Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Riff on Point of View in Historical, Military and Fantasy Fiction with a nod to Joe Abercrombie and Ralph Peters

Ralph Peters, the author of Cain at Gettysburg (Forge 2012), recently stated that  "history deals in externals, where historical fiction delves into the soul of man." With that statement in mind, I would like to look at several  novels--both realistic and fantastic--to illustrate the uses and devices of historical fiction and the way that certain writers achieve the objective suggested by Peters, while others fail. I am primarily interested in the way in which an author, when dealing with a battle or a war complete, attempts to inform the reader, through his or her choice of point of view, of the historical aspect of a battle as well as the participants' emotions.

Some writers employ the first person; however, this rhetorical device is limited in that we can only see what that first-person narrator sees or hears. It is quite difficult for an author to re-create the battle complete, while using the first person point of view, although some have used it and succeeded in creating an intense and entertaining work. The intensity comes, of course, from the immediacy the first person lends to the work. It is especially useful in recounting the persona's moment by moment encounter with death and fear. For instance, Peters, writing under his pen-name, Owen Parry, employs the first-person narrator to great effect in describing the battle of Shiloh in his novel, Call Each River Jordan (HarperTorch 2001). Major Abel Jones, his protagonist, leads the reader through the battle, subjecting us, during the process, to his beliefs, prejudices, perceptions and foibles. The novel begins with Jones remembering his arrival at Savannah just at the moment of attack. He begins his narration: "I remember the burning men. Wounded, and caught like the damned at the reckoning. In brush and bramble lit by battle's sparks." Hearing the sound of guns he quickly boards a paddle boat conveying troops upriver to the fighting and at Pittsburg landing he encounters fleeing Union soldiers: "Now I have seen fear, and felt it, but here is no greater danger for an army than panic." The persona sees it and interprets it for us.

Peters in Cain at Gettysburg and Michael Shaara in The Killer Angels (Random House 1987) both choose the limited omniscient point of view to tell the same story. Each man recounts the same historical facts but by picking different points of view characters to carry their tale, their novels differ. The author, using the third person, knows all but chooses to pick pertinent characters to carry the narrative, revealing only what they think or feel. We know only what they know and nothing more.Additionally, authors have their own themes and their own preoccupations. Peters concentrates on the diversity of the soldiers, choosing, inter alia, the 26th Wisconsin to carry his narrative to great effect. Probably the most exciting point of the book delved into the Irish's defense against Pickett's charge. Shaara, on the other hand, is more interested in the dynamic personality and character of Lee, Longstreet, and Chamberlin. Through these real men he ruminates on the mistakes made by leadership and the sacrifices suffered by the common soldier. Shaara's book is romantic and didactic, instilling its chosen POV characters with a metaphorical essence, whereas Peters is tough, dogged, real, earthy, and true.

A variation of this rhetorical device is Shelby Foote's Shiloh (Knopf 1991). Foote minutely describes the battle through a series of short stories, long chapters, each one dealing with a single character. This unique rhetorical choice of interrelated short stories illustrates both sides of the battle and most of the events with a haunting immediacy, somewhat similar to William Faulkner's civil war novel, The Unvanquished (Knopf 1991) and Stephen Crane's A Red Badge of Courage (Penguin Group 2005). However, Crane's novel follows one warrior through the unnamed battle. Here, Crane uses the third-person limited omniscient point of view to great effect. We don't learn much history but we do experience the soul of man.

When a genre novel fails for me, it is usually a failure of point view. Among younger genre writers, there seems to be an attempt to employ the rhetorical devices of film rather than the correct use of point of view. Nothing jars the reader worst than a sudden shift in point of view; similar to a jump cut, these shifts are between characters and point of view, sometimes on the same page and sometimes in the same paragraph.  Perhaps, even more egregious, some follow the strict third-person limited point of view through eighty percent of the novel and then jump over to another character to show us some new aspect of the action. One of the most recent examples that drew my ire was in Simon Scarrow's latest novel. It probably bothered me so much because I love Simon Scarrow's work. I've read everything he's written to this date. However, in his latest novel, Praetorian (Headline Books 2011), Scarrow jumps out of his single limited third-person point of view to follow Macro off on a bit of misadventure. The switch from the character carrying the narrative to another upset me and interrupted my reading rhythm.

A fantasy novel that impressed me greatly and illustrates the use of multiple limited third-person points of view is Joe Abercrombie's The Heroes (Orbit 2011). The novel set in Abercrombie's fantasy universe relies on the same techniques that Shaara and Peters used to re-create the battle of Gettysburg and to delve deeply into their characters' personality. More particularly, even though The Heroes is an example of the new grittiness and realism in fantasy fiction, it is also strongly character driven ( a nod to older fantasy fiction); something that only a dedicated and disciplined point of view can successfully deliver. Just as Peters attempts to reveal the soul of man in his re-creation of Gettysburg, so, too, does Abercrombie. And, even though the two novels arise from two somewhat disparate genres--one realistic and the other fantastic--they feel very similar to me and I would suggest that they be read together.

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