On Sunday afternoon, my wife and I sat down at the Public Theater near NYU in comfortable clothes. We popped sucking candies into our mouths, made certain our phones were off-off, and watched a thirty-something redheaded man enter what looked like a dilapidated office from the 1980’s, set down his coffee and turn on his ancient computer. It didn’t work, so he turned it off and waited the requisite ten seconds, then tried it again. As he waited for it to boot up, he looked around his desk and picked up a dog-eared copy of The Great Gatsby. He started to read out loud. He stopped (except for three intermissions, including a supper break) seven hours later, having acted the part of Nick Caraway (along with his co-workers at the office, who took on the roles of Gatsby, Daisy, Tom et al) in a complete reading of Fitzgerald’s book. The play was Gatz, and it was a revelation.
The performance itself, which was somewhere between a staged reading of the entire book and an actual play, isn’t the point of this post. The point is the text of the book—the rhythmic, controlled lines that bridged Hemingway’s minimalism and Faulkner’s genius sprawl. The lines that were all in first person, never deviating from Nick’s perspective, never showing something Nick didn’t see except when he said “they told me that…” or “I heard that…”
Sometimes Fitzgerald wrote his way into corners, such as the scene where Gatsby and Nick were discussing from across the Buchanans’ lawn whether they thought Daisy and Tom were inside. In order to find out, Nick needed to say “Wait here, I’ll check,” then trudge to a window, look in, trudge back, and report. It’s clunky, but necessary to stay in perspective. Had Fitzgerald written a different kind of book, he could have panned into the house either by using an omniscient third person narrator or by “head-hopping” to, say, Daisy, sitting at the kitchen table not eating fried chicken or drinking ale. Would have perhaps been faster, not as slightly annoying to read. But, then, you kind of realized as Nick made his way to the house that he was annoyed, too; that he didn’t want to be doing this any more than we wanted to read it. It was an effective, if slightly excruciating, scene.
One of my pet peeves when reading my clients’ manuscripts (you know who you are, You and You and You…) is the overuse of head-hopping. My assistant, the ever-patient Maddie, who often reads along with me, will come in in the morning and, as we discuss our opinions, peer over her monitor and say “So, how many perspectives do we need to work around?”
And here’s the thing. Notice I didn’t say she asked “So, how are we going to work it into one perspective?” Oftentimes—particularly in novels with large casts, with scenes taking place simultaneously in different places, in the third person—it’s neither practical not necessary to be in one tight perspective. The trick, though, to me at least, is to be in as few heads as possible. I don’t like to be confused, paragraph by paragraph or chapter by chapter. I believe (most of the time, at least) in clarity of voice. I also don’t mind a couple of tight perspectives combined with a strong omniscient narrator—that can be very effective, particularly in place of zipping off into someone’s head for a short time. All it means is that you can’t say “he thought” but rather need to show it through action or conversation. It also forces the writer sometimes to really think through ancillary scenes and really assess their reason for being.
At 10:15 on Sunday night, after one of the more extraordinary days of both theater and literature I can remember, my wife and I left the theater and went home. I flipped on my iPad before bed and checked my email, and browsed through a couple of queries. I got to one where, in the first five pages the perspective changed three times. Sighing a little, I moved it into the “Queries No” file. Sorry, Old Sport. No head-hopping after Gatz.