Expanding the Psychological Borders:
An Interview with T.L. Toma
Every story has constructed boundaries. Of necessity, the writer selects and excludes, and one of the foundational choices is a story’s psychological borders. Will characters’ thoughts be revealed? If so, whose? If there is information the reader needs but the point of view characters can’t provide, how will the information be imparted? One recent novel, Look at Us by T.L. Toma (2021), approaches psychological boundaries with a boldness and variety rarely seen in contemporary fiction. The author utilizes the full range of narrative distance and authority, from the omniscient capable of commenting on the characters, through the limited third person, all the way to the objective, or camera-eye perspective, in which even at pivotal emotional moments we don’t know what point-of-view characters are thinking.
In what Publisher’s Weekly rightly described as Toma’s “lucid style and cool tones,” the novel tells the story of Martin and Lily Fowler, well-heeled, well-educated Manhattanites who hire a young Irish immigrant to nanny their twin toddlers after their current nanny, an older woman, retires. Maeve becomes part of Martin and Lily’s relationship in troubling, unexpected ways that both reveal repressed problems between them and cause new ones.
Martin is the character whose mind we delve into most frequently and deeply, and he is the only one whose thoughts the omniscient narrator comments on. Lily, Maeve, and Paloma (the retiring nanny) are point-of-view characters too, but to more limited, and varying, degrees. Toma even uses a community point of view, as when Martin’s colleagues notice his preoccupation and their discussions about his failures reach upper management.
Toma says he took this broad, varied approach to point of view precisely for its flexibility:
The effect of suddenly zooming in from the omniscient POV to limited and vice versa can be quite powerful. It works as a telescoping or distancing technique to bring out certain details. Martin at times employs mildly sexist and even racist tropes in his thinking. The omniscient POV serves as a check on such tropes, not so much to correct them but to puncture them in however elliptical a fashion.
The ability — and thus the implied expectation — that an omniscient narrator will “serve as a check” on a character’s thinking is precisely why many contemporary writers avoid it. As fiction has come more and more to be seen as a vehicle for raising questions and portraying complexities, the need to judge characters and the larger world can feel like too large a burden. As Gail Godwin said in her diary, “Report. Don’t moralize. No pretensions.” So most writers today leave the difficult job of making moral sense out of the characters to the reader. Toma, however, doesn’t shrink from the burden for several reasons. For one thing, he doesn’t accept that the omniscient voice has to equate to the author himself, partly because the author himself does not always equate to himself:
[The psychoanalyst Jacques] Lacan argues that all consciousness exists in a state of inescapable tension: we seem at one level to be our own persons acting autonomously, even though our self-recognition is inescapably divided and fractured at its very core. Who we are is shot through entirely by what we think others make of us…We strive to make it real by adhering to it, and so by adhering to it we give it the apparent force of something real…A novel allows you to cheat on this point: you can step back from time to time and offer pronouncements that do indeed seem to emerge from the place of the Big Other. But the novel is not life. One plots and schemes and tinkers and rewrites with one thing in mind, but once it gets out there it is often something else entirely. An author may indeed be more clueless about her book than most.
Toma isn’t entirely disowning the judgments and insights of the omniscient voice though. Regarding, for example, Martin’s belief that his and Lily’s sex life is lacking, Toma insists:
Martin is wrong, of course — he is wrong about women, he is wrong about money, he is wrong about life. My adolescence was in the sixties and seventies. Many men — not all, I’m sure, but many — did indeed grow up with what I refer to in the book as a “barely acknowledged but nagging suspicion that somewhere there exists a toweringly stunning nymphomaniac who secretly pines only for him.” Of course, the very next sentence reads, “He does not see that this prospect is no more credible than talk of Bigfoot or Nessie.”
In a book that hewed to a limited point of view approach, observations and assertions to correct or contradict Martin’s beliefs would have to be made through what other characters say, do, and think. Instead, Toma wanted the authoritative voice the omniscient provides:
I could have put such sentiments in the mouth of another character, but then it would have been just one more voice with no greater claim to the truth. With regard to these and parallel outlooks, we all know that at some level, yes, this is how men think; this is how white people think; this is how the rich think — why waffle? Better at places to state it baldly.
Being objectively correct about things that are not easily established facts is a psychological gift that readers give the omniscient voice, perhaps because in its earliest forms the written word was provided only by governments and the divine. When an omniscient voice is used, writers are stepping into these ancient shoes and invoking the reader’s habit of granting authority to an author.
Unlike Martin, Paloma, Lily and, to an even greater degree, Maeve are deliberately kept at a psychological remove. Because we get only a few glimpses into the women’s inner lives and past experiences, each glimpse feels more weighty and definitive. These characters felt less mitigated than Martin. He has his good points, his bad points, his fears, his bravery. The women, however, are at once both reduced and emboldened by what little we know about their inner lives. Toma says this was intentional:
This is more Martin’s story than the others, and I think it is right that while they occupy less time on the page, the episodes where they do figure are etched more sharply, if only in contrast to Martin’s. Again, this has to do with the fact that Martin is the locus of fundamental contradictions in a way the others aren’t.
For Toma, using the omniscient voice to comment on Martin and spending the most time with him was, from the start, the obvious approach for the novel:
For a number of reasons — both autobiographical and otherwise — Martin seems the natural focus of the story. I think I fixed on this pretty early on. There are difficulties with writing from the perspective of another gender or race — I’ve tried to do it in short stories, and Norman Rush’s “Mating” is a superb example — but it is yet one more ball in the air. And as I mentioned, Martin lives at the intersection of acute social antagonisms I wanted to explore. He’s from a small town in the Midwest, he comes from decidedly modest circumstances, he early on traded his academic aspirations for money-making, he is male, but there is a very real sense in which the two women are calling the shots, and so on.
Nonetheless, Toma does not use the same narrative approach for all the women. In fact, the differences between them are both subtle and striking. For example, while on a few occasions we hear how Lily interprets Martin’s actions, when it comes to Maeve, we are left closer to the objective point of view. We see the world through her eyes, but it is only a camera’s view.
For example, we hear her perceptions of what the Fowlers physically look like engaging in certain actions, but aren’t told how Maeve interprets the actions. At another point, Toma portrays Maeve thinking about her nanny duties during a sexual encounter, but provides no insight on why her focus is on these non-sexual things. The author also doesn’t reveal why Maeve makes the choices she does in her relationship with the Fowlers, though many of their interactions are unexpected, highly charged, and appear to be driven by Maeve. Toma says this is because he wants the reader to be in the same position with respect to Maeve that Martin and Lily are: “She is the Other that [they] cannot crack.”
I considered long and hard the prospect of really opening up Maeve’s role here, though I decided against it in the end because this was the point where I wanted the reader to have to fill in the gaps; I didn’t want to tell the reader what to think, I wanted the reader both to see Maeve as the Fowlers saw her — a somewhat withdrawn, inexperienced, and yet compliant party — and also to go beyond what they saw: a party whose identity is inscribed through and through by the nature of her interactions with those who are far better positioned than she is, who are far more powerful than she is.
Ironically, though Martin’s beliefs are the only one’s authoritatively corrected by the omniscient narrator, readers might, as I did, feel the most sympathy for him. To some extent, this is the natural product of spending more “time” with a character and knowing more about him. It also has to do with the fact that, as readers, we live in Martin’s ignorance. For example, readers often have to wonder what Lily is thinking and feeling, just like Martin does. A more evenly divided approach to accessing the couple’s inner thoughts would have changed this dynamic. When I asked Toma if this was how he perceived the emotional result of his point of view strategies, he pointed out that given what he does reveal about Lily’s past, he trusted readers to interpret her behavior.
Lily is far more emotionally withholding, for reasons that are I think entirely understandable given what we know of her past. She is something of a bully in the end, but a tragic bully. Her personality is erected upon a bulwark of elaborately constructed defenses. She grew up moneyed, the only daughter amid a large brood of brutalizing brothers, with a tyrannical father and an alcoholic mother. She had little choice: either adopt many of the mores and attitudes of those who oppress, or cower. She is rarely forthcoming because she is often so blinkered when it comes to knowing herself. Again, I don’t think this is at all unusual; I also think in a way that you can’t go far in blaming Lily for what she has become. She is a victim here — all three are victims — the difference being this: Martin and Lily will likely land on their feet in the end, because their social standing gives them enormous reserves to fall back on, whereas Maeve’s situation is far more precarious.
Readers who have become accustomed to circumscribed and consistent narrative strategy may at first find Toma’s approach a bit unmooring, but it is a lesson in the value of disparity and flexibility. As Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Toma reminds the writer that the psychological boundaries of a novel need not be smooth or symmetrical. The stretching and shrinking of them around certain minds at certain times can produce meanings and effects not available to regularity, a fact we artists must learn over and over again. Here’s a place to start.
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