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Points of View

Hunters in the Dark by Lawrence Osborne and In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner are both, as it happens, set in Cambodia. And there the similarity ends – but there are plenty of reviews that will explain why. What prompted this post was the points of view from which they were written, and how I think they could both have been a little better with a little more attention on this point.

Vaddey’s book, as the Author’s Notes state, is based on her own experience growing up during the Khmer Rouge era. The author was five years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power, and escaped when the regime collapsed four years later. Her protagonist was two years older.

The book is written from the first person – “I.” However, it’s pretty obvious from the first few pages that the “I” writing the book is not a seven year old, but an adult remembering the time when she was seven. In other words, and unlike Peter Cary’s True History of the Kelly Gang in which he writes as a barely literate uneducated immigrant would, Vaddey writes using the voice of what she is: a literate adult.

The result, to my mind, detracted from the work. The “I” became a distraction, a give-away that “I” was going to survive the genocide, a device that lost its purpose very early in the work. Using a third person would have left open the possibility that the protagonist wouldn’t make it, increasing the tension.

This was needed. Despite some very moving writing, the emotional heart of the book is the relationship between the main character and her father, who is disappeared about a third of the way through the book. By half way through, it is obvious that her father won’t come back and, with the use of “I” closing off the possibilty that the main character wouldn’t survive, the dramatic tension of the book weakened.

Lawrence’s book was a take on today’s Cambodia, and almost self-consciously avoids “atrocity tourism.” The problem I found with this book was that the many points of view made the author lazy.

The book starts with an undistinguished backpacker crossing the land border into Cambodia. The first ten or so chapters are told from his point of view: we see the world through his eyes.

Chapter 11 is therefore a shock because, a quarter of the way through the book, there is an abrupt change and we see the world through another character’s eyes. It was a few pages before I picked up on this, and I had to go back and re-read it to make sense of what was going on.

From this point, the discipline collapsed. Forget about one character’s point of view per chapter – there was one sequence where we got three character’s points of view in as many pages. While it would be exaggerating to say that these changes came thick and fast, trying to work out which pair of eyes I was seeing things through was a distraction.

It also took the onus off the main character, who ought to have been baffled at events around him. But because I, the reader, knew so much that he didn’t, the sheer terror that someone in that situation would find themselves in didn’t come across.

Of course, one of the reasons I have started writing this blog is to remind myself of what I liked and I didn’t. And there’s a whole stack of classics from the 18th and 19th centuries which have a narrator to guide us along. But I guess my point to me is to choose the rules and stick with them.

 

 

Re-Typing

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra is a great book, and deserves all the praise that’s been heaped on it. You can find reviews of it all over the place. What I want to add is a little different.

In the author’s notes, Anthony says that he re-typed his book four times to get to the final manuscript. I was gob-smacked. I hate typing. I’m crap, I wear out backspace keys faster than an F1 driver goes through tyres, and even after getting rid of all those wiggly red underlines, I find I’ve used the wrong words (where / were / wear) all over the place.

But, I’d been stalled on one of my own books for some time. I knew it wasn’t quite there, but continual editing and re-editing seemed to be getting me further away from where I wanted to be, rather than closer to it. As an old mentor of mine once said, writing can get like over-worked pastry, crumbly and grey, and that’s what was happening to this book.

So, I followed Anthony’s idea. I printed my book out, sat down, and re-typed it. I don’t mean I went through it with a pen crossing out some bits, re-working others and typing in the changes. I’d been doing that for ages – too long – and was getting nowhere. I mean I put the stack of paper next to my computer and typed the whole lot in again from scratch.

I was cynical when I began. I tend to write my first drafts long-hand – yes, pen and paper – and type them in, and that first typing in is part of the process of improving writing. I’d already done that, and I’d crossed out and moved bits around and all the other stuff writers do to try and wrestle these awkward entities, words, into submission. I doubted I would gain much. However, this book has about 70 chapters of a about thousand each, so there didn’t seem to be much to lose by trying it out on the first one or two.

Day 1: Re-typed the first two chapters. What a grind. Fuck.

Day 2: Read what I’d typed on Day 1. Boy. I didn’t know what I’d done, but even if it was still crap, it was a much better grade of crap.

So, I set myself a target of 4,000 words and went for it. And that was me, for just under twenty days. By the end of it, I felt as though something very heavy had driven over me and reversed a couple of times. I was barely articulate. I’d broken my laptop keyboard. But it was worth it. The book had gained a stylistic uniformity that took me by surprise. It had fewer loose ends, fewer asides that went nowhere, and just read better.

Perhaps because I hate typing so much, the process of re-typing did what the editing couldn’t: forced me to think if I really needed to say a thing, or whether I could say the same thing with fewer words. One thing that took me quite by surprise was that my book came down from 73,000 to 67,000 words. I didn’t think that was possible.

So, writers, if you’re at a dead end with the polish that shines, I recommend re-typing. It kept me sober for almost three weeks, too. But that benefit turned out to be rather more transient…