Point of view in “The Casual Carpool” by Katherine Bell

In her contributor’s note in Best American Short Stories, Katherine Bell writes:

I loved the way Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield handled point of view and I wanted to see if I could manage shifting among several characters’ consciousnesses from paragraph to paragraph, or even sentence to sentence, without ever zooming out. (360)

Bell manages the shifts in a few different ways. Early on, despite her goal, she does zoom out. The story alternates between a usually close third-person narrative from the POV of a parachutist trapped in the steel ropes of the Bay Bridge, and the shifting POV of the three central characters in the car. She opens with the parachutist, but then zooms out from him, providing details of things that he could not know about the people below him, concluding with a description of the three main characters riding in the Nissan Altima.

Now because of him, more than eighty thousand people would be late to work. Across the city, deadlines would be missed, meetings canceled, stores understaffed. The host of the nine o’clock show on KQED would not arrive on time; at every major hospital surgeries would be postponed. The driver of the Nissan Altima stalled near the end of the Yerba Buena tunel would be late, and so would the woman beside him. The girl in the back seat did not have a job. School had already started, but that was behind her, before the bridge. She had never planned to go. (291)

This is followed with a section break, then Bell is in the mind of Ian, the driver of the Altima. At the first transition of point of view, Bell again pulls out, this time taking a limited view of things so that the first sentences of the second paragraph in the quotation below could be from any character’s point of view, letting the reader ease from Ian’s mind to Julia’s mind. Only when Bell writes of Julia, “She’d rather be on the train, hurtling under the Bay, unstoppable,” do we explicitly enter into Julia’s mind.

[Ian] stole a look at his front-seat passenger, her dark head bent over a tack of papers. She’d unhitched her sat belt when they reached the bridge, which meant she’d lived in the Bay Area long enough to remember the earthquake in ’89, to prefer the risk of a car accident to the risk of being trapped under the rubble.

The girl in the back had never put hers on. She couldn’t sit still, kept shifting her limbs about, running her nails back and forth along the beige velour edge of her seat, leaning her head against the window and clouding up the glass. She’d rather be on the train, hurtling under the Bay, unstoppable. (292)

Another technique used by Bell in the transitions is to use character referents from the perspective of the current character. For example, in the passage above, Julia is introduced as “the girl in the back seat,” exploiting the fact that the three passengers in the car are strangers to each other. When Ian speaks while we are making the transition from Julia to Hannah in POV, he is referred to as “the driver.” This works as a solid marker for the reader when the first abrupt switch in POV occurs on the fourth page of the book: With no transition, we move from Hannah’s perspective to Ian’s signaled only by the use of Ian’s name:

 Only it wasn’t going to be [Hannah’s] child, not only hers, but hers and Kate’s. Which mean that this preview, this flipping through profiles in a stranger’s car, felt like a small betrayal.

Ian squinted at the headlights reflected in his rearview mirror, trying to determine if the car behind him remained at a reasonable distance, or if it had crept closer, the way he’d eased off his own brake to shorten the gap between his car and the one in front. (294)

The next POV change is handled similarly, using Julia’s name to signal a change in POV from Ian to her. Having established this pattern, Bell becomes more adventurous in her shifts, letting herself move between minds within a single paragraph:

[Julia] snapped a studded leather bracelet around a wrist, extracted a hook of silver from a tiny Ziploc bag, and threaded it through the nearly imperceptible hole in her nose. Watching in the rearview mirror, Ian thought she looked as though she were dressing for work, or for a performance, and in a sense she was. If she made it off the bridge alive, if she did not die of boredom first, Julia would take the streetcar to the Castro, where she would walk outside the Ben and Jerry’s next to Isaac, a fourteen-year-old runaway Mormon from the shore of the Great Salt Lake. (295)

Yet, Bell does not keep rigorously to this. At one point, she moves into Julia’s POV from Hannah’s without bringing in her name:

“They’re probably just filming a movie,” the girl in the back seat said. She didn’t care what was happening ahead on the bridge. If a person wanted to fly, he should stay away from bridges. If he wanted to kill himself, he should do it privately, not at rush hour.

This paragraph is Bell pushing the boundaries still further on her ability to move between her characters’ consciousnesses and represents the culmination of all the preparatory work that led to this point. Explicit markers are  no longer necessary as Bell shifts POV from one character to another.

Page number references are to Best American Short Stories 2006.

Tagged ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *