Archive for July, 2008

From an ad for the OneXone foundation in the Globe and Mail, July 31, 2008:

Join Academy® Award-winner Matt Damon, Grammy® Award-winner Wyclef Jean and friends at historic Maple Leaf Gardens®, to honour the message that life belongs to everyone.

The Academy®, The Grammies®, and the Gardens® are apparently, then, not part of life?

Mayne, William.  Winter Quarters.  London: Jonathan Cape, 1982.

The novel alternates between two children, a boy and a girl, as presented through an adult narrator telling about them in the third person (and often offering comments on and interpretations of them despite the focalization through them).  Both are children of travelling folk (carnival people–possibly gypsies, although that remains cloudy and they themselves don’t like the word).  The girl lives on the road, but the boy’s mother has left to live a more normal life married to a non-carny man.  The story begins as the carnies are denied their traditional winter quarters by a man who owns the land.  As a result, they need to find a former leader who got kicked out, fifty years ago (times don’t necessarily make sense, and in fact, the whole thing is quite bizarre: weird lifestyle, strange assumptions about what should be done, etc.).  The two focalizing protagonists have to change places (something to do with him being the child of his mother who has a bizarre “mother” relationship to the very old person they need to find, so that they trade lifestyles–he, the housed person, going off on the road on an adventure, she the road person, getting to live in his house and explore the details of just one place).
Both thus find themselves in the position of questioning the meaning of “home,” from opposite directions.  And because the directions are opposite, variation becomes a significant idea–differing versions of the same theme that combine to form a larger overall theme: how should we live, where should we live, who are we, etc..  Each finds something that helps to solve the mystery and the problem their people face–she a tomb buried under a sheep meadow that proves an ancient connection to a plot of land, he the old person they must find and recover back into the group.
(It’s interesting here that so much is about children learning about, and getting past the problems of the past, the things their parents and others made a mess of–as in, centrally,  the Harry Potter books; is this just a central assumed subject of children’s fiction, or more specific to British books?  The weight of a past one is in innocence, without history, separate from but must learn about and be joined to in order to move beyond? A sort of taking on of adult knowledge in order to change it?)
Much here, in any case, seems to be about children learning about and then righting the wrongs of their ancestors–and yet, the children are absolutely directed in their discoveries by adults, and hardly ever not in their control.  It’s as if they are being used by the adults even while the novel is pretending to present it as a matter of children solving the problems of adults.
About variation, in any case: because the central characters are a boy and a girl, the variations seem to suggest a thematic consideration of gender issues.  That happens especially because each gets what boys and girls traditionally want in children’s fiction–for her a settled home, for him an adventurous journey (tradtionally women stay, men go?).   And at the end, it’s not clear whether or not each opts for what they had in the first place, or adopts the more traditional gender lifestyle they’ve now experienced–which either challenges gender assumptions, since the girl may or may not choose the road and the boy a fixed home, or else very conservatively confirms their need to be as they always were; it’s a delicate balance.
As always with Mayne, this is clever, subtle, somewhat strange–despite its brilliance at capturing a sense of how children might actually think–something that makes his writing unlike most writing for children and perhaps less likely to be understandable by inexperienced readers, who may think that way but not know how to make sense of a description of it.
In an article on Mayne, John Stephens argues that Mayne is a “difficult” writer because he uses distancing techniques that invite analysis rather than empathy (101)–but does so by including metafictional passages that work to teach readers how to do this sort of reading–characters have to “read” a mystery in a way that models how readers might read the books.  Mayne does this, says Stephens, by focalizing much of the story through specific characters, and then commenting on them or allowing them to comment on each other to show how privileged and in need of interpretations their viewpoints are (103).  Stephens identifies Issy’s visit to the Hall of mirrors as a key metafictional passage.: the text is like a mirror maze, and seeing how Issy responds to the maze shows readewrs how to respond to Issy and the events of the novel.  (See Stephens, John. “Metafiction and Interpretation: William Mayne’s Salt River Times, Winter Quarters, and Drift.”  Children’s Literature 21 (1993): 101-117. )
In any case, in terms of alternating narratives, the main purposes here seem to the awareness of differing perceptions key to this kind of storytelling, and the use of thematic variations.

Here’s a trailer for the first book of The Ghosthunters trilogy, The Proof that Ghosts Exist, written by me and my friend Carol Matas.

Erdrich, Louise.  Tracks.  1988.  New York: HarperCollins Perennial, 1989.

I’m including some adult fiction in the books I read for my alternating narratives project, in order to see if this sort of storytelling is used similarly or differently in work for a different audience.  I’m working with the idea that when writers for children do this, they manipulate it in a way that makes their books accord with the characteristics and conventions of children’s literature–the ones I outline in my book The Hidden Adult. If it turned out that books for adults did the same things, that might challenge my theories about what is characteristic about children’s literature, and that’s the kind of possibility I intend to explore and consider.

At any rate, Tracks does do some of things I’ve come to expect of texts for children with alternating narratives.  It has the narrating character’s name as part of the title of each chapter.  The two focalizing characters each tells their story-the elderly male Nanapuash to his granddaughter as a way of reaching out to her to get her not to marry the wrong man from the wrong family, and the young female Pauline, whose listener isn’t identified but it seems likely to just be herself.  He tells his story as a way of reaching out, she as a kind of self-justifying confession?  The two are clearly different and opposite.  Nanapush shares a name with, and may actually be, the trickster of traditional Ojibwa beliefs; he represents cleavage to aboriginal traditions, sex, laughter, family, oneness with the environment and the mystical creatures who live in it and/or represent it.    Pauline is half-white but feels the need to hide and move away from her aboriginal roots.  She becomes what is depicted as a body-hating, life-denying novice, and later, a nun.  He seeks to pleasure himself and others; she needs to punish her body, and also, those of others.  He accepts and enjoys the world, she rejects it–and the world is what the sense perceives, nature, i.e., as Pauline understands it, not white (to book comes close to suggesting that white equals spirit or mind, while aboriginal equals body? or is it just Pauline who comes close to that?).   Her turning to what she understands as whiteness and white ways destroys her and also, all the others she has understood to be her and Christ’s enemies.

Their differing choices are significant because they are representatives of a culture under seige, as whites come in and make claims to the land these Ojibways live on in the early years of the twentieth century; their decision to be as they always were or become as white then represent the key choices that might determine their survival not just as individuals but as representatives of a people.

The plot proceeds consecutively, so that Pauline’s sections tell what happens next after what Nanapush has been describing, and then he tells what comes after that, and so on.  So they don’t retell the same events all that often, although each is often involved in the events the other describes; but it’s clear and most important that his version of what things means is quite different to and opposite to hers.

In a children’s novel about events and characters of this sort, what would most likely happen is that the two would come together, see that each other is not quite so bad as they had first imagined, and form a new community based on shared values.  Perhaps also expectable would be that those eventually shared values would involve questions of tolerance, acceptance of otherness, etc, that had earlier been the values of one of the two main characters, so that what would declare itself as a compromise would actually mean that one character would be giving in to and accepting the values of the other–and those values would be the mainstream liberal humanist middle-class values that children’s literature, still as always a predominately middle-class and mercantile institution, almost always preaches.

But that’s not what happens here.  Pauline and Nanapush have no tolerance for each other or for what each other stands for, ever.  She hates his values, he hers–and that’s even more true at the end than it was all along.  The novel shows them, if anything, moving further away from each other rather than closer, each tragically (or maybe not tragically) locked up in their own separate space.  I suggest not tragically because the other odd thing here is how uncompromisingly the book makes its clear that Nanapush is right about things ands Pauline wrong.  It is, strangely, far more obviously one-sided in this way than a children’s novel with a similar setup would be likely to be.

Nevertheless, the novel is not without subtlety, because it’s also eventually clear that both characterrs do things that contribute to the tragedy–the loss of land and homes–and also, that the tragedy is unavoidable, that the powerful whites will get their way no matter what anyone does.  In a weird sense, the real issue isn’t what will give you power in terms of land, etc. but rather, what will make it possible for you to bear the inevitable disaster.  And maybe both opposing views are just different ways of coping, each apparently successful for the one who chooses it?   Although here, once more, it seems clear that Nanapush’s way wins, even though Pauline, ironically, sees her various defeats as part of the punishment she deserves, and so as positive. And meanwhile, readers get to see the irony of her self-torture and understand it as an comment on certain aspects of aboriginal history in America.

Anyway: for me, what’s key here is how the book varies from similarly set-up children’s novels–primarily, I think, in terms of how it produces and and invites an ironic distance from one of the two focalizing characters.  I can’t think of a text for children with alternating streams of narrative that does that–unless, maybe in certain picture books for young readers?

Schlitz, Laura Amy.  Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village.
Cambridge: Candlewick, 2007.

The author explains that she had seventeen children to work with in putting on a theatre piece and wanted them all to have big parts in the play: “It really isn’t possible to write a play with seventeen equally important characters in it . . . . So I decided to write seventeen short plays–monologues–instead of one long one, so that for three minutes, at least, every child could be a star” (viii).  So the book really isn’t alternating narratives so much as a long series of them, with none repeating.  Nevertheless, that comment of the author’s suggests an important aspect of all alternating narratives–how the use of them allows for a positive sense of self for everybody.  Not only here but generally in stories with alternating narratives, a number of participants each gets to tell his or her story.  It’s a sort of ego equality–no one’s version of events is superior to or truer than anyone else’s.  Nobody is the most important because, as generally seems to be the case in contemporary culture and as is certainly the norm in the contemporary politics of education, we hold it as an unquestionable truth that everyone ought to think of themselves as important–and yet also, of course, understand that everyone else is allowed to think of themselves as important, so that some respect for the egocentricity of others is a requisite for being allowed respect for your own.  A faith in the inevitably and absolutely justified egocentricity of the young (or more likely just of people generally?) then leads to a division of ego in the construction of a story: more than one version of the same events or circumstances (life in a medieval village, e.g.) has equal validity and respectability.

This interests me mostly because it might help to explain why there are so many alternating narratives in contemporary fiction for children.  That seems at first to be counter-intuitive:  we generally tend to believe that young readers are egocentric enough to need a character they can relate to or identify with in the novels they read, but how can they relate to two quite different characters in the same book?  Or if they do choose to identify with only one of those characters (as N.M. Browne suggests she allows readers to do by providing alternating narratives by a girl character and a boy character), then what are those readers supposed to be doing when the other character, the one they aren’t identifying with, is the focus of attention?  Schlitz’s comment about the seventeen equal characters doesn’t necessarily answer that, but it does suggest a way of thinking about the necessities of ego-validation that might account for there being nowadays so many stories focalized through more than one character; and perhaps the solution Schlitz found for her problem–attempting to give different voices equal status–is exactly what leads to the problems I’ve been outlining with this form of storytelling as literature for children.  Trying to satisfy everybody’s egocentricity undercuts everybody’s egocentricity?

Whatever else, the idea of privileging everybody as equal is bizarrely anti-medieval, and what is most fascinating about this strange little book is how completely anti-medieval it is.  Yes, the characters describe details of their various lives in a medieval English village with convincingly authentic details.  But the mere fact they are doing the describing, talking about themselves and their feelings about their lives so obsessively and in such a self-involved way–is very much of our time, not of the one they supposedly occupy. They often seem surprised or offended by the conditions of their lives–or at least seem determined to point them out–something that I find it hard to imagine medieval villagers, unaware of a twenty-first century alternative to the only  lifestyle they and everyone around them have ever known, would do.  Also somewhat strange is that these supposed citizens of a time besotted by and immersed in devout Christianity seem almost never to have even a single religious thought, and don’t pray.  A medieval England without Christianity is like Fred Astaire without the dancing.  Meanwhile, instead of thinking on God, they express views that would be, I’m sure, almost unthinkable in their supposed time: like that all women of every class are really the same, as a peasant girl claims, or that Jews are people you could make friends with as a Christian, as happens to another child.  Like most historical ficiton, I guess, this book says more about the assumptions of its intended audience than those of its supposed subject.  We give Newbery Medals (and this book did win this year’s Newbery) for confirmations of our own most cherished beliefs, not to authentic expressions of otherness.

The Aethernomicon

Posted: July 11, 2008 in family, other things, puppets

We interrupt this blog for a commercial announcement.  My son Asa, marionette impresario and expert intricator, has a play on in the Winnpeg Fringe Festival.  It’s the terrifying Aethernomoicon, baed on the work of H.P. Lovecraft, with 13 terrifying marionettes and .live electronic music by the Audient Void. You can find out more about it here:

You can learn more about Asa’s work at:

Browne. N.M.  Shadow Web.  London: Bloomsbury, 2008.

I read this because I have a number of other novels by N.M. Browne in my “alternating narratives” project, and I think I might want to look at them as a group–why might one writer turn so often to the idea of telling the stories of different characters in alternating narratives?  This book is not, in fact, an alternating narrative–it’s all focalized through and told by the main character, a girl who meets someone with the same name as her own and ends up in an alternate London 2008.  So what’s interesting is that, while not alternating between two central characters, it does tell the story of two lives, the one belonging to the girl from our version of the world and the life she finds herself caught up in in the other world.  It would have been a different novel had we had another character with the same name experiencing this girl’s life in alternating chapters, but i can see why that might not work–the alternate girl would have unsettling strange preconceptions and understandings, etc., and perhaps her responses would be hard for readers to understand.  Still, Browne seems thoroughgoingly binary even without an alternating narrative:  We do get two worlds, stories, etc, implied, as our girl tries ot make sense of this familiar but very strange other London.  There is a second missing but implied narrative?