Point of View in How I Live Now

I start off, as usual, with an apology—this blog was supposed to post in November.  November it is not. I promise that I have spent the intervening weeks hard at work, writingwritingwriting like a thing possessed, and have emerged spent and happy and eagerly awaiting comments on that writing so that I can begin revisingrevisingrevising.  So the cycle goes…

And as I wait, I have the pleasure of writing about one of my favorite books, How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff, which won the Printz Award in 2005.

I claimed in my last blog that I was going to talk about voice, and by that I meant the voice of the narrator, Elizabeth, called Daisy. How I Live Now is told from the first person point of view, which means that Daisy directly reports her experience to the reader, for example:

Now let me tell you what he looks like before I forget because it’s not exactly what you’d expect from your average fourteen-year-old what with the CIGARETTE and hair that looked like he cut it himself with a hatchet in the dead of night, but aside from that he’s exactly like some kind of mutt, you know the ones you see at the dog shelter who are kind of hopeful and sweet and put their nose straight into your hand when they meet you with a certain kind of dignity and you know from that second that you’re going to take him home? Well that’s him. (p. 3)

In my May blog, I talked about the omniscient first person narrator in The Tale of Despereaux. Daisy is a different kind of first person narrator–she is a character in the story; in fact, she is the story.

The first person point of view (or pov, to save keystrokes) has three main qualities, which I’m going to call immediacy, intimacy, and inside-the-bubble syndrome.

When I say immediacy, I mean that quality of “existing without intervening space or substance.” (Webster’s 10th) The first person point of view imbues the narration with a kind of immediacy. The narrator, even if relating events from the past, is “talking” directly to the reader as she reads. There’s an intensity to the experience in the way hearing your friend tell you about her weekend is different from looking at pictures of it on her Facebook page.

The first person pov also creates intimacy with a character. The reader is in essence “listening” to a voice tell her a story. The character-narrator shares her feelings, uses her own euphemisms to tell you about her world, and is vulnerable to the reader in a way only the best of friends can be. The flip side of this intimacy is that the writing of the voice has to be spot-on. One false phrase will break the fictive dream. (Not that this isn’t true with other povs, but I feel it is a particularly thorny problem in first person given the next quality…)

Alas, the Achilles heel of the first person pov is that it suffers from inside-the-bubble syndrome. The first person pov is limiting. The information given in the text and vocabulary used to express that information are bound by the limits of the narrator. If the narrator doesn’t know it or hasn’t experienced it or doesn’t have the words to tell the reader about it, the reader can’t have that information or experience or explanation.

When writing, I far prefer the third person limited omniscient pov, the he-said-she-said pov. Third person limited allows for intimacy without suffering from inside-the-bubble syndrome. So why does the first person work in How I Live Now? The short version: it works because Daisy’s first-person point of view serves the story.

First off, the immediacy of the first person perspective fits perfectly with the plot. The story itself concerns a character dealing with rapidly changing events that she has little knowledge about or control over—Daisy’s trying to survive a terrorist-induced apocalypse. She experiences love, lust, loss, and death—intense stuff. Hearing the events from a survivor imbues them with intensity that the distance of the third person limited might have diffused.

Second, unlike the movie Red Dawn, which is about a group of teens fighting off an invading force, Daisy’s story is about surviving despite being unable to fight back. It’s the story of her inner transformation brought on by the terrorist events, not the events themselves. Thus, the intimacy of the first person pov moves the focus of the narrative away from the larger events of the world to where Rosoff wanted the reader to focus: on Daisy and her transformation. It also helps that Rosoff met the challenge of writing in the first person—not one line felt false. She didn’t shy away from some of Daisy’s less flattering thoughts:

Not that I went around saying that out loud, but let’s face it. No matter how much you put on a sad expression and talked about how awful it was that all those people were killed and what about democracy and the Future of Our Great Nation the fact that none of us kids said out loud was that WE DIDN’T REALLY CARE. Most of the people who got killed were either old like our parents so they’d had good lives already, or people who worked in banks and were pretty boring anyway, or other people we didn’t know. (p. 42-43)

Finally, the inside-the-bubble syndrome further aids in focusing the story on Daisy’s experience. Daisy doesn’t know what’s going on in the world around her, but for this story, what’s going on around her really isn’t as important as what’s going on inside her. You don’t feel like you’re missing anything. The limitation of information also creates verisimilitude for the reader—while reading, she is as in the dark about what’s going on as the characters. A more omniscient perspective might have shown the reader a newspaper or told them about the war, thus denying the reader the terror of knowing the world is changing for the worse but having no idea why or by whom.

It’s interesting to note that early on, Rosoff worried about writing in the first person. In a 2004 interview in The Sunday Times, she says, “I only came up with the story in the taxi on my way to see my agent and I asked her whether I was allowed to write in the first person. She said, ‘You don’t have to think about your audience. There are no rules. Just write a terrific book and someone will read it’.” I feel as if there is the opposite pressure now: if you’re writing for teens, you have to be writing in the first person. But this kind of thinking places far too much weight on the choice of point of view.

Point of view is just one of those choices you have to make to get going. I remember being in a drawing class in college and staring at this huge, blank piece of paper unable to draw anything. My teacher came up with a chamois cloth and smeared a smudge across the paper. Somehow, just having that little streak of gray made it possible for me to start. The smudge was not right in the end, and I erased it, but I needed something to get me into the piece. It’s the same with point of view. You pick one; you might need to change it later; but you need to start somewhere. The critical issue—which is an issue best reserved for the revision process—is whether the point of view you ultimately choose serves the needs of the story you’re trying to tell. As Rosoff said in another interview, “You need to be INSIDE your story, not outside telling it. It’s a hard thing to explain, but if the writing lacks freshness and urgency, the reading will too.”

If you haven’t read this book, get thee to a library or your local independent bookstore or the intertubes—wherever. Just read it. And then go to Rosoff’s websiteand read her blog, which is hysterical and smart and weird and wonderful. Especially before the movie comes out.

Next month (and I am so hoping I don’t break this deadline!) I will be talking about textual anomalies in YA novels…you’ll have to come back in March to find out exactly what the heck I mean!