Friday, August 7, 2009

Inverted writing

A few days ago, I took advantage of some free time to sit down with a couple of library books. Topping the list was "Inverted World" by Christopher Priest, a book I'd picked up randomly, in part because I saw it was a NYRB edition (strange for this library) and also because I thought a break from the usual in the form of science fiction would be welcome. In truth it was, but as with a few other unexpected reads I've encountered recently, the points that cropped up had little to do with the story itself.

In "Inverted World", Priest switches back and forth between third person and first person. The uniqueness in this is that the narrating character doesn't change. Often, when a book shifts point of view, it's because the reader is moving in the direction of another character's take on the subject. Here, however, part II maintains Helward as the main character, continues his story precisely where it left off in part I, and the only difference is that the reader is now officially "out of his head". It is not a failed device. The story continues unobstructed and doesn't find itself so complicated by the changes that the reader can't continue. But reading the book, there appears to be no reason for this different format.

The solution to this odd narration mystery is as bizarre as the point itself. According to Wikipedia, the book's structure is meant to follow the shape of the strange world in which Helward lives - the inverted world. But reading the book did not hint at this, where the author attempts to emphasize the strangeness of his science fiction through the writing style. It seems odd that Priest would craft his book so carefully but would not reveal in his writing even the slightest hint that the point-of-view changes are meant to shadow the story. The mysteries of the world itself are only revealed deep in the book - perhaps this is why I was unable to catch on.


  1. I read Inverted World last fall, and really liked it. I did not get the particular reading described on Wikipedia, but I did get some definite differences between the first- and third-person sections that seemed important. I wrote:
    We learn the most during the passages narrated by Helward, though we learn slowly. He asks the same question twice, is generally uninquisitive and somewhat unobservant, and doesn’t put two and two together right away. His most revelatory experiences happen during passages of third person narration, passages characterized by quicker action and more immediacy than the first person sections—but he doesn’t process the meaning of those experiences until we return to his slower-paced narration. It makes for an unusual, not to say inverted (ha ha), experience.

  2. I know I have read a different book which uses this same technique, but I can't for the life of me remember which one. I can see it as a useful device to reveal some aspect of a character that can't be revealed throught the first person or third person alone...


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