Steve Yarbrough - “The Rest of Her Life”
I’ve read this one before, so we’ll start here. It seems the theme for this week’s stories is rule-breaking limited third. Several of the stories seem limited to a character, but all of them break perspective, either regularly, or all at once, in service of the greater story to be told, and often because the protagonist has too small a window into the world to offer a complete (in the author’s opinion) view of the story, a window limited by grief or booze or other trauma.
In Dee Ann’s case, it’s trauma. Her mother has been killed, possibly by her father. The perspective starts in a sort of reflective omniscient tone, then jumps to Chuckie, her boyfriend, and then we settle into Dee Ann in the same sort of reflective tone as the beginning, which to me tells me that this is the dominant character. But even before we finish this section, we get brief reflective voice from Chuckie’s window. This feels like omniscience, perhaps, but as the story goes on, most of the perspective is located in Dee Ann. But more importantly the story doesn’t ever take the opportunity to weigh in on the pressing question of whether or not her father killed her mother (although we are given no other potential culprit, and he does escape with the spoils). The story is bigger than Dee Ann’s window, but not so large that it seems interested in telling us exactly what happened.
The window size is dictated by the ending, which shows Dee Ann on the cusp of making the choice to alter her testimony enough to set her father free. This decision is going to affect the rest of her life, but its impact is greater than her own perspective. She’s stuck on that day, stuck in her recollection, and since the story is interested in exploring a bigger picture, her own window is not enough. The larger window broadens the scope just enough give the rest of the community its own agency.
Lorrie Moore - “You’re Ugly, Too”
This lens in this story is pretty consistently focused on Zoë, but the perspective seems to always have one foot in her head and one foot just outside her, making observations about her with an opinionated voice different from her own. Observations about her appearance, her career, her sister, sometimes making quippy judgments that seem a little too honest for her to be able to say such things. And perhaps because of this, the narrative voice seems unable to get so deep with her actual inner monologue that the true depths of her frustration/depression don’t seem to get investigated. To me this sounds like an idealized version of Zoë, telling her story in the sharpest voice that can’t be fully located in her head, which simultaneously makes it too sharp access the confusion inside her.
Aimee Bender - “Quiet Please”
This protagonist’s father has died and she’s trying to screw her way through the complicated grief process, her father evidently being one of the awful variety. The narrator refers to her as the woman or the librarian and seems to stay at a purposeful remove so as not to have to detail the complicated past that’s inevitably being reviewed somewhere inside her, the past she’s trying to tamp down, quiet please, thank you. The remove is so much that occasionally the narrator has to dip into her suitors’ minds just to keep the story going, at last with the muscleman, who doesn’t give in to the seduction and just wants to lift things.
Peter Ho Davies - “Relief”
This story proves to be a little more omniscient. Though the main character is Lieutenant Wilby, the observations are coming from a more Victorian-era sort of remove, with a clear vision of how all the pieces fit together. When Wilby’s little drama of embarrassment over a fart in front of fellow 19th-century imperialistic officers is resolved, the POV leaves him behind and focuses on Bromhead, who in comparison to Chard does not relish in appearances or in his part in the quote-unquote heroic defense of a garrison post that left many people dead. He tells his own farting story, which saves Wilby, but the parting image is his private recollection of grasping a man’s leg who was being pulled away by the enemy. Since we’re at a remove, this doesn’t seem melodramatic, but more Hemingway-esque and matter-of-fact and manly, in a 19th century sort of way.
Ngugi wa Thoiong'o - “Minutes of Glory”
This story stays pretty tight to the limited third with the protagonist Beatrice, locked in her vision of herself and her frustration at being stuck in a cycle of prostitution and lack of an ability to find a kindred spirit. There are some early observations of what the owners of these bars wanted and what the other working girls want, but they seem pretty obvious observations that Beatrice could make herself. When a man shows up whom she thinks she could connect to, we do go into his head for a little while, but as if just to give the story permission to leave Beatrice, because these observations aren’t that deep and could likewise have been assumed by Beatrice.
Then the story shifts. Beatrice makes a bold theft from this new man and finds that way to feel attractive, and in doing so finds a temporary glory. The narrative voice seems to settle outside her as if to have a better angle on perceiving her new glory. The final shot is we get is after Beatrice has been arrested and taken away for the theft. We see the aftermath of her glory-bomb in the bar from all different angles, including the final line focused on her perceived rival Nyaguthii, crying because only she understands what just happened.
Robert Stone - “Helping”
This is a limited third that stays pretty close to Elliot but has easy access to information for the audience’s benefit, stuff Elliot wouldn’t necessarily be thinking about, but relevant facts. None of these seem like things Elliot wouldn’t know, and usually reported in such a way that reflects Elliot’s opinion. There is an early flash-forward that reports he would start drinking again on this day, but it’s the only one and it doesn’t especially resonate. By the time we get to the drinking, I had totally forgotten it. This story doesn’t seem to need a much bigger window than what Elliot can provide, and the final image of him waving at his wife seems tied pretty tightly to his own hope that she’ll wave back. This is Elliot’s story in total, and it doesn’t stray.
Tobias Wolff - “The Chain”
In pretty stark contrast to the Stone story, Tobias Wolff sets up a series of events that seem pretty focused on the protagonist Gold. But from the beginning the narrative voice takes the time to highlight its remove from Gold’s own view. We get phrases like “he knew” or “he saw” or “he was conscious of” that show the difference between being inside and out of Gold’s head. This slight remove makes the drastic perspective shift a little less jarring, when we’re suddenly following other characters and other events (the chain) as they play out, resulting from Gold’s actions, but Gold is otherwise not involved.