“Little did he know” – thoughts on third person omniscient narrators

I am remembering the scene in the movie Stranger Than Fiction where Will Ferrell meets Dustin Hoffman. That is the movie where Will Ferrell is convinced that he is not a real person but just a character in someone else’s novel. He hears a voice in his head which narrates everything he does. All the doctors think he is simply crazy, having auditory hallucinations. Finally he visits an English professor (Hoffman) who dismisses him also… until Ferrell starts to repeat aloud some of what he is hearing. I’m sorry I couldn’t find a clip on youtube because it is brillliant. “Little did he know,” Ferrell begins, and Hoffman instantly snaps to attention. This phrase — little did he know — changes everything. I wish I could remember the exact line, but basically the English prof says that no mere crazy person would hear voices narrated in the third person omniscient; this proves beyond all doubt that the voice Ferrell hears is truly the author’s.

Stranger Than Fiction was an otherwise humdrum movie, but that one scene was absolutely marvelous and I think about it quite often. Because I just love “little did he know.” I would much rather read third person omniscient than any other. First person narration, particularly in the present tense, is a huge turn-off for me. Unreliable first person narration, even more so. Not saying I won’t read it, but it better be really good, ya know? I can forgive a lot more if a book is written in the TPO.

I imagine the reason why TPO narration is so fun to read is because in reality we are all stuck in our own first-person heads. We can never know someone else’s perspective. We can never know consequences in advance. There is no “little did he know” in real life. The best we can do is dip into a book.

The reason I am thinking about this right now is that A Visit from the Goon Squad is unfolding in a very interesting manner. I started it with some trepidation. The back of the book says it is about an “aging punk rocker and record executive” and “the passionate, troubled young woman he employs,” and it has “music pulsing on every page.” This is not subject matter I would normally gravitate towards. But guess what. Each chapter (so far — I am only on p. 89) is told from a different character’s point of view, and takes place in a different time. An adult character that is not much more than a cameo in one chapter may be the teenage protagonist in the next. Part of the fun of reading this is wondering who the next chapter will focus on. AND there is plenty of little did he know. Example:

Lou and [23-year-old] Mindy dance close together, their whole bodies touching, but Mindy is thinking of Albert, as she will periodically after marrying Lou and having two daughters, his fifth and sixth children, in quick succession, as if sprinting against the inevitable drift of his attention. On paper he’ll be penniless, and Mindy will end up working as a travel agent to support her little girls. For a time her life will be joyless; the girls will seem to cry too much, and she’ll think longingly of this trip to Africa as the last happy moment of her life, when she still had a choice, when she was free and unencumbered. She’ll dream senselessly, futilely, of Albert, wondering what he might be doing at particular times, how her life would have turned out if she’d run away with him as he’d suggested, half joking, when she visited him in room number three. Later, of course, she’ll recognize “Albert” as nothing more than a focus of regret for her own immaturity and disastrous choices. When both her children are in high school, she’ll finally resume her studies, complete her Ph.D. at UCLA, and begin an academic career at forty-five, spending long periods of the next thirty years doing social structures fieldwork in the Brazilian rain forest. Her youngest daughter will go to work for Lou, become his protégée, and inherit his business.

I love this passage for a number of reasons. One, it sheds light on Mindy’s current situation and gives us a window into her personality. Yes, she’s young and dumb, but she’s not a total idiot. Lurking within her now is the responsible introspective adult she will become and that changes the way we feel about her now. Two, it demonstrates the painful results of not being able to see the consequences of our choices, of not having TPO narration available to us. And three, it gives us, the readers, the satisfaction of “little did he know” — of being able to see what’s going to happen to someone else.

What’s your favorite narrative mode?

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