Reading Like a Writer: Omniscience in "Sons and Other Flammable Objects"
Porochista Khakpour's Sons and Other Flammable Objects is about family strife. A mother, father, and son flee Iran during the revolution to settle in Los Angeles, but when the son grows up, they are torn apart by alienation, pride, and miscommunication—among other things.
I'm interested in the way the omniscient voice of the story cycles through the thoughts of all three family members to create a story that centers on the whole family, not one character. This narrator can go into any character's head, and dips in and out of each brain frequently, and even chaotically, switching from person to person mid-sentence.
Xerxes believed his father when he said, See, they made these for one reason and one reason only, and that is my reason: to save. These are not gorbeh presents, he reminded them—his mother immediately reaching in the bag for the receipt, moaning about the expense when she didn't even have a winter coat, when her pumps were busted—this is a necessity—he'd declare. It was a necessity that he had to invest in, that he had been called on to invest in, he reminded them, because certainly if the neighbors were good cat owners, each and every one would have done this. But because they failed, someone had to. Xerxes knew what he meant although he took some unspoken objection with the had to; his mother didn't understand at all and so she bit her tongue and instead did that more powerfully infuriating thing of head shaking all the way through his process. Madness, she would think. Don't say a word, especially in the case of the word not being a nice word, his father would say, messing up the saying, perhaps purposefully; he often botched his usually near-perfect English to make a point, Xerxes suspected, as if to say Who cares about this bastard tongue? In any case, refraining from words-that-are-not-nice-ones—unless you were Darius Adam, that is—had become a family rule in their house of swallowed discontentment, of several future decades worth of ulcers.
First, I should admit that the passage does take Xerxes's side slightly, by labeling his parents in relation to him instead of using their names, which are Darius and Lala. While Darius's name does appear once, it only emphasizes that the particular thought belongs to Xerxes, who is mocking him. But despite this slight privileging of Xerxes's perspective, his take on the situation intermingles with the thoughts and impressions of the other characters as if all have the same status.
The first sentence wraps its subjects (Darius, Xerxes, Lala) around an object (the cat collars that Darius has just purchased). "Xerxes believed his father when he said, See, they made these for one reason and one reason only, and that is my reason: to save. These are not gorbeh presents, he reminded them—his mother immediately reaching in the bag for the receipt, moaning about the expense when she didn't even have a winter coat, when her pumps were busted—this is a necessity—he'd declare." It's all about the one thing, but we get Darius's words about the purchase, Xerxes's interpretation of Darius's words, and Lala's physical reaction to the purchase.
In writing that centers a single perspective, events often spiral off a primary character. Here, multiple people and their reactions spiral off an object. It's smart to ground the reader somehow, even as a sentence takes off in wild directions. The purchase is the grounding element, while the various takes on it go against many readers' expectations.
It's a long sentence—Khakpour could have easily split it into three or more. But a distinct sentence for each perspective would create the effect of jumping from brain to brain, sequentially. Pulling all of these perspectives together through punctuation creates the illusion that we are in all three brains at once.
After a moment devoted to Darius and a small step forward in time, we get another long sentence that wraps perspectives around a single object: "Xerxes knew what he meant although he took some unspoken objection with the had to; his mother didn't understand at all and so she bit her tongue and instead did that more powerfully infuriating thing of head shaking all the way through his process." The object in this case, however, is Darius's explanation. We get Xerxes's interpretation of it, followed by Lala's reaction, both internal (she didn't understand) and external (biting her tongue and shaking her head). It's another way of pulling three brains into the same space.
But it's more complicated than that. Even as we learn Lala's reaction, we dip again into Xerxes’s head, because he must be the one who interprets the head shake as "more powerfully infuriating." Of course, Lala doesn't find her own action infuriating, and the "more" gives it away as Xerxes rather than Darius. This is such rich layering of perspective. It's Xerxes's reaction to Lala's reaction to Darius's explanation. The buying of cat collars is interpreted through all three brains, pretty much at the same time.
At one point the thoughts of Lala even seem to merge with the words of Darius: "Madness, she would think. Don't say a word, especially in the case of the word not being a nice word, his father would say…" There is no paragraph break and the dialogue tag doesn't come until after the second utterance. This makes "Don't say a word…" seem at first to be part of Lala's thoughts instead of Darius's words. Even after the reader sorts it out, the ghosted impression of Lala thinking Darius's thoughts remains.
Confusing? Maybe. But with three brains going at once, each is thinking not only about the thing at hand but about the other characters. We get multiple levels of perspective, interpretation, and all of the complexity that comes with family. It merges perspectives even as it contrasts them. It's supposed to be complicated.
The decentralized perspective means the story can show us the authority Darius Adam holds over his family while simultaneously doing the work of undermining that authority. We see Darius's violence against Xerxes and Lala from multiple directions, amplifying the pain of it. And when Lala convinces Darius to write a letter to Xerxes, we can understand that letter as hopeful and kind, just as we also know it as inappropriate, boundary-crossing, and even abusive.
The technique works most cleanly when Xerxes is young and the family lives together. Once Xerxes has moved across the country to New York, the omniscient voice continues to include the thoughts of all family members, but stays with each for longer periods before jumping consciousness. It even begins to dip into the minds of other characters, such as Lala's new friends, Lala's lost brother, and Xerxes's romantic partner. The tight spiral of the voice fractures just like the family does, which makes sense for the story.
In my analysis, I parse the perspectives to better understand how the writer creates the effects at play. In reading, however, it's not necessary to stop and examine which thought comes from which character. Rather, we feel them all flinging through the space at the same time. This, to me, feels just like a particular kind of family. The commotion is purposeful and becomes its own lovely form.
Allison Wyss is obsessed with body modification, dismemberment, and fairy tales. Her stories have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Moon City Review, Yemassee, Booth, Lunch Ticket, Jellyfish Review, and (less recently) elsewhere. Some of her ideas about the craft of fiction can be found in Reading Like a Writer, a monthly column she writes for the Loft's blog. She tweets, often about writing, as @allisonwyss and here's her website: www.allisonwyss.com