The Delta, ‘Perspective and Voice’ and ‘Reporting Thought and Action’

The Delta by Tony Park features a compelling adventure story about detailed and realistic characters as well as an in-depth and well researched portrayal of its setting in eastern Africa, particularly Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Short reviews of The Delta by Jeff Popple for the Canberrra Times can be read on Tony Park’s blog here or by Banafsheh Serov on Book Enthusiast can be read here.

In this post, however, the focus will be on how well a ‘Perspective and Voice’ approach to thinking about the novel compares to a ‘Reporting Thought and Action’ approach to thinking about the novel, using the opening passage of The Delta to examine how the two approaches compare. This will be followed by two short excerpts from the novel to compare your ideas against.

1)      Reporting thought and action

This relates to the fictional thoughts and actions of a character (keeping in mind that authors create characters and decide their fictional thoughts and actions as well as how they are told). The basic concept is that fictional stories are told by an author reporting the fictional thoughts and/or actions of one or more characters in the story. In some stories, there can also be reporting of the author’s thoughts.

2)      Perspective and voice (and ‘perspective’ and ‘voice’)

This relates to who sees what is told in a story and who speaks what is told in a story (and who ‘sees’ in their imagination what is told in a story and who ‘speaks’ by imagining the story, ie. mentally telling the story). This is a common approach taught, in a range of variations, in Australian universities.

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“Africa was dying of thirst before her eyes. To keep herself awake, and alert, she watched the birds and the trees through the scope, but it was a depressing view.”

1)      The first sentence makes sense as a report of the character’s thought – as in, “Africa was dying before her eyes, she thought.” The second sentence makes sense as a report of the character’s action (“She watched the birds and trees through the scope”) and thoughts (that watching the birds and trees through the scope would help keep her awake and that watching the birds and trees provided a depressing view). Thought reports could be further divided into reporting aspects like, in the case of the quote above, a character’s motivation and evaluation if you want to be more specific in describing what sort of thought it is.

2)      Whose perspective/who sees? The character seeing the landscape of Africa, and the birds and trees through the scope? The narrator who sees the character looking at the landscape, birds and trees? The author who ‘sees’ from the character’s or the narrator’s perspective in their imagination? Does ‘perspective’ relate to a fictional character seeing something in fictional story world? Does it relate to a character, narrator or author ‘seeing’ something in their imagination?

Whose voice/who speaks? Presumably not the character, as it is written in third person perspective (ie. uses “her” and “she”; not “I” or “you”). The narrator? The author? The character through the narrator or the author? The narrator or author with access to the character’s thoughts and experiences?

Then there are those who theorise about group ‘perspective’ and group ‘voice’, raising the whole range of questions just mentioned for each group or collection of groups someone may suggest is relevant.

If a decision is made about whose ‘perspective’ and whose ‘voice’ is being used, how are the judgments “Africa was dying of thirst”, that the character’s actions were to “keep herself awake, and alert”, and that “it was a depressing view” of the birds and trees?

Do you then bring these judgments into some conception of ‘perspective’ or ‘voice’ in which a person or group of people ‘see’ judgments in their imagination or ‘speak’ by actively imagining based on their decisions?

How and why do you choose one series of options above over choosing another series of options?

Ficus sycamorus, the sycamore fig, on the bank of the river, still green, defying the drought, but for how much longer? It was a watercourse in name only, now nothing more than a sandy red scar through the tanned, dry skin of Africa.”

1)      Both sentences in this quote make sense as reports of the character’s thought. They report the fictional thoughts of the character about what she is looking at in the fictional story world.

The judgments that the sycamore fig was “defying the drought” and that the watercourse was “now nothing more than a sandy red scar through the tanned, dry skin of Africa” are those of the fictional character.

2)      Whose perspective/who sees? Does the character or narrator see the sycamore fig and dry watercourse in the fictional story world? Does the character, the narrator or author ‘see’ the sycamore fig and dry watercourse in their imagination?

Whose voice/who speaks? The same range of questions as for the previous quote arise.

How do you explain the judgments that the sycamore fig was “defying the drought” and that the watercourse was “now nothing more than a sandy red scar through the tanned, dry skin of Africa”?

Should these judgments be absorbed into some form of ‘seeing’ or ‘speaking’ which includes judgments about what is seen (or imagined) or told by the character, narrator or author?

How and why do you choose one series of options above over choosing another series of options?

ZiziphusZiziphus what? She couldn’t remember the second part of the Latin name. Buffalo thorn, in English, but she knew it better by the Afrikaans name, wag-‘n-bietje. It was called wait-a-bit because that’s what you had to do if you brushed against it: stop and take your time to free yourself of its wicked little barbs. They got under your skin and poisoned you – like Africa. Ziziphus mucronata, that was it. Stirling would have been proud of her, although Stirling knew all the Latin names by heart.”

1)      As with the two previous quotes, this quote makes sense as reporting the character’s thoughts and actions. This can be a direct transcription of the character’s conscious thoughts into words, as in “Ziziphus … Zizipiphus what?” but then less word-based thought can be described as in “She couldn’t remember the second part of the Latin name.” Although the last sentence in the quote is about Stirling, it makes sense as her thought, as in “Stirling would be proud of me, although Stirling knew all the Latin names by heart, she thought”. Some authors indicate direct transcription of a character’s thought italicising it, ‘putting it in single commas’, or underlining it.

2)      The same types of questions mentioned for the previous quotes would need to be answered for a ‘perspective’ and ‘voice’ approach to thinking about the quote. To avoid repetition, refer to the two quotes above for these.

Some claim that the ‘voice’ of a story always belongs to a fictional narrator, who may be a character in the story or a character outside the story. If you chose to follow this way of thinking, you would have to conceive a fictional character who is telling you the story. From the quotes so far, not much could be determined about such a fictional character. Some try to conceive such a character by reading the story in full and asking what purpose would (hypothetically) be served by the character telling that story, and try to interpret the story primarily or purely as an attempt to communicate a message and/or try to analyse the fictional mind or behaviour of such a character. This approach is fraught with potential for errors as the fictional character would have to be conceived based on limited (and fictional) details. Pychologists (as well as communications theorists, political theorists, or whoever else may offer a proposed method of examining psychology or behaviour) can only gain partial knowledge about a person who are not fictional, can respond to them and co-operate with them in their examination. The aspects of psychology or behaviour a person can partially know will also have varying ranges of precision and accuracy, making a detailed psychological or behavioural analysis of a narrator very prone to errors, arbitrary claims and reliance on speculation.

“She blinked away a drop of sweat , not wanting to risk even the movement of her hand to wipe it from her eyes. The sun was overhead and while the net covering the hide gave her some shade and concealment , it didn’t keep the heat out. So well hidden was she that the cheetah hadn’t seen her.”

1)      This quote also makes sense as reporting the character’s thoughts and actions.

Reading up to the end of this quote, it could be reasonably suggested that the sentence “So well hidden was she that the cheetah hadn’t seen her.” may or may not be a report of the character’s thoughts and actions, since it could be the author or narrator telling something which the character does not know. However, the sentence which follows, “The sighting had made her heart pound”, implies that she had seen the cheetah and therefore been able to then have the thought that the cheetah hadn’t seen her due to her being well hidden from it.

2)      Some people claim that a narrator tells the story while also seeing (or ‘seeing’ in their imagination, including judgments about what is seen and imagined) through one or more characters. This is often called focalisation.

For the sentence “She blinked away a drop of sweat , not wanting to risk even the movement of her hand to wipe it from her eyes.”, this would involve a narrator character either fictionally seeing the character blink away a drop of sweat and the narrator character thinking and making a judgment that the character’s motivation was not wanting to risk moving her hand to wipe the sweat from her eyes and alerting the cheetah. Alternatively, the narrator character could have access to the thoughts and experiences of the character and then tells a story about them, raising the possibility that the narrator character may make mistakes in what they tell (due to imperfect memory, for example) or may have particular reasons for telling about some aspects of the character’s thoughts, experiences and actions and not others. This is on top of factors which may relate to the author’s telling of the narrator’s telling.

“The sighting had made her heart pound. It was rare enough to see one in the Moremi game reserve or a national park. Who would have thought that the barren farmlands of Zimbabwe she would see one slinking along the dirt verge of the main road at five in the morning? The cat’s coat had shone like spun gold in the first low rays of the sun, the black dots seemed to dazzle her as she studied the cheetah through her binoculars. Later, once the sun was completely up, she saw a pair of steenbok and wondered if the cheetah had been on their scent.”

1)      This quote also makes sense as reporting the character’s thoughts and actions.

2)      Some people use a concept that ‘perspective’ is about what people consider to be ‘true’ and ‘false’. In this sense, ‘true’ is taken to be any judgment arrived at by a coherent method that the user believes in and ‘false’ is taken to be a judgment not arrived at by a coherent method that the user believes in. This concept has been around at least since Plato and Plato is often a strong source of people’s belief in this concept, whether directly or through someone else who has been influenced by Plato. According to this variation of ‘perspective’, judgments would be made about ‘perspective’ based on what someone deems to be the beliefs held by a character, narrator and/or author (or even concepts conveyed but not believed by any fictional character or actual person) and whether these match with the beliefs of the reader. This concept of ‘truth’ is often extended to groups to propose group ‘truths’ (as in, something is ‘true’ for the group of people who believe it to be true or ‘true’, and ‘false’ for those who believe it to be false or ‘false’).

In trying to apply ‘Perspective and Voice’ to the opening passage of The Delta, it would require a series of decisions to be made to even provide the basis for a very basic description of the passage but it is unclear why someone should make one choice or another for any of a range of considerations.

The common adaptations of the ‘Perspective and Voice’ approach mentioned above have been extended from holding onto the concept of a ‘Perspective and Voice’ approach being sufficient to provide a basic description of a written passage of a fictional story.

Although versions of the ‘Perspective and Voice’ approach is common in Australian universities, this is prone to being used in a vague way in which many questions are left unanswered, making it unclear what is actually being claimed or proposed (if anything) in an analysis of a particular piece of fiction. It is also prone to being stretched into complicated and questionable ways of trying to hold onto the concept in order to help it provide the basis for even a very basic description of a particular piece of written fiction.

The ‘Reporting Thought and Action’ approach works well for the passage from The Delta, providing the basis for detailed descriptions of the passage. Having applied an adequate means of describing a story, a person can then convey propositions or judgments about it.

Below are two excerpts from The Delta, which you can read with the concepts mentioned above in mind. You may also have developed your own ideas beyond what has been mentioned here and you can test how they fit for these excerpts.

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P 17

She rode hard, not even slowing to watch a bull elephant feeding by the side of the road. A sign said Kazungula twenty kilometres. Sonja dared to hope. She looked over her shoulder at the disappearing blue blob of the truck. The sky seemed clear.

Ahead the midday sun was sucking waves of heat haze from the black tar as she approached the peak she saw a dark shape shimmering through the curtain of hot air. Instinctively she pulled on the brakes, slowing her speed to eighty. She didn’t want a head-on with a truck passing a slower vehicle.

The helicopter materialised in front of her, hovering just above the road. It was an Allouette and it had obviously been waiting for her, on the other side of the hill. How long had it been watching her?

The road was in a cutting with steep banks on either side. It was, ironically, the same type of terrain she had chosen to ambush the convoy. Her enemy had turned her own strategy against her. Behind her was the overland truck, slowly gaining. If she turned, she might bring harm into its way.

P 27

Stirling Smith’s knuckles were white as he gripped the warm steering wheel of the Land Rover. He selected low range and diff lock as they entered a patch of deep white Kalahari sand and gunned the engine. He felt the rear of the game viewer slide and allowed himself a small grin as he heard Cheryl-Ann’s alarmed call from the back seat.

The woman was intolerable and the man, ‘Coyote Sam’, a ridiculous parody of a wildlife researcher. The man supposedly had a PhD, but he was a fish out of water out here in the delta. The analogy was a good one. He pictured the tall, impossibly handsome American flapping hopelessly around in the mud, slowly cooking under the African sun like a stranded barbel.

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Find more about Tony Park and his writing on his website (www.tonypark.net) or blog (tonyparkblog.blogspot.com). The Australian Literature Review has an interview with Tony Park here.
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The DeltaSilent PredatorSafariAfrican SkyIvoryWar Dogs: An Australian and His Dog Go to War in AfghanistanPart of the Pride: My Life Among the Big Cats of Africa

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The Australian Literature Review
www.auslit.net

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