The traditional novel and story are biased toward individual experience. This claim may sound odd, but it’s true. In most stories, the world and everything in it is filtered through the point of view of one character at a time. Even if the POV is omniscient, it doesn’t convey all that it knows on every page. Instead, the voice comes down from the skies to narrate what is happening to this character or that one. But what if you wanted to write a story from a larger perspective? Is it possible to write a story whose main character is everyone in the world? In America?
Nicholas Grider has done exactly that in his story, “Millions of Americans are Strange.” It’s included in his debut collection, Misadventure, which is the second book from the independent Austin publisher A Strange Object. You can read it now at Guernica.
(If you’re in Austin: The book release party for Misadventure is happening tonight at Big Medium, 916 Springdale Rd, Bldg 2, Suite 101.)
How the Story Works
If you want to portray an entire civilization at once, there are a couple of ways to go about it. One is to depict people as a single mass, which is Don DeLillo did in his novella Pafko at the Wall, which was also the first chapter of Underworld. This early passage shows how such a perspective works:
Longing on a large scale is what makes history. This is just a kid with a local yearning but he is part of an assembling crowd, anonymous thousands off the buses and trains, people in narrow columns tramping over the swing bridge above the river, and even if they are not a migration or a revolution, some vast shaking of the soul, they bring with them the body heat of a great city and their own small reveries and desperations, the unseen something that haunts the day—men in fedoras and sailors on shore leave, the stray tumble of their thoughts going to a game.
A few paragraphs later, DeLillo describes a group of boys rushing all at once into Ebbets Field, and from then on the novella moves back and forth among the perspectives of the boy and a few other characters and the crowd as a whole.
The other approach to portraying a large group of people is to fly overhead like those military jets that used to buzz my house when I was a kid. From the ground, the roar of the engines would rush over you out of nowhere, and you’d jerk your head up, see the face of the pilot looking down at you, and then the plane would be gone. This is the method used by Grider, though told from the pilot’s perspective. He zooms along, low enough to identify individuals but high enough to leave them quickly behind. Here’s the result:
Frank is a heating and cooling sales rep with an unknowing wife and daughter. Frank pays John to meet him at a hotel when Frank is in town so John can tie him up and leave him alone like that for eight to ten hours. Frank knows John from bumping into him a few times at sales strategies seminars and then talking a little bit over drinks. John lives with his boyfriend, Frederick. Frederick is strikingly handsome.
The story continues to move like this, swiftly jumping from character to character, none of whom are seen again after the continues on its way. The effect is not unlike watching Richard Linklater’s film Slacker. But while Grider’s story establishes this pattern of moving from one character to another, it also sees them as a mass and makes sociological statements about that mass. Here’s a good example that follows immediately after the previous passage:
Men who are strikingly handsome have been found to be more financially successful at work than plain or ugly men. Harold is a plain man who invests a lot of money in clothing, including tailored suits, shirts, ties, pocket squares, tie bars and cuff links, as well as shoes and socks. After a period during which formal business wear was on the wane, millions of Americans are returning to suits and ties in an effort to look more polished and confident.
The story switches between snapshots of individuals and statements about Americans as a whole until the end, when it finishes with a series of statements about Americans. It’s a powerful conclusion, and, if you haven’t read it yet, you should check it out.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s try writing about a large group of people, using both “Millions of Americans are Strange” by Nicholas Grider and Pafko at the Wall by Don DeLillo as models:
The DeLillo Model: The Sentient Crowd
- Choose a place where people gather in large numbers. DeLillo chose a baseball game, but you might consider any type of event (wedding, funeral) or venue (school, church, parade, protest, battleground). You could even choose an act that is repeated so many times that the act itself takes on a meaning larger than the individuals involved (migrants crossing borders, war refugees fleeing their homes, Congressional leaders voting or holding press conferences). The goal is to find an opportunity to see both individuals and groups.
- Write a sentence that begins with an individual but transitions to the group. DeLillo writes, “This is just a kid with a local yearning but he is part of an assembling crowd…” You can make the transition, as Delillo does, between individual to crowd, or, in the case of an act, you can transition from individual to the act/movement that the individual is part of.
- Write a series of sentences that describe the group, act, or movement as an entity to itself. Taken as a whole, how does the group behave? How does the recurring act come to seem like an intelligent being or a computer program that has begun to act independently of its creator? This strategy is often used in journalism and novels about war (The Things They Carried, the opening pages of The Yellow Birds), but it can be used for any situation or group.
The Grider Model: The Low-Flying Plane
- Choose a grow of people and a way to characterize them. Grider begins his story with this sentence: “Millions of Americans do strange or extreme things without quite being able to articulate why.” If you wanted to bite off a smaller chunk than America, you might choose a city or town, a school or church. At some point, everyone has made a statement like “Those people are such _____.” This sentence is simply a variation on that common judgment. So, you could write something like this: “In Hiawatha, Kansas, most people _____.”
- Write flyover sentences. Grider makes one-sentence summaries of individuals’ behavior or situation, always moving to some new person in the next sentence. You can do the same thing. Pick a handful of people in the group you’ve chosen and describe them in terms of the characterization you made. Don’t think too hard about the descriptions. Let them go where they will, even if it’s away from your original idea.
- Write a sentence that describes the group as a whole. Now that you’ve showed the reader a few individuals, zoom out and show those same individuals as a group. What statement can be made about them? Are there trends or changes in behavior? Grider writes, “After a period during which formal business wear was on the wane, millions of Americans are returning to suits and ties in an effort to look more polished and confident.” If you can write a sentence that interesting and weird about a group, then you consider yourself pleased.