In the world of Eric Puchner’s “Beautiful Monsters,” there are no adults. Usually. The story opens with a boy making breakfast for himself and his sister when he spots a grown man eating an apple from a tree. The boy has never seen an adult male, since typically the authorities round up these “Senescents” before they can cause trouble for the accepted, child-like citizens, known as the “Perennials.” Yet, instead of contacting the authorities, the boy and girl decide to hide the man, and the trio explores this illicit relationship, slowly reverting to the kind of father-children relationship the reader is more used to.
Point of view begins with a choice: what’s the best way to tell this story?
The Contributors’ Notes provide the best clues to Puchner’s decision on point of view. “[I]t was always much more about capturing what it means to have a parent,” he writes, “about distilling the entire emotional arc of having a father into twenty pages.” He continues, “I think of ‘Beautiful Monsters’ as a fable more than anything else: a stranger-comes-to-town story, in which the stranger is death” (332). These quotes are indicative of the choices he made concerning point of view, and what’s fascinating about this story is how Puchner uses this point of view to his advantage. By choosing a third-person point of view limited to the boy’s and girl’s experience, Puchner is able to tackle these themes and ideas from an interesting perspective, guide the reader through an imaginary future and control the tone of his story.
Puchner is examining “what it means to have a parent” from an unlikely angle. Whereas someone might decide to investigate this idea from a state of loss (a parent’s death, for example) Puchner looks at it the other way around, beginning with absence. He’s chosen to set the point of view from a state of ignorance—the Perennials have had no parents, and they are only vaguely aware of what adults once looked like and what their roles once were. This new angle gives Puchner ample room to condense “the entire emotional arc of having a father into twenty pages.” In approaching his story from the point of view of the Perennials, Puchner can explore the themes in his story from a fresh perspective.
This decision also helps to guide the reader. By using elements of science fiction, Puchner is in danger of defaulting to cliché or drawing too much of the reader’s attention to how the story’s world is different—standard pitfalls of the genre. Instead, the strangeness of the adult seen from the point of view of the boy gives focus to what might otherwise be an overwhelming task of describing everything different in his fictional world. The fourth sentence (“The boy has never seen a grown man in real life…”) draws up the opening scene’s central question: What’s happened to all the adults? If we imagine the story from the man’s POV, on the other hand, a few obstacles begin to crop up. The man, for example, is already aware of the way the world is (he knows about the Perennials and the Senescents, as well as what it was like during the Age of Senescence). The result might be a dull story filled with rapid-fire details about the way the story’s world is and virtually no signpost to guide the reader. Additionally, the sighting that opens the story wouldn’t be as effective, since it’s the boy’s wonder that captures the reader on the first page.
Instead, the boy’s myopic point of view helps focus the reader on the stranger, and Puchner is able to provide specific details that describe the story’s world without distracting the reader away from the man. The sister’s comic books, which depict images of fathers and grown men, for example, are a way of highlighting the strangeness of the man before them. Later, on page 198, when the man guesses the boy to be about nine years old, the boy “suspects the man’s disease has infected his brain,” and the reader is given another hint that aging, illness and death are quite different here. But we aren’t limited to the boy’s point of view; the girl’s thoughts also provide important details about the world and how this stranger’s intrusion has changed it. On page 199, she imagines “what it would be like to live with a father—a dashing giant, someone who’d buy her presents and whisk her chivalrously from danger, like the brave, mortal fathers she reads about…” Not only are fathers strange, the reader discovers, but their mortality is foreign, too. In essence, the point of view allows Puchner to (shudder—clichéd writing advice ahead) show instead of tell.
In many ways, the point of view also dictates the tone of the story more than word choice, plot or characterization. Strangeness and fear populate nearly every corner of the story, much of which is dictated by the point of view. The boy, for example, is never given a name. He doesn’t need one—he’s the eyes through which we see the story—but it’s unsettling. We aren’t even provided a description of the boy’s appearance beyond a few hints, much less a title for his identity. Likewise, the man is viewed and described as monstrous. His hands are “huge, grotesque, as clumsy as crabs.” The man’s face is streaked with ash, and his clothes handmade, his body broken and diseased. Rumors of “giant, hairy-faced beasts” foreshadowed his appearance. It’s an effective technique for the story. As a harbinger of death and decay, the man’s shocking presence presages the ending’s dark turn. The story is bookended, in fact, by images of surprise. The severed heads of the Senescents “gawk at each other from their poles. They look startled to the boy, still surprised by their betrayal.” When one turns to the boy, he sees who the beast really is: “[F]or a moment its eyes seem to get bigger, as though it’s seen a monster.”
It appears Puchner’s “Beautiful Monsters” is about more than just “what it means to have a parent,” but also what it means to lose one, the fear one feels at the idea of a parent’s death, and the monster that fear can turn one into. By choosing a point of view limited to the boy and girl, Puchner is able to examine these ideas from a new perspective, guide the reader through his imagined world, and control the tone of the piece.