The Omniscient Narrator

By Louise Ure

 

Bear with me here. This is not a political blog; rather it’s a discussion of the use of point of view. Specifically that of an omniscient narrator in literature.

Last week an emailed first-hand account of a possible terrorist hijacking attempt on an AirTran plane flying between Atlanta and Houston was making the rounds on the blogosphere.

Forget for a moment whether you belong to the “This feels too much like socialism to me” camp or the “Could the wingnuts get any crazier?” one. Let’s look at this email from a strictly literary point of view.

The full copy of the email is below:

 

From: Petruna, Tedd J. (JSC-DX12)[RAYTHEON TECHNICAL SERVICES COMPANY]

To: undisclosed-recipients

Sent: Friday, November 27, 2009 11:32 AM

Subject: Long story short….

One week ago, I went to Ohio on business and to see my father. On Tuesday, November the 17th, I returned home. If you read the papers the 18th you may have seen a blurb where a AirTran flight was cancelled from Atlanta to Houston due to a man who refused to get off of his cell phone before takeoff. It was on Fox.

This was NOT what happened.

I was in 1st class coming home. 11 Muslim men got on the plane in full attire. 2 sat in 1st class and the rest peppered themselves throughout the plane all the way to the back.

As the plane taxied to the runway the stewardesses gave the safety spiel we are all so familiar with. At that time, one of the men got on his cell and called one of his companions in the back and proceeded to talk on the phone in Arabic very loudly and very aggressively. This took the 1st stewardess out of the picture for she repeatedly told the man that cell phones were not permitted at the time. He ignored her as if she was not there.

The 2nd man who answered the phone did the same and this took out the 2nd stewardess. In the back of the plane at this time, 2 younger Muslims, one in the back, isle, and one in front of him, window, began to show footage of a porno they had taped the night before, and were very loud about it. Now….they are only permitted to do this prior to Jihad. If a Muslim man goes into a strip club, he has to view the woman via mirror with his back to her. (don’t ask me….I don’t make the rules, but I’ve studied) The 3rd stewardess informed them that they were not to have electronic devices on at this time. To which one of the men said “shut up infidel dog!” She went to take the camcorder and he began to scream in her face in Arabic. At that exact moment, all 11 of them got up and started to walk the cabin. This is where I had had enough! I got up and started to the back where I heard a voice behind me from another Texan twice my size say “I got your back.” I grabbed the man who had been on the phone by the arm and said “you WILL go sit down or you Will be thrown from this plane!” As I “led” him around me to take his seat, the fellow Texan grabbed him by the back of his neck and his waist and headed out with him. I then grabbed the 2nd man and said, “You WILL do the same!” He protested but adrenaline was flowing now and he was going to go. As I escorted him forward the plane doors open and 3 TSA agents and 4 police officers entered. Me and my new Texan friend were told to cease and desist for they had this under control. I was happy to oblige actually. There was some commotion in the back, but within moments, all 11 were escorted off the plane. They then unloaded their luggage.

We talked about the occurrence and were in disbelief that it had happen, when suddenly, the door open again and on walked all 11!! Stone faced, eyes front and robotic (the only way I can describe it). The stewardess from the back had been in tears and when she saw this, she was having NONE of it! Being that I was up front, I heard and saw the whole ordeal. She told the TSA agent there was NO WAY she was staying on the plane with these men. The agent told her they had searched them and were going to go through their luggage with a fine tooth comb and that they were allowed to proceed to Houston . The captain and co-captain came out and told the agent “we and our crew will not fly this plane!” After a word or two, the entire crew, luggage in tow, left the plane. 5 minutes later, the cabin door opened again and a whole new crew walked on.

Again…..this is where I had had enough!!! I got up and asked “What the hell is going on!?!?” I was told to take my seat. They were sorry for the delay and I would be home shortly. I said “I’m getting off this plane”. The stewardess sternly told me that she could not allow me to get off. (now I’m mad!) I said “I am a grown man who bought this ticket, who’s time is mine with a family at home and I am going through that door, or I’m going through that door with you under my arm!! But I am going through that door!!” And I heard a voice behind me say “so am I”. Then everyone behind us started to get up and say the same. Within 2 minutes, I was walking off that plane where I was met with more agents who asked me to write a statement. I had 5 hours to kill at this point so why the hell not. Due to the amount of people who got off that flight, it was cancelled. I was supposed to be in Houston at 6pm. I got here at 12:30am.

Look up the date. Flight 297 Atlanta to Houston .

If this wasn’t a dry run, I don’t know what one is. The terrorists wanted to see how TSA would handle it, how the crew would handle it, and how the passengers would handle it.

I’m telling this to you because I want you to know….

The threat is real. I saw it with my own eyes….

-Tedd Petruna

 

The airline quickly posted a response to the email, debunking the passenger’s account, and adding the red-faced information that Petruna wasn’t even on the plane. He’d missed his connection.

So okay, we’re dealing with fiction. As fiction, how does it rate?

 

  • It’s crying out for a new title. “Long story short” is enough to make my eyes glaze over. It sounds like my father-in-law, twenty-five minutes and three drinks into a bad joke.

 

  • He gets points for decent research. Even though he wasn’t really on the plane, he managed to get a fair number of facts (the large group of foreign-speaking passengers, the controversy over a cell phone, the passengers reboard) correct.

 

  • The opening was a bit slow. He might have started a little closer to the action, perhaps when he first notices the flight attendant and the man with the cell phone.

 

  • He starts telling the story from a first person point of view. That’s a good thing: we can identify with this kind of everyman-action hero, a mythical Bruce Willis forever on his way to visit his daughter for Christmas when he comes across Big Time Evil.

 

  • He lets his research/assumptions show too much in the paragraph where he says Muslims have to watch porn in a mirror with their backs to the actress/ecdysiast. A nice addition might have been a short paragraph flashing back to his own investigation into Muslims and pornography, which might also have filled in some important backstory for us.

 

  • Good use of pacing and action sequences, although I find the dialogue (“Shut up, infidel dog!”) to be a bit clichéd.

 

  • Prior to publication, I wish he or his (internal) editor had used spellcheck or a universal search for exclamation points.

 

  • And the big one for me: he’s fallen out of the first person POV to tell us two things: that the person with the cell phone in first class had used the phone to call an ally in coach, and that the foreigners in coach were watching pornographic movies they’d taped the night before. How could our first person narrator have known these things?

 

For that matter, how did Petruna come up with any of this stuff, given that he wasn’t on the plane?

 

But that’s the very definition of good fiction, isn’t it? Making us believe a story that comes, at least in part, out of our heads. He shouldn’t have broken that implicit contract with us by leaping into an omniscient narrator’s POV midstream to carry the story along.

Oh, and the ending stinks. He shoulda’ had the plane blow up and the hero barely get all the good guys out the emergency slide at the last minute.

All in all, I guess it’s a good action yarn but still needs a bit of weeding and pruning. Thank God for slush piles.

25 thoughts on “The Omniscient Narrator

  1. JD Rhoades

    And yet, the story became wildly popular, despite its flaws. I think it’s because he knew and wrote the story his audience wanted to hear. This guy could be the next Dan Brown.

    Reply
  2. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Wow, where have I been? I didn’t even know this existed. And I have no idea what’s going on with Tiger Woods. What the hell’s going on with Tiger Woods?
    I agree with you on the change of POV. That’s where he lost me. I was trying to figure out how he knew the guys were watching porn in the back. I also, for some reason, thought the writer was female, until close to the end of the story.
    Geez, the trouble one can cause with the internet. I remember a "real story, told to me by a friend" that circulated the internet just before the Presidential election. From an American soldier in Iraq talking about a visit by candidate Obama, and how he really snubbed the armed forces when he came. It was all first-person, with the intention of saying that Obama didn’t support our troops.
    It pissed me off because a friend of mine sent it to me, thinking it would change my mind about Obama.
    Interesting, this new world we occupy…

    Reply
  3. Patricia Smiley

    First of all, he lost all credibility with me when he used "stewardesses" instead of "flight attendants." An author who can’t get his terminology right shouldn’t be allowed to fly.

    Reply
  4. Louise Ure

    You’re right, Patty. That term alone should have been able to help date the piece several decades ago. Interesting how we can highlight the time period (or screw it up) with just one word.

    Reply
  5. Tom

    "The bigger the lie, the easier to believe." Then there’s the overt agenda running though it . . . maybe the author knows what the audience wants, as JD said, but I don’t see any great respect for the audience. This is something the author wrote for him/her/itself. The rest of the world is just incidental now the tale of personal heroism is proclaimed.

    Nasty bit of propaganda.

    Reply
  6. Louise Ure

    But Tom, we’re always the hero of our own story! That’s true in the way I tell someone about my day as well as the way I portray a character in my books. Hubris? Sure. But human, too.

    Reply
  7. pari noskin taichert

    Louise,
    Leave it to you to do a beautiful editorial analysis on this particular story. I’ve been following it because I love — and can’t quite believe — this guy’s audacity.

    Is he incredibly shrewd — a la Salahi — in order to get onto talk shows and position himself as a new celeb OR is he delusional?

    I’m not quite sure.

    Reply
  8. Louise Ure

    Sorry, J.D., but you’re my go-to guy in the morning. Live with it.

    And Pari, I hadn’t thought about the "celebrity" angle of this. I guess I was crediting him with: 1) being a true believer of the terrorism fears and, 2) being all too-human in his desire to be up-close-and-personal with the action/tragedy/news. I have a friend who does that, who makes herself central somehow in the story of somebody else’s tragedy.

    Reply
  9. Murderati

    What world am I living in? I never heard anything about this – and I watch Fox… Man, I really HAVE been on deadline.

    Reply
  10. toni mcgee causey

    I became suspicious the moment the letter writer claimed that 11 Muslim men in full garb boarded. For one thing, who actually sits there while that many people are boarding and counts them? Unless you’re really paranoid, at which point, I quit believing anything else you’d have to say, anyway. I might’ve gone along with the premise if he’d have said something like, "quite a few" or "about a dozen" or something more likely to be believable in that moment.

    Plus, it sort of cracked me up that he got up and a Texan twice his size ‘had his back.’ Which is just his way of saying, "look how badass I am to take on these terrorists, and I was half the size of the other Texan who stood up." Puh-leeze.

    Reply
  11. Louise Ure

    JT, is that you! Take a break from that deadline! Stop and smell the gossip!

    And Toni, don’t you love the machismo? On your other point, I have a girlfriend who used to write things like "nine children played in the sandbox" instead of referencing the group. Who’s counting?

    Reply
  12. Alafair Burke

    Who in the world takes the time to do something like this? I caught the cell phone from first-class but that could be a fact later inferred from other information. For me, it was the "infidel dog" dialogue that gave him away.

    Reply
  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I don’t know, the whole tone from the beginning was too – Newt Gingrich is what I want to say – fat boy pretending to be big tough hero – to believe.

    Hadn’t heard it before, but that kind of ego is just annoying, in an author and a hoaxer.

    Great post, though, LU… I swear I only get my popular news from Murderati these days.

    Reply
  14. Ali

    Excellent Post Louise, and I am so glad most of your saw through the lies – that’s why I like you guys at Murderati – you never take anything at face value.

    Unfortuntaly we live in the world that Orwell predicted – there is also a growing Right Wing influence throughout society.

    When things are bad the need to demonise – and blame is nothing new – remember Germany in the 1930’s and what happened to the men, women and children who were blamed for the economic woes – they were innocent jewish people, slavic people, gypsies, liberals and people who think. Just plot the growth of Exterme Right Wing Ideolgy against Unemployment and you’ll see the simple trend – The need to blame.

    In the Munich beerhalls in the 1930’s lies were spread by the propaganda machine, in whispers, with foul breath of hate and beer. Life is so much easier when we can blame someone, or a group of people and the Internet is just an updating of the the same thing.

    Today it seems to me, that anyone looking like they could have originated in a country that has oil wealth is a legitmate target.

    Lies and disinformation are everywhere, and as people have little time these days; our society is being dumbed down, to prevent people thinking for themselves.

    Religion used to be the way for controling people [with fear of hades/hell] but now Terrrorism is the new way of instilling fear – and all the other economic, crime, fear & anxiety is spread by the media.

    As yourself one question –

    How many people actually were hurt or died of ‘terrorism’ last year.

    Orwell would be sad to see the novel he wrote become a reality, but hey, we’ve seen it all before, and we’ll see it all again because there is darkness in the human condition and if not controlled turns flesh to smoke from the chimneys that shadow us all the time

    Ali

    PS – And of course I would say that, being a proud British born man, with my family origins in India, Germany and Ireland. Some people need to wake up – worth watching SYRIANA if your want to understand a little about geopolitics

    "L’enfer, c’est les autres" – Jean-Paul Sartre

    Reply
  15. Tom

    Hello, Ali; I loved SYRIANA, and couldn’t understand why the buzz was, "It’s hard to follow."

    No, it’s not hard at all if you read mysteries or follow world events.

    Reply
  16. Louise Ure

    Alafair, you’d never write that kind of "infidel dog" dialogue.But I’ll bet it would be pretty profane if you wanted it to be.

    Alex, like you I seem to like my protagonists as Reluctant Heroes, not thinly veiled braggadocios.

    Reply
  17. Louise Ure

    Ali, you’re sentiments are dead on. But let me choose two smaller items from your comment:

    "Lies were spread by the propaganda machine, in whispers, with foul breath of hate and beer." God, what a line and what an image. Thank you for that.

    And the Sartre quote? I’m sure "les autres" feel the same way about us.

    Tom, my only problem with SYRIANA was the erratic volume level. Great film.

    Reply
  18. Rob Gregory Browne

    Tom, regarding Syriana, which I loved, I think the reason people had a hard time with it is because it didn’t go out of its way to explain things to the audience. The language was often insider language and it takes time to figure out what’s being said. I was confused myself, sometimes, but as the movie progressed my confusion disappeared and it all came together in the end.

    The movie is brilliant, I think. One of the best of its kind.

    As for the story in Louise’s post, it’s hard for me to look at it purely as fiction because it so smacks of hysterical propaganda that it’s difficult to read.

    Reply
  19. Judy Wirzberger

    Sent: Friday, November 27, 2009 11:32 AM

    Subject: Long story short….

    One week ago, (that would mean the traveler went ot Ohio on November 20 since the email was sent on the 27th) I went to Ohio on business and to see my father. On Tuesday, November the 17th, I returned home. (I see that he returned home before he left) If you read the papers the 18th
    But, Louise, I loved how you critiqued the writing. My favorite was Me and my new Texan friend.-People seem to be afraid of I lately.
    How old do you think the author is?? (You looked fabulous Sunday)

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.