Once upon a time there was …
… a bunch of people on vacation, all with different expectations and worries and agendas. And The Vacationers—which I read, interestingly, on a winter vacation—tells the story of each of them.
It’s been a long, long time since I’ve read anything written before, oh, the 1960s, say, and since I really enjoy contemporary literature, it took me a while to recognize what I saw in Emma Straub’s The Vacationers.
But there it was: omniscient POV. You know what I mean: an all-knowing narrative voice that has access to the thoughts of the characters (the main ones, anyway); you often see it in stories that begin with the words Once upon a time there was …
And it’s making a comeback.
I rarely see it in my editing, and it’s been a long time since I read or cared to read the classics (Austen, Tolstoy, Dickens—all wrote in omniscient). So it took me awhile to recognize what I was seeing.
In fact, I second-guessed myself. Then I found this: Straub was interviewed on Brooklyn Based, an online magazine that covers the Brooklyn scene (she and her husband and son live in Brooklyn). Perfect. And the subject came up:
BB: You handle point-of-view (POV) deftly in this book, slipping back and forth between each character’s vantage point, sometimes in the span of just a couple of sentences. As a reader it really gave me the sense of seeing the full picture; it was almost filmic. How did you land on this approach and why? Did you use any other books as templates?
ES: I did, a bit—I was really inspired by Elizabeth Von Arnim’s Enchanted April, which is an NYRB Classic. I love that feeling, of slipping in and out of everyone’s head. It makes it feel more convivial, I think, which was what I was after. And as to how I landed on it—yeesh, trial and error, for sure. I really did want it to be everyone’s story—Franny and Jim and Sylvia and Bobby in particular. So I had to jump around.
BB: POV is something a lot of novice writers struggle with. Do you have any advice? Any breakthrough moments you care to share?
ES: See above! Trial and error! It’s the only way! My advice, really, is to start with the voice you think is right, and if you change your mind, then change the voice. Don’t go backward, always go forward! You can fix the beginning in the next draft. In this regard it helps to be a very messy person. My husband is very neat and would rather die than write a novel that way, if he wrote novels. But I don’t mind a mess.
There’s more to be studied in The Vacationers, of course. Characterization, for example. Working in that omniscient POV, Straub wasn’t afraid to let us see everything about these characters—their foibles, their stupid mistakes, their unlikeable characteristics—that a less experienced writer might have tried to sugarcoat. She wasn’t afraid to let us dislike them for a while. But this POV also let us see their kindnesses, their vulnerabilities, their hurts and problems that seemed insurmountable.
Writing standards and styles come and go. In recent decades perspective has been the desired mode of POV, whether as first person, limited third, alternating viewpoints as in a romance. Omniscient has been considered old-fashioned—perhaps because it tends to distance the reader from the emotional immediacy of a story told from perspective, settling instead for a dispassionate narrator. Not to mention all that telling.
The Vacationers, though, is far from old-fashioned! It’s fresh and funny and insightful. And it has something to study. Overall, consider these things:
• character arc
Normally I’d include an illustrative sample, but it would require too long a piece to show the moving POV, so here’s a link instead. Enjoy!
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