book by Saul Bellow
annotation by Anne Charnock
When I finished the first draft of my novel A Calculated Life, I felt misgivings over the point of view I’d adopted and I realised I needed to do some research. I’d chosen a variant of third-person, namely third-person limited, which allowed me to relate the thoughts of my main character, Jayna. I didn’t wish to dip into the thoughts of any other characters. Jayna is a hyper-intelligent trends analyst and her interior monologue reveals her struggle to understand everyday social interactions.
The question I asked myself was this: Had I overdone the interior monologue? It was a difficult call.
I stopped re-drafting and began casting around for good examples of third-person limited. I settled on Saul Bellow’s novella Seize the Day, which tells the story of failed salesman Tommy Wilhelm and delves into his strained relationship with his successful father. Bellow is brilliant in his use of this POV. It allows him to get below the surface – to reveal that seemingly harmless, and even complimentary, remarks by his father are tearing Tommy’s nerves to shreds. He’s on the brink, his marriage has fallen apart, his investments are bombing.
During a close read of Seize the Day, I underlined every instance of Wilhelm’s first-person thoughts. The first instance occurs nearly four pages into the book when Tommy sees his reflection in a hotel lobby:
…He began to be half amused at the shadow of his own marveling, troubled, desirous eyes, and his nostrils and his lips. Fair-haired hippopotamus!—that was how he looked to himself. He saw a big round face, a wide, flourishing red mouth, stump teeth. And the hat, too; and the cigar, too. I should have done hard labor all my life, he reflected. Hard honest labor that tires you out and makes you sleep. I’d have worked off my energy and felt better. Instead, I had to distinguish myself—yet.
Bellow uses the thought tag, he reflected, for the latter part of this interior monologue. But he dips in and out of Tommy’s head, deftly, without any thought tag here: Fair-haired hippopotamus!—that was how he looked to himself.
Following on from this, Bellow relates Tommy’s first-person thoughts every couple of pages or so.
I decided that I’d follow a similar pattern. In the redrafting of A Calculated Life, the first instance of Jayna’s interior monologue occurs on page six. I decided, taking Seize the Day as my guide, that I had in fact ‘overdone it’ in my first draft.
At a later stage, after my novel was accepted by a publisher (47North), I made a further change at the request of my editor—I italicized all the interior monologue. (Bellow does not use italics. Instead, he deploys a range of thought tags for clarification: he thought, he said to himself, he reflected). This final italicizing process was less straightforward than you might imagine. In several passages where Jayna’s thoughts were repeatedly interrupted by action, the text looked messy with all the switching from italics, to roman, to italics etc. So I rewrote these passages without interior monologue, in third-person. In addition, I stripped out many of the thought tags. They were redundant.
In my near-future novel, Jayna holds a rarefied position in the workplace, and in society, thanks to her remarkable intelligence. In fact, there are upsides for everyone because genetic engineering has freed the population from addictive tendencies. But it’s not a perfect world.
My adopting third person limited, I stand outside my main character but, in effect, I stand shoulder to shoulder with Jayna. I hope readers feel this way, too—that they are walking alongside her, in step, as she negotiates her way through a world that she often finds puzzling. And from time to time, when I dip into her thoughts, readers can glean that Jayna has a skewed interpretation of her encounters with other people. Rather like Tommy Wilhelm.