O Beautiful and Getting Ideas in Around the POV

Reading Like a Writer with Allison Wyss

In Jung Yun's O Beautiful, a rookie journalist, Elinor, returns to the place she has grown up to write a story about its oil boom. She's been told the story should be about insiders and outsiders, but she discovers something a lot more complex—and a lot more dangerous—that involves race and gender and how a sudden change in demographics is only surfacing an evil that has long been in existence.

However, before she knows what her story really is, Elinor herself gets caught up chasing a narrative that would only reinforce these systems of oppression. A pretty white woman has gone missing. At the end of the novel, Elinor realizes that Native American women in the area have long faced violence and there is a much deeper story to tell. I'm interested in the way the book gives hints of that greater story and all that Elinor is missing, even though the book's third-person narration is limited to Elinor, and we are only told the story through her thoughts and observations. 

More than once, Elinor is warned, but does not heed the warning. It's a very effective strategy to use other characters' words to give warnings like this. For reasons beyond my comprehension, readers often treat direct quotes as objective, rather than filtered through the limited POV of the rest of the book. An unreliable narrator might give a false or biased account outside of the quotation marks, but readers usually think the quoted text is immune from any tampering. This means it can also operate independently of the POV character's notice.

When Elinor first mentions to Lydia, her editor, that she might include the missing white woman in her story,  Lydia says, "Please don't tell me you're thinking about writing some sort of dead girl story." Lydia goes on to explain the luridness of such stories. She's not specifically concerned with the racism in only reporting on white women, yet it's still an opportunity for the reader to pick up on something askew, even if Elinor does not. What is "a dead girl story"? The reader starts to wonder.

It's interesting to me that Elinor doesn't notice Lydia's warning (whatever Lydia's reasoning) because she is preoccupied with something else. Elinor is desperate to seem competent, as this is her first story for an elite publication. But she's really off her game due to nervousness and feeling inappropriately attired for a video meeting that she had expected to be a phone call. It doesn't help that she's been drinking too much and sleeping too little. The combination of these factors results in Elinor thinking the equivalent of "Oh no she thinks I'm a hack!" The reader can feel Elinor's worries, but Lydia's warning is still a bug in the ear.

A similar thing happens in a later conversation with Shawnalee, the assistant to a tribal leader that Elinor is interviewing. Elinor has shown up hours late and obviously hungover. Then she asks Shawnalee about the missing white woman. Shawnalee is entirely out of patience with Elinor and after asking her to cut the interview short and running down how obvious Elinor's drinking is, Shawnalee says, "The one white lady from Avery who went missing like two years ago? Do you even know how many Mahua women we've lost?" The reader is given the opportunity to really hear this, even though Elinor, in an astounding yet perfectly believable (for Elinor) feat of refusing to comprehend, thinks Shawnalee is merely punishing her for being late. 

This works well because it is so much a part of Elinor's character. She can have that response to what Shawnalee says because of who she is. Elinor has a deep capacity for denial, something we learn in the early pages when we see her push a horrifying experience right out of her acknowledged reality. 

And so we know what Elinor does not know. The term for this is dramatic irony, of course, but it does a lot more than I think it usually gets credit for. Beyond giving the reader necessary information, it creates a different interpretation of the situation, which layers over Elinor's limited understanding of it. This creates a sense of depth in the worldbuilding. Beyond that, letting us get outside of a POV character's limited worldview is a technique to poke holes in the story—in a good way—and let in the larger world. We get to understand that Elinor is not the god of this story, just a flawed mortal living in a dangerous world. It is incredibly compelling.