From my 2012 MFA work.
Response to Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Ironweed by William Kennedy, and The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor.
I generally consider what I think is the most powerful book first, to then contrast it with the others and to bracket the response with a final thought. In this case I felt Ironweed was the most powerful of the three.
The first thing that always strikes me when reading for craft is how is the author using POV. Kennedy uses a form of omniscient that feels like third person. What makes this technique particularly effective is the visions that Francis has, which are an integral part of the entire novel.
I use the term “visions” versus hallucinations intentionally. Kennedy ensures that the reader look at these as something more than drunk hallucinations through the POV. When Francis is in the cemetery working for a day, we get “In the cemetery, Kathryn Phelan, sensing the militance in her son’s mood, grew restless at the idea that death was about to change for her. (7)” This is not Francis’s POV, not even from his watching, nor from his assuming he knows what his dead mother is thinking. Yet, we do not go down the magical realism route in our thinking. Rather, this feels like the narrator giving feeling to something.
The omniscient POV, dropping to a close? the third person, continues even outside of the visions. At the church, “…Reverend Chester leaned over his lectern to look at tonight’s collection. Among them, as always, were good men and straight, men honestly without work, victims of a society ravaged by avarice, sloth, stupidity, and a God made wrathful by Babylonian excesses. (23)” We get an entire chapter that is Helen’s POV…with narrator commentary, further cementing the omniscient POV.
Returning to the visions. Another reason to view these as not simple hallucinations is that he has these visions while sober. At one point it is mentioned he has been sober for three days, well past any delirium tremens. So the inhabit his reality, just as the shovel does, or the other workers…
Beyond POV, the visions serve as the real foundation of the novel. While we are ostensibly following Francis over the period of about a week, we really are tracing the entire history of the city and Francis’s life and his coming to terms with his own violent history. I am drifting into a bit of literary analysis combined with craft, but the use of visions allows us to feel that his violence is human, on the verge of accidental, and could happen to anyone with a bit of a temper and who is not willing to be pushed around. This feeling is then completely verified toward the end of novel, where Francis acting largely in self-defense during the destruction of a Hoover Ville type of camp, kills one of the attackers with a baseball bat. We see how easily someone is drawn into violence. This technique could be used with someone recounting their days in gangs in their later years and from a selfish perspective I briefly speculated if this could work for my existing novel and the gang connection, however part of the power is that this is a middle aged man, past his prime, thinking back to a whole history and my protagonists are in their twenties.
The visions even end the novel, with one of the dead, Bill, talking to Francis and persuading him that the cops really aren’t chasing him and maybe he should go to live in Annie’s attic.
There is a humor to the character that makes him instantly more likeable and empathetic. The lesson here is that even a dark novel, with serious intentions, can use humor to round out a character. The humor is almost always in dialogue. In conversations with Rudy, about women:
“You got a million of ‘em.”
Just as POV is a standard technique with infinite variations at the edges, there is an interesting use of the verb tense toward the end of the novel. This is not quite as dramatic as Book of Ruth and murder scene, which I discussed last month. In this case the shift is to the future. On pages 147-148 we are with Francis and the use of the word “would” comes up over and over. “Francis would then stand up and vow that he would one day hunt Helen’s grave…,” “Francis would remember then that when great souls were being extinguished, the forces of darkness walked abroad in the world, filling it with lightning and strife and fire. And he would…,” “He would think about this for another incalculably long moment and decide there was no way for him to pray:,” “He would then reach down and touch Helen on the top of the head and stroke her skull the way a father stroke the soft fontanel of his newborn child…”
This section contrasts strongly due to the verb use. What is going on in this section that the verb tense changes….? And what is the effect? A distancing? An expression of the good intention that you poignantly know will not be realized?
There is much more to analyze and enjoy in Ironweed and I will contrast it a bit again with the other two novels. There is no doubt that it is a strongly a male viewpoint throughout, even Helen’s interlude feels male to me.
Their Eyes Were Watching God was copyrighted in 1937, just about the time that Ironweed takes place. The ebook version of this has two forwards, one by Edwidge Danticat and one by Mary Helen Washington. There is also an afterward by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Both forwards have some good literary insights and commentary and well worth reading after reading the novel.
Hurston uses an omniscient narrator, but it does not feel the same as Ironweed. Hurston’s narrator is very similar in feel to Toni Morrison’s Beloved. It is an oral tradition narrator, where the reader almost feels as if they are sitting at the campfire, or in Hurston’s case on the storefront stoop. Unlike Morrison, or Kennedy—given the visionary flashback, back story, the narrative is largely linear. It has the bracket of Janie talking to a friend and recounting the story, but that is simply a tried and true—and perhaps worn—technique.
Today’s writer is often warned against using dialect. Hurston steeps the dialogue in dialect and largely gets away with it, but only because she was so familiar with it. It feels very authentic, but one has to read this aloud, or “aloud in your head” to have it flow well. This slows down the reading. What is perhaps more interesting is how the narration, which is done in a more standard English, still maintains a sense of place and idiom. “So Janie waited a bloom time, a green time and an orange time. But when the pollen again gilded the sun and sifted down on the world she began to stand around the gate and expect things. (43)” Contrasted with dialogue, “Ah wants things sweet wid mah marriage lak when you sit under a pear tree and think. (42)” Both are actually sophisticated, especially as this is a teen girl speaking.
The insight into a woman’s life, in particular a black woman’s life, or a hard woman’s life, is strong throughout the book. We may get the occasional male POV, but it is brief. As Janie finds out she is going to be forced to marry, “Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman. (43)” I discussed this technique last year, where a book can become powerful by being good overall, but in particular by having some incredible sentences that stand alone. Quotable sentences, as I referred to them. Hurston’s book is full of these. Given the amount of time she supposedly spent writing this—a few weeks—these sorts of sentences must have been floating in her consciousness for a long time. A couple of others:
“Unless you see de fur, a mink skin ain’t no different from a coon hide. (29)”
“De nigger woman is de mule uh de world… (35)”
The latter one strikes me as so similar to John Lennon’s song “Woman is the nigger of the world,” that one assumes he may have read Hurston. Again, the point is that sprinkling great sentences in a novel makes it hard not to like the entire thing.
Hurston uses the great sentence to open some chapters also, framing the entire chapter. “There are years that ask questions and years that answer. (40)” starts chapter 3. This is certainly something that I can steal as a technique. However, this works best with the omniscient POV, then—in my opinion—in first person, finally in third person.
One technique, if one can call it that, is to include controversial subjects within a novel. Kennedy does some of this, with the violence forcing us to understand. Hurston, does not force it, she simply includes it. We know that Janie comes from at least one rape in her background, with the master raping her grandmother and we get the contrast that all the men and women are jealous of her hair and skin. This irony is never beaten into us. It is just there, and it’s still present in African-American social politics. Then, already, we get the Alan Keyes of the day with “Let colored folks learn to work for what dey git lak everybody else. Nobody ain’t stopped Pitts from plantin’ de cane he wanted tuh. (61)” This is, of course, the object of some of my own writing, but the ability to fold it in such a way as to illicit not just controversy, but also enjoyment and embracing of the idea is difficult. Given history, Hurston failed in the short run and succeeded in the long run, after she was dead. I buy into John Maynard Keynes’s rebuttal that “In the long run we are all dead” and would prefer to find a balance that works in my own lifetime. But, I digress.
Hurston uses a two act play instead of a three act, but there is a third act almost implied. The first act is the life married to Joe, aka Jody, and the subtle oppression (true, but finish this sentence with: “the subtle oppression of that marriage.” The second act is the classic living a lifetime in a short period of time. The implied third act is Janie knows how to live and her friend has learned from her.
Wrapping up the three novels of the month is Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place. The POV is again my starting point. Naylor uses multiple stories to give life to a place. The stories could be said to be POVs, but they are not, strictly speaking, third person; rather the POV is once again almost third person that can suddenly drift to omniscient, even in one paragraph:
Mattie’s father loved telling her that story, and she in turn enjoyed repeating it to anyone who questioned her strange last name. As she talked, Butch was careful not to let his eyes wander below her neck. He knew she was sitting over there like a timid starling, poised for flight. (17)
The entire story before that point is Mattie’s. As with both novels there is the sense of humor, in dialogue, that is one quarter insult to someone and three quarters humor, “…I already keep company on Sunday afternoons.” “With who?” “Fred Watson.” Gal, that ain’t keeping company. That’s sitting up at a wake. (13)”
One technique used by Naylor and by Hurston is that the location is fictitious. Both are named. We don’t know where Brewster Place is, per se, other than it is Northern. I felt it was Chicago-esque, but it could have been any of several larger northern cities. While there is some description of the place, Naylor also defines the place by its people. It is the people that paint the scene. Otherwise small strokes, such as a fence, or stone steps. Humor, in a low key way, continues to enter. Mattie doesn’t know, or quite trust, a woman who is taking her in. “I don’t even know your name.” … “That mean you can’t eat my food? Well, since you gotta be properly introduced, the name of what’s in the kitchen is pot roast, oven-browned potatoes, and string beans. And I believe there’s even some angel food cake waiting to make your acquaintance.” … “and the crazy old woman you’re sure by now you’re talkin’ to is Eva Turner. (33)”
Note how Naylor’s idiom is subdued, but still there. She uses “you all” sometimes, instead of “y’all.” She uses “talkin’” instead of talking. The latter is considered by some craft instructors/writers to be unnecessary and in fact bad (James Bell, for instance, in his book Revision and Self -Editing). However, I use the same level of idiom and contractions, so it is good to see others use almost standard English, just tweaked with “ain’t” and “you all” and “talkin.’”
The novel, or series of stories with the same character, has some real drama and conflict, but somehow it seems tame compared to the other two—despite taking place in a more modern timeframe. This is apartment, or condo, politics. Groups of people forced to live together. While the first two novels were driven by the characters, Brewster Place is strangely inverted. The place is defined by the characters, but the place and the forced combination and proximity are what drive the characters. This is similar to novels that take place primarily in barbershops, or a store, or other locale. I have never attempted that sort of vehicle, but it can be effective. The key with this sort of story is all the characters are quirky. They all have to have some extreme. The omniscient works well for this and simultaneously does not make it feel like an oral narrative. It is a bit more TV- like. I’d like you to explain this more. Good point, but what exactly do you mean by it?
Thus, with three novels, all using an omniscient POV in one way or another, what makes Ironweed the better book—from a craft perspective? It is that despite the omniscient POV, Ironweed feels more third person, and with the visions, it feels very personal. Approach the omniscient with care, but it does not need to be avoided.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York. HarperCollins e-books. 2004. ePub.
Kennedy, William. Ironweed. New York. Viking Press. 1983. Print.
Naylor, Gloria The Women of Brewster Place. New York. Penguin. 1983. Print.
Note on e-book citation. There is still no accepted standard for ebook citation by the MLA. However, the ePub format has consistent pagination, no matter what font size is used. All ebooks are read on a Nook Color and the pages will correspond when read on that device and should correspond when read on any standards compliant device.
Good work. This reminds me that there is so much more to discover in looking at omniscient POV. I read this after I read your chapter, and I was wondering if maybe your book could use some of the playfulness and humor you found in these books, the characters making fun of themselves, and of their pathetic lives and sad visions. The characters having moments in which they amuse themselves with their own foibles and idiosyncrasies, moments in which they are not afraid to look foolish in this foolish life….