Archive for November, 2008

What I’d like to do now is take a look at the books on aboriginality I listed in my last entry and see if I can begin to do some organizing of my thinking about them. I can do that by going through my various blog entries and notes on them and seeing if I can identify any ongoing themes in them or repeating ideas of my own about them.

In my published essay on the Canadian novels, I focused on the idea that property played a central role in the novels–that traditional objects or parcels of land were in dispute, and that the possession of them at the end of the novel implied a symbolic solution to questions of native land claims in the political world of real-life Canada outside the novels. A number of threads become intertwined in this matter: among them, the relationship between aboriginal cultures and mainstream ideas about multiculturalism, and how that affects ideas about the significance of the past in the lives of people in the present (offiucal multiculturalism in Canada often involves a celebration of heritage as what one has come from but left behind in another place, an idea not stretchable to include aboriginal peoples, whose originating place is their own and everyone else’s current place also. There are also questions about the use of aboriginality in relation to environmental and ecological concerns–the ideas of native spirituality as a celebration of the earth and such.

Property then, and the associated questions about the current status of aboriginality might be key issues in other novels. Among ones I haven’t yet discussed in my earlier essay, Welwyn Katz’s Out of the Dark and Martha Brook’s The Bone Dance, seem most interesting, and for opposite reasons. Out of the Dark involves two focalized characters in two different time periods coming to a new places and dealing with the natives there, while Bone Dance‘s two focalizing characters are of mixed race, and both partially aboriginal. The American novel that comes closest to echoing the property concerns of these Canadian books is Lisa Ketchum’s Where the Great Hawk Flies, since it involves a dispute over who ought to be allowed to live in the community it is set in, and, like Bone Dance, requires its focalizing characters to come to terms with the value of traditional aboriginal culture. It might be that the novel’s conclusions about such matters might represent an American way of dealing with them as opposed to a Canadian one. Also, questions about how aboriginality becomes connected with traditions past and over arise, in Canadian books like False Face, Out of the Dark, Bone Dance, Clark’s The Hand of Robin Squires, etc. and in others like Virginia Frances Schwartz’s Initiation (american/Canadian?), Bebe Faas Rice’s The Place at the Edge of the Earth, (American) Greg Jackson-Davis’s Digging for Philip (Canadian), and David Hill’s Treasure Deep (from New Zealand).

The Canadian books I discussed earlier significantly involved questions of borders, and thus I could suggest that they took part in what W.H. New calls the “boundary rhetoric” prevalent in Canadian writing, an interest in the borders between people and the ways they might be crossed. By and large, most novels with alternating narratives inevitably imply in their differing versions of similar events an interest in that kind of concern. The question, then, is whether or not the border rhetoric in alternating narratives for young people has a specific resonance in a Canadian context: or can books of this sort set outside of Canada be read in much the same way? They might, simply because, as a literature always aware of the borders its mere existence draws between young people and adults, literature for young people is equally involved with boundary rhetoric. I could explore these matters in terms of aboriginality in books that involve alternating white and aboriginal focalizing characters: Joseph Bruchac’s The Arrow Over the Door and Sacajawea, and once more, Where the Great Hawk Flies, two that involve a white girl showing the way to an aboriginal boy: Monica Hughes’s Log Jam (a Canadian book) and Bebe Faas Rice’s The Place at the Edge of the Earth (an American one; and one that involves an aboriginal girl showing the way to a white boy: William Mayne’s Drift.

A lot of these books involve writers of European descent using focalizing characters who are aboriginal, and so raise questions about voice appropriation: what happens when writers try to show the world as viewed by people of cultural backgrounds different from their own? In alternating narrative questions like that inevitably relate to a key concern raised by alternating narratives generally: do they really offer alternate versions of reality, or is there something inherently one-sided about them? Does one side always win, or are there genuine compromises and/or acceptances of ongoing difference? In order to discuss these matters, I can look at books about relationships between white and Indian characters that are in fact monological–focalized through just one of the two central characters. These would include Digging for Philip, Treasure Deep, Farley Mowat’s Lost in the Barrens and The Curse of the Viking Grave, John Craig’s No Word for Goodbye, and Ted Stenhouse’s Across the Steel River and The Dirty Deed, all focalized from a white point of view; and Lee Maracle’s Will’s Garden, focalized from an aboriginal point of view. I might here also want to take a look at book with alternating narratives where the central characters are both aboriginal: Bruchac’s Children of the Longhouse, Michael Dorris’s Morning Girl, Virginia Frances Schwartz’s Initiation, and John Smelcer’s The Trap. Here I might also want to look at some adult novels: Richard Wagamese’s Keeper ‘N Me and Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road. (and his new, related novel, Through Black Spruce, which also has alternating narratives but which I haven’t read yet).

Finally, I think, i’d like to look at Terry Patchett’s Nation, a novel which engages all these differing threads in terms of an aboriginal culture invented by the white author–and how it reveals the ongoing persistence of the various ideological assumptions about aboriginality made by the other white writers I’ve been looking at here–and perhaps, undermines them?


I’ve now made my way through what I’ve been able to find so far of novels for young people with alternating narratives that relate in some way or other to aboriginal characters or issues, and I’d like to take a look over them as a group and see what themes or patterns might be emerging and what lines of further thinking I should be pursuing.   In previous entries on this blog, I’ve looked at the following:

I’ve discussed two books by authors identified as aboriginal:

Joseph Bruchac’s Children of the Longhouse
John Smelcer’s The Trap

I should note, however, that Smelcer’s claims to an aboriginal background and by implication, insider knowledge of aboriginal culture have been challenged, as I discussed in another blog entry.  Nevertheless, these books do seem to focus on exploring the value of traditional culture and the need for preserving it.  Indeed, I think I can safely say that all of these books do that–that being publicly aboriginal or writing about Native North American characters seems almost automatically to make the value of aboriginality central.   that may seem to be too obvious to e even worth saying, except that it;s not true of fiction by or about mainstream white characters of various European backgrounds, in which the overall validity of the ethnic or racial background in, usually, simply taken for gratned.  It is not an issue, then, just a taken-for-granted ideology.  And that might simply be an accurate representation of the way things are: genetic background and its associated cultural values are inevitably a significant factor in the lives of aboriginals and other minorities (especially people of colour), and an equally significant but usually unacknowledged and unthohgt-about factor in the lives of the mainstream “white” majority.

I’ve also written here about these books for young people centrally about aboriginal characters by non-aborignal writers:

Liza Ketchum’s Where the Great Hawk Flies
William Mayne’s Drift
Bebe Faas Rice’s The Place at the Edge of the Earth

And while it’s not about North American aboriginals, I discussed one other novel that deals with similar issues, this time in terms of a tropical island aboriginal culture invented by the author:

Terry Pratchett’s Nation

I’ve also discussed a couple of texts with alternating narratives for adults that relate to issues of aboriginality:

Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road
John Adams and Peter Sellars’s opera Dr. Atomic

While Boyden makes claim to a small amount of aboriginal heritage, it is indeed very small–so it fits uneasily into either of two categories: books by aboriginals, and ones by non-aboriginals.  The relationship between the depiction of aboriginality and alternating narrativers in Dr. Atomic is perhaps a little tenuous, but, i think, revealing.

Later,after I gather together lists of other books I’ve read but not yet discussed here on the blog,  I’ll consider the extent to which these books have similar themes, patterns, and implications.  I’ll also explore whether or not the novels for young people engage the alternating narrative form differently from the novels for adult audiences,  and also, whether the novels by aboriginals do so different from the ones by non-aborginals.  And there might be a third set of distinctions based on national provenance: the possible differences between authors located in Canada, the U.S., and elsewhere.

Books I’ve Read But Not Discussed Here

My earlier work on aboriginality and alternating narratives in books for young people focussed on texts published in Canada by Canadian publishers, all of them by non-aboriginal writers.  These all dealt centrally with encounters and/or friendships between white and aboriginal characters.  Some of them, however, told their stories as focalized through and understood by the white character:

Farley Mowat’s Lost in the Barrens
Farley Mowat’s Curse of the Viking Grave
John Craig’s No Word for Goodbye
Ted Stenhouse’s Across the Steel River
Ted Stenhouse’s The Dirty Deed

While the first three of these were published some decades ago, Stenhouse’s books appeared in 2001 and 2003.

A larger group of books offer varying degrees of alternating narration from a character of European background and one of aboriginal background:

Joan Clark’s Hand of Robin Squires (a brief intrusion of an aboriginal focalization into what is otherwise the story of an English boy as told from his point of view)
Joan Clark’s The Dream Carvers
Monica Hughes Log Jam
Welywn Katz’s False Face
Welwyn Katz’s Out of the Dark
Martha Brooks’s Bone Dance
Kevin Major’s Blood Red Ochre
Greg Jackson-Davis’s Digging for Philip

I’ve already written in some detail about a number of these in “”At Home on Native Land: A Non-Aboriginal Canadian Scholar Discusses Aboriginality and Property in Canadian Double-Focalized Novels for Young Adults,” a chapter of Home Words: Discourses of Children’s Literature in Canada, ed. Mavis Reimer. (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier UP, 2008): Clark’s The Dream Carvers, Katz’s False Face, and Major’s Blood Red Ochre.

In addition to these Canadian novels, I’ve also read the following:

Virginia Frances Schwartz’s Initiation (which, while about the Kwakiutl people who live on Canada’s west coast, was published ion the U.S. by an author who lives in the U.S.; also, unlike the group above, its alternating focalizers are both Kwakiutl, and there are no characters of European descent, it being set in times previous to European contact)
Michael Dorris’s Morning Girl (alternating between a brother and sister who live on an island in the Caribbean just prior to Columbus’s arrival).
Joseph Bruchac’s Sacajawea (alternating between the Indian Sacajawea and the white Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition)
Bruchac’s The Arrow Over the Door (alternating between an Abenaki boy and a Quaker one)

I’ve also looked at a few other books by Canadians:

David Richards’s Soldier Boy
David Richards’s Lady of Batoche
Richard Wagamese’s Keeper ‘N Me (for adults).

There’s also:

Lee Maracle’s Will’s Garden

This book is not an alternating narrative, but presents white/Indian relationships from an aboriginal viewpoint–Stenhouse, etc., turned upside down.  Upside up, there’s a New Zealand novel:

David Hill’s Treasure Deep (Maori/Paheka relationships form a Paheka point of view).

And another book that might be relevant, discussed earlier on this blog is:

Berlie Doherty’s  Abela: the Girl Who Saw Lions.

I’m thinking of it in this context because it involves the same kind of colonial relationships between a European group and an indigenous one as North American aboriginal stories often do.

That’s it so far.  If anyone reading this entry knows of other books with alternating narratives that involve issues of aboriginality, I’d be pleased to hear about them.  And I’ll do some further exploration of this group of books as a whole soon.

Pratchett, Terry.  Nation.  London: Doubleday, 2008.

Nation is most interesting (in the context of my alternating narratives project) as a very messy version of the alternating narrative novel.  There are, yes, two central characters whose points of view alternate throughout the book.  They are, yes, representative of apparently opposite groups or cultures.  They do, yes, turn out to be surprisingly similar under their apparent difference, and they do, yes, find themselves united as a new community against people who represent the two older communities they are supposed to be members of.  Thus far, all as is might be expected in a conventional alternating narrative novel for young people, complete with the expectable themes about the importance of tolerance for otherness and the sanctity of individual character and individual empathy beyond the stultification of conformity.

But all that happens in the midst of other, less formulaic things happening.  There is, every once in a while, another focalized character or narrative section involving characters other than the central two–and that seems to happen whenever the novelist needs it to in order to move the plot forward or make something happen that couldn’t happen within the narrower confines of a strict adherence to the alternating pattern.  And there are also many elements introduced that seem to move far beyond the expectable thematic territory mapped out by the basic alternating narrative structure: a kind of free-flowing thematic ebullience that introduces the forgotten history of the island group as a once-world-dominating culture, perhaps as a way of raising questions about what’s primitive and what’s valuable; and also, a lengthy exploration of what faith means and what the consequences of losing it are; and also again, a theory of alternative universes that both accounts for the book’s divergences from known geography and becomes itself a thematic exploration of ideas of choice.  And so on.  It’s clear that Pratchett’s conception of what this book might be about is a lot more complicated than its more immediately obvious structural elements might imply–and that he has a liberating lack of concern for moving away from those elements when the drift of the book moves him that way.  It’s bravely anarchic, then–except not really, for I’m convinced it all makes sense and fits together in a subtler way. that creates a less obvious and more complicated pattern.  And in being that and doing that, it reveals how constricting the alternating narrative form can be, and how tightly and restrictively so many other novels make use of it.  What appears on first glance to be daringly complex in the context of literature for young people-the use of alternating narratives or alternating focalizers–is in fact as heavily formulaic as that literature most often is, with few exceptions as bravely tending to free form as Nation does.

In terms of the basic central alternators, Nation has a lot to say about cultural difference that isn’t particularly surprising.  The two central characters are Mau, a boy who is, after a tsunami,  the last surviving member of a people who have been the inhabitant on an island in the South Pacific, known in the alternate universe of this novel as the Great Southern Pelagic Ocean), and Daphne, an English girl whose father is 139th in line for the throne of England until a plague kills them all and makes him king, and who ends up shipwrecked on Mau’s island.  To begin with, the two are the only living people on the island; but as the alternating sections that focalize them reveal, both have their heads full of the patterns and constrictions and demands of their cultures.  His head is full of the grandfathers’ his dewad ancestors’  voices making demands of him to do as has always been done, hers of the intricate systems of repressive etiquette and class assumptions that her education has provided her.  These two systems of repressive communal values are then seen in relation to each other, their apparent differences (and the one’s understanding of the other as foolish superstition or incomprehensible silliness) undermined in the obvious parallels between them).

As a result of the alternations, readers are able to see the two characters understanding the same situations quite different’y, and understanding each other quite incorrectly.  There’s a kind of Rashomon affect, then, as two differing versions of the same event can each be seen through in terms of a reader’s knowledge of the alternative version.  Here that’s used for comedy more often than not, especially in terms of how the non-English misunderstand Daphne’s behaviour as a representative of a culture most readers are likely to be more familiar with, and how, on the other hand, contemporary readers can appreciate the absurdity of Victorian English customs and manners as perceived by the non-English characters.

But the tsunami has separated these two from the old ways, which no longer make any sense.  They must, then, move beyond them–and in doing so, not surprisingly, find themselves capable of behaviour that previously would not have been allowed them, find themselves liking it–and find themselves developing what is for them, if not for readers accustomed to this form, a surprising amount of empathy for and understanding of each other.  And as more survivors land on the island, they begin to form a new nation whose values emerge from their new situation and represent modifications and combinations and re-inventions of the old ways–and also, to a certain extent, a Terry Patchett version of of an improvisational, free-formed utopia.   It’s interesting, in terms of patterns and variatons, that there are extreme representatives of both the repressiveness of each of the cultures (the grandfathers and an old priest for one, Daphne’s the impossibly arrogant grandmother for the other) and the most unconstrained of its members (evil sailors for one, evil cannibals for the other)–and all meet their counterparts at the end, and are conquered by the improvisational but not ever anarchic new middle ground.

(Furthermore, this thematic focus on improvisational moves past repressive patterning, etc., nicely justifies the messiness of the novel’s structure along with its use of conventional alternatng narrative, so that its both imprivational and somewhat traditional.  it is itself a version of the central values of the new nation it describes, and repsents a similar compromise between two extremes of order and anarchy.)

Meanwhile, Mau and Daphne find themselves a new team together against the prejudices and constrictions of each of their backgrounds, and so there’s a kind of Romeo and Juliet thing happening also–and one that ends, surprisingly here in the context of a novel for young adults, in the traditional fashion: the loves are ot together.  She must return home to help her father rule his people, he must stay to rule his, so that their duty to their individual communities (and more importantly, to the new values they have forged together and want to keep afloat), trumps their feelings for each other.

I’m not sure what to think about the long history of Mau’s people that’s uncovered in their descent into the cave of dead ancestors.  It works to reinforce the equality of his supposedly primitive people and her supposedly more civilized people; but it does so by giving them a history of scientific rational knowledge and world travel that makes them sound a lot like the European colonizers of actual history, as if to imply that that sort of knowledge and that sort of world-encompassing culture is indeed a superior one.  On the other hand, it happened and is now over, its superiority forgotten as the current European one will be also?

One way or the other, this is a rich, ambiguous, funny, serious, thought-provoking novel, a pleasure to read and a pleasure to think about and still feel uncertain about because there’s still more yet to think about.

Little, Melanie. The Apprentice’s Masterpiece.  Toronto:  Annick, 2008

Medieval Spain, fifteenth century.  There are two focalizing characters: Ramon, the son of a scribe, a Jew whose family has converted to Christianity but nevertheless experiences an increasing intolerance of “conversos”–those not of longstanding Christian blood; and Amir, a Muslim slave who comes to work for Ramon’s father.  The book presents, first Ramon’s story, then, after a brief repetition of the last events of Ramon’s story from Amir’s point of view, the continuation of Amir’s life separated from Ramon, and then, thirdly Ramon again as he re-meets Amir in different circumstances.  The narratives don’t alternate throughout, in other words, and tend to tell just one side of the story at any given time, so that readers are left without knowledge of what’s going on as the other central character understands it (until much later we learn how Amir understood events he experienced with Ramon in his own later narrative).

Furthermore, the book is set up as a series of poems, each a page or two, and separate enough from each other so that each has its own name.  Each describes a character’s thoughts in one specific moment (and in the present tense), and there is little sense of connection between the moments–indeed, a lot of what happened is left unreported, so it comes as a surprise, for instance, when Amir’s section comes along, to learn that he and Ramon had developed something of a friendly relationship.  Ramon himself hasn’t really thought about that, though, at least not in the moments recorded here; in them, Ramon is almost exclusively a nuisance to Ramon.  And Ramon has other things on his mind more pressing to him, it seems, like a girl he believes he’s in love with–but it’s something of a cheat for the author to leave the other moments unreported so that what didn’t matter to Ramon himself can then become more important to Amir as reported later in Amir’s section and then very important to Ramon himself, as reported in the last section when he tries to save the life of the boy he once, I imagined, just disliked.

It’s a somewhat manipulative trick not to be told of things happening that will turn out to be important later–a trick dependent on the fact that the book presents itself as poetry, so that any narrative flow is implied rather than actually present in the isolated bits of narrative each poem presents, and it’s up to readers to figure out how these moments connect to each other in terms of a plot or connected sequence of events.  Readers get to play connect the dots, sort of, and here, the specific dots simply leave out  other moments that turn out to be important in the characters’ later relationship retrospectively.  This is maybe a way of taking the isolation and then connection inherent in an alternating narrative structure to an extreme: offering deceptively isolated moments only in order to unveil the surprising connections between them later on.  (After having thought about Dr. Atomic, I might call this isolating aspect of alternating narratives, leading to often explosively climactic connection, an atomic bomb effect.)

The book is, of course, about characters somehow isolated (here by racial and religious prejudice, primarily) becoming connected, and about apparently different people discovering their hidden sameness.  In a way, that’s more or less what all stories with alternating narratives are about, or at least, it’s one of the most obvious ways a novelist can make use of this kind of structure, so that either this form inherently suggests that kind of ideological position or else the widespread power of that ideology (especially in terms of how adults want young people to understand the world) leads many writers to the alternating narrative as a good way to express it.  Structure creates substance, or substance invites structure?  I don’t know which, or maybe both.

Here, the issues are both religious and familial.  It’s Jews vs. Christians vs. Muslims, and the sanctity of the individual mind and individual family against all three.  Ramon can’t understand why his father seems more interested in Amir than in himself (although it becomes clear that, despite family blood, Amir has been an equally  obvious successor of Ramon’s father and sharer of his values as is Ramon himself–and it’s Ramon’s own understanding of that and recommitment to those values he hadn’t earlier been able to share that brings him together with Amir   He first, though, has to learn what was hidden from him (and us)–that his father had come to love Amir enough to have actually freed him from slavery, and asked him to call him Pappa, etc.–but that rather than all this being a rejection of Ramon, the father had kept Ramon out of knowing it for fear of its danger to him.  So political circumstances have isolated one boy from the other even while love and empathy were making the members of the same family, and doing it while putting them in enough contact to experience a mutual empathy they can acknowledge and act on only much later.

So external circumstances–politics, religion–separate those who are not truly different.  True community is with those who share our commitments and ideals, not necessarily, as the inquisition would have it, with those who share our blood or our faith.  There’s an implication that religion and politics are the enemy here–what divides and corrupts.  (It’s also interesting that, despite one being a Christian Jew and the other a Muslim, these boys echo many alternating narrative characters by being, in fact, on the same side against a common enemy, in this case the Inquisition.  Alternating narratives rarely pit good guys against bad guys, and tend instead to prefer to show two different [but in the end not-so-different] responses to the evil left unfocalized.)

To begin with, Ramon, as an embattled converso, is set up as a sympathetic sufferer of intolerance and injustice.  He  then reveals his own intolerance for the outsider Amir, and so must learn to be more genuinely tolerant by understanding his own tendency to self-aggrandizement and prejudice, and to act against it.  At first, he sees himself as confused, half-Christian, half-Jew, (and indeed, without really experiencing or expressing any actual faith in anything), while Amir knows who he is–and claims (to himself? it’s unclear who the audience for these monologues is) to be a devout Muslim (even though his texts really give little evidence of that in the way of emotional involvement, etc.; he’s a religious person who doesn’t sound the least bit religious, and who says he’s praying but who never actually prays).

Ramon must be punished, then–for intolerance, though, not for lack of faith: the book seems generally unhappy about faith.  So he falls in love with the wrong girl, and somehow ends up ordering the slave Amir around and into danger and backing himself into the corner of having to become a scribe for the Inquisition. Later, knowing how that led to Amir’s being attacked in the street and then having to flee (and eventually, becoming a slave yet once more) Ramon feels a guilt he must then expunge.  At the end, after Ramon desperately tries to save Amir’s life, it’s Amir who helps save Ramon’s life.  Empathy triumphs over religion.

About difference, the text offers a quote from the poet Hafiz:

How can two different eyes behold you as you are?
Each will see according to what it knows.

That’s a basic principle of the world of alternating narratives.  But often, as again here, the difference is mostly theoretical.  Amir and Ramon don’t really sound different from each other in their different narratives–it’s like the same voice describing different circumstances in the same way.  And neither sounds terribly committed to whatever religious values they’re supposed to espouse.  They seem like twenty-first century people claiming a faith they don’t actually seem to feel or be immersed in.  Religion is referred to, then, but not actually present except as that which divides soul-mates (recognizable to readers as self-centring modern individuals like ourselves) from each other.  And in the end, individual character triumphs over faith and race claims, and two boys who think and sound almost exactly alike acknowledge their allegiance.

Yet once more, also, I have to complain about the so-called poetry that’s so fashionable in novels for young people these days (see also: The Braid and Beating Heart.  These pieces in The Master’s Apprentice just read like personal musings, with little sense of concentration of emotion or of language that particularly expressive–and the line-breaks seem to be there just to make them look like poems, for they don’t add anything to the ideational or emotional structure or rhythm of the pieces.  So the pieces are more like diary entries than what I would be willing to give the name poetry to.  Just being an old-fashioned snob, I guess.  But I do think that a story told in something like real poetry might well have the intensity to survive the distancing and isolation of all these separate little sections, and that doesn’t happen here because the language simply isn’t interesting enough to be worth paying attention to for more than the story it’s telling–the events.

Also, these present tense narratives sound very narrative-like–more like a statement of how someone feels or what he remembers as spoken to an audience than like interior monologue, which is surely less narratively organized, and more dramatically conflicted?  So really, they are more narrative than poetry.  (And it’s weird that these fifteenth century Spanish boy says things like “Here’s what I don’t get” or that something “feels gutsy”–very recent idioms, meant, I suspect, to make the text seem lively but that somehow just stick out like unruly cowlicks and draw attention to themselves, and that end up confirming the unacknowledged similarity of these two theoretically different characters who both share a 21st century mind).

Boy, am I sounding like a grumpy old poop.  But I’m suspecting that the only reason there are so many book set up this way these days, as supposed free verse that’s free of verse, is because, unlike what used to be called poetry, this widely spaced prose is easy to read quickly, and you can say you’ve read a whole fat novel that, laid out in the more traditional way, would be about half the apparent length.   Not verse for language lovers, then, but easy-to-read prose for language haters.  Feh.

Having gone to the Cineplex last Saturday to see John Adams’s opera Doctor Atomic “live” from the Met, I find myself thinking about it in terms of this alternating narratives project.  What struck me was that, while much of the music is evocative and interesting, there really isn’t much else very involving going on in what we saw on screen.  Part of the problem was simply not being at the Met–not just not being there, but not being there and therefore in the hands of a camera crew with strange ideas.  Perhaps on the theory that, being on screen, it should look as much like a movie as possible, everything was shot as close up as possible, so that the audience developed an intimate knowledge of the singer’s nostrils and sweat.  That quickly ruined the illusion of authenticity, at least in terms of believing in the characters as opposed to being aware of an on-stage experience–and so it was hard to feel empathy for the characters.  The fetishistic dwelling on faces also tended to undermine the kind of experience I most enjoy opera for providing–the interactions between the performers, between the performers and the set, between the singers and the orchestra, between the words and the music, etc., etc.  It’s an experience of semiotic intermingling and undermining, an ongoing set of complex and entertainingly crosscutting interactions.  But when you’re looking down someone’s throat at their uvula wiggling, you tend to miss the relationships between the words being sung and the other actions going on onstage, the shifts in the setting, etc., etc.  It was like staring obsessively at one piece of a complex jigsaw puzzle without being able to develop much sense of its part in a larger whole.

But all that might have mattered less in a different opera. Here, though, the composer John Adams and the liberettist Peter Sellars had already constructed an experience that seemed to be deliberately striving for a lack of audience involvement.  The libretto is made up of bits and pieces of other texts–some from interviews and diaries, etc., of the actual people involved in the atomic bomb project, some poems and prose passages by John Donne, Muriel Rukeyser, Baudelaire and others, and sections of the Bhagavad Gita and a traditional Tewa song.  As the singers move from one such fragment to another, one character’s thoughts or feelings to another’s expressed in terms of a different text originally written by a different person, there is little in the way of actual dialogue or interaction between the characters, then–the piece is set up as a series of alternating narratives, which is why I’m exploring my response to it here.

In a scene in the first act, Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty, expresses her feeling’s about her husband’s absorption in his work by singing words a poem by Rukeyser:

Am I in your light?
No, go on reading
(the hackneyed light of evening quarrelling with the bulbs;
the book’s bent rectangle solid on your knees)
only my fingers in your hair, only, my eyes
splitting the skull to tickle your brain with love
in a slow caress blurring the mind,
kissing your mouth awake
opening the body’s mouth stopping the words.

.  As the composer Mark Adamo suggests in his blog entry on Dr. Atomic, “in this bedroom scene . . . Kitty Oppenheimer sings language from Muriel Rukeyser’s poem “Three Sides of a Coin,” which describes the very scene we’re seeing: a wife trying to distract her husband as he reads.  Puzzlingly, though, the character narrates herself: she tells us what she’s doing even as she’s doing it.”  So there’s a distance created, a character explaining herself at one remove from herself; and then Oppenheimer responds in words by Baudelaire to describe his own state of mind:

If you could know all that I see!
all that I feel!
all that I hear in your hair!
My soul floats upon perfumes
as the souls of other men
float upon music.

It’s as if we know what each of these characters is thinking (albeit expressed through the filter of other people’s heightened language), but have little sense of what their actual dialogue or interaction consists of.  It’s two solitudes lightly and gingerly touching, two particles that remain in their separate spheres and barely interact if they interact at all.

That makes me wonder about the effect of alternating narratives in fiction.  I’m often aware of how they distance readers from characters.  You can’t, at the same time or in sequence, really identify equally with two different characters whose stories and thoughts cut across each other, and there’s a tendency to invite readers to stand back from both characters whose narrative alternate, to see what can be learned from one narrative about the truth of the other character’s perceptions, etc.  And as in Doctor Atomic, the sense of a conversation is apparent to the audience only: for it seems that Oppeneimer doesn’t know the Rukeyserian thoughts of Kitty, nor Kitty much of the Baudelairian thoughts of Oppenheimer.  A perception of how the fragments fit together–how a pattern emerges from all the isolated bits and people (and, I guess, atoms), is possible only for an audience observing outside the events of the story.

And yet–it seems to me that proficient storytellers are aware of that distancing quality when they make use of this sort of story construction, and work hard to combat it. They organize the alternations and their contents in a way that itself creates suspense,and invites emotional involvement, encourages understanding of the effects of each character’s actions on others even when the characters themselves are unaware ofr all that.  I sensed little of that in Doctor Atomic, which seems to want to keep all its characters isolated in their own concerns (and in terms of the set, inside their own little boxes) until the climactic explosion at the end.   (And if the bomb is the only image of mingling, then isolation and lack of involvement does somehow end up seeming superior, safer.)  Throughout, nobody actually does anything to anybody, or even says anything to anybody.  There is, in a literal sense, no plot–no series of interactions that develops into anything.  It’s a drama without drama.  So it’s effective, this opera, but its effectiveness has a kind of glacial, unmoving quality–a quality I actually sense in few of the novels with alternating narratives I’ve been exploring.

One sidenote, since I’ve been thinking so much lately about depictions of Native Americans in alternating narratives for young people, I have to record my dismay at the way Doctor Atomic engages the Tewa material it makes use of.   In a plot that works for an opposition between the organic ordering of the unviverse and the interfering meddling of scientists, the introduction of the Tewa  seems to demand an identfication of this Native American group with Mother Earth (and healing and wholeness and sanity)–and the maid who sings the Tewa song repeatedly throughout Act II has the kind of stance and subtance that inevitably imply that Mother-Earthiness.  As Adamo rightly says, “If this is characterization, what on earth is stereotype?”  Yet once more, the aborginal is what science and progress and civilization moves against or in ignorance of–and even if you want to suggest that science might be at fault, it’s still an insulting kind of unconscious identification of an actual people with what is being perceived as negatively or positively uncivilzed, less human, somehow–more “natural.”  All that gets exacerbated by a line of extras in Act II standing stolidly and solidly above the action, dressed up in horns and apparently aborginal costumes in the background of what is happening to real people below–the aboriginal made inhuman and symbolic and outside of but suposedly above things and, I have to add, very silly.  All this suggests a surprising insensitivity to issues of race and cultural appropriation in opera that goes back at least as far as Aida and Madame Butterfly and Turandot, and still seems, here, at least, surprisingly unchanged now–the exoticism of the othered still being made use of in the saqme old cheesily operatic way.  And much as it is used in so many novels for young people also.