The Private Eye: Observing Snow Geese

How do YOU see it?

Point of view is one of the most challenging and exciting (exciting in the way that sitting at your desk alone can be exciting, something non-writers might not appreciate) tools a writer has to work with, and two recent reads demonstrated very clever use of it.

One novel, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was passed on by a friend and the other I picked up in the airport, for distraction. Of the latter, I was familiar only with the title, Gone Girl. It either already has been or soon will be made into a movie. The former was published almost ten years ago, in Australia, might be twice the size, and instead of working with two points of view, that of a husband and wife  - as Gillian Flynn does in her psychological thriller - Elliot Perlman, whose more slowly-paced work is a literary psychological thriller, juggles seven perspectives: a psychiatrist, his sensitive and possibly dangerous patient, the patient's ex-girlfriend, the patient's ex-girlfriend's husband, the prostitute girl-friend of the patient,  a stock analyst, Mitch, and, finally, the psychiatrist's daughter.

Point of view is a central consideration when I begin any work. My last novel, You Again, which is not a psychological thriller, uses the standpoints of a mother, three daughters and a grandson to complete the family saga that began with Shinny's Girls. I also played with point of view in a non-fiction book, The Private Eye: Observing Snow Geese, because I wanted to deliberately explore how a given reality, in that case, the race of snow geese that annually migrate from Wrangel Island in Alaska to the coast of Washington and British Columbia, is constructed by the subjectivity of the humans that interact with it. It's fun to think about such things and writing is a good way to explore thoughts.

In their novels, Perlman and Flynn in effect ask the reader, what's really happening here, how do YOU see it? Of course both situations are  invented, the case of the kidnapped wife and the kidnapped boy, neither of them really kidnapped as it turns out. And the books have different ambitions. Flynn is crafty, never failing to entertain the reader with a twist, a sharp phrase, an insight that feels piercingly honest. Yet, by the end, I felt victimized by so much contrivance, such A-plus student wizardry. As the chapters became shorter and the characters almost seemed to meld - and I got it, her obvious purpose - it felt as if my neck were sore from being yanked this way and that for so many pages. Good distracting plane reading, though. She's a smart writer, and an excellent plotter, and knows how to keep her readers guessing.

Nevertheless, I preferred Perlman's more thoughtful use of point of view, how the first person narratives not only revealed the narrators, but also shed surprising, sometimes harsh, sometimes beneficent light on the other characters. Through this large, compelling novel, my sense of the situation expanded like intricate paper puzzles do. Trying to understand the bit of human life he presented by viewing it from various angles reinforced the difficulty of sorting through the complexity of the human predicament. As well as being an imaginative literary take on the story, Perlman's multiple point of view approach had a broader, thematic purpose, which, from my vantage point, was ultimately more intriguing and satisfying. Not that he achieved a perfect novel. Both he and Flynn chose their characters to represent or critique certain contemporary social issues, and the Aussie occasionally got carried away setting those up. Still, in the words of Samuel Beckett, "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." That's how I see it, too.