I had sort of a lightning bolt moment when reading Gulliver’s Travels in high school. I found the book kind of interesting but also tedious at times. And I took everything pretty much at face value. It didn’t occur to me that I might dislike or distrust a character who wasn’t, at face value, a capital-B, capital G Bad Guy. I mean, stories have clear archetypes, right? The Bad Guy wears a black hat and has a sneer, right? I forget whether it was Gulliver himself or one of the haughty houyhnhnms who attracted the lightning bolt, but I remember that my mind was blown when my teacher, in effect, gave me permission to read sort of outside the boundaries of the archetypes. It was ok, she taught me, to countenance ambiguous characters, to perform independent interpretive acts while reading. It sounds simple, but it really was a formative moment for me.
I’ve read a lot since then, and I’m often still pretty dim and literal in my reading, but I’ve learned to read with a little more nuance. Still, the early part of Parable of the Talents has my head spinning a little. We hear from several people:
- The daughter of Olamina and Bankole
- Olamina’s brother Marcus (or Marc? or Marcos?)
And they all have different points of view. We’re pretty well used to Olamina’s voice by now. Her religion seems reasonably level-headed even if it’s not clear (to us, to Marcus, to Bankole, to Dan Noyer…) why she’s babbling on about change as a god. I haven’t fully understood her, but I’ve felt inclined enough to trust her as an agent for good.
But her daughter calls her a zealot and a weapon. Her daughter’s view of Olamina so far seems lukewarm at very best.
The daughter writes more warmly of Bankole. And I like Bankole. But I have some ambivalent feelings about him too. After all, he hooked up with someone very much his junior (just barely an adult) and didn’t think to feel weird about it until afterward. And he’s putting Olamina in kind of a weird position by pressuring her to move to a settlement when he knows her mind is set on making something of Earthseed at Acorn, though his intentions are positive enough. I can’t really fault him for this, and in fact he’s really probably right about it, if a little old-fashioned (but then, he’s kind of old). I feel a little ambivalent about him is where I’m landing here.
I don’t know yet what to think about Marcus. His niece says that he’s likely a worse zealot than Olamina. He abhors chaos while Olamina embraces change. He’s certainly had a hard few years and has plenty of reason to be complicated.
I sure don’t know yet what to make of the daughter. Does she have an agenda? Is she going to wind up being the voice of Butler who helps us see what’s problematic about too easily trusting a messiah figure, or that figure’s opposite, or a kind but old-fashioned man who is all to ready to run arms open into something that seems a little like a sort of gentrification? Or will the daughter turn out to function essentially like a Greek chorus? Or will she become a key player as we get deeper into the book?
So we’ve got these four viewpoints, each at least a little different from the others, and I haven’t yet figured out whose to weigh the most heavily, or how to consider them all together. And of course there’s no saying I have to. But it’s on my mind as I read, this multiplicity of perspectives, and the commentary on the part of the daughter that brings them all together.
“Still pretty dim and literal,” says the fellow who runs a challenging-books reading group. 🙂
I often find myself in the same situation, though—reading along, mhmm mhmm, sure, these people all seem totally transparently motivated! It’s a brain-in-neutral-gear kind of reading. One of the reasons I love playing along here is the stimulus to keep my brain engaged while I read, because yeah, it’s more effort, but it’s so much more fulfilling.
In doing some background reading for my own post this week, I came across a quote (from Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction) that I think goes right along with what you’re asking in this post: “The whole intricate question of method, in the craft of fiction, I take to be governed by the question of the point of view—the question of the relation in which the narrator stands to the story.” That’s the thing to keep in mind in weighing the contributions of the various narrators: where they stand in relation to the story. And the fun part is how that assessment of the relative positions of the various narrators changes each time you learn something.
Speaking of background reading. Did any of you read How Octavia E. Butler Reimagines Sex and Survival in the New Yorker?
I very specifically did not yet because of spoilers. But it was pretty interesting that it was published on march 15–fingers on the pulse!
I did not see this. It definitely seems like Butler is really in the news a lot lately.
Thank you so much for this link! That’s a fine, fine essay—and the Library of America volume it mentions is coedited by Gerry Canavan, who was a part of Infinite Summer and had some interaction with your posts, Daryl!
And yes, these different perspectives (from the narrators and the contributors here) are wonderful at seeing new angles on things
Well, I mean running it is mostly light clerical work. Oddly, I feel sort of dimmer when reading technically lighter fare because I struggle to do a closer reading.
The four perspectives is especially enlightening after an entire book from Lauren’s perspective.
I hate to keep thinking so much about the author’s intention (and obviously I think I can find her intentions if I look for them, but I’m not sure how much I want to know them really), but did she anticipate Book 1 being All Lauren and Book 2 being different points of view? Did she anticipate writing book 2 (or more) at all.
I trusted Lauren a lot in book one, but find her going a little too messianic
I wasn’t too disturbed by the Bankole age thing at first (despite what’s going on in politics these days) probably because it’s coming from Lauren;s POV and she seems very confident about it. And it’s all post apocalyptic. But yes, the more that I thought about it. Ick.
The story arc of Marc(os/us) is pretty fascinating, at least from the little we see of his writing.
Yeah, I’m with you with respect to how much to trust Lauren. I feel like she’s shifting from a young person trying to work out what she thinks of the world toward a cult leader.