Friday, September 26, 2008

The Sparrow: A Ridiculously Close Look

I've been meaning for the last week to get back to looking at narrators, so today I'll do a short entry on the opening of Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow. Fascinating book. One of the things that always surprised me about it was the omniscient narration. I think I was sensitized to it by the fact that I'd begun writing tight third person narrators, and kept expecting to find them all around. But the omniscient narration in this book is well done.

I'll start with the first sentence, the way I did with my last post, because an opening has to tell so much about what is to follow:

"It was predictable, in hindsight."

The first thing I notice is that this is not a personal sentence. This sentence isn't giving us a person to relate to, because it has no content pronouns at all, only the word "it" which refers obliquely to a situation.

On the other hand, "it was predictable" does imply a narrator - because it expresses an opinion, and therefore must involve someone to opine. This someone is left deliberately absent, so we have to wait for further information to identify where the opinion comes from.

"In hindsight" also implies a narrator, because it also expresses judgment. Judgment is something that does not require POV pronouns, but can be used well in something as simple as this five-word sentence.

Look, too, at the juxtaposition. "Predictable, in hindsight." Something was predictable, perhaps even should have been predicted, but since we are "in hindsight", obviously it was not. What does this give us? Curiosity, of course. A desire to read the next sentence, which is this:

"Everything about the history of the Society of Jesus bespoke deft and efficient action, exploration and research."

I don't want to discuss every word on this one, but I will note a few things. First off, this sentence depends crucially on the one before it. If we didn't know that there was some event, predictable but not really predicted, this would make less sense and do less to draw us in. But since we do know, we can gather here that the event in question also involved deft and efficient action, exploration and research.

We can gather from the brevity of the phrase "everything about the history of" that the history itself is not relevant, but that if we were to ask, it would serve to support the narrator's contention that the Society has a tendency toward the aforementioned deft action, etc.

The last things I'll point out are the words "Society of Jesus" and "bespoke". They do fit together well. Bespoke to me has a distinct biblical feel, particularly when it accompanies Society of Jesus (without that phrase I might accidentally interpret it as the particular type of telepathy used by Ursula LeGuin).

Also, I'll point out that the word "Jesuit" doesn't appear in the book until sentence number three. Since that word is probably more commonly known to the general population, why wouldn't she use it first? Well, because in saying "Society of Jesus," which is what the Jesuits call themselves, she gestures toward their point of view. The story itself is about a group of Jesuits who go to another planet, about their judgments and the consequences thereof. So the implication here is entirely appropriate to set up reader expectations.

Even when you're in a third person omniscient, point of view never goes away. Don't forget that even tiny alterations in choice of words can tell you a whole lot about what's coming.