A New Perspective: Tenth of December and Gone GirlBy brian longtin • Apr 18th, 2013 • Category: reading • Popularity: 20%
Telling a story from multiple points of view makes two terrific books more than entertaining.
No one should have to tell you to read these two books. Or rather, everyone already has. Both bestsellers, one graced numerous top ten lists last year; New York Times declared the other, on only January 3rd of 2013, “the best book you’ll read this year“. Assuming no toxic allergy to short stories, no childhood trauma involving a well-plotted thriller, both Tenth of December and Gone Girl should be on your shelf — read by now, or patiently waiting their turn. They’re both five-star reads.
Since praise for each of these books is still echoing through the halls, there’s little left to add to the conversation on either beyond enthusiastic agreement. (Well, that may be harsh. I am an intelligent person with opinions and feelings like any reviewer — and as we’ll get to, everyone’s point of view is valuable.) However, I may be in the minority for having read them back to back, being late to the Gillian Flynn party but eager to get in early on the latest Saunders salon (though it’s wildly hard to find people prepared to discuss even the most popular short story collection; I need more book friends, frankly. Applications welcome).
What sparked my attention in back-to-back reading is how these two incredible books use a similar structure to two totally different ends, yet to equally devastating effect. Both tell a single story (or series of stories) from multiple points of view, which is not a groundbreaking method, I’ll admit. Tons of books from Game of Thrones to Infinite Jest have multiple narrators orbiting their central plot. But the juxtaposition of these two in particular helped highlight how crucial that structure is to giving each of these books their meaning and impact.
Saunders is the master of creating empathy. Whether crafting a portrait of the painfully pedestrian or a slightly skewed sci-fi future, his characters throb with humanity. Inner monologues bare the souls of their speakers in voices so sad and vulnerable and honest, one can’t help but be drawn in.
Part of the time his use of dual narrators is literal, as in some of Tenth of December’s best selections: for example the story of a well-to-do mother going to adopt a puppy, and the barely-getting-by mother with questionable uses for said puppy’s leash. Or in the eponymous (and best, final) passage, where a boy just arriving at manhood and an elderly man just losing his find ways to save each other at a crucial moment. Other stories play the game more subtly, but just as effectively, by flipping a single character’s view from looking up in awe at those he envies one moment, to down at those he pities the next.
In either case, he uses these multiple perspectives to open our hearts and minds, to offer a view into someone else’s pain, insecurity, fear, doubt, courage, generosity, kindness, warmth. As our hearts break with recognition of life’s frail moments, or we cringe at how close our unsavory thoughts are to these characters at their worst, we’re forced to reckon with how others experience the world. He teaches us in vivid lessons that seeing things from the other side might make us all better, more sympathetic people. This is Saunders’ special talent, and what makes his latest such a vital piece of fiction.
Where Tenth of December builds bridges, Gone Girl builds fences. Instead of helping us open our hearts, Flynn takes our tendency to sympathize and uses it against us. Her page-turning suspense novel tells two sides of a relationship in crisis while daring us to choose the right and the wronged. That is, until she flips everything we think we know on its head and keeps barreling ahead anyway. (This is only the vaguest of spoilers; anyone who glances across the table of contents before diving in knows something interesting is coming, but to the book’s credit it’s hard to guess exactly what.)
Flynn offers an almost diametrically opposed lesson from Saunders here: that being too open, too willing to accept another’s version of the world, can make us too easily manipulated. We read the first half of the book and start thinking we understand these characters for who they really are. We start taking a side, and are proven dangerously mistaken. But there’s more to Gone Girl than a clever plot twist. The characters are rendered with a sensitivity that elevates the book beyond another genre thriller.
The opening chapters tell a convincing, revealing story of what it means to be in a relationship, and are just as absorbing as the advancing plot. Here, as with Saunders, the multiple viewpoints are vital to the story’s purpose. Seeing this couple’s turmoil from two sides highlights the pitfalls of mixed messages, unvoiced feelings, and the constant need to rationalize why we do the petty things we do to the ones we’re supposed to love. It’s an insightful enough look at married life to deserve its own recognition, all the while lulling us into believing we know where we’re headed.
Without ruining the later chapters, it’s safe to say that once things are upended, those dual viewpoints remain equally crucial. But the meaning shifts as we learn more. What was a tale of miscommunication leading to pain and tragedy transforms into a story of knowing another’s mind painfully well. Empathizing with the person lying next to us, knowing exactly how their mind works, becomes almost too much to bear. It forces us to accept that perspective as real, to live life fully aware how someone else sees us in all our ugly weakness and terrible truth. It’s a less savory perspective than the generous spirit of Saunders, but it’s no less gripping.
This is why I love reading fiction.
One of the only scientific studies I’ve seen referenced that actually stuck with me (and which I surely hope hasn’t been disproved since, as I quote it so often) showed that reading fiction increases empathy, so long as the reader is ‘emotionally transported’ by the story. I want so badly for that to be true. In part because it sounds like a great reason to keep reading books like these that are so emotionally transporting, instead of being guilted into reaching for inspirational essay collections that’ll help me ‘figure it all out’ or ‘jumpstart innovative thinking’. But also because it takes for granted that more empathy is better. That being able to see the world through the eyes of others — experience their triumphs and tragedies as our own, feel their pain and pleasure and understand their difficulties — should be measured, increased, encouraged. Not just for the writers who use it to tell such affecting stories, but for us as readers and as people.
Both of these books place that element of empathy at the core of what they try to accomplish, and do so with real skill. These are the kind of books that make us better.