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The Omniscient Narrator in Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
This article is the final part of a series exploring the theme of alienation within contemporary literature. The series focuses not only on the theme itself, but on the way that the author uses perspective, or point of view, to explore, control, and mediate the sense of disconnect at work. To read more about alienation in recent fiction in general, please visit:
A Brief Background on the Theme of Alienation
In an increasingly modernized society, where technology, consumerism, mass media, and increasing globalization create instability, confusion, and questions of just how to make sense of a rapidly changing world, the author is often placed in the difficult position of figuring out just how to navigate that world within the literary landscape.
One trend that has emerged is an increasing preoccupation with themes relating to alienation, separation, and isolation. Conversely, or perhaps in the wake of such loneliness, comes a sudden, overwhelming need for a human voice behind the narrative, the need to feel a sense of connection with the characters on the page. Underlying it all is a drive toward human connection in some sense, whether it be between characters, within the psyche as a sense of wholeness, or between reader and work.
Bel Canto Background
Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto is a novel that closely explores this idea of connection. Unlike many of the other works I've explored in this series, her characters are not disaffected, remote, cynical, or overly wrought with internal pathos and melancholy. They do not exist as selves divided, though there is an element of growth and cohesion for all throughout the work. Without exhibiting or exploring the pathos of alienation of the previous works, Patchett utilizes an initial setting of alienation to explore connection and redemption.
The setting of Bel Canto is a dinner party for the Vice President of an unnamed Latin American country. A group of terrorists invade the mansion, holding the guests, including the CEO of a large, international company and a famous opera singer hostage. What is expected to be a short stay turns into a month-long international spectacle, in which the terrorist and hostages develop a curious way of life.
While the world of the novel is isolationist by nature-- no one comes into or leaves the mansion, there is an additional complication. Because the majority of the hostages do not speak one another’s language, nor do they speak the language of their “guards,” communication is limited and always difficult.
Patchett's Choice of Omnicient Narrator
Throughout Bel Canto, Patchett uses an omniscient third-person narrative voice. She explained this choice in a 2001 interview with Dave Welch: “I've always wanted to write a book with a truly omniscient third person narrator, what I think of as a Russian third, the Anna Karenina-third where it moves from person to person within a room during the course of a single conversation."
Patchett’s aim of true omniscience plays out as the unifying thread between the characters, the one common denominator that has the ability to run between all. (The character of Gen does help out in this aim, as he is a multi-lingual translator, but cannot be in all places at all times, nor is it his story)
Patchett continues in the interview: “When you have a book that's character-driven, voice-driven, as opposed to something more narratively structured, more author-driven in a sense, the first person is easier.”
Bel Canto is indeed author-driven, as the story moves from one character to the next in short succession, somewhat like Toni Morrison's Beloved. Because there is little actual action within the book, most of what "happens" focuses on a stalemate between two parties, the majority of what goes on becomes author-driven, focusing on the dynamics between the characters as a substitute for anything real actually happening.
“Soon enough the days were divided into three states: the anticipation of her [the opera singer] singing, the pleasure of her singing, and the reflection of her singing,” writes Patchett. As beautiful and powerful as the singing itself may be, it is the only thing that really takes place within the story, and the only way to mark the division of time. Explains the narrator: “Every note was distinct. It was the measurement of the time that had gotten away from them. It was the interpretation of their lives in the very moment they were being lived."
Character Dynamics and Growth
Not unlike the passage of time, the characters must understand their sense of self through the parameters of something that is external, especially in marking their growth and development in the story. Removed from the world, and a society in which to grow, develop, and enact change, that the characters do indeed exhibit growth is mainly due to the reflection through the eyes of the others providing a sense of validation for the change which is occurring almost unconsciously within.
As Patchett’s omniscient narrator bounces from character to character, we witness a medium of almost total disconnect turning into a space in which the characters are able to find new aspects to their selves, and reevaluate their sense of identity and place in the world. Through alienation with the exterior world comes the growth of precious and tenuous bonds of human connection, encapsulated, yes, but not stagnant.
The Expository Nature of the Omnicient Narrator
Patchett uses the technique of omniscient narrator in a similar manner to Milan Kundera, making things clear to the reader, explaining what is transpiring with a definitive presence, rather than the more reserved and objective presence of Toni Morrison's limited omnicient. Though Patchett and Kundera's characters come to almost diametrically opposite realizations, finding the self versus losing the self, what is shared between the two is a sense of revelation.
Both authors expose something for the reader, and while this revelation may be seen in part within the journey of the character, it has more to do with the narrative intent, what the author is creating, unfolding, and even explaining for the reader. Here the point of view serves to explore alienation in the sense of how it can be created and manifested, or even overcome. What differentiates these authors from what Janet Burrow terms the “outmoded” nineteenth century “all knowing quality of author persona” or what Johnson calls the “intimidating” omniscient author who “perhaps should be advised to conceal their intelligence”(DeLillo) is the fact that what the author is revealing through the narrative is something clever, accessible, interesting, or heartfelt.
More on Alienation and POV in Contemporary Fiction
Burroway, Janet. Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. 2nd Ed. New York: Penguin Academics, 2007. Print.
Patchett, Ann. Bel Canto. New York: Perennial, 2001. Print.
Welch, Dave. “Ann Patchett Hits All the Right Notes.” 27 June, 2001. Interview. Powells.com. 4 May 2009.