This month’s story through the Crucible is Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s The Ink Readers of Doi Saket. This is a fun story with a lot going on in it, but I want to home in on a thing it does that you just don’t see a lot of in modern genre literature: Omniscient POV. That’s the 3rd person narrator who knows everything about everything and traditionally isn’t a character in the story. If that’s not innovative enough for Heuvelt, it’s an unreliable omniscient narrator. Neat!
First, let’s take a look at how he goes about establishing the POV so that readers who aren’t trained to expect omniscient nevertheless follow along without getting lost.
It was during a night in the twelfth lunar month of this year when two strong hands pushed young Tangmoo down into the bed of the Mae Ping River, and by doing so, ironically, fulfilled his only wish. Tangmoo flailed his arms wildly, churning up the swirling water. The whites of his eyes reflected flashes from the fireworks as his smothered cries rose in bubbles to the surface, where they burst in silence: help, help, help, help!
This first paragraph goes a long way toward establishing the narrative voice and hinting what’s going on to the reader. The distance inherent in opening with the date helps and also starts signaling that this is a fable-type story. The use of “ironically” is also a big clue, because it’s commentary implying that narrator is in a position not just to report the events, but to comment on their relevance in the big-picture context. At this point it could be a close 3rd on Tangmoo, but unless he’s suicidal, it’s going to be really hard for him to know that, ironically, his wish is getting fulfilled. The case against a close 3rd on Tangmoo gets even stronger when we have a description of the whites of his eyes – there’s no way Tangmoo would know what the whites of his own eyes lock like while he’s being drowned in the middle of the night. So the narrator is somebody who can observe the up close details of the scene, knows the inner thoughts of at least one of the actors and how the scenario plays in large context. The reader doesn’t need to be consciously aware of those details about the narrator, but this is the information that makes the transition to the next paragraph smooth and easy to follow.
These filtered cries of alarm were mistaken by a pair of dragonflies fused in flight, their only wish to remain larvaless and so prolong their love dance endlessly, for the dripping of morning dew.
Here anybody paying attention and trying to determine the POV at play in the story has no choice but to accept an omniscient 3rd unless they want to generate a very specific character and explanation for this story. Most readers won’t do that automatically, they just fall into accepting what’s going on in front of them. So there, in less than two paragraphs, you have an atypical POV presented to the reader, the tone of the story established, the inciting incident described, and the major theme of the story introduced and reinforced. Beginnings, man. They’re such over-achievers.
What I like in particular about these opening paragraphs, though, is the amount of work they put into establishing the narrator as credible. You get facts, and useful details. You get insights. And you get a little piece of commentary that betrays the narrator’s knowledge and understanding of the situation. The commentary is important, because having commented once in a fashion that doesn’t at all beg the reader to question the implication (because it’s there to prove something else, not to be evaluated on its own) you’ve now believed one subjective thing from the narrator. That primes you to believe another.
Which you get.
(There were rumors that the stone was not in fact bewitched at all, but that lustful Somchai suffered from some type of obsessive exhibitionism. Nonsense, of course.)
This is great . The explicit text is lying to you; this story is set in modern day and we find out what’s up with lusty Somchai later. Those rumors are absolutely and unquestionably true, and every reader knows it. Nobody would expect the readers to believe anything else. So even though the text is an explicit lie, the narrator isn’t lying. That’s a sarcastic “nonsense,” meant to cause a little bit of bonding between the narrator and the reader. What it’s saying is, “I know the rumors are true. You know the rumors are true. But there are plenty of people who are invested in refusing to believe the rumors, and we’re too polite to shatter their beliefs on the subject.” It’s a secret the reader and the narrator share.
But this, the same as with the dragonflies, was purely coincidental, and nothing should be read into it.
And here comes a piece of commentary that potentially is a lie. A reader could go either way on whether they think this is meant to be believed. Obviously it isn’t, but does the narrator know that? Hard to say. I’d argue that no, not really, because this motif of the benefits just being a coincidence gets repeated several times, then subverted at the end.
And maybe this was all coincidence, like so much in life.
The wording of this subversion is intensely interesting. The “maybe” here is the word I’m latching onto because it clearly indicates that the narrator doesn’t believe it was all a coincidence. They’re open to the possibility, but that’s not their understanding. The wishes granted after Tangmoo dies are, as presented by the narrator, actually attributable to him. Yet, in the same breath, the narrator specifies “Like so much in life.” That right there is a reinforcement of the assertion that the fortuitous circumstances that followed Tangmoo in the days before he was murdered were coincidental.
The difference between whether the narrator means for the reader to assume none of the circumstances were coincidental may seem little, but it’s actually vital to understanding the scope of the story told here. If the blessings in living Tangmoo’s wake weren’t coicidences, then this is the story of a gifted young man murdered and thereby freed to exercise his gifts more widely. If they were coincidences, then this is the story of a good, sincere, kind boy murdered and transformed into a force of cosmic beneficence. The second interpretation is a much bigger story, and the nature of the violence inherent in his murder changes, too.
I’m thinking the narrator was unreliable and none of the things were coincidences. But I like the other story better.
Next month: May 15 – “Selkie Stories Are for Losers” by Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons, Jan-2013)