I was working behind the cash register at the Bookshop. George Saunders was next in line. I waved him over. We had met several times previously, so he said hello, in a natural way, knowing that I knew him, and that I was a fan. He and his wife had recently purchased a house in the area, and he was rumored to be writing his first novel (Lincoln in the Bardo- which BTW I loved and will be posting my review here soon). He had a stack of books, mostly Tolstoy.
“I put War and Peace down at 1,200 pages,” I said.
“Something something something cool about Tolstoy,” he said, as I gazed into his eyeballs, hoping to download some genius, though way too nervous to be fully present with one of my heroes.
“I’m reading Tenth of December for school right now,” I said. “It wasn’t assigned. I chose it from a list of short story blah blah from a list of fiction for my blah blah advanced fiction blah,” I said. "I'm writing an essay on "Victory Lap."
“You can say that I agree with whatever it is you say about it,” he said with an impish grin, while holding out his credit card, hoping to pay. “Do you have any questions for me?”
Instead of asking a good question, I continued to talk about me and my thoughts. A practicing Buddhist, he surely noted the self is strong with this one. I managed to point out the way "Victory Lap" shifts the POV regularly while keeping the narrative moving in a straight timeline. Then, I mumbled something like, "is it vocabulary?" To which he said something like (seriously I needed to turn down the self-centered fanboy reaction, so I could actually listen to the man): “Each character's vocabulary needs to sound totally different, yes.”
I held him hostage at the counter for a time longer than what was appropriate.
Questions I could have asked, “Why a stack of Russian epics? Planning on teaching a class or writing a massive war narrative? Do you live with a gnome, and you need these large tomes to prop him up at the dinner table? He paid and left, and I stood there at the counter, dreaming he had said, "I'm looking for an up and coming writer to teach one on one. Would you be available to meet once or twice a week for coffee, to discuss your work? Or, maybe we could meditate together?"
Then, a nice old lady came up to the register to purchase a stack of board books for her grandkids, and I fake smiled.
“Victory Lap" begins with the POV (they are all over-the-shoulder 3rd person) of a 15 year old girl who wonders if she is special: (example: “Helen Keller had been awesome; Mother Teresa was amazing; Mrs. Roosevelt was quite chipper in spite of her husband, who was handicapped, which, in addition, she had been gay, with those big old teeth, long before such time as being gay and First Lady was even conceptual…”). Several pages later, the reader is still awaiting the major plot twist to occur, and Saunders has given us a new POV, this time a young boy who lives across the street from her, with a very different vocal (example: “Mom and Dad would be heartsick if they could hear the swearing he sometimes did in his head, such as crap-cunt shit-turd dick-in-the-ear butt-creamery…”). Until, finally 16 pages into the tale, the creepy kidnapper is revealed, and the narrator takes on a new vocabulary (example: “If fuckwise it went bad, she didn’t properly arouse him, he’d abort the activity, truncate the subject, heave the thing out, clean van as necessary, go buy corn, return van to Kenny, say, Hey, bro, here’s shitload of corn, thanks for the van, I never could’ve bought a suitable quantity of corn in my car…”).
But, the very best thing this story does, which I am learning, through a very slow, and very tedious climb, is to finish the story with twisted hope. By this newly coined phrase, I mean that when the story ends, it leaves its reader with a sense of “justice has been served” while simultaneously, it would be totally appropriate to take a long cold shower while crying.
In summary, one of the keys to shifting the POV, in order to give a more well-rounded narrative with more nuanced characters, is to give each voice its own vocabulary. Stories "Victory Lap" and "Tenth of December" by George Saunders do this really well. I also recommend the novels Beloved by Toni Morrison and A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. I pray that this blog post has left all of you fictionistas with a splattering of Twisted Hope.
Watch this awesome puppet video with George Saunders discussing how to write a Story!!!
Last night while Michelle met with her women's group in the living room, I hid in the bedroom and read a bunch of Aimee Bender. After every story, I wondered, "How does she do that?" So, I tried to do what she (Aimee Bender, not my wife) does. This little baby story was the best thing I came up with:
My wife sleeps on the roof. She used to sleep besides me, in our bed, inside the house, but that was before our argument. I told her that her story just did not hold up, due to issues of translation, etc., but she swore that she had met an alien who came from a galaxy countless light years away, and that this alien convinced her an invasion was imminent. This alien, who conveniently had no name, even though it somehow was able to communicate with my wife (despite the fact that she only spoke English, a little bit of Spanish and just enough Portuguese to get us to the hotel and order us both caipirinhas at the bar in the lobby), told her to watch the sky for warning signs. The sky will look pink, and then purple, not the blue of the daytime or the blackness of night. That sounds like the sunrise or the sunset, I had told her. But, that’s not all, she had said. Small, frozen particles will fall from outer space. Snow? I said. No. She said. Debris from giant interstellar battleships that are hovering over planet Earth. They will have travelled here from a frozen planet and when they finally make it to ours, their ships will thaw from the heat at the core of our planet. Why would an alien race from a frozen planet invade us? I asked. It just didn’t add up. You’re not listening to me. She had said. You never do.