61)

This line is highly effective because the supposed audience has become a number of things. It is no longer static (and really, what court of law is going to listen to a writers’ confession). It is in point of fact a confession to one’s own ‘Honor.” The term serves as both a substitute for a judge, and in its final iteration, as an expression of an individual’s sense of honor. This distrust the narrator expresses toward the self is also distrust about motivation (notice that the stories are all about children and the story is fronted by the author’s discussion of how she does not have children). In short, the narrator is suddenly aware of the ways in which the ‘moral compass’ and the laws that govern the universe, apply to her and because of this, she’s also suddenly aware that she is not in control even of her fictions to the extent she assumed. We end the story with questions, but rather than vague (who’s on trial for what) they are much more specific – how can writing compromise one’s integrity? How much of the self do we put onto the page despite our belief that we are writing about someone else? Who, ultimately, is this all about?

Written by newwordsmiths

July 2, 2010 at 4:09 pm