Schmidt, Gary D. The Wednesday Wars. Sandpiper. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.

_ _ _ . Okay for Now. Boston: Clarion, 2011.

I need to think a little about these two books by the same author because they are enough like each other to operate almost as a set of variations on the same themes–as alternative versions of the same basic story. But in fact they are even more similar than that–so very much like each other that beyond a superficial level of a different setting and such, there’s a surprisingly slight degree of actual variation or of anything significantly alternative. While Okay for Now, the more recent of the two, is about a different central character, it seems to repeat events,characters, situations, linguistic turns, etc., etc. first found in The Wednesday Wars, albeit perhaps to somewhat better effect.

Most basically, Okay for Now is, sort of, a sequel to The Wednesday Wars. Doug Swieteck, the main character of Okay for Now, appears earlier in The Wednesday Wars in a relatively minor role as friend of its main character, Holling Hoodhood. But Okay opens with Doug moving to another town, after which he has no contact with Holling, and there are no other shared characters or experiences. The first question, then, is, why has Schmidt bothered to suggest a connection between them at all? Why make this fairly slight but nevertheless obvious joining of one book to the other and then never refer to it again? Why might he have chosen to announce Okay as a sequel and thus invite readers to see it as related to a book about different people in a different place?)

Perhaps it’s just a matter of letting readers know that if they liked the one book, then here’s another connected to it and therefore likely to offer similar pleasures. But that sort of “if you liked x, you’ll enjoy y” invitation really doesn’t require an actual connection between the characters. So I think that the answer has to be structural rather than character- or plot-oriented. The connection heralded by the relationship of the two protagonists is primarily a matter of the significant extent to which they echo each other as different versions of the same story.

Here are some of the things the novels have in common (and I’m fairly sure this is an incomplete list of commonalities, because I have the sense based on what I’ve noticed so far that the connections must be fairly complete–that evidence of them could be found in almost every aspect of the novels I might find myself aware of):

–The main character is a baseball-loving boy with a special affection for the Yankees who addresses readers in a first-person narrative, telling readers whom he seems to be aware of as his audience the story of his own life.
–He is in junior high in a small town not far from New York City.
–He has the cynical habit of always looking on the dark side, and a sardonic sort of pessimism, especially about teachers. He has strong opinions and theories about a lot of things, and tends to read the events he experiences as confirmations of his negative expectations. Indeed, they often are.
–He is quite witty about the awful ways of the world, but tends to hold back significant information he doesn’t like (nasty things certain adults say to him, for instance) and then acknowledge it later, after readers have been allowed to guess about what it is.
–He is an outsider, Holling as the only Lutheran in a town of Jews and Catholics, Doug as a newcomer to an apparently close-knit small town with a cocky sarcastic attitude that quickly gives him a reputation as a dangerous hoodlum (a reputation that survives from the earlier novel even though there was no one to convey it to new people but himself, his own cocky attitude, and his older brother’s apparent bad behaviour). As the stories proceed, however, both boys turn out to have so many friends and supporters that their outsider-liness quickly seems more theoretical than actual.
–Each boy has an older sibling so despised by him that he refuses to actually provide their name. The sibling’s name is finally revealed later in the novel, after events conspire to reveal the real feelings of love the protagonists and their siblings feel for each other–and after it becomes apparent to the protagonist that his sibling suffers as much or more than he does from the bad behaviour of his father.
–Both do, centrally, suffer from the bad behaviour of their fathers. The fathers tend to neglect their children most of the time and be harsh towards them otherwise. Holling’s father is mentally abusive, Doug’s physically abusive. Holling’s father believes that it’s up to him to decide what his children will be and become, whereas Doug’s father’s lack of ambition for his children tends to cause similar problems for reverse reasons. Hollng’s father gets angry when he believes Holling and his sister aren’t ambitious enough, Doug’s father get angry when he believes Doug is being too ambitious and so giving in to dumb rich people.
–Whereas Holling’s father is well off, a conservative conformist, upwardly mobile and ambitious, Doug’s father is decidedly lower-class man who perceives himself as as rebel and who has a huge chip on his shoulder about how guys like him do all the work while the stupid lazy bosses get all the benefits of it. But while behaving in these opposite ways, both fathers express their own self-involvement as the expense of their children. Both behave in ways that deprive their children of significant opportunities in their lives.
–Both Doug and Holling have a nickname for the house they live in that defines their father’s class and social aspirations: the Perfect House and The Dump. (These issues of class are one of the few areas in which the relationship between the two novels is inverted rather than just an echo, so that thematically they become class-related variations on the theme of paternal inadequacy.)
–Both fathers have a vested interest in the importance of appropriately masculine behaviour (which they understand in quite different, class-related ways, albeit both in terms of power and survival of the fittest) and become upset when their sons behave in ways they see as not adequately masculine.
–Both fathers, in other words, are jerks, and their being jerks is a central issue of each of the novels. Whereas Holling’s father never stops being a jerk, Doug’s father changes significantly and seems to realize the error of his ways. As a result, Holling’s parents seem to be heading for a divorce at the end of Wednesday Wars, whereas Doug’s seem to be getting closer than they have been in Okay for Now.
–Neither novel pays much attention to its main character’s mother. While she is a victim of her husband’s bad behaviour, she tend to be stoic and quietly accepting of it as just the way things are and must be. She allows her husband to support the family and behave badly to their children while she stays home and looks after the house.
–Both boys love their mothers and worry about how their father treats her.
–Whereas Holling has just one sibling, an older sister, Doug has two older brothers. One of them constantly bullies him just as Holling’s sister does him. The other has been at war in Vietnam and returns without legs and temporarily blinded during the course of the novel–thus representing a different aspect of Holling’s sister’s character, her involvement as an anti-war protester and her flight from and consequent return home. Whereas Holling helps his sister return home after her disastrous attempt to run away and find herself, Doug helps his older brother return home by encouraging him to get past his own deep version of the family’s characteristically cynical and self-defeating pessimism and get on with his life. In the process of these things happening, Schmidt manages to centrally portray a Vietnam war objector in one novel and a Vietnam veteran as equally caught up in and equally victimized by the politics of their time.
–In each novel, the main character manages without at first realizing it to make friends of his father’s enemy–Holling a girl in his class whose father is a competing architect, Doug the older man who teaches him how to throw horseshoes and who turns out to be the owner of the factory his father works in.
–By means of the friendship, the boy seems likely to affect his father’s work negatively. Holling inadvertently leaks his architect father’s plans for the school to his girlfriend’s architect father, which leads first to the plans being stolen, then to the competitor leaving the competition, but then to the girlfriend’s father getting the much better task of a redesign for part of Yankee Stadium, much to Holling’s father’s annoyance. Doug’s friendship with his father’s boss might endanger his father due to his callous treatment of Doug, but then Doug’s father’s change of heart leads to a different outcome.
–Each boy has male friends with excellent, loving, caring parents who tend to take over parental duties when his own father causes problems in his life. These parents, especially fathers, seem to operate as example of the kind of loving parenting Holling and Doug are missing.
–Both boys start out hating but make close friends with teachers who profoundly influence them–Holling an English teacher whose husband is missing in action in Vietnam, Doug a gym teacher back from the war and much emotionally wounded by it. Through their relationships, both the boys and teachers become better people, and their lives
are much richer and much happier.
–the teacher’s husband then represents a Vietnam soldier in Wednesday Wars parallel to Doug’s brother in Okay for Now. Both are missed and then return home during the course of their novel.
–The value of cultural knowledge is a key issue in both books. Learning about art and literature is the key that moves each of the boys past their cynical pessimism about themselves and their future and towards a rich and happier understanding of themselves and others. In Wednesday Wars, Holling reads and thinks about various plays by Shakespeare that his teacher has assigned him. In Okay for Now, Doug studies the prints of birds by Audubon that a friendly librarian introduces him to and helps him to understand well enough to copy accurately. In each case, the specific art works referred to are shown to relate to events in the boys’ lives, Holling seeing elements of Shakespearean plots and characters as explanations of his own life and his interactions with others, Doug reading his interpretations of what the Audubon birds are doing and thinking into his own attitudes and responses to experiences. In both books, then, the art works operate significantly as ways in which the plots are organized and come to express specific meanings.
–The boys both turns out to have previously hidden talents. Both show they are able to run very fast. Both also turn out to have surprisingly excellent acting skills, and perform onstage to the acclaim of their audiences. And Doug also discovers his talent for drawing.
–Both boys learn about the works of art that engage them at the hands of an older person employed in a sort of education-related position: an English teacher and a librarian. The novels both celebrate the passion and justify the interests of professionals who work with young people by showing them to be more empathetic and understanding than the boys’ parents are (a common trope of novels for young people, which often feature wonderfully sympathetic teachers and librarians much like the actual purchasers of such books, and describe how such professional can save young people from their repressive or otherwise inadequate parents).
–Both boys save the day for others around them in a significant way that involves their participation in art, Holling by performing in a play and Doug by both retrieving sold-off Audubon prints in order to make the library’s collection complete again and, also, acting in a play.
–Both boys end up in embarrassing costumes on stage in roles that might define them as effeminate, but realize it doesn’t affect their actual masculinity.
–Both boys develop relationships with owners of food shops–a bakery and a deli–that lead to important events in their lives.
–The citizens of the apparently ordinary small towns both boys live in turn out to include famous people or those with connections to famous people who give them contact with a larger world of fame and celebrity in sports and the arts.
–Both boys love an amazingly wonderful girl, and the girls love them back despite some initial expressed concern about his inadequacies.
–Both boys have girls in their lives who almost die–Holling’s sister in a possible crash with a bus that he saves her from, Doug the girl he learns to love from an unnamed disease he helps her to recover from.
–Both boys make significant trips into New York City.
–Both boys work to create a community of good people around them and cause things to happen to their enemies that give their enemies less power.
–While both boys define themselves as lonely loser outsiders, they both turn out to be amazingly capable in many directions, amazingly talented and wise, and with an amazing capacity for making good and important friendships with both their peers and with many adults, and both end up enmeshed in and at the centre of a loving community built around and in response to their own actions and abilities. So while apparently realistic depictions of actual life in the recent past, both books are wish-fulfillment fantasies, with their events again and again transcending the boundaries of actual possibility. Both boys turn out to have something like superpowers and interact with famous people who admire them, including various Yankees.

So what, after all that, really is new and different in Okay for Now? Not much, I think, except the intensity of it. The details are different, but Okay offers inherently the same experience as Wednesday Wars in a more concentrated way. It is even more magical than Wednesday Wars, with more bizzarely unrealistic but indubitably wonderful things happening–Doug actually appearing in a broadway show and such). But this is just a difference in scale, for what seems important about both books is that they allow amazing things to happen to their main characters that are well beyond plausibility but, at least for a reader like me, very satisfying. They are both fairy tales pretending to be realistic novels in order to make readers happy.

But that doesn’t actually explain why the two books are so alike. I’m not cynical enough to suggest merely that Schmidt was cynical enough to repeat the success of a very successful book: Wednesday Wars was a Newbery Medal honour book. I’m more prone to conjecture that Schmidt might have realized he had a better version of the same story in him, and set out to produce one. It is, i think, a better version, more linguistically adept, with more exaggerated events and with, for me at least, the result of richer payoffs in terms of readerly satisfaction. It makes less claim to seeming real, I think, and so offers more satisfying wish-filfullment. Beyond that, my look at what the books have in common has drawn my attention to what they don’t share–the differing aspects of class and masculinity they deal with. As is often the case in variational texts, the presence of similarities point to significant differences, and Doug’s story is different from Holling’s primarily in how their fathers behave to them and to others, and how the father’s stories are resolved in ways that then effect the boy’s lives differently. The two together then become a sort of fugue on themes of class ideas of masculinity–a fairly complex ones, for while Doug’s father’s behaviour is much criticized in the novel, he turns out to be redeemable in ways that Holling’s father isn’t.  But at the same time, Holling’s success seems possible primarily because, while the product of a lower-class family with lower-class values, he possesses enough of a middle-class soul to dislike how his parents and brothers behave and to have the apparently innate ability to act like and make friends with richer and classier people. His is a Cinderella story, then, about an apparently lower-class person who has the inner character and values of an upper-class one and thus is rewarded by a more upper-class sort of life, a conclusion which seems to undermine the novels’ other ideological strain that seems to suggest that poorer less upwardly-striving people are warmer, more humane and morally superior to people like Holling’s father.

Bainbridge, David. Teenagers: A Natural History. Greystone.  Vancouver: D & M, 2009.

This is an incredibly bone-headed book, and I’m wanting to take a closer look at why because it seems to represent a specific kind of boneheadedness increasingly widespread now–a mechanistic conviction that whatever people do is substantially mandated by biology or some other sort of “natural” imperative imbedded in us by evolution or anatomy and inescapable. In this case, what teenagers are (always are, it seems, and always must be) was established by the evolutionary development that produced homo sapiens–and while Bainbridge does acknowledge here and there the possibility that human beings might occasionally be influenced by their personal genetic makeup or history or the culture that surrounds them, he nevertheless falls back immediately into his basic, fundamental assumption: whatever teenagers do now, as a stereotyped group, must be what they have always done in some form or another throughout history and in every culture, because evolution made them that way and required that they act that way.   There is really never anything that people choose to do that wasn’t in fact a choice actually made by the inherent will of their species trying to be the fittest to survive.

Indeed, his faith in the evolutionary imperative is so complete that he tends even to assume that counterproductive things that people do–things like experimenting with addictive drugs and such that might well lead them into serious trouble–must have emerged from some aspect of human biology that was a positive force in allowing human beings to survive. He says, for instance, that “even the most unpleasant changes [in puberty] confer some benefit on us, or at least they did as some point in the past. When you start to view puberty as a product of evolution,much of what happens to teenagers begins to make sense” (42). He then has to admit that there’s no known evolutionary advantage in various typical patterns of body hair, or in things like teenage acne. And he never considers the possibility that things of this sort might be the kinds of evolutionary mistakes that could end up dooming homo sapiens to the dustheap of history, and therefore be evidence of lack of fitness to survive. Even though he insists that homo sapiens has existed for little more than an eye-blink in terms of evolutionary processes, he sees every single aspect of human biology as nothing but evidence of what has kept us going and therefore what is and always must be true about us and what will and always explain all of our social behaviour–until, I suppose, a species fitter for survival comes along.

His absolute conviction that every aspect of our biology and behaviour emerges from the evolutionary imperative is revealed most clearly in his ongoing habit of using language that ascribes will to biological organisms–their main if not only urge is an inherent will for their species to continue, and so, he keeps saying, they decide to adapt their biology in an effort to do so.

I’m not about to dispute Bainbridge’s obviously substantial knowledge of human biology and of recent developments in the sciences that study it. He does seem to know a lot, and he does present it in clear and interesting ways. Nevertheless, he does then tend to jump illogically from what is known about biology to the conclusion that it accounts for things such as the typical behaviour of teenagers, their typical rebelliousness, etc.  It seem fair to assert, as he does, that “evolution has given us our teenage years for a very good reason–in the long run they help us to succeed as individuals (that is what evolution does” (4). But having a period in which one makes the biological transition between childhood and full maturity dos not necessarily mean what Bainbridge unquestioningly understands the teen age to be: a collection of cultural norms and stereotypes garnered from the popular culture of the last fifty or sixty years. He asserts, very unpersuasively, “We all know the teenage mind” (100), as if there was just one shared by all teenagers. Indeed, adults can share tales of their lazy, rebellious teenagers because “this stereotyped nature of teenage behaviour suggests that there are certain ordered, consistent changes that take place in all teenage minds” (113-114).

For Bainbridge, indeed, “teenagers are not a social idea–they are quite simply different from everybody else” (12). In asserting that, he ignores a vast history in which those in the teenaged years behaved quite differently than stereotypes imply they do now, and a huge spectrum of other understandings of how people do and/or ought to behave in their teenage years in the variety of differing cultures and subgroups existing even just now in the world today. In all these differing circumstances, I suppose, it might be possible that teenagers still felt and feel not only the same biological urges, but also, an urge towards the same culturally-mandated expressions of those urges, as do contemporary James Deans and Taylor Swifts and such, even though the culture they were or are part of didn’t acknowledge then as being distinctly teenage-like, as being evidence of a separate category of human existence in need of an name and an special kind of analysis and understanding. But I think it highly unlikely that young Buddhists in Asia or young serfs in medieval Europe or young Hutterites living apart from contemporary mainstream culture in colonies in Western Canada or young devout wives of Mormons patriarchs were or are all just secret Barbies and Jonas Brothers at heart.

For that matter, not even all the young, middle-class white people in first world English-speaking countries from which Bainbridge derives his stereotypes display the stereotyped behaviours that popular culture identifies as typically teenaged and that Bainbridge insists are biologically mandated. I can’t say that I much recognize the teenaged years of myself or my own three children in his descriptions of what it always is to be a teenager. His argument might be more convincing if he didn’t just take it for granted that what the media tells us teenagers are now is both true and universal and an inevitable product of biology. According to Bainbridge, all teenagers “undergo an active process of rejection of their parents which is probably essential for their development as individuals” (221). But surely a lot of teenagers in the past and now have made it and do still happily make it into adulthood without rejecting their parent’s values in any way at all. Does that mean they are biological mistakes and, presumably, therefore doomed not to reproduce enough to keep their genes surviving? It hardly seems likely.

For me, the most annoying aspect of Bainbridge’s work is that, in trying to establish that being teenaged is indeed a unique and special stage of human life, he had to invent both a childhood and an adulthood quite unlike it; and his version of childhood in particular is particularly unconvincing, not to mention, an insult to children.

He tends to assume that all adults everywhere always have been just like he is himself: “All adults have similar memories of adolescence, distorted, distanced, and rationalised by the lens of age” (76); furthermore, it happens not because of nostalgia or the imposition of cultural stereotypes on our own past, but because “our brain has changed since we were teenagers.” And in order to define teenagers as newly aware of and sensitive to relationships and the feelings of others, he seem to feel he has to insist that children are devoid of these qualities–that their biology prevents them from thinking deeply, or feeling deeply, or understanding anyone or anything deeply.

He says, “we now think we evolved children to be little brain incubators–charming, unthreatening people whose brains are not finished, but who do not eat much of our valuable food because they are small. It makes sense to keep them small for as long as possible, because all they have to do is talk all the time, break things, and manipulate adults” (69). I suspect Bainbridge is trying, and failing miserably, to be funny here.

Or again, the second decade of life is “a time when we start to ascribe extremely subtle and complex interpretations of the world around us–this is why a ten-year-old could not write a sonnet” (108). And yet some ten-year-olds do write sonnets, and many more have very complex understandings of the world and the people around them.

Or again, horrifically, “Children may be charming little people who can talk and think a little, but we do not become fully mentally human until we are teenagers” (132). Yes, I checked it–that’s an accurate quote.

Among other things, furthermore, as the teenae years begin, “many of us start to see ourselves as individuals at this time” (183). “As the first ten years of life elapse,” in fact, “children occasionally refer to how they see themselves and how they think others see them, but these flickerings of self-analysis are interspersed with long periods of an endearing ignorance of self. . . . While children are rather poor at self-analysis, preferring instead for adults to show them the correct way to do things, adolescents are the complete opposite” (189). Furthermore, “a major reason why depression often starts in adolescence is that this is the first time when the brain has sufficient cognitive abilities to be able to suffer it” (200). And we need to be teenagers in order to “start to discover the subtleties of nuance, sarcasm, irony, and satire” (138). Yeah sure–so much for Dr. Seuss and all.

All of that, of course, merely confirms some very old and very wrong assumptions about childhood–assumptions that have allowed and still do allow far too many adults to treat children cruelly or pre-emptorily, on the basis that they don’t have the feelings to be hurt by it or the intelligence to see through it.

In the light of the concerns I have with the arguments presented in this book, I probably shouldn’t be surprised to learn that Bainbridge is by profession a–wait for it–veterinary anatomist! Who better to understand and analyze the problems of human teenagers than an animal doctor, right? He says, “I must emphasize that, as a veterinary surgeon with zoological training, it is philosophically pleasing for me to view humans as ‘just another species.’  After all, they are animals like any other, subject to the same rules of biology as any other, and amenable to study” (15)  In point of fact, they are not quite so amenable to study–Bainbridge complains more than once about the impossibility of conducting the appropriate experiments on human teenagers that would, for instance, allow scientists to determine the significance of chemicals essential in the developmental process by depriving control groups of them–shades of Dr. Mengele.

But the real problem here, once more, is that Bainbridge’s focus on humans as animals tends to ignore or slide over ethical issues–to conclude, for instance, that men are biologically mandated to be aggressive and women passive, so that controlling male aggression or women taking charge of their own fates come to be viewed as evolutionarily regressive acts, or perhaps, even, impossible. What am I make of a statement like this: “If men’s brains are hard-wired to be attracted to fine-limbed, smooth-skinned, high-voiced, round-faced people, does this explain paedophilia? Are male paedophiles simply men who are more attracted to the characteristics women retain from childhood than those women acquire to puberty” (61). If so, what ya gonna do about it, eh? Biology requires that these men prey on boys, so let ‘em at it.

In viewing humans as animals, Bainbridge also tends to ignore the ways in which we are cultural beings. “[I]t is obvious to any casual observer,” he insists, “that brains of teenage boys and teenage girls often work in different ways” (89)–their brains, mind you, not their culturally-inflected minds. In cartoons and bad movies and silly advice columns, yes–but in actual real life, as a matter of course? And note the taken-for-granted assumption that sex differences account for all gender differences: “surely a brain develops differently if it is housed in a male body than in a female body?” (90), and “Teenager inherit a brain that already knows what sex it is” (96–not surprisingly, Bainbridge has a hard time accounting for homosexuality, which he sees as both inherently genetic and counter-evolutionary, since it doesn’t lead to breeding). That’s really not all that far away from assuming that, say, brains are inherently different in bodies of different skin pigmentations. In fairness, I acknowledge that Bainbridge does wonder if “perhaps our sexuality is less hard-wired than a rat’s” (95).

In response to Bainbridge’s obsession with evolutionary explanations, I’m tempted to argue that the real reason for the success and survival of homo sapiens as a species has been its incredible imaginativeness and flexibility in developing differing kinds of social and cultural arrangements and understandings, and that rather than being at the mercy of its biology, it has survived and developed exactly because of its ingenuity in inventing a huge and complex and contradictory range of ways of organizing and understandings itself in response to that biology. That why there is history. The teen age has been significantly different in different times and places, in ways apparently not interesting to the veterinarian approach.

I’ve now actually begun to write a draft of one of the chapters in my study of alternating narratives, and so I’m feeling less need to make notes here on the books I’ll be considering–which is why there have been so few entries lately.  I may use the blog occasionally to figure out where I’m going next in the draft, but that’s all. If anyone reading this comes across a novel for children or young adults with alternating narratives, I’d be pleased to hear about it.  I’m working just now on a section about alternating narratives as puzzles, focusing on Diana Wynne Jones’s Merlin Conspiracy,  Melina Marchetta’s On the Jellicoe Road, Kathleen Duey’s Skin Hunger, A.M. Jenkins Beating Heart, Karen Hesse’s Brooklyn Bridge, and Jan Mark’s Hillingdon Fox.

Lawson, Julie.  The Ghost of Avalanche Mountain. Toronto and New York: Stoddard Kids, 2000.

-  –  -.   Destination Gold! Victoria: Orca, 2000.

In an article published a few years ago in CCL/LCJ, I wrote about two other novels by Julie Lawson, author of White Jade Tiger, discussed in the last entry.  Now I’d like to go back to what I said then, and see if I can learn anything by comparing the three novels with each other.  the essay, “Of Solitudes and Borders: Double-Focalized Canadian Books for Children,” can be found here.

———-

In both The Ghost of Avalanche Mountain and Destination Gold! the plot alternates between events as experienced by different characters.  In Ghost, the focalizing characters are the ghost of a boy who died in an avalanche decades ago and a girl of today who wears the goldstone he wants to reclaim (with one passage focalized through the girl’s Australian aunt and one through a boy, Raven, who is her friend).  In Destination Gold, the focalizing characters are a boy, his sister, and another girl caught up in the Klondike gold rush.  For a long time in both books, the key characters remain physically separate from each other and experience quite different events without knowledge of what is happening to the others.  Thus, it’s a major point of the plot of Destination that a letter Ned writes does not reach his family, so that he and his sister Sarah don’t know where each other are, and for much of the novel, Ned and Sarah and the other girl, Catharine, are not even aware of each other’s existence.  In Ghost, meanwhile, the living Ashley and the ghost Jonathan are aware of but unable to understand each other’s life and needs until their first (and last) conversation at the novel’s climax.
But while the characters remain isolated in their separate stories, their intertwining narratives offer readers insight into their connections with each other.  Indeed, readers are able to understand what remains mysterious or confusing to the characters–and also, what their connections to each other are–as answers to questions raised by one narrative of appear in the others’ narratives.  In Destination, for instance, readers know as Ned doesn’t that his letter has never arrived–and when Ned overhears a conversation about the girl his supposed friend Montana won in a game of cards, readers will understand from earlier narratives of Catherine’s that she is in fact that girl–that there is a connection between Ned and Catharine through Montana neither will be aware of for many pages to come.

Furthermore, since readers already know from Catharine’s earlier narrative about Montana’s vicious treatment of her and her horror of him, they can understand how foolish Ned is to trust him.  In Ghost, similarly, readers can understand from Jonathan’s narrative who he is and why he is doing what he does to Ashley long before Ashley herself does–and similarly, readers know what Jonathan can’t figure out–that the raven who he knows will lead him to his prize is not a bird but a boy of that name.

In both novels, then, readers know more than the characters do, and can read their situations in ways the characters themselves cannot understand.  This creates suspense: readers can wonder when characters will realize what the readers already know, and meanwhile, enjoy worrying about what the characters’ ignorance will lead them into.
The way the different focalized charters occupy different story spaces raises the question of the degree to which the novels might be about difference.   In Robyn McCallum’s terms, do they suggest “a dialogue between two social, cultural, gendered or historical positions”?  Are they examples of what W.H. New calls “boundary rhetoric” and identfies as a feature of writing by Canadians?

The novels certainly do focus on contrasts between their characters.  The characters in Destination Gold are an optimistic male with a vision of a glorious future who trusts others too much, a pessimistic independent female fleeing an awful past who must learn to trust others more, and an uncertain dependent female who neither flees the past nor seeks the future and who must learn to be more independent and trust herself.    In Ghost, the two key characters are opposite in almost every way: they are male and female, ghost and human, orphan and possessor of a happy family, isolated from others and highly connected to them, illiterate and knowledgeable.

These differences are well worth exploring.  But before I do so, I need to repeat what I suggested earlier–that these contrasts don’t seem in any obvious way to highlight “social, cultural, gendered or historical positions.”   That these characters are rich or poor, male or female does not seem to me to engender any obvious, intentional consideration of the ways in which their gender or class influences their fate–as does in fact happen in other double-focalized novels– in, for instance, Diana Wieler’s Bad Boy or Welywn Katz’s False Face, which clearly strive to make readers think about gender and race.  There’s no doubt that a careful reading of Lawson’s novels would reveal much about ideological assumptions, but the novels themselves never obviously focus on them.  They take it for granted that the contrasts between their characters have more to do with personality and individual destiny than ideology or history.

They are, nevertheless, about difference and moving beyond difference.  The plots of both novels work most significantly to bring the characters together–not just to bring them physically together and into an awareness of each other they first lacked, but also, in doing so, to offer each other what they emotionally lacked, so that isolated people achieve connection, dependent people achieve self-governance, and so on.  The characters in both novels achieve happy endings by moving from isolation in their separate stories to participation in the one story they all share.
But in fact, not quite all.  In Destination Gold, the happy ending the central characters share is happy specifically because the villain, Montana, has been defeated and left town. Before then, the story has centered around questions of property and ownership–of supplies for the journey to the Klondike and of the claims staked after the characters get there.  Every potentially valuable possession passes through Montana’s hand, gained through deceit and trickery–but ends up happily in the possession of the characters who share the single story of the book’s conclusion.  Apparently, one can have or share ownership in the place one chooses to live in only by not being self-seeking–by displaying a willingness to share it.

Ghost focuses even more centrally on questions of property–in this case, the goldstone, which both the ghost Jonathan and the girl Ashley have claims to.  Ashley has received it as a family heirloom from her aunt.  Jonathan was present at its making, as lightning struck his grandfather while he made the stone, and has pledged to bring it back both to his grandfather and to the spirits of the mountain, whom he believes are angered by its loss.  The story ends as Ashley, buried under an avalanche caused by Jonathan and near a death that will pull her into Jonathan’s ghostly world, willingly gives up the goldstone to Jonathan, in return for reconnecting him to the rest of humanity by putting his name, previously unknown, on his gravestone.  Once more, sharing leads to connection with others–although this time, not to ownership; Ashley concludes that the goldstone “was where it belonged, where Jonathan wanted it to be.  In the snow, in the mountains, in the shadow of the glacier” (230).  The goldstone then acts as a symbol of what separates–what keeps Jonathan isolated in his half-world and connected neither to living humans nor his dead grandfather, what separates Ashley from her friends (after she accuses one of them of stealing the goldstone).
Furthermore, that separating something has much to do with the “spirits” of the mountain–the forces of nature itself, the dangerous but compelling landscape that dwarfs humans and that they need to protect themselves from in their contacts with each other.  It’s instructive that this novel also contains the story of Ashley’s friend Raven, a member of a family that falls apart who then acts in an anti-social way and defiantly leaves the communal group on a field trip in the mountains to head off on his own, an act which leads to Ashley’s near-death.  In his story as in Ashley’s and Jonathan’s, isolation leads to identification with and destruction by the vast forces of nature: like Ashley and in a different way, like Jonathan, Raven must be, and is, restored to the community, in order to be protected from the dangerous spirits that inhabit and express the essence of the natural landscape.

All of this reminds me of Earle Birney’s poem “Bushed,” in which a settler finds that the mountain he settles under is “clearly alive”:

then he knew    though the mountain slept     the winds
were shaping its peak into an arrowhead
poised

And now he could only
bar himself in and wait
for the great flint to come singing into his heart

“The great flint’ of lightning does come singing from the mountain spirits into Jonathan’s grandfather, and thus creates the goldstone that dangerously isolates individuals from their communities  “Bushed” is often cited in discussions of what Northrop Frye called “the garrison mentality”: the idea that Canadians so fear and feel dwarfed by the vast natural landscape surrounding them than they retreat behind the walls of their communities and there huddle together for safety.  Now considered to be outdated as a way of accounting for adult Canadian literature, the garrison mentality seems alive and well in Ghost of Avalanche Mountain.  The isolation of characters from each other that double focalization almost inevitably emphasizes works to support and help express support for a traditionally Canadian garrison mentality–the need to constrain individual desire in order to gain the safety of a community, and at the same time, the happy ending of a shared story.

In the light of the home-and-away pattern so central to children’s fiction, that’s not so surprising: children’s stories often send young protagonists off into the dangerous wilds in order to learn the need for the safety of home.  What’s interesting, I think, is the ways in which that pattern develops a distinctly Canadian resonance in the light of Frye’s garrison mentality–so that aspects of texts which might mean something less nuanced in another context do imply specifically Canadian meanings in the Canadian context.

The skepticism with which contemporary scholars view Frye’s garrison theories might cast doubt on that conclusion.  The theory certainly works less well for recent Canadian writing for adults than it does as a way of approaching earlier Canadian texts–ones written by immigrants new to the Canadian landscape–a landscape itself less urban and less controlled by humans than it has since become.  Why then might Frye’s theory operate as a context for contemporary writing for younger Canadians?  It might be, simply, that adults who write for children conceive of childhood and adolescence as something like being an immigrant–a stranger in a unsettlingly strange land.  But that does not account for the surprising frequency with which Canadian novels for young people move their characters from urban settings to rural ones, cottages or country houses or forests or wilds, where they face forces larger than themselves.  It seems like an especially Canadian way to figure a theme conventional in children’s literature internationally.

In this way as in others, I’d argue, Canadian children’s literature seems to represent a particularly intense version of the characteristic generic markers of children’s literature as a whole.  Just as Canadian thinking seems immersed in boundary rhetoric, so is children’s literature. It is literature written across a border–by adults but for children perceived as different enough from the adults who write for them to need to be written for differently.  It almost always therefore deals with contrasts, conflicts, and negotiations between the adult and the childlike (here in these books, the family and the wild).  In its inherent doubleness, children’s literature offers a paradigm for understanding the Canadian situation as imagined by Canadians in many different ways.  If Canadian children’s literature is a particularly intense version of these matters, then the presence of so many double-focalized texts within it may not then be so surprising

__________________

So what about all this in relation to White Jade Tiger?  My earlier thoughts on the other novels centred on what might be specifically Canadian about Lawson’s books–and I can see how I might think about White Jade Tiger that way also (although this time, in terms of Canadian ideas about multiculturalism and how they work to defang different cultures of their difference, etc.).  It’s also intriguing that both White Jade Tiger and Ghost of avalanche Mountain are about connections between past and present, involve a contemporary girl laying old ghosts to rest (male ghosts, in both caess), and center around possession of a specific object that represents a significant history and needs to be returned to its rightful hiding place as the present lays to rest the sins of the past.   And the past is laid to rest in terms of being brought to light and properly remembered–and thus rendered effectively both honored and made inoperative in terms of still affecting the present.   It’s put in its proper place.

Lawson, Julie.  White Jade Tiger.  1993.  Toronto: Sandcastle Dundurn, 2006.

The text is a traditional third person past narrative, usually focalized through the central character, Jasmine, but frequently interspersing sections involving not only Keung, a Chinese boy who comes to BC to find his father in the nineteenth century but also other Chinese characters connected to Keung, such as his ancestress Bright Jade, and ones describing the spirit of white jade tiger of the title–a piece of jade in the shape of a tiger, but representing something larger than that–the fortune of a village and a family, ruined because the white jade tiger has been stolen form its required resitng place.  Most of these sections are separate, but there are a few places here and there where the focalization shifts from Jasmine to Keung within a section.

The novel operate in the tradition of time-slip fantasy: after putting on an old Chinese coolie outfit and visiting Victoria’s Chinatown, Jasmine finds herself back in Keung’s time, helping him to find his father, whose possession of the piece of jade has doomed his family to bad luck, and return him and it to China.  At the end, it turns out that the bad luck that doomed Keung’s family because of the jade has extended to Jasmine herself, who thought she was all white but turns out to have had a Chinese great-great grandfather–Keung himself.  At the end, then, she heads off to China to see her father, a professor there, and will return the jade and end the curse that earlier in the novel, it seems, killed her mother.  She will be her own saviour–as the novel implies in its use of spirits of the past, etc., she was always fated to be..

Like just about all time-slip books, this one allows two young people to meet across time in order for them to help each other in bad situations.  Here, Jasmine helps Keung find his father and learn the possibility of a kind, humane white person–which, it seems to suggest, leads to his settling in BC and marrying a white woman and thus leading to Jasmine’s own existence (there’s the unsettling sense that Jasmine and her ancestor feel attracted to each other in a way that eventually leads to her own birth).   So Jasmine brings her current tolerant attitudes to the past and teaches them to Keung.  Meanwhile, Jasmine, who wants to control everything and who hasn’t managed to control the accident that led to her mother’s death, gets healing from her adventure in the past–and concern for and even love for a boy, and as a result of all that, finally, an end to the family curse.  The past helps the present by providing an opportunity to right wrongs, the present heals the past, by being wiser, and readers see it happen through alternating eyes in a way that confirms their actual lack of isolation from each other: because we know both and see as both see, we are already aware of the connection unknown to the two characters before they realize it.  We are outside and above time in a situation which laways implies that time is illusory or its apparent limitations conquerable.

There is, nevertheless, something strange and a little creepy going on here.–not just because of the incestuous overtones of the feelings not asserted but implied between Jasmine and Keung, but that those feelings lead to her coming into existence, and her coming into existence then guaranteeing an end to an ages-long curse–as if she has somehow ended up engineering her own existence and controlled the existence of others, as if she is a sort of divine being resident over her own fate (there are places where Keung confuses her with the ancestor spirit Bright Jade, now also more than just a mere human, and also a controlling spirit in the book).  There something of an ultimate wish-fulfilling egocentricity here–the girl who wanted control ends up in control of just about everything, and fixes up everything all by her little self, and by being such a contemporary kind of liberal, tolerant, evolved self.

And then, that all gets mixed up with issues of race–and of claiming.  Jasmine, the nice normal suburban white girl, is the ideal young Canadian of her time–without a glimmer of prejudice against people of another culture.  indeed, she adores Chinatown, adores Chinese food–eats it with pleasure in the past when she finds white man’s food almost inedible.   But the basis of all that tolerance for difference in thrown into question when it turns out she’s actually in part Chinese already.  So she is discovering a forgotten past, that makes her one with the other, and not someone representing a tolerance for otherness–she was always already Chinese, as a post-modernist might say.  Her claim on Chines culture is her own previously unknown Chinese-ness.  This weirdly parallels the way a lot of novels for young people about whites and aboriginal children solves problems of difference or discrimination by allowing the white children to think of themselves and of all good people as ones who share aboriginal values.  In becoming “aboriginal,” they are meant to represent fellow-feeling, universal humanity; but in doing so they deprive actual aboriginals of any specific claim to, say, land, or the past, etc.: it belongs to all the universal aboriginals, not just to genetic Indians.  So, too, here, I think, except there is an blood claim made, one that then implies that the only real tolerance can be for someone like yourself, a group you are already part of.  Jasmine, it weirdly seems yo imply, can actually be part Chinese because she is in fact a tolerant representative of universal contemporary humanity–already one with all forms of humainty.  All of which is to say: for all its celebration of Chinese culture and horrors at the treatment of the Chinese men who built the railways, there’s something here that makes me unnecessarily uncomfortable.

I’ve found a review of Life is Funny, discussed in my last post, that I wrote back when the book was pubished in 200.  It takes quite on different slant on some of the same aspects of the novel:

Life Is Funny is about as shapeless a novel as they come. It has eleven main characters, most of them students at the same New York City high school. Each chapter is a monologue in which one of these young people tells about, or perhaps merely thinks about, events in his or her life, in a voice unlike all the others. Only two characters get more than one chapter, and while some of the characters figure as major or minor players in the stories of others, some don’t. As well as shifting from character to character, the book moves from time to time, over a period of seven years, so that the events described are distant from each other even when, occasionally, they happen to the same people.

What holds these diverse fragments together? Technically speaking, a little too much. Unconnected characters just happen to visit the Statue of Liberty at the same time or end up on the same farm miles from their New York neighborhood. But despite these coincidences, Life Is Funny successfully conveys a sense of the confusion and incoherence of being alive. Life’s essential shapelessness is exactly what the novel is about.

In exploring the bewildering business of being alive, E. R. Frank provides her young protagonists with an environment filled with condoms, strong language, and bloodshed, and with an amazing assortment of problems. Here are just some of them: interracial tensions, disloyal friends, friends in trouble, friends who commit suicide, being bullied, being a bully, repressive parents, parents who are mentally or physically abusive (or both), absent parents, foster parents, fathers or brothers who are sexually abusive, sexual confusion, virginity, lack of virginity, pregnancy (both one’s mother’s and one’s own), termination of pregnancy, self-afflicted violence, bed-wetting, poverty, shoplifting. Not to mention bad hair days.  As described in Life Is Funny, life seems to be anything but.

Nevertheless, Frank insists, it is. The novel’s title emerges from the mouth of Gingerbread, the adopted son of an interracial couple, a strangely round-faced boy who suffers from attention deficit disorder initiated when he was born addicted to crack. His girlfriend, Keisha, says, “I asked why he laughed so much, and he said, like it ought to be plain as day, Because life is funny, and maybe that’s when I for real started to fall in love.” Gingerbread voices the principles by which just about all these characters live and which the novel is clearly recommending: being able to respond positively, with joy and with a great deal of resilience, to the confusion and incoherence that are part of being human. Some readers might be surprised that Frank specifically allows her characters the joy of sex–a commitment to bodily pleasure rare in books for young people.

Frank tends, perhaps, to make things a little too easy, focusing on stories that end happily toward the conclusion of the book in order to create an argument for optimism in the face of trouble. But Life Is Funny remains an enjoyable novel for young adults, imaginatively and honestly conceived, intricately plotted, and energetically written.

This appeared in The Riverbank Review.  I seem to have become more cynical since then.

Frank, E.R.  Life is Funny.  New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2000.

This is another example of a series of fairly separate short stories each focalized from a different first-person present point of view and woven together into what announces itself as a novel–although how exactly it becomes one, how it has any actual cohesiveness, is not necessarily all that easy to figure out.  The eleven main characters, each the first person narrator of events as they currently happen to him/her,  are all, somehow connected, but usually quite tenuously–not in a any way that easily identifies them as a specific community.  Some are each other’s best friends, some live next door to each other or got to the same school, some merely pass each other on the street from a distance and are barely aware of each other’s names.  It all appears to centre on the same neighbourhood in Brooklyn, but some of the characters with connections there then end up connected to others who live in different places who become focalizing characters–so there’s really nothing holding them altogether except the fact of their one-to-one connections with each other, in a sort of rhizomatic set of joins that eventually does connect them all.

Furthermore, the novel covers seven years–two narratives for each of the first six, one for the seventh–and so the characters are over a range of ages and face the problems that typically (or normatively) occur over the whole range of teenage years and a little before and a little beyond, and some ar always much older or younger than others  And only two of the characters have more than one narrative, both of those repeating in the section labelled as being the sixth year.  so the overall effect is of a totally non-cohesive group who are nevertheless connected–albeit very loosely.  It’s a challenge to think about how they might all come together to form a cohesive novel.

And in a real sense, they don’t.  Each of their stories is different, and the connection between them seems at least superficially to have more to do with random happenstance than with any thematic connection or significance.  But then, because they are different and have their difference from each other in common, that almost seems to become the point, at least for a reader in a position to observe their shared lack of similarity.

Each of the characters copes with a different but relatively common problem of adolescence–and almost all of them have some kind of problem with parents.  So for all the difference in their specific problems and situations (some are well off, some very poor, some white, some black, some of other racial backgrounds, etc.)  all are equally beset by a problematic world and insufficient parenting (insufficient in different ways in each case, but always insufficient).  Their different situations and problems then develop a variational relationship, all varying around the theme of bad parenting and coping with that and other problems involving especially sex and money. The book becomes like a catalogue of adolescent angst and woe, as the wide range of problems that appear alone and front and centre in other YA books all appear here together in one place where their appearing together reveals a set of similarities underlying their apparent difference from each other.  Whether your father beats your mother or your mother is an addict, parents tend to be quite untrustworthy and often dangerous.  (Indeed, the only helpful adults throughout the book turn out to be understanding teachers or adoptive parents, not natural ones, and the children often need to support and in effect parent their parents or each other). Then, whether you have an attention disorder or an urge to cut yourself, you need to finds ways of coping and moving beyond it that have a lot to do with a faith in yourself and a trust in the right others–like friends and non-related professional adults.

In the light of the inevitable comparisons of these apparently differing situations, the focus moves away from the specifics of each problem and onto a more general sort of philosophy of how best to deal with any and all problems–who to be, how to feel about life in general, who to trust, etc.  It all tends towards a kind of rhetoric implied by its title–“life is funny”–how best to cope with or think about Life with a capital L.  And the fact that eleven different people are caught in the act of thinking about their differing situations in similar ways encourages attention to that sort of concern.

Except for creating that sort of focus, though, I’m not sure i understand why all the connections between the separate characters–some of them dependent on some pretty far-fetched coincidences–like differing apparently unconnected characters showing up at the Statue of Liberty at the same time.  The connections are not in any obvious way part of why life is funny, or what we readers are invited to be thinking about life generally?  There’s no obvious rhetoric about a human family, e.g., or brothers under the skin, or anything like that–although that’s certainly implied in terms of the similar responses to the different situations by the different characters.

Another result of the comparative thinking encouraged by the presence of so many apparently unrelated focalizing characters is, since they clearly are  intended to represent a spectrum of possibilities, they draw attention to missing parts of a complete spectrum.  Two things caught my eye here.  First, as far as I can tell, and for all the attention being paid to the possibilities of being sexually abused by relatives or the possibilities of enjoying or using sex amongst peers, there doesn’t seem to be a gay character here, neither as an adult or as a child.  If there is one, he or she hasn’t yet come out even to him or herself.  Second, for all the horror of these damaged lives, the book is amazingly and astonishingly upbeat.  for all the inadequacy of their parents, these young people are all amazingly together.  Even the ones who seem most damaged are still sane and even happy somehow, deep inside, in ways that gradually reveal themselves to themselves and to readers.  No one is especially vicious or deranged by the viciousness and derangement of their surroundings.  They retain a weird innocence, a vision of what I might like to identify as a middle class ideal of blissful childhood that triumphs over all the negative forces surrounding them.  You have to wonder why the parents of all these ever-so-resilient young people were so easily defeated when they are so strong and self-reliant or empathetic with each other.  As if by magic, they all survive and triumph over their bad upbringing, and even when they do have problems or fall into bad times, they manage to keep that light shining inside.  In the light of its vast catalogue of woes, it’s an outrageously optimistic book, and for all the victimization, they are no actual victims–only apparent victims who haven’t met the right saviours yet.  Very strange–and yet that seems to be the point here.  The character Gingerbread, who actually says that life is funny, is the resident philosopher king of all this, a spirit of joy that triumphs over all odds and thus represents the best way to be, with no sense of the fact that life really is tough and that people really do often fail at it or are failed by it.

Foon, Dennis. Skud.  Toronto Groundwood, 2003.

Four boys who attend the same high school all face problems relating to their understanding of what it means to be masculine.  As a result, at least three things happen in the course of their alternations, as each speaks of what is happening to himself in first person in the present tense.–or, I suppose, thinks, for no audience is apparent: it’s that strange sense of a person naming each of his actions as he experiences them.

First: each of the boys has a separate problem, but all the problems are related to each other in being about manhood.  So there’s a sense of the novel as “case studies,” as each of the boys seems to represent one kind of problem related to being male, and so readers get a spectrum of key instances of the problems boys have with their masculinity.  Tommy, a military cadet, has invested everything on control, in masculinity as sacrifice and discipline and being the ideal man–the perfect hero, the perfect student, the good citizen–a representative of what my handout in the last entry identifies as “warrior masculinity.”  Brad, a hockey player, has taken what appears to be the opposite approach–he is the male as violent competitor, uncontrolled and predatory when he is at his best–a representative of “phallic masculinity.”  Andy, in counterpoint to these two examples of culturally acceptable masculinity, is a would-be actor with little sense of why he might try to achieve an ideal of maleness–but he is up for a part requiring him to act like a dangerous street kid, and so trying to understand what it would mean to be male in that way–so he;s sort of a representative of a male not yet masculinzed and looking for a male image.   And Shane, a fourth focalizer who appears a lot less frequently than the other three,  is an actual gang member understand as dangerously male by the others, but actually suffering from the way in which others perceptions of his dangerousness has led to the loss of his murdered brother and made him a strong representative of what’s wrong with normative assumptions about competitive masculinity.  Separately, each boy follows a path that reveals something critical about one standard way of being male.  Together, they offer a spectrum of  examples in an overall critique of conventional assumptions about masculinity.  (A similar use of alternating narratives about characters representing different versions of the same central problem as case studies can be found in Alex Sanchez’ Rainbow Boys, in which the three alternating focalizers represent differing attitudes to an awareness of one’s gayness.

Second: since all the narrators are thinking about what it means to be male or act male, their stories have intriguing variational relationships with each other.  Both Tommy and Brad are in situations where their ideas about how they might ideally be male get them into serious trouble–in evocatively similar (yet different) ways.  Tommy wants to escape the turmoil of his quarrelling and separated parents and violent mother by imagining a purer world, flying above it all–he wants to be a pilot.  And he sees his relationship with a girl as pure and spiritual, and so jealously destroys the relationship when he sees his girl act a love scene with Andy and imagines she’s cheating on him–and then, after she dumps him, as all the violent emotion he has pent up emerges, attacks and rapes her.   Meanwhile, his best friend Brad,  trained by his wildly competitive farther to be the violent attacker and then dumped down to the fourth line on the hockey team after violence goes out of favour, also ends up attacking a girl–thus one the brilliant skater who has replaced him as star of the team.  But Brad, comfortable with his violence, acts in what appears to be a cool and rational manner as he plots out his revenge–and also, incites Tom into the jealous rage that destroys him.  So one boy is controlled but explosive, the others exploding and controlled in his use of his own explosiveness–they are opposite but two sides of the same coin, and follow a similar trajectory.  Both also dwell on how what they are inside is different form how people imagine them–how they play out their forms of maleness for others.  Andy’s story then becomes a variation on theirs, as he literally tries to figure out how to put on a mask of masculinity.  And Shane is the ultimate counterpoint, the one already so damaged by his masculine image that he sees himself as consumed by it and empty inside, and is actively moving against it in the only way he knows how–which, eventually, turns out to be violence against himself.  Meanwhile, the two pairs of boys, Tommy and Brad and Andy and Shane, represent two opposing stories of male bonding, as one friendship ends due to conventional masculinity gone awry and another begins to from, before it ends tragically, with retreats from conventional masculinity.

Third:  I become aware of all that as variational only because I can know all the stories rather than what each of the characters knows–which is just one of them each, his own.     So the alternations allow me a detached ability to observe them all, and to make the comparison that make me aware of their thematic relationships as well as the actual encounters they have with each other and know about themselves.  I know more about the meanings of their actions than they ever do.  I can see how all represent not just differing but related forms of maleness but also, differing acts of observation and surveillance, different but similar problems with difficult parents, different but related secrets, and so on.  The alternating narratives give a reader tools for knowing more and learning more than the characters ever do–and potentially, for coming to share a greater knowledge of what it all means that the authors has carefully planted the seeds of even though there  is nothing in the novel that isn’t from inside the limited view of one of the characters.

The author, Dennis Foon, is a Canadian best known as a playwright for young adults.  The novel, he says in a note at the end involves characters from an earlier play called War, and has many theatre-like effects–first person present action, for instance, and a sense that the characters are naming their thoughts as characters in plays sometimes do in soliloquies.  And the sense created for readers of being an outside observer noting behaviour and thinking about it in order to develop an understand of it beyond that possessed by the characters is something that theatre often works to achieve for its audiences also.

“Skud,” incidentally is a word used in the novel where the wrod “shit” would more usually appear in real teen languag, as in “She suspects me of an impure heart.  She’s full of skud,”  or just plain.  “Skud.  She knows.”

Some of the novels I’ve been looking at lately, and plan to do some thinking about in entries here, revolve around ways in which their male characters think about their maleness and what it might mean or ought to be. For that reason, I thought I’d better post here a handout I prepared some years back for students in classes discussing these kinds of issues.  Developed from class discussions, it simply lists a variety of ways in which people commonly understand what it means to be masculine.

Phallic masculinity

“Natural”—authentic, inherent, biological
Essential, fixed—there are no degrees of masculinity; one is either male or female
Dominance, authority, power; being on top
Hard, not soft
Phallic; penetrating, not penetrated
Thrusting, aggressiveness
Explosive, uncontrollable (“boys will be boys”)
“Size matters”; the bigger, the more masculine
Irresistible to women
Being Active
Enjoyment of physical activity (sports, etc.)
Enjoyment of the chase, etc.
Go-getting
Enjoyment of violence
Sadistic, not masochistic
Lust-driven; “brains in crotch”
Lustful but not seeking emotional attachment; sex but not love
Desiring (i.e., as opposed to desired); lustful, but not inviting lust
Seducer, not seductive
Polygamous

Warrior masculinity

Competitiveness
Need to test courage, power (“Are you a man or a mouse?”)
Need to win; be better than others
Need to be seen to win: glory, acclaim, reputation, etc.: masculinity as a prize awarded by the opinions of others, especially other men
Maleness as continually in question, always in need of being proved, tested, etc.
Strong and silent
Hard, cool, unemotional
Egocentric: self-sustaining
Unwilling to speak of emotions
No crying
Bragging; voicing of maleness as key feature of masculinity
Courage, bravery, fortitude
Self-control
Control and discipline of body:  not subject to desire
Control and discipline of body: ongoing achievement and maintenance of societally privileged appearance of masculinity
Invincibility; no pain
Meat; no quiche

Self-sufficient masculinity

Independence
Egocentricity
Outsider anti-conformist rebelliousness
Impatience with or defiance of limitations of convention, values of law and order, female rules of etiquette, good manners, taste, etc.; maleness as that which is restrained or repressed by civilization and social concerns
Not interested in neatness, cleanliness, order; no housecleaning
Fear of entrapment, containment
Non-romantic, non-needy (“Big boys don’t cry.”)
Non-nurturing

Group masculinity

Male bonding
Male homosociality: most important relationships are with other men
Misogyny
Homophobia; fear or repugnance at physical contact with other men outside of the context of battle or play-battle (sports); fear of the male gaze (homosociality as not homosexuality)
Need to conform to values of male group
Need of ritual reinforcement of involvement with male group — names, ceremonies, secret handshakes, etc.
Desire of the male gaze—attracting admiration of other men (e.g., body builders, models) for masculine appearance
Policing of unmanliness, etc.; category maintenance
Rigid, conservative, anti-anarchy or -transgression or confusion of fixed boundaries and categories
Closeting of divergence from group values, vulnerability, softness, etc.
Anti-intellectual (anti-geek, nerd, etc.)
Masculinity as a form of dress: certain colours, styles, forms of appearance, etc.; no frills, no pink, baseball caps, hairy and/or muscular, not pudgy or skinny, etc.  Body-building.
Lack of interest in fashion or appearance; no makeup
Peacockery

Structural/ cultural  masculinity

Patriarchal
Hierarchical
Binary oppositional: “us vs. them”)
Colonizing
Keeper of secrets about rules being broken, etc.; seeing but not saying

Psychoanalytical masculinity

Oedipal concerns
Repressed polymorphous perversity, anality, homosexuality, etc.
Fear of and/or integration of anima
“He who bears the phallus”; phallus as signifier; “name of the father”
Fear of father, murder of father, etc.; masculinity as tied up in relationships with fathers
Gazer—not subject to the gaze

Powers, J.L.  The Confessional.  New York: Knopf, 2007.

The El Paso Chamber of Commerce must have hit men out gunning for J.L. Powers, the author of this book–or if not, they should have.  It makes life in that city sound completely hellish (and indeed, confirms my own impression of it from a brief stay at a conference a few years ago–at one point, some of the characters even replicated my half-hour trip across the bridge into Juarez in order to be able to say I’ve been in Mexico, and describes exactly the horrific sense of poverty and despair I quickly turned around and fled back to the relative order of El Paso from).  If these characters are to be trusted, residents of El Paso live immersed in the confusions and miseries of life on the border, a life heavily influenced by racial and national prejudice, religious oppression and repression (Catholicism, mainly), family strife, class consciousness, and drugs.  Reading it, I found myself thinking often of Cormier’s The Chocolate War.   Both books are set in a Catholic school for boys, both involve multiple points of view as they follow the trajectory of a number of different boys through a major event  (here it’s six boys all somehow involved in the events surrounding a fight between two boys, the subsequent murder of one of them, and the chaos and conflict that emerges in the days following).  And both focus on the boys in moments when they are revealing either their greatest vulnerabilities or ugliest acts and desires.  There is, then, the sense of world as a hellhole occupied by very bad and/or very weak people, the sense of boys as inherently and always violent crowd-followers threatened by any individual act or characteristic of difference from the boy-approved norm–and also as in The Chocolate War, an undercurrent of theological speculation about the nature of sin and forgiveness.  A number of the focalizing characters seem to lurch peculiarly from what come across as fairly mindless acts of violence to deep thoughts about God and ethics and strong feelings of guilt.

As a result of all that, the book also seems somewhat overwrought and rather melodramatic–like a soap opera more than anything else.  And like a soap opera and in spite of a strong interest in guilt and the consequences of evil actions,  the violence, described as quite intense and damaging, never really seems to have physical consequences.  After some paragraphs of being beaten on, some of the boys show up in later sections with a black eye or so, and no other apparent damage or long-lasting effects, quite able to be further involved in events that move the plot forward.  the damage described in The Chocolate War seems far more effective and therefore, far more important.

And also, here, there’s something more than a little odd about how the boys simply act violently without thought, even in response to acts of violence: they’re very much into revenge at its most basic and primal level.  They seem mostly to be inherently and at heart uncontrollably violent beings whose speculations about guilt and sin represent a veneer of socialization or religionization imposed from without–something acknowledgeably good and worth striving for but also inherently artificial, a willed imposition of repression counter to their real drives and urges.  There is no real drive to goodness or innocence or fellow feeling here, in other words–all of that is something you figure out intellectually and then work to impose on your natural self.  Maybe that’s why the book seems so hellish?  It does believe people (or maybe just boys and men) are inherently rotten and stuck with working out the inevitable problem of their being inherently rotten in a world primarily made rotten by the acts of older people, primarily older men.

Also as in as soap opera and as in The Chocolate War, these characters, who mostly know each other and are, to varying degres, friends, all have secrets from each other or from others.  They are secret weaknesses or vulnerabilities, mainly–especially one boy’s awareness that he is gay in a culture where he is sure it will be exceedingly dangerous to be known as gay.  But other have family situations they’d rather others not know about, one is a drug dealer and always high, one thinks he believes in pacifism but is afraid it means he’s a coward, and so on.  Interestingly, many of these secrets and much of the plot involve questions about what it means to be masculine, and the book offers a range of boys who have problems with different aspects of conventional masculinity–either because they represent it or more often because they don’t.

The plot moves not only around issues of race and nationality, then, but also, around questions of maleness.  And normative masculinity seems to be represented as a socially coded expression of inherent maleness–the male as biologically violent, competitive, lustful, active, etc., etc., with these qualities reformed as the way boys are reassured again and again males ought to be.  Curiously, again, the book seems quite unhappy with how conventional masculinity represses and oppresses males and females, but also seems to assume that that masculinity is an expression of inherent male qualities that need to be curbed rather than a culturally powerful form of behaviour that might not actually or inevitably have tyrannical biological roots.   For that reason, the book seems determined to sentence males to hell–they are who they are, and that’s dangerous to themselves and others, so they have to learn how to control their inherent and unavoidable male tendencies and always be on guard against them, forever after.  there’s no such thing as a non-violent male except in terms of hard fought self-control?

At any rate:  part of how the novel engages its multiple focalizations is both in terms of offering a diverse spectrum of different ways of being male or, more accurately, of confronting the problem of maleness, and in terms of manipulating access to secrets (secrets kept often due to questions of maleness, male bonding, etc.).  Readers, who know at any point everything that all the focalized characters have thought so far,  are privy to secrets that some of the characters don’t know.  Often, the knowledge seems to be engaged as a way of showing the inadequacies of the boy’s perceptions or understanding of each other.  We learn that what bulks large for one matters not at all for some of the others, or that what they interpret one way actually means something quite different to others involved in it or learning about it.  And the last sequence, in which the boys confess their knowledge of the crimes to each other and then to the police, involves strong explicit statements about the value of letting others in on what we keep secret, from shame or guilt or fear of consequences.    The gay boy actually goes to confession (the novel as a whole acts as a sort of confessional, as the characters in turn confess their actions to–who?  the reader?  themselves?).  H e feels unburdened and free after he does, and then confesses also to his best friend whom he has feared might hate him for being gay–or for keeping it a secret for so long.  The novel makes all this positive by having both the priest he confesses to and his friend accept his sexuality without criticism or question, and then the boys all ocnfess everything to each other and to the authorities, and it’s more or less a good thing for almost all of them.  Letting others in on secrets is always and only a good thing, and for a book built on such bleak understandings of the environment and the inherent human condition, the ending is surprisingly upbeat and optimistic–unlike, for instance, The Chocolate War, which makes acting on who you believe you are much less easy, and offer a more ambiguous exploration of the morality and the possible vanity and masochism of public acts of defiance.

And also, on the other hand, by moving from character to character, the author can keep secrets from the reader–which allows the novel to act as a sort of mystery.  As the boys interact with each other, various specific ones of their actions seem to just be conveniently skimmed over, in ways that we and they get to fill in later.  Thus, the actual murders is present in earlier focalization and thinking about many of his actions on the night in question–but never the actual event itself, which then is left as a secret to be uncovered by others later.

The consideration of secrets kept or thoughts or actions hidden also allows another theme to develop–questions about how people observe each other and are observed by others.  They all worry about how others see them or what others have seen them doing, what other know or don’t know.  They all fear and hide from surveillance (the panopticon of a peer group?) and surveillance, it’s clear, is ongoing and universal.  One character, apparently unknown to any of the others even though e is in class with them, seems himself as the detached observer–invisible to others, but others highly visible to him in ways that eventually lead to the outing of the gay guy and the identification of the murderer.   As he becomes more involvewd with others, and as others acknowledge more of what they are and let others see it, more of a community forms.  It’s a community, furthermore, which ends up isolating the murderer–for he emerges as a psychopath incapable of forming actually bonds with others.  In a sort of wish-fulfilment society, all the people who assumed that the murder was racially (or nationally) motivated in a turbulent racial situation are wrong–it was a basic lack of humanity and human involvement that created it, not politics or social issues.  The boy who did the deed did it because he enjoyed doing it and like the idea of getting away with it, and just used the political situation as a pretext.  Evil does not emerge from politics or thinking, it seems, but from a damaged individual human pysche (and Powers make sure we understand, at the end, that this boy is warped not by genetics so much as by the horrors of his bad parenting and upbringing.  This is the sort of logic that says Hitler was inherently evil, a bad person rather than a true believer in a powerful and powerfully dangerous ideology of race).

As the book nears the end, the switches in focalization gradually increase.  The book starts with two or three chapters per each character, then moves to them changing chapter by chapter, and then in a series of different narrative all in just one chapter. This rhyhm replicates andi reinforces their movement from isolation and secretiveness into somethinbg more like a community of shared knowledge.   They interact more as they shift more.

I’ve said surprisingly little about race issues so far, considering the extent to which the book demands attention to question of race and often makes explicit statements about it–it’s the main thing the characters talk to each other about throughout the novel.  The intriguing thing, however, is that race turns out to be less of an issue than nationality–its the Americans versus the Mexicans, eventually, and the Americans include Mexican Americans, and those who have immigrated are confused about who they are or which side they should be on.    So it’s very much a novel about borders and their strange effects on people who might be understood as not firmly placed on one side of a border or the other (and the secrets theme also works in terms of borders, the borders between what we are and what we allow others to know of us, etc.)  The various focalizaitions offer a spectrum of responses to race and naiton issues as well as a spectrum of speculations about masculinity.

I noticed in reading the jacket flap info about the author that there are no pronouns to describe Powers– no “he” or “she” or “him” or “her,”  and the  initials J.L also conceal his or her sex– her sex, as it turns out, a fact I quickly established in a Google search.  So why did the publishers choose to hide it on the jacket?  A clear case of S. E. Hinton-itis, obviously–as with The Outsiders, etc., a book about boys and maleness is likely to be less successful with boy readers if written by a woman?  And indeed, in this case, I suspect it is.  As I was reading the book, something struck me as sort of off about these boys, and precisely in terms of their being boyish, although what it was I couldn’t say, although I wasn’t surprised to learn that the author is female.  Something about the disconnect between their thoughtfulness and their more or less sudden and unthought acts of violence?  As if when they act as boy traditionally do, the author can’t imagine them thinking their way into it, being tohhgtfully violent?  I don’t know, but it’s certainly worth further thinking about.

I’ve said far more about this novel than i thought I would.  There’s a lot to think more about here. An interesting novel.