In explaining why he did not finish Richard Powers's The Echo Maker, Patrick at Litblog.com (no permalink available; scroll down to Jan. 18) writes of Powers's "inability to sympathetically portray characters whose mindsets are very different from his own." He cites the following passage from the novel:
As next of kin, she qualified for the shelter house a block from the hospital, a hostel subsidized with the pocket change of the world’s largest global fast-food cartel. The Clown House, she and Mark called it, back when their father was dying of fatal insomnia four years before.
and then comments:
Actually, the Ronald McDonald House is about the last thing that Powers, in his smug inability to think outside of his own limited imaginative box, should have attacked in such an off-hand manner. The cheap shot is the mark of the cheap artist.
He concludes that passages such as the one quoted represent "the pronouncement of our omniscient narrator-in-chief."
I have already posted on my own disappointment with The Echo Maker, but I have to say I think Patrick is badly misunderstanding what Powers is up to in this novel. Far from employing an "ominiscient narrator" (which arguably he does use in some of his previous novels), Powers in The Echo Maker is deliberately reporting on the "mindsets" of his three main characters, resulting in a form of narration that could be called, after Henry James, "central consciousness," the most intensive form of "pyschological realism" short of pure stream-of counsciousness (as in Joyce or Woolf). Powers himself says of his approach that his "technique was what some scholars of narrative have called double voicing. Every section of the book (until a few passages at the end) is so closely focalized through Mark, Karin, or Weber that even the narration of material event is voiced entirely through their cognitive process." The reference to the "Clown House," is precisely Karin's language, the name for the Ronald McDonald House that emerges from her own "cognitive process." It is not "Richard Powers" taking a "cheap shot."
This is not quite like assuming that when Satan in Paradise Lost declares "Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav'n" he's speaking for Milton, but it's not that far removed. A character's words don't literally need to be enclosed in quotation marks for them to be taken as such. Milton isn't advocating rebellion against God, and Richard Powers isn't mocking good works.
I have to think that Patrick's response to Powers's mode of narration flows from one of two unexamined assumptions about third-person narrators. One is that such narrators are always ominiscient, "point of view" per se being restricted to portrayed characters who also act as narrators. If the narrative voice doesn't belong to such a character, the temptation is to attribute the voice to the author, but of course sometimes this voice is merely tracking the characters' own perceptions. A true omniscient narrator in effect becomes a character in the story he/she is relating (as in the novels of Dickens or Henry Fielding); the third-person restricted or central-consciousness narrator is attempting to substitute for the character's voice, sinking into the "sensibility" of the character (as Powers also puts it) and attempting, at least, to erase his/her own traces.
The other assumptions is that in depicting the "consciousness" of characters, the narrator (as the author's stand-in) is projecting the consciousness of the writer, the characters becoming merely convenient excuses for the writer to engage in commentary and speculation about a whole range of "ideas." (This seems to be Patrick's major complaint about Powers, that he is unable to conjure up a "mindset" separate from his own.) Such a misapprehension is perhaps especially acute when the character in question is presumed to be more or less autobiographical, but even characters not immediately associated with the writer him/herself are, if Zadie Smith is to be believed, mostly an opportunity for the author to indulge in "the attempted revelation of [an] elusive, multifaceted self"--that is, his or her own "selfhood," the "development" of which is central to the act of writing. Thus, in third-person narratives, it becomes easier to take the characters as either mouthpieces for the author's rhetoric or the "expression" of the author's inmost being.
In either case, the aesthetic rationale for the development of modernist-era "psychological realism"--to extend realism to the reality of consciousness, to explore the way perception of reality shapes our understanding of it--essentially drops out. The merging of narration with consciousness has become invisible, now just the default approach of any narrative not related in the first-person, just the currently established strategy allowing the author/narrator to "say something." In my opinion, Richard Powers in The Echo Maker is attempting to retain something of the experimentation of modernist psychological realism--or at least its goal--but as I indicated in my post on the novel, its lackluster execution in this book is for me another signal that the technique has become increasingly shopworn.
Among other things, the reflexive use of the central consciousness narrator has made it more difficult to cultivate and identify style in the writing of fiction. Powers is still a sufficiently distinctive stylist that he is able to overcome to some extent the limitations of the strategy, but even in The Echo Maker the signature Powers style with its alliterations and startling figures and achieved rhythms is more restrained than usual. And in most ordinary literary fiction the strategy has become simply mind-numbing. (For a more thorough discussion of this problem, see this post.)
Although he is increasingly reviled these days for his purported stylistic preciosity, John Updike remains a writer I am able to read with pleasure because he successfully avoids inflicting such damage. Most of his novels are conventionally related in the third-person, but his language typically exeeds that which his characters are capable of summoning, as in this passage from Villages (2004):
After Owen had left it behind, his original village seemed an innocent, precious place, but it did not strike him as that while he lived there. It was the world, with a fathomless past and boundaries that were over the horizon. There were snakes in the grass and in piles of rocks warmed by the sun. Sex and religion had distinct, ancient odors, familes perched like shaky nests on tangled twigs of previous history; and death could pounce in the middle of the night. . . .
Regular readers of Updike's work would no doubt find this recognizably Updikean. It draws on Owen's mental storehouse of memories and images, but does not dwell in his immediate awareness. It creates writing out of that storehouse. It moves in and out of Owen's awareness, weaving a style out of the character's thought processes plus a something else the writer brings in addition to plumbing those processes. A way with words that is a more worthy focus of our attention than what the writer allegedly thinks of the Ronald McDonald House.