Third-person omniscient narration in Free Food for Millionaires
Min Jin Lee uses third-person omniscient narration in Free Food for Millionaires, a book I read in July and haven’t been able to stop thinking about. A lot of books use this style – Middlemarch and The House of Mirth, for example, both narrate the stories and thoughts of many characters. (Middlemarch is, incidentally or not, Free Food for Millionaires protagonist Casey Han’s favorite book.)
Free Food for Millionaires primarily narrates Casey’s life and perspective and inner thoughts. The book also narrates, Middlemarch-like, a number of subplots, most notably the lives and thoughts and perspectives of Ella Shim (Casey’s cousin) and Leah Han (Casey’s mother).
Min Jin Lee makes the third-person omniscient narration style more personal, though, by incorporating the thoughts of very minor characters into the story. Often, these characters aren’t very important to the story, and only appear in one or two scenes. Yet, Lee uses their inner thoughts to provide a new look into the main characters or a key situation.
Often, when Casey interacts with a person, the narrative shifts slightly to accommodate this new character. It’s less formal than something like Middlemarch, which tends to dedicate whole paragraphs or even chapters to a single person’s perspective. (And then returns repeatedly to the same few characters’ perspectives – though Middlemarch does have minor characters too.) But in addition to this paragraph or chapter-level perspective switches, FFFM contains sentence-level perspective switches.
For example, there’s a scene early on in the book that I thought was quite remarkable. Casey lets herself into her boyfriend’s apartment, only to find him cheating on her with two girls. The scene starts with Casey’s perspective: “Casey stood, unwilling – or unable – to speak. In her mind, she kept repeating, Oh God. Oh God. Oh God.”
Casey’s boyfriend, Jay Currie, doesn’t immediately realize that Casey has walked into the apartment. And before he does, the narrative then shifts to accommodate his inner thoughts and perspective: “The fantasy he’d held for years was turning out to be less than satisfying. Nevertheless, he congratulated himself, because he would never have discovered this information in any other way.”
Jay then realizes Casey is in the apartment, and immediately is concerned she’s been beat up and her face is a mess. The narrative switches to accommodate Brenda, one of the two girls Jay is having sex with: “‘Hey there,’ Brenda said to Casey in a friendly voice. It crossed her mind that maybe Casey might be Jay’s roommate, girlfriend, or even just friend. She could be his adopted sister. Not of it was very clear, and Brenda’s buzz was fizzling out. Her best friend’s cousin Lola had an adopted sister who was Chinese and looked a bit like this girl, but not so tall.”
If a scene like this occurred in Middlemarch, I think the reader would get the whole scene from Casey’s perspective, and then perhaps part of the scene from Jay’s perspective. But in Free Food for Millionaires, you get this back and forth type of switching that I found really compelling. Because you get the different perspectives, you get a sort of moral ambiguity, or at least sympathy. Jay seems like a terrible person when Casey walks in, but when you get his short perspective, he becomes a little more relatable. And Brenda seems like just some forgettable hot girl when Casey walks in, but then her inner thoughts make her seem just kind of nice and drunk. These kinds of scenes become a cacophony of perspectives – many voices commenting on a single scene one after another, almost like a Greek chorus.
Not all of Free Food for Millionaires contains these sentence-level switches – there are chapters and paragraphs dedicated to Leah, to Ella, to Ted, to Unu. But it’s the sentence-level switches that I thought were so innovative. To get a quick, sentence-long glance into a minor character is ground-breaking, really. It gives me a fuller sense of the fictional world and a fuller sense of the main character. It’s Casey’s book, or it’s Leah’s chapter, or it’s Ella’s paragraph, but others are allowed into these structures, fleshing out and complicating scenes. Each perspective adds to my image of Casey – what they think of her, how Casey comes across to them.
Some other reviewers have commented on the unique narration style of Free Food for Millionaires:
- Chris Jesu Lee said in Plan A Magazine that “Free Food For Millionaires is a contemporary Victorian-style novel — complete with a sprawling scope and omniscient narrator — that delivers a panoramic view of a particular Asian American society of its time: Korean Americans in 1990s New York City.”
- Yoonji Han said in her blog Ink and Butter that “As she does in her sophomore novel Pachinko, Ms. Lee wields a third-person omniscient narrator to jump between different characters’ viewpoints — a Tolstoyan/Woolfian influence that pays homage to her self-apprenticeship of writing (which she discusses in her raw, honest foreword to the book). By giving her readers unfettered access to her characters’ thoughts and emotions, she builds drama and irony, exposing how frustratingly restricted our individual perspectives can be, and how they can so easily give rise to conflict and misunderstanding.”