Sunday, October 19, 2008

Mixed Up Persons

Copyright © 2008, Steven E. Houchin

I recently read The Mark, a suspense novel by author and editor Jason Pinter. I attended his author reading at Third Place Books a couple of months ago. As I read through the book, I discovered something surprising and unusual about the way he wrote it. To see what I mean, let's take a look at a few excerpts. *

The following is how Chapter 6 ends, which is roughly how the whole book reads up to that point:

I ducked into an alleyway, saw a homeless man sleeping under a cardboard box. My head throbbed. I couldn't run anymore. I sat down, and pulled my legs up to my knees. I heard faraway sirens, and the blackness overcame me.

Then Chapter 7 begins with the following:

Joe Mauser couldn't sleep. His torso was warm under the covers. His legs were naked, cold. He eyed the finger of scotch on the nightstand. He left one there every night. Sometimes it worked. Often it didn't. And often he found himself going for a refill.Sitting up, Mauser squeezed the sleep from his eyes and looked at the clock -- 4:27 a.m.

Later, after we hear about Joe Mauser's lousy morning, comes the start of Chapter 8:

You wake up in a sun-dappled alley. Your ribs hurt. There's a knot in the back of your head that throbs nonstop. You feel dizzy. A man wearing a cardboard box for a blanket blinks at you, his eyes adjusting to the sight of this stranger sharing his alley. ... You think it has to be a dream. There's no rational explanation. You have a bed. You live in an apartment ...

See the difference? What we have in these three passages is narration in first person, then third person, then second person. When inside FBI Agent Mauser's head, the narration is third person ("He"). When inside the head of the poor, harried main character, Henry Parker, the narration is always first person ("I") - except at the start of Chapter 8, where the narration slips temporarily into second person ("You"). At the end of Chapter 8's first page, it switches back to "I" as Parker regains his wits. The second person form seems to be a device for portraying a dream-like state of mind for the character. This is something I used in one of my novels, Linear Descent, where a lowlife character has a nightmare where he's caught by the cops. But in that case, it is an actual dream.

I can't recall ever seeing mixed narrative forms like this in a published novel, though I've heard that it has been done. If any of us wannabe-published writers dared to try this, could we get away with it and be taken seriously, or would an agent or editor see it as amateurish? It does not come across that way in The Mark; Pinter manages to make it work.

Sigh! Once you've been successfully published (or make the right inside contacts) I suppose you can break all sorts of writing rules, and everyone will say, "Dahling! You're soooo brilliant!"

* Excerpts reprinted with permission from Jason Pinter.

The Mark