Nathan Englander - “The Twenty-Seventh Man”
This is a story about Russia and so it is a very Russian-style story. The narration is in an omniscient third, but a restrained omniscience, not like Dostoyevsky rambling on and on about the history of the Karamazovs, but it does have access seemingly to whatever information it wants. The question posed at the beginning here, which of them is the 27th man, the unlucky one added to the list just before Stalin signed it, does get answered by the narrator towards the end, and not because there was any further evidence discovered or presented. He could’ve told us at any time. We have access to any character’s head, but we don’t often need to get much deeper than what one character sees or notices. So the short story can remain short, but still have that sort of epic Russian lit tone. You watch how excited Pinchas gets upon learning his idol is in the cell, but even as you’re given access to the story he’s writing in his head, you aren’t so deep in his psyche that the vast hope this story will impress his fellow prisoner overruns the story writing itself, the literal thoughts he’s having. So the ending can still be effective, when Zunser compliments him on his writing. It’s something we wanted to see but forgot we were looking for it.
Flannery O'Connor - “Good Country People”
This story feels more like a rotating third to me, even though it rotates whenever it wants to. Most all of the narration is given with an awareness of whose consciousness we’re supposed to be close to. The central character is Joy, or Hulga, but we remain closest to her mother for the first half of the story, which both allows us to watch her misjudge what good country people are and see how this lets the Bible salesman weasel his way into the house. Then in the second half of the story, we’re closest to Joy’s perspective. But during the first part of the story, when Joy became Hulga whenever we saw things from her point of view, now she becomes “the girl” because the Bible salesman has taken the pleasure of being called Hulga away from her, and because she’s acting like a totally different person anyway. We wind up in Mrs. Freeman’s perspective, watching her distinguish herself from the “simple” Bible salesman as he disappears over the hill.
Lauren Groff - “Delicate Edible Birds”
This story crushed me. I don’t usually get into WWII stories, but this one got me. It is a rotating third narration, done at its most obvious, section breaks between focal characters, but it is handled sharply and well. Bern is the overall focal point of the story, the character who most concerns all the others, but we start out in her perspective and come back to hers more often than the others. She is the most complicated, the most real. The others carry certain stereotypes from their given countries, each seeming to defy one main stereotype, making them real, too, to a certain extent. All of them regard Bern with different degrees of reverence, and once they’re trapped in the barn, the pace seems to achingly slow down as we watch them all give up their chivalry and bravery in favor of choosing their own lives. The final section gets more omniscient, or possibly objective, which has the effect that all these men feel the same shitty way about the shitty choice they’ve made. And Bern is just wrecked, totally. I say omniscient at the end because the last line adds an observation that seems to sum up the situation perfectly, but one probably none of them are feeling in the moment. It’s just awful. Everyone should read this story.
Eric Puchner - “Beautiful Monsters”
Since this is a little sci-fi, a concept story in which the capacity to grow into adulthood has been genetically removed and people live forever as children, the perspective fully commits itself to the characters who only know this world: the boy and the girl. We’re never given access to the man who knows of our world, where there are adults and death and family and sex, so like him we feel like outsiders, perhaps even more so because we’re privy to all the thoughts we can’t initially understand. This limited perspective is where the story gets the bulk of its mileage, seeing the man act in a strange way to them, recounted in a way that is strange to us. The most human parts of his behavior and their reactions to his behavior come through especially strongly, when everything else is multiples of strange, particularly because he’s getting sicker and dying. The boy’s grief is the first of his life, and it feels entirely fresh and new.
Jennifer Egan - “Safari”
This narrative perspective has access to whatever it wants. It goes into anyone’s head, it knows the future, it is as omniscient as any modern story I can think of. From the beginning it demonstrates that it knows every detail about every thing, but it saves its prescient abilities for the end of the story. Maybe the omniscient voice is invoked so that when this flash-forward happens at the end, it’ll feel within the permissible rules of the story. But I think this is also a case of the narrator not wanting the audience to miss the significance of anything. Not much is left up to chance. All the connections and interpretations are laid out for us, the risks and the choices each character goes through. The effect of this POV for me is, I think, exactly what Egan was going for, which is that everything feels terribly important. Maybe because the story is about rich people and celebrities, this insistence on significance could a little ironic, but at the end when we hear how the main characters will all turn out, the significance seems to shift. It’s not a story of what happened to these important people on this trip, it’s a story of how this trip factors into the downfall of their wealth, health, fame, and happiness.
David Means - “The Secret Goldfish”
This story’s narrative voice is so strong that it’s easy to mistake it for a broad-sweeping omniscience. And while it does seem to have access to whatever it wants, everything seems to be filtered through a consciousness that mimics the disillusionment of the mother. Even if she’s not the one to make the observation about there being “something romantic and heartening about seeing those homes through the trees … those safe, confided Connecticut lives,” this kind of wistful melancholy is exactly what she is all about. So even when we hear about the children play-acting their parents’ fights, something she couldn’t know about, it feels like the precise detail she would be concerned with if she could. The details about Fish, and fish in general, all seem a little more studied and exact than she might be capable of, even coming from northern Michigan, where fishing is as popular as sex, if not more. And certain feelings and knowledge rooted in Fish do seem experimental in that Bold Fiction sort of way, which again makes you think of omniscience. So technically it is, I guess, but the narrator’s heart and the mother’s heart are matching each other beat for beat.