Being Objective About It

I’m at that stage of life where I’ve forgotten more than I remember, but I haven’t forgotten the early short stories I wrote and how all of them were narrated from the point of view of an “I” who – surprise! — was a lot like me in that she, too, was in her mid-thirties, in graduate school and applying for waitress jobs that always went to much younger hires. The waitress story ended with the narrator, after learning that she would not get the job, staring at herself in the bathroom mirror of the restaurant before shattering it with her fist. 

In addition to auto-fiction, I was also in love with symbolism, the more obvious the better. 

Somewhere along the long dusty road of fiction writing, I fell in love with the third person/limited omniscient narrator, finding it both freeing and comforting—freeing because it allowed me to let go of characters who were maybe a little too much like me and comforting because it allowed me to really get to know a character over the course of 4,000 or so words. It let me take a deep dive into what they loved and feared and what they’d die for and how knowing that played out in their actions and decisions. 

When I started writing much shorter stories – flash and then micro – I gravitated toward the third person/objective point of view, a vantage point in which the author restricts their knowledge to those things that can be observed externally. I’d argue that much of the success of very short stories – flash and micro – arises from inference, that is, what’s conveyed through image and action rather than overtly stated, so it stands to reason that some of the most iconic short-short stories of the last century have employed the objective author as narrator.  

The most of famous example of objective author might be “Hills Like White Elephants,” Ernest Hemingway much-anthologized story that unfolds through the dialogue between a man and a woman while they’re waiting for a train. Though it’s never stated overtly, we learn that the woman is pregnant and that the man is pressuring her to get an abortion, but because we’re never privy to either character’s thoughts, we don’t know why the man is adamant and the woman is reluctant. We may take a side – the man’s, the woman’s – but not because we’ve been nudged there by a narrator..

Likewise, Gary Gildner’s story “Fingers” – which, at a mere 291 words, is a tour de force of third person objective narrative. Here it is in its entirety: 

Fingers

Gary Gildner

When Ronald, Mr. Lacey’s son, came home from the war, he showered, put on a pair of new jeans, and a new t-shirt, found his old high school baseball cap and pulled it snug over his forehead, then went outside and shot baskets. He shot baskets for about two weeks. One day Mr. Lacey said, “What about that money you saved up?  What are you going to do with it?” Ronald shot baskets for a while longer, then went downtown and bought an old Hudson Hornet.  He spent five days driving the Hudson back and forth though town, stopping for a root beer when he got thirsty.  On the sixth day, when the tire went flat, Ronald locked the car and put his thumb in the air. The next day in the Atkins Museum in Kansas City, he bought a dozen postcards of Houdon’s bust of Benjamin Franklin, because with that bald top and that long hair in back that fell to his shoulders, Franklin looked like the queerest duck he’d ever seen.  Also, Franklin seemed peeved about something.  Then Ronald took a bus to New York City.  The ride was nothing to crow about – and for maybe three hundred miles a man next to him wanted to describe losing his prostrate gland.  In New York Ronald found a room a stone’s throw away from Yankee Stadium.  He sent one of the Franklin cards to his father, saying only, “Love, Ronald.”  Then he sat looking out the window.  On the fire escape was a piece of red balloon that the wind was trying to blow away.  Finally the wind succeeded and Ronald was tired.  He took off his clothes, climbed into bed, and began counting the fingers on his shooting hand.

Aside from a brief dip into limited omniscient point of view when Ronald considers those postcards, Gildner maintains an objective third person throughout the brief trajectory of the story, a strategy that allows for maximum effect in very few words. We understand Ronald through his actions, which become increasingly erratic: He comes home from a war and shoots baskets for two weeks. He invests his life savings in a car that he abandons when it gets a flat tire and hops a bus for New York without saying goodbye to his father, ending up in a room “a stone’s throw from Yankee Stadium . . . counting the fingers on his shooting hand.” Is he going to commit suicide? Or does the “shooting hand” refer to basketball? We don’t know and we don’t need to know, just as we don’t need know which war Ronald was coming home from or what he experienced. It doesn’t matter. In choosing the objective third person narration, Gildner creates a character that’s at once specific and archetypal. He’s Ronald, but he’s every man who’s gone off to a war, who’s seen and endured terrible things. He can put on new clothes, but they don’t make him new. The old hat that he pulls “snug over his forehead,” likewise, can’t shield him from memory. 

Read it again. It’s 291 words worth of amazing.