Microanalysis: Multiple Tenses and Perspectives

A week or two ago, I was talking to Brittany about Sarah J Maas’ fantasy series. At the very end of her second novel, A Court of Mist and Fury, Mass abruptly switches her narrator without any warning. Maas didn’t set up the new narration; it came at a time when it didn’t truly serve the story, too close to the end to properly explore. It was done to get the reader information that the other voice couldn’t supply, but it was done rather mindlessly. While talking about this decision on Maas’ part, I was trying to think of other books that changed the narrating character, the style of narration, or even tense in a successful way. Which authors get creative with their narration? Only some big names came to mind. The George RR Martin approach is popular right now but not exactly new. Diana Gabaldon manages to move between first person and third person in her later Outlander books pretty effortlessly. Gillian Flynn switches up narrators in all of her novels, playing with tense and voice to set up unreliable narrators and confusing timelines. That was all I could think of off the top of my head. I knew I had read more modern novels that utilize multiple tenses and voices, but nothing that used the changes in a truly meaningful way came to mind.

I googled “novels with multiple narration styles” and ten other phrases like it, but I couldn’t find a list. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides came up a few times, but even on Goodread’s Listopia I couldn’t find a collection of titles that mixed tense and voice. I was frustrated that I couldn’t remember. Immediately after reading a book I might think a bit about the form or narrative style, but as time passes, I am much more likely to remember an impactful scene or plot than what tense was used or how many character’s heads were gotten into. I knew there were books out there that did really unique things with narrative and perspective, but I couldn’t think of a one. And then one of them fell into my lap.

After being on a hold list with the NYPL for several weeks, I finally got a copy of Titus Groan on my Kindle. My sister recommended it to me last year, and I didn’t know anything about it going in other than the fact that it was a fantasy by a painter Mervyn Peake. Peake published Titus Groan in 1946, a contemporary of Tolkien and Lewis, though never successful in his lifetime for his writing. He had an odd life and a sad end.

His gorgeous and often forgotten novel Titus Groan is a fantasy without any clear magic, a bizarre story set in a dreamscape castle. In an exaggerated critique of the British kings and queens of old, Titus Groan is the story of the gentry living within the walls of the castle Gormenghast. Within the castle, illness, depression, unnamed magic, and circular thinking limit the lives of the family Groan. Their routines are upset by a Machiavellian upstart, Steerpike, a kitchen boy who infiltrates the family and makes himself invaluable by making trouble in secret and cleaning it up with flair.

This novel is one of the strangest things I have ever read, with gorgeously formal dialogue, each piece being used to say something about each character. Early in the book, the family’s doctor, dismissing his sister, says, “I am far beyond thinking, bone of my bone. Far, far beyond thinking, I hand the reins to you, Irma. Mount and be gone. The world awaits you.” All that to leave his sister’s presence. Peake writes his gentry carefully, giving them long speeches full of nothing, seemingly clever speeches rooted in no obvious thought. One character, the young Lady Fuchsia Groan, is constantly trying to force herself to speak “cleverly” and use long sentences. The inhabitants of castle Gormenghast think much of themselves and say much, but don’t have much to say.

Peake doesn’t just use dialogue to tell his story, he used every possible aspect of novel and structure to call back to his characters and his story. The first two thirds of the novel are written in past tense, jumping from character to character in close third-person. Every character is examined from the inside, while using third-person omniscient narration. “Fuchsia swung her head up, and her eyes fastened upon her father. He had never spoken to her in that way – she had never before heard that tone of love in his voice.” Peake is able to balance about half a dozen voices, telling everything from their point of view. The narration is so close and careful, it feels like a dozen first-person limited voices, rather than an omniscient narrator. What the reader doesn’t know about the world of Gormenghast is purposeful on Peake’s part. He doesn’t share all he knowledge. When I examined the structure I noticed that each chapter is told mostly from a certain character’s viewpoint, but in a subtle way, completely unlike George RR Martin’s use of multi-perspective narration. Peake’s threads of narration pile on top of each other, so that the same moment in time is told in different ways in different chapters from the cast of the castle Gormenghast. His narration is fluid and easy, where several chapters can cover only a few hours of time, and then a time jump can be explained in just a few words.

Exactly 70% through the book – according to my Kindle tracker – in a chapter entitled “Early One Morning,” Peake changes to present tense without warning. This shift marks the beginning of the climax in a way. The previous two chapters dealt with a character outside Gormenghast’s walls, yet in “Early One Morning,” we return to the castle in present tense.

“Spring has come gone, and the summer is at its height. It is the morning of the Breakfast, of the ceremonial Breakfast,” Peake begins. His narration of this part begins again omniscient, slowly focuses in on the chef, Swelter, and moves to Flay, then to Fuchsia. Unlike his previous chapters, in the present tense there is no clear divide between characters’ thoughts. He dips in and out of minds as the frantic rising action begins. For five chapters, the present tense continues. This culminates at the aforementioned ceremonial breakfast, where all characters are gathered together. Peake then moves into a series of chapters entitled “The Reveries” where he writes out detailed stream of consciousness for eight characters. “ … yees yees yees it’s all so big and wonderful,” starts the Reverie for Nannie Slagg. “My father and so sad why does he smile smile oh who will save him who will save me who will be the power to help us,” thinks Fuchsia during her tormented breakfast. Peake uses unique grammar and language choices for each character, reflecting what the reader already knows about them. It’s a fascinating piece of writing, something that I’ve never seen before.

After eight Reveries, Peake jumps back into the action and back into past tense. Now, with more action and less exposition, the third-person narration moves between omniscient and limited, depending on how it serves the story. Some chapters are only from one character’s pov, others move swiftly between perspectives. Peake ends the book in past tense third-person, same as he began. What struck me about Peake’s use of form in his novel was how all his choices had a purpose. Nothing read like a gimmick. Not even the Reveries, which are an avant garde choice, felt out of place. Nothing was jarring. The use of present tense put the story in slow motion, setting the scene for a climax where everything comes tumbling down quickly. The change from past to present tense forces the reader to slow down during the most complex part of the novel. It read like molasses, a little like a nightmare. The Reveries gave time to carefully set up the mindset of each character before the unraveling, even characters who were not of much importance. These choices show an attention to detail and to character than many authors don’t show.

“Craft” is a word that is not thrown around much in the writing world these days. No reader wants to be painfully aware of craft while reading; it can distract them from the story (my problem with settling into McCarthy), but to put a book down after finishing, and realize that the author you just read was a master of their craft – they got across everything they wanted to in a brilliant, and at the same time, natural way… That’s rare. And that was Titus Groan for me.

Oddly enough the book I’m reading right now, Three Junes by Julia Glass, switches from third-person present tense to first-person past tense and back again. My mom recommended it to me. It’s a family story set in Scotland and Greece in the 1980s, split between a father and a son. It’s about as different from Titus Groan as you can get, except for that complex narrative structure. Somehow while I was tearing apart the internet looking for unique narrations, I accidentally ran into two examples.

Over the years there have been trends in narration. The 19th century classics were filled with know-it-all third-person omniscient narrators, like Tolstoy and Dickens. Right now we’re living in a first-person trend, from Twilight to All the Light We Can Not See. But an author’s choice to follow a trend doesn’t always serve their story. Often it seems forced. And of course, knowing what tense and what perspective serves a story is part of craft. Sarah J Maas, the woman whose book started this train of thought in me, is not a terrible author. But she’s definitely not good enough to know how to handle her first-person narrators in a graceful way. To be honest, narration style is something I rarely notice as a reader, until it seems wrong and pulls me out of the story, as it did in Maas’ case. Usually, I’m too engrossed in the whatever book I’m reading to think on what tense it’s written in. Often I am too involved in the story to even notice the craft.

A well written novel lets the writing serve the story. But a fantastic novel can play around within that structure, can push the boundaries of what tense and narration are. The joy of reading consistently is that every new novel adds to the conversation. Different novels demand attention in different ways. I didn’t know what I was looking for until I read Titus Groan. Peake’s delicate plot left room for me to revel in how he was telling the story. For me, reading Titus Groan was the conclusion to that conversation I’d had with Brittany about an awkward narration transition. I was always able to notice narrative when it was wrong, but I was failing at identifying it when it was right.

Now, with Titus Groan, I know what it looks like when it’s perfect. I hope I can learn from this, and pay more attention not just to the story that authors want to tell me, but exactly how they are choosing to tell them.


Sarah V Diehl

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