Archive for the ‘adult literature’ Category

Marsh, Richard.  The Joss:  A Reversion. 1901.  Chicago:  Valancourt, 2007

Marsh, best known as author of the scary and truly unsettling novel The Beetle (1897), was a writer of popular junk for inexperienced or unsophisticated adult readers–and not always a very good one.  His stories, for instance, collected in The Seen and the Unseen (1900) often start well, and then sort of just poop out, as if he’d lost interest, or couldn’t think of another twist to maintain the suspense.  and something similar, unfortunately, happens in The Joss, which starts incredibly well and then goes pretty steeply downhill, and ends without ever offering an adequate explanation of its main mysteries.

Indeed, the main reason for that descent in The Joss seems to be the presence within it of alternating narratives–or, I guess more accurately, not so much alternating ones as successive ones.  The novels consists of four sections or books, followed by an “Author’s Postscript.”  Each of these is identified not just with a title, but following the title, with a sentence identifying the narrator; thus, in Book I, “Mary Blyth Tells the Story,” whereas in Book II, we have “The Facts of the Case According to Emiuly Purvis,” followed by Book III, “Mr. Frank Paine Tells the Story . . .” and Book IV, “Captain Max Lander Sets forth the Curious Adventure . . .”  Mary Blyth, the first of these narrators, is lively and entertaining, and Marsh does an excellent job of communicating her stubbornness and fearlessness and vitality as she confronts some truly weird and fascinating occurrences.  But then, the other three narrators are much less lively and even kind of vapid, and while they communicate more of the events that involve Mary so centrally,  they never actually do clarify what they’re all about.  It remains a sort of Orientalist mystery, the mere fact of characters having allowed themselves to become involved in strange Asiatic religions and their godless gods apparently enohg to allow for all the mysteriously inexplicable happenings that occur in a dark houses in central London.  Readers learn how strangeness became imported into that house form the mysterious and clearly repellent East–but not exactly what the mystery is or why it’s so repulsive.  Perhaps this wouldn’t have been so disappointing if the first section hadn’t been so involving, for really there’s nothing spectacularly or unusually wrong here.  The second narrator is a typical frightened damsel in distress–only annoyingly weak in comparison to her strong friend Msry, and the narrator of the last section tells a quite typical story of intrigue and adventure and violence at sea.  It just somehow doesn’t seem enough because what happens to Mary is so truly disturbing, ands because she responds to it with such character and vitality.    Marsh seems to have figured out just how a story told by an interesting character in a personal way can add energy and dimension to a novel–and then, more or less, forgotten about it.

Nevertheless,  The Joss seems important to think about here because it is, as far as I know or have been able to figure out so far, the first example of explicitly asserting the names of different narrators for different sections of a novel.  I can’t think of another, in fact, until Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, published in 1930.  As most people usually think about it, As I Lay Dying would seem to be a much more typical kind of book to feature alternating narratives–it’s experimental, demanding, stream-of-consciousness, highly literary, an artifact of high culture.  So it’s intriguing that it should be preceded in this particular innovative technique by a book so clearly of the genre of junk literature.   And for that reason, it might be a particularly significant novel for me to be aware of in thinking about alternating narratives for young people.

One thing occurs to me if I think of the differing effects Faulkner achieves in The Sound and the Fury (1929) and As I Lay Dying.  Both offer parts of the story narrated from different points of view, but the first of them is more like The Joss than the second, in that it presents a series of four narratives from differing points of view, without ever actually alternating the narrators.  Unlike The Joss, The second Faulkner novel does alternate narrators, bringing each of them back again more than once, and has a lot more of them–which seems to be what might have spurred Faulkner to label each of their sections with their names, as he hand;t odne in the earlier novel; otherwise, As I Lay Dying would be much more difficult to figure out than it already is.  So the names are a way of communicating hard stuff to readers–a sort of didactic device.  No wonder, then, that they should appear in a book like The Joss, intended for less experienced or sophisticated readers whom one might well assume would have trouble figuring out that different people are supposed to be telling of different events unless it’s clearly spelled out–even when the stories being told are the easy and conventional thriller adventure ones.  That this sort of name-labelling occurs so often in alternating narrative for young readers might then equally reveal how their writers seem to he conscious of how this writing style might be stretching the abilities of inexperienced young readers. the names, in effect, make these novels a sort of theoretically sophisticated writing technique offered in its most simple and most available way.–the genre of writing for young people, once more, pulling back the unexpected and innovative into the area of what’s relatively easily knowable and acceptable.  And the names label sections in most writing for young people that are much more easy to make sense of that Faulkner’s streams of consciousness in As I Lay Dying.  The clear line between the popular novel of a century ago and the supposedly more experimental writing for young people of today is, I think, very illuminating.

One other thing that The Joss shares with a lot of alternating narratives for young people is that, while there’s a clear binary oppositions between good people and bad ones, with the bad ones all being very clearly identified as being from or being tainted by the mysterious Orient,  no bad characters is allowed to present a point if view of his or her own.  So we get four people all on the same side telling of events and confirming the same or similar impressions of the badness of the truly bad Orientals, just as many YA novels involves significant oppositions–between slave-owners ands slaver, or Nazi and Jews, etc.,–but never offer one of the people on the clearly wrong side as as focalizing narrator.   So a clearly binary oppositional world-view is not represented in a nevertheless binary narrative, as two people on more or less the same side disagree a little but agree in their opposition to the one clear and obvious enemy.  Once more, the clear line of similarity between a popular fiction of an earlier day and supposedly sophsiticated fiction for young people now is highly instructive.

Why, if they don’t present oppositional points of view, are there different narrators in The Joss?  It’s more a question of plot considerations, I think.  The four narratng characters don’t have exactly the same experiences, and each knows of parts of the mystery that the others don’t, or has experiences to report that the others don’t.  There’s a sort of filling in, going on then,  as readers learn more than any of the individual characters know of the story they’re all helping to tell.  Also, there are comparison being made, especially between the two female narrators, who are really quite opposite in character despite their friendship. And the all show us how the others seem to people outside themselves as well as what they individually feel and think inside–so there are other comparisons and contrasts available also.

The Beetle also has four successive narrators; more on that, possibly, later.

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Mathers, Helen et al.  The Fate of Fenella.  (1892) Kansas City: Valancourt, 2008.

I’ve included this novel in my alternating narrative project, not because it is multi-focalized, but because it has multiple authors–24 of them (and thus offers an adult comparison with a YA novel like Click).  It was a project initiated by a publisher, who invited many popular writers of the day each to contribute a chapter to an ongoing story, which was then published in a serial form in a magazine called The Gentlewoman in 1892.  The writers included some still very famous ones, like Arthur Conan Doyle and Bran Stoker (author of Dracula), some who were huge bestsellers in their time (Helen Mathers, Florence Marryat), and some less widely known or read. (including F. Anstey, who wrote the children’s novel Vice Versa, basis of so many Freaky Fridays and such.)

It’s not exactly clear how they did the writing, but they seem to have written the chapters in turn without any advance planning of how the plot would develop, etc.  Thus, each writer would get what had been done so far and add a chapter.

The plot is about an unhappy couple, murder while sleepwalking, kidnapping, vile villainesses, and so on–sort of condensed cream of melodrama.   There’s a real sense of each writer trying to top the others–be even more excessive, more inventive in ways of torturing the heroine.  Indeed, the major interest here for me is how this sort of writing quickly turns a novel into a game.  The writers seem to be determined to end their chapters with the characters in the midst of impossible dilemmas, or in farflung parts of the globe.  the next writer then has to figure out how to get them back together again so that something interesting can happen before the next chapter comes to an end, again at a place which leaves the next writer with an apparently insoluble problem,  The plot then has many outrageous twists and turns, and is totally and completely illogical, and involves an immense amount of hastily skimmed over travel.   One might say the same of the multi-authored YA Click, actually, except that there the basic device of the novels logically allows for a much wider scope in terms of story content, location, etc.

While multi-authored, the novel tends to be traditional writing of its time.  Thus, it does switch from focalizer to focalizer, but in the context of a fairly omniscient narrator who makes the switches within the course of an ongoing narrative.  Unlike more contemporary alternating narrations, then, it tends to bury or conceal the switches in point of view, rather than putting them front and centre, as so many YA novels do when they actually name alternating chapters with the names of the characters whose point of view they present.   as a result, unlike those YA novels, writing of this sort doesn’t tend to make its alternating focalizations thematic–it doesn’t necessarily contribute to or offer a way of understanding what the book is about, as it odes in, say, novels by Jane Yolen and Bruce Coville or other YA pairs.

While the narrative techniques are more or less stable throughout, the tone changes drastically from chapter to chapter.   Some are more fraught and fervent than others.  And you can tell that some writers are having a really good time doing this–playing the game–and others are just phoning it in.

Barnes, Julian.  Arthur & George.  New York: Knopf, 2006.

Since I mentioned this novel while discussing Barnes’s Talking It Over, it seems useful to say a bit more about it here.  Arthur and George tells the story of how Arthur Conan Doyle, mostly famous as the inventor of the arch crime solver Sherlock Holmes, helps George Edalji, a lawyer sent to prison for attacking animals and other crimes, to get out of a wrongful conviction.  This is based in actual historical events, and I have to admit that, while I greatly enjoyed reading it, it’s hard to tell exactly why it’s a novel exactly.  It’s very good at creating the characters of Doyle (enthusiast, sportsman, lover, etc.) and Edalji (which Barnes seems to have made up even though there was such as man and such a case–but little biographical info?–whereas his Doyle is based on biographical materials?).  And they are interesting characters, and in an interesting situation, especially in terms of the racial backgrounds of the central characters in a time of racial tensions and empire–but it isn’t clear why it forms a cohesive whole, why exactly Barnes wants to tell this story.  What does it amount to thematically?

Nothing particularly obvious, at least to me.  I suppose it shows how class, race, colour, and so on influence how people are thought about and how they think about themselves, but that hardly seems enough, and in any case, is surely inevitable in the context of a specified historical place and time?

In a way, even, the history weighs it down as a novel.  It has to follow the contours of what’s known (even though Barnes invents beyond that), and so things happen that seem somehow extraneous to the central concerns–like, for instance, Doyle’s interest in spiritualism.  This doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the Edalji plot, except insofar as Edalji is always rational and has no truck with it, and so there’s an opposition to be considered, but isn’t really all that subtle or interesting a one.  But the spiritualism has to be there, because it was a fact of the real Doyle’s life.  And as a result, the novel somehow seems more random than a novel should be–or perhaps, infuriatingly, it’s just more subtle than I’m managing to get.

Moreover, it never really seems to justify the alternating narratives.  We see inside each man’s thoughts, but they are not necessarily understanding or misunderstanding each other in ways that surface as particularly thematic, nor are any of the usual things happening that an alternating focalized narration is usually used for.  All it does is allow the story of two men quite different from each other and who start out unconnected but then become connected to be told–with the implication (inherent in the form?) that somehow one’s life contrasts or counterpoints the other’s.  Two quite different people come to be involved, but that still doesn’t seem enough to justify all this effort.

Nevertheless, there is clearly a paralleling of the alternating narrations.  The book moves unevenly through the characters’ lives, with some short alternating sections and then long sections devoted just to one of the characters–but when the latter happens, then it happens in turn with each of the characters.  Also, the plot involves a history of life-changing events–for Edalji, being arrested, tried, convicted, and imprisoned all in one long go, for Doyle, meeting a younger woman he falls in love with even though, he thinks, he’s more or less happily married.  So I have the sense that if I spent more time at it (which might well be worthwhile), I could unearth a whole saga of counterpoints and variations.

The whole clearly follows an expected pattern: Arthur and George start quite separately and have little or nothing to do with each other, but then one hears of the other, and then they meet and become involved–and then, in this case, move apart into isolation again.  They effect each others lives, but they don’t become a happy family or community, as most conventionally happens in children’s fiction with alternating narratives.

They are, in fact, significantly different to start with, and, intriguingly, remain so throughout  Difference does not, as most often in fiction for oyung people, lead to sameness or perceptions of shared selfhood or interest.  Doyle is gregarious, manly, active, sexually alive, Edalji is the opposite of all those.  One of the men is already famous, the other obscure until he becomes notorious for his supposed crimes.  Arthur feels saddled with Sherlock Holmes, yet agrees to take on Edalji’s case in spite of his disclaimers about interest in crime-solving.  Edalji, son of a Parsee and a Scots mother, has been raised in an isolated household and is a weird isolate, but thinks of himself as thoroughly English and quite normal.  Is Holmes then an opposite?  He is the quite normally and thoroughly an English establishment stud, but constantly dwells on his Irishness, his being different.  Both, then, lack self-perception?  And are their lacks of self-perception related to class and race–how their views of themselves are at odds with the cultural norm’s dominant view, which affects their lives despite their refusal to see it?  That works more readily for Edalji than it does for Doyle, perhaps, who wants to be “different” rather than “same,” instead of vice-versa.

And finally–what does Doyle’s spiritualism have to do with anything?  He is the thoroughly rational man suckered by himself, whereas Edalji is the unusual eccentric guy suckered by his sense of his own normalcy.

So maybe this novel is about something after all.  Even so, even the Julian Barnes website (www.julianbarnes.com/) seems uncertain about that, offering this impressively vague and embracing statement about the novel:  ” It is a novel about low crime and high spirituality; guilt and innocence; identity, nationality and race; and thwarted passion.  Arthur & George explores what we think, what we believe, and what we know.”  Golly, is that all?  How narrow can you get?

Barnes, Julian.  Talking It Over.  New York and Toronto: Knopf, 1991

A book by Barnes much earlier than Arthur and George (2006), this one reveals then a longstanding interest in narrative alternations.  Talking It Over is about a love triangle–about two men of apparently opposite character who’ve been friends since school, and the woman one of them meets and marries and then the other steals away.  These three are the alternating narrators.  The novel itself often makes claims to being a sort of Roshomon situation–the characters seeing and understanding the same events differently.  See for instance, the quote from Shostakovich’s autobiography: “He lies like an eye-witness” (222).  Also, while we’re getting their versions of events, we can’t particularly trust them because they are aware of the person who is recording their stories–and perhaps even have a glimmering that they are actually characters in that person’s novel.  One way or the other, their awareness of a storyteller they talk at allows for their misrepresenting what happened or how they felt about it even within their own narratives: this offers  no stream of consciousness interior view of their minds, only what they’re willing to share, which will inevitably be then privileged in terms of presenting just what they want someone else to know.   Indeed, this is often a subject, too.  Oliver says, e.g., that we remember only what we care to out of the vast range of possible details and events.  “I don’t remember.  I won’t remember.  Memory is an act of will, and so is forgetting” (16).

But in fact, the novel challenges that idea.  For one thing, it never really does work as a Roshomon story.  We don’t get different characters’ views of the same events; instead, we get each character telling us only what they choose to tell, and it often happens later that we discover they’ve kept things back, from each other and also from the person they’re talking to through it all–the novelist, perhaps?  Me?   As they “talk it over,” then, they become the novelists of their own fictions, fictions built on not particularly whole truths.   This is not a case of people interpreting the same events differently in terms of their differences of character, etc.; it’s a case of people creating, consciously, different versions of events that then hide more detailed and more complex truths.  In “talking it over,” they reinvent it, quite deliberately, in order to create musunderstandings in each other and in readers.  The ending involves a deliberate act of staging.

The central characters are the stolid bankerly Stuart, his more artistic friend Oliver, and Gillian, who moves from Stuart to Oliver.  Stuart is not quite so completely stolid and dull as Oliver imagines, and Oliver manages to keep things secret from Stuart also–they are neither as caricature a representative of the dulls vs. the artsies as they each imagine the other to be.  (Thus, Stuart claims that “I’ve always thought you are who you are and you shouldn’t pretend to be anything else.  But Oliver used to correct me and explain that you are whoever it is you’re pretending to be” (19)  Neither of these turns out to be true–Stuart does pretend (by leaving things out for both Stuart and readers) and Oliver is more (or perhaps sometimes, less) than he pretends to be.

And on the other hand, they both work hard to maintain those images for each other.  The last section of the involves Oliver, who throughout the novel actually struck me as an egocentric, wit-obsessed, cruel human being, quite unattractive and quite objectionable, getting the girl–perhaps a wish-fulfilment fantasy for the witty Julian Barneses of the world? On the other hand, however, maybe he;s lost the girl at the very end–or she has lost him.  And Stuart really is quite dull.  In the end, I guess, you have to feel sorry for the mysterious Gilliam for allowing either of them into her life.  And why she does so remains more or less blank: she prefers to keep it that way, it seems.  Indeed, a key expectation not ever met here is that she’ll end up explaining it all, offering insights into the other two that help to account for why things work out as they do.  But in fact, she says little about that, and ends up seeming merely passive, and easily led, and then she creates disaster, perhaps, when she does act   That also makes the story about the relationship between the two men, with Gillian thrown in as a sort of prize for them to fight over.  It’s about how they need to be opposite to maintain each other’s sense of self, and how that leads them into a peculiar competitiveness that governs all their behaviour–with perhaps, Gilian as the unwilling (or willing?) victim? Also, she loves a Stuart who is what he created for Oliver?  Or does she love the real man beyond that, and hate when he turns into the caricature? (Or, as she claims still love him–love them both?)   Annd I can ask the same questions about how she feels about Oliver–how does the caricature version impinge on her feelings for him, before and after she fall in love with him?

Gillian’s work as a picture restorer seems operative here–she removes a veneer to find a different picture underneath: does that happen in her relationships with the two men?  On the other hand, Oliver, as usual has an opinion about this: “”There is no real picture under there waiting to be revealed” (122))  and later, Gilliam makes a related significant comment: “”Stuart had his idea of what I was like, he’d decided upon it, and he didn’t want to hear anything different” (175).  So this is where life escapes from the confines of story, where what you’ve invented as your life isn’t adequate to account for expanded or changed facts. Stuart, ironically (?), is the one stuck in an imaginary reality that Oliver and Gillian move beyond?  Oliver turns out to be open to more possibilities, less stuck in a pretence.  The irony is that the stolid normal guy is the one stuck in an invented image.  He is less capable of the vulnerability of openness to other stories than the poseur who believes in posing.

The ending involves a stages scene (staged by Gillian for the benefit of a concealed Stuart who doesn’t know she’s staging it) that goes very wrong, and we’re left hanging as to the consequences.  Is Gillian finally on her own, without either of the two men?  Has she created a reality by pretending to it?  Or did her staging in fact work as she’d intended?

All of that merely suggests that I’m somewhat confused by, and about, this novel.  All I know for sure is that the alternating narratives (and the fact that they’re addressed consciously to an audience) are a key operative part of everything, and a way of moving towards a clearer understanding.  Structure, then, and focalization, are a key to meaning–what the novel is about is how different stories by and about people can be compared in order to understand more.

Why does Gillian’s mother suddenly appear as a narrator, 145 pages in?  Because the events of her life–a husband who leaves her for a school girl–might have made Giulian seek the apparent safety of Stuart?  that would imply a  fairly trivial and over-obvious explanation for her, a cheap way of filling in then novel’s blanks.  And then on old girlfriend of Stuart appears (183), and some pages later, Stuart and Oliver, as narrators now in a narrative space rather than the people they narrate about in a story space, gang up and push her out of the novel.  All this offers a  sense of allowing for messy possibilities beyond the rigidity of the three alternators, an openness to more stories than just the ones we appeared to have already settled on?  A sudden change of a regular pattern like this would never, I think, appear in a children’s or YA novel, where pattern and regularity tend to be everything, even in the midst of innovation and complexity.

Lerer, Seth.  Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter.  Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

This book, it seems, has just been named as a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle 2008 awards for criticism.  According to its website, the National Book Critics Circle consists of “more than 900 active book reviewers who are interested in honoring quality writing.”  If so, they’ve made a surprising choice with this one.  Lerer’s book is, I think, quite dreadful–very bad scholarship indeed.  As someone who’s devoted some decades to taking children’s literature criticism seriously, reading it made me very, very angry.  To me, honouring it in this way can only suggest a depressing lack of knowledge of the nature and history of children’s literature on the part of these supposedly quality-minded critics.  Let me try to say why without too much ire.

Lerer describes the book as “a reader’s history of children’s literature: a study of the figurations of the reading child from antiquity to the present; but a report as well, on my own life of reading and the critical interpretations that my literary scholarship brings to the texts of childhood”  (1-2).  In other words, the reader whose history is being explored is an amalgam of a generalized “reading child” and one very specific reading scholar.  On the face of it, these readers seem unlikely to have all that much in common.  It’s not surprising that the book sometimes fluctuates erratically between them and sometimes uneasily combines them, so that it’s hard to tell where the child’s reading leaves off and Lerer’s ingenious but highly subjective theorizing begins.

Part of the problem is Lerer’s lack of clarity about just who the child reader he;s concerned with is–what he means by “the figurations of the reading child.”  He claims his book is “a history of reception” (2).  But except for Lerer himself and his own son (once or twice), this so-called history of “the reading child” offers almost no reports of how any actual child readers received or responded to the texts he discusses   Instead, Lerer focuses on describing his readings of texts themselves in terms of what they suggest to him about who their readers were or ought to have been.

Lerer claims that “the study of children’s literature is cultural studies” (9) because it draws on “literary, socio-historical, and economic methods of analysis” (9).  I think that’s true–and certainly much children’s literature criticism of the last few decades has made us all increasingly aware of just how very true it is.  But Lerer’s book offers nothing obviously economic in its methodology and little that a cultural studies scholar would recognize as socio-historical: no ideological analysis of class or race, no ethnographic information. Perhaps most significantly, Lerer never engages in the critique that features centrally in cultural studies–the effort to be aware of what texts might be, for good or more often for ill, inviting readers to take for granted.  Lerer describes how various texts confirm what I take to be gender stereotypes without any apparent awareness of them being stereotypes–as if they were true, as if all girls or all boys shared gender-specfic characteristics.  He also speaks of early Greek readers as generalized “children” without seeming to notice they are all male–indeed, never comments on the fact that the intended child readers of all the texts he discusses across thousands of years of history were exclusively male; and when books for girls do start to exist, he isolates them in the ghetto of a separate chapter, safely away from the history of books for “children.”  Furthermore, he describes ancient Greek children as in the care of slaves in a way that blots out the possibility that some children back then might actually have been slaves, or had slaves for parents.

This is not to say that Lerer avoids comment on how texts relate to their time and culture.  “Modern children’s literature remains an Edwardian phenomenon” (253), he asserts in a typical comment, and he claims that twentieth century American children’s literature is “nothing less than a literature of winners” (274).  But he offers very little in the way of historical or ethnographic evidence to support these astonishing conclusions.  He just puts them out there as and then acts from that point on as if they were true.

The book is filled with similarly vast, similarly unsupported generalizations.  “Slavery is central to the history of children’s literature,” (19) Lerer claims without evidence–and then doesn’t refer to the idea again.  Or again, “All children’s literature recalls an unrecoverable past, a lost age before adulthood.” (83-4).  All?   Every single bit of it?  And if it always does that, does it do it for child readers, too, and if so, what age earlier than childhood are they recalling?  Or again, “The job of children’s literature is to make sense of things” (107).  So much for nonsense verse.

Childhood, meanwhile, is as generalizable as its literature iis for Lerer.  It “is a time of exploration, an arena of adventure.  Every shipping box becomes a canoe or a spaceship” (150).  So third-world youngsters who actually live in shipping boxes and have never encountered a canoe in life or in books don’t count as real children?  Or again, “Nothing delights a child so much as tools.  But nothing delights a boy so much as new words for those tools” (154).  So much for boys like I once was who can take tools or, preferably, leave them, along with their high-falutin’ names.  Meanwhile, Montgomery’s character Anne of Green Gables is “a lesson in the ways a pictorial and dramatic imagination shapes the lives of female children” (236)–all female children always, apparently.  Lerer is surprisingly assured that children are unaffected by history and culture, alike in all times and places, and that boys and girls are inherently quite different from each other in ways that never change across time.

These surely incorrect assumptions seem to underlie Lerer’s decisions about what texts to discuss.  To begin with, he has a very generous sense of what counts as children’s literature.  In early chapters about Greece, Rome, and the middle ages, periods in which, as far as we now know, no literature specifically identified as being intended for children actually existed, he assumes that texts with qualities like those found after children’s literature did come into existence must be children’s literature also–an assumption necessarily based on the ongoing similarity of children and adult ideas about childhood across history.  For instance, he claims just about any didactic text as a text for children, presumably because people in need of learning things must have been young, an assumption the history I’m aware of (and indeed, the people I now know) don’t support.  He also asserts that the medieval play Mankind must have been intended for a young audience because its imagery “fills the play with what could only be an adolescent’s imagination” (67)–as if older people didn’t sometimes like testicle jokes also.

On the other hand, Lerer’s focus narrows sharply as he describes the eras when writing specifically intended for children does come onto existence.   While he claims that one of his goals “is to realign what has become a largely Anglophone focus for children’s literary study” (9), he discusses few texts in languages other than English and never discusses texts written anywhere outside of Europe or America, nor even many European texts beyond British ones. Furthermore, his children’s literature includes none of the didactic texts by writers like Edgeworth and Barbauld that figured prominently in the early nineteenth century; none of huge outpouring of religion-oriented texts in the Victorian period and after; no Nancy Drew or Hardy boys, no Babysitters Club or Goosebumps, indeed, none of the many series books that have characterized popular writing for children in our own century; no science fiction or teen romance; no comic books or Golden Books or Disney books and only a few very picture books; no books for babies or informational books for children of any age; none of the late twentieth century outpouring of books by and about African or Hispanic Americans, no books “for young adults” in general.  There is also no mention of a long list of important children’s writers, from Edgeworth through Charlotte Yonge, Mrs. Molesworth and George MacDonald to Beverley Cleary, Wanda Gag, Philippa Pearce, E.L. Konigsburg, William Mayne, Robert Cormier, Alan Garner, Virginia Hamilton, and R.L. Stine.

What Lerer actually does focus his attention on are well-known texts that might be found in the homes of literary-minded parents without much scholarly expertise in children’s literature.  While these books are certainly varied, they tend to be more like each other than like the kinds of undiscussed books I’ve listed above–and perhaps they are so because they accord in various ways with the tastes of contemporary literary-minded parents, something that might not be true of a text by Maria Edgeworth or R.L. Stine.  The focus on them seems to allow Lerer his many generalizations in a way that a wider and more accurate history wouldn’t.

That Lerer’s history of children’s literature is mostly a history of the books he and many other non-specialists already know and like would be acceptable if Lerer weren’t so intent on making such vast generalizations based on such a narrow range of texts, or so focussed on making the generalizations evidence of his own ingenuity.  At one point, he frets that it’s hard to come up with “something new” (192) to say about Carroll’s Alice books–as if engendering clever new ideas, true or not, were the point of doing literary research.  Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that while he points readers to a range of scholarly studies of children’s literature in his endnotes, he often describes them inaccurately there, and rarely if ever actually refers to them in his discussions of the relevant topics.  If he actually did read all these books, he certainly didn’t let them affect his thinking very much.  He’s alweays seems to be far more interested in his own clever insights than he is in the context of existing scholarship and research.

Towards the end of the book, Lerer refers to Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit in order to announce the typically overconfident generalization that “the boys of much contemporary literature are artists of the game” (315).  Lerer goes on to enthuse about the “a vertiginous quality of bullshit, a thrill that the bullshitter gets of making up the details, forming a persona, raising expectations,” and he includes himself among the boys who indulge in it: “we can feel almost an ecstasy in our own imagination” (316).  In the light of this book’s wild theorizing woven out of a surprisingly limited number of texts and verifiable facts, I have to conclude that Lerer found putting it together to be a thrilling experience.  Readers in search of usefully accurate knowledge of children’s literature aren’t likely to share his ecstasy.

The most depressing thing for me is that the singling out of a book like this for special recognition by a reputable national American organization seems somehow unsurprising.  Contemporary readers–the ones who accept the truth of made-up memoirs because they tell them things the like to hear–might well prefer easy generalizations to a more carefully researched conclusion based in a more exact and less incomplete knowledge of the material.

I seem to be turning into a typical grumpy old codger scandalized by what the world’s coming to nowdays, with all these dumb young punks in charge.  I’d better stop right now.

Hess, Karen.  Brooklyn Bridge.  New York: Fiewel and Friends, 2008.

This novel starts out for seeming to be a certain kind of book–and continued to seem to be that for a very long time; but as it approaches its conclusion, it suddenly changes into quite a different kind of book, in a way that makes an especially interesting use of alternating narratives.

First off, the kind of book it seems: it seems to be primarily a charmingly nostalgic story of life for an immigrant Jewish family in New York in 1903.  The family history is based in real history: a family named Michtom did in fact begin to manufacture stuffed bears after a cartoon depicting Roosevelt being kind to a wounded bear cub appeared in the newspaper, and thus, started the ongoing craze for teddy bears.  It’s hard to tell how much of what happens to the family in the book echoes the actual Michtom family history, but one way or the other, it’s told in such a way that the focus is on good feelings and happy times despite bad things happening and comic nostalgia.  Joseph, the main character, tells his story in the rhythms of the kind of Yiddishy English redolent of heartwarming traditional schmaltz–Molly Goldberg redivivus.     Joseph is convinced his life is rotten–too much family,  too much time spent in the family business since the teddy bears took off, not enough time to be by himself, or go to Coney Island, which he longs to do (his longing for Coney Island doesn’t actually become apparent for a long time–he doesn’t mention it until the beginning of Chapter 16) but in between the preceding chapters are quotes from contemporary newspapers discussing the wonders of Luna Park, so it’s sort of hinted at before it’s said, at least in retrospect–which turns out to be yet another way in which the novel demands retrospective rethinkings of its readers; more below.)

For some time, the novels seems to be primarily episodic–each chapter describes something that happens to Joseph and his family that seems to be finished by the time the chapter ends–something that affects Josephe and that often teaches him something about his real feelings or about parts of his family history he wasn’t earlier aware of.   An aunt’s death reveals that she’s been responsible for bringing many people from Russia to America, a fact previously unknown to her family; or Joseph finds it possible to make friends with a brain-damged boy he’d previously been annoyed by, and thus helps expand a feeling of community and concern for others–building bridges.  Doing that kind of thing is also a habit also of his parents, who are constantly helping out others worse off than themselves.–thus all the good feeling and happy tears the novel seems to be designed to engender.

Running as a theme throughout these somewhat isolated vignettes, however, is Joesph’s ongoing complaining about what’s happened to his family–how the wonderfully successful bear business has taken over all his free time, how constraining and constrictive family life is.  He is anything but convinced about how lucky he is.

Interspersed with Joseph’s first person story of his hard lot in life are shorter bits in italics, told from an omniscient third-person point of view, which describe a group of children, unknown to the characters in Joseph’s story, who live together not far away from Joseph’s home, under the Brooklyn Bridge–victims of various kinds of abuse by their parents and other adults.  Their stories almost always involves some way in which these damaged and utterly isolated children find ways to help and sustain each other–and so they read like a kind of weirdly distorted parallel to Joseph’s story, except that this is a manufactured family rather than an actual one, and also, the children in it don’t spend their time complaining about how repressive the others are.  On fisrt glance, then, these interspersed sections seem to be there as an ironic counterpoint of Joseph’;s story–he thinks he has it bad?  Look at these kids who have it ever so much worse!  He thinks a family is a bad idea?  Look at these kids who don’t have one and have to make one up by themselves!  It reads like a nasty trick on Joseph, a way of undermining his self-pity and confirming how wonderful and warm and happy his family actually is.

So far so good–except for one small, strange detail:  the kids under the bridge all appear to have contact with another ghostlike child who comes to warn them every time they are threatened with death.  This insertion of something fantastic or supernatural into an otherwise realistic narrative is strange–especially since the realistic narrative is the schmaltzy kind of feel- good bad-things-happen-but-we-have-each-other sort of world where the last thing you’d expect is a group of unaided homeless kids and, especially, a ghost.  Nevertheless, the point seems obvious: this life under the ridge is all that Joseph’s life isn’t.  He should stop with the complaining already and enjoy the charming nostalgia and schmaltz of it all.

But then, very close to the end, a whole different thing happens–and suddenly, I found as I was reading, I had to reconsider everything–go back and imagine how this could actually have been being a quite different kind of book all along.  What happens is that Joseph’s family finally goes to Coney Island, as he has dreamed–this after he has walked all the way there by himself, swam in the ocean, had his clothes stolen, got very cold and hungry, and scared the wits out of his parents before the police finally bring him safely home the next day; he has now experienced something like a small but instructive version of the isolated and dangerous life the kids live under the bridge.  But on the family expedition back there again, they come upon Joseph’s supposedly dead uncle–the one who was supposed to have died trying unsuccessfully to save his son from drowning.  Joseph’s aunt has responded to these events by hating crossing the bridge and seeing the water, refusing to leave Manhattan for Brooklyn–but due to the death of her sister and a family wedding and others forces of change, she’s done it now, and there, suddenly, is her artist husband, alive and selling portraits form a booth at Coney Island.   She is furious with him, but they are both finally able to move past the past that has held them in stasis–to move on from a self-imposed rigidity.  Furthermore, it turns out that the ghost under the bridge is their son, whom his father buried there.  The boy is excavated, and is allowed to leave also.  Once more, a theme of moving on.

So–after many pages where the only connections are thematic ones, an actual  connection is made between the two narratives–the central boy of one is the cousin of the dead ghost in the other.  Each has observed death in his group, each has helped others past pain–they counterpoint each other.  Furthermore, the discovery that the ghost of one story is the dead cousin of the other ties together the two narratives, make them curiously one, even though there’s no actual contact between the characters in one with those in the other.  And the connection then requires a rethinking of what happened before it became known.  It especially points to  ways in which Joseph’s family history is a story of people held back from moving and then finding out how to move on:  his aunts who are forced to leave their secluded apartment and take new jobs when their eldest sister dies, his uncle who finds a wife, the woman the uncle marries, Joseph himself hating how the bears have taken over his family life, his brother giving up his own bear and feeling free of it, Joseph finally freeing himself of the memory of his dead cousin–all have to break down a wall that holds them in, cross a bridge and get somewhere else (the novel’s epigraph, from Isaac Newton:  “We build too many walls and not enough bridges.”  Joseph gets to Coney island, as he wanted–but what he finds there isn’t the freedom he expected, but it’s opposite, a family connection, another bridge that ties him into the life he has with his family–another bridge of the many he must accept and learn to celbrate. All that seemed anecdotal and heartwarming is that, yes, but also, full of unresolved pain and a complex set of thematically connected events that give the novel as a whole a structure that’s not only surprisingly complicated but also surprisingly meaningful, surprisingly tied in to a set of similar concerns being expressed in a variety of ways.

It’s telling that, while Joseph’s dead cousin gets his freedom, there’s no evidence at the end that the rest of the abandoned and lost children aren’t still there suffering under the bridge.   Learning to understand the value of what you’ve got, as Joseph does, doesn’t necessarily mean that pain or suffering or hardship disappears from the world around you–or even, for that matter, from your own life.  there’s an admirable toughness and honesty in this book about bridges and bridging that doesn’t forget the disconnected bits left over unseen under the bridge.

Katz, Welwyn.  Come Like Shadows.  1993.  Regina: Coteau, 2000.

The most noticeable thing about this novel is just how very, very complex is the situation it describes.  The plot centres around a production at the Canadian Stratford Festival of Macbeth, but also involves at least four different historical events: Shakespeare’s version of what happens in Macbeth, the real Scots history behind it, the defeat of Montcalm by Wolfe at Quebec in 1759, and the contemporary dispute between Quebec and the rest of Canada over the question of Quebec separatism.  All these are implicated in the Macbeth production, an attempt by its director to use the play as revelatory of the French/English political scene in Canada.  All four streams are meant to, at times, parallel each other, and, at other times, to diverge from each other in in significant ways.   Furthermore, the supposedly “real” history of Macbeth involves the actual existence of three witches, who are still alive and well in Stratford, Ontario in the present and still intent on doing serious mischief to others in support of hteir own power.   The novel probably shows that these streams do parallel each other; but it’s so hard to keep track of all the threads that sometimes it just seems pointlessly intricate and very confusing.

Like much if not all of Katz’s work, Come Like Shadows is exceedingly binary in its thematic concerns.  It involves not only the disputes between the various historical Scots and the binarily oppostional values they represent (kindness and cruelty, oppressors and oppressed, etc.), but also, those between the Scots in the play,  those between the French and the English in two different historical periods,–and also, not surprisingly for Katz, those between males and females and between male forms of belief and male gods and female forms of belief and goddesses.  Here as in novels like Sun God, Moon Witch and The Third Magic, there’s an ancient female form of worship that is in conflict with male views and seems in danger of escaping out of the past; here, of course, it’s represented by the three witches.  Here as in the others, I suspect, Katz claims to want the pure male and female to be seen as dangerous extremes, needing each other for balance and sanity; but here, certainly, the witches seem more malevolent than not–and the imperious theatre director who eventually joins their coven seems like some kind of caricature of domineering womanhood, a kind of femininity that the novel suggests the current world can well do without; Katz here as elsewhere seems distressed by the idea of powerful women (the mother in False Face is a key example) more obviously and virulently than she is by the idea of powerful men.

Perhaps because she wants to move past binary opposition to balance, Katz most often writes narratives that are alternately focalized between two central characters who do not, in fact, accurately represent the binaries central to the situations they’re involved in; they are then tempted to move to one pole of the binary or the other, but have to realize the doing so would be to deny the other opposite part of their nature, and be a commitment to incompleteness.  That happens here also–the central characters are tempted to make decisions or act in ways that would make them incomplete.  But as I understand it (or perhaps, don’t understand it, for I certainly don’t feel very confident about it), it does that in an extreme and therefore confusing form.

In a sense, then, the two main characters are living representatives of the French/English dispute.  She is of British descent, he of French  but then, she comes from Montreal, and has great sympathy for the Separatist cause; and he is an American who resents the prejudice against French Canadians in his New York home town and so tends to deny his heritage.  So both take a stance against that represented by their backgrounds.  (And perhaps both represent the silliness of extreme patriotism or cleavage to any group or principle–Katz doesn’t like the idea that people are sigjnficantly defined by their specifc racial or cultural heritage.)  Both are angry about the director’s attempt to impose the story of Wolfe and Montcalm and the Battle of Quebec onto Macbeth, but for different reasons.  She resents the anti-French stance it implies, he simply sees it as a distortion of the truth of the play (a position perhaps undermined by the insistence throughout that the play itself is a distortion of what actually happened in the history behind it).  So once more, neither actually takes a stance that represents a position in the political disputes being discussed–it’s her empathy for the other vs. his concern for historical truth, hardly even recognizable as a binarily oppositional dispute.  The alternation of their focalization does not in any obvious way reinforce or represent the political dispute being engaged with.

Something similar sweems to happen with the male/female issues.   Lucas and Kinny look into the bewitched mirror that figures centrally in the plot, which shows them what happened at the moment when Macbeth chose to defend a young girl from the witches and himself became trapped inside the mirror, and have different and perhaps opposite responses to it.   He identifies with Macbeth, clearly assigned the role of the male principle here (and a very benign and loving version of it, too).  Kinny doesn’t identify with anybody, but through her efforts to be helpful to others is nevertheless faced with a choice of joining the witches and thus attaching herself to female power (in a sense, then, she represents a variation of the events and values that have jailed Macbeth in the mirror, and make her more like him than like the witches).   But neither Kinny nor Lucas expresses or espouses or represents one of the extreme positions in a gender war that the novel postulates.  He’s not particularly macho or honorable, she’s anything but a primitive force of nature and divine darkness.  Once more, their alternating points of view do not mirror or echo or particularly throw light on that central binary-oppostional positions (except insofar as they don;t represent those positions and so comment on the extremism and lack of validity of hte positions).

Furthermore, Kinny and Lucas aren’t even obviously at odds with each other.  They do get angry with each other, have disputes, and so on–but these relate only peripherally to the central binaries.  They never argue about the French/English situation in Quebec, for instance,  or about whether men or women ought to run things or have power.  They actually spend less time talking to each other than worrying about each other without actually expressing their concerns.  Perhaps the most intriguing thing about their relationship is ow little actually engaged with each other they are.  The plot of the novel throws them together and the witch/mirror business makes them important participants in the central events, but they actually have very little to say to or do with each other.  Each seems too locked up in their own powerful relationship to the mirror to have much time for actual conversation.

So Kinny and Lucas don’t in any obvious way represent the binaries in conflict at the thematic heart of the novel; there’s a disjunction between the themes and the central characters Katz has engaged to reveal that theme.  In other words: the novel doesn’t do what most other alternating narratives do: have the alternating characters clearly represent different groups or ideas or principles that can then be engaged as the characters engage with each other.  Maybe that’s why the book seems so annoying intricate.  A reader can’t easily get to its central concerns hy means of understanding obvious aspects of the characters.

There is, though, one way the characters do represent an important binary.  Each looks into the mirror and gets caught up in it, but for different and perhaps even opposite reasons.  Kinny makes a bad wish and must then, she feels, atone for it; both the wish and the atonement represent her extreme empathy for and concern about others.  At the end, she is about to sacrifice herself and be caught up in the mirror over what is presented as to much empathy, too little concern for herself.  Lucas’s engagement with the mirror isn’t exactly opposite; he is indeed sort of self-involved, but its a form of self-involvement that also involves an empathy with the other.  He is fascinated by the Macbeth he can understand so well when he looks in the mirror–he has found the ultimate version of an actor’s empathy for characters he plays, a becoming other.  Lucas must stop being so involved in his own concerns, Kinny more involved with herself and less with others.  She must become more like him, he more like her,.  That, at least, seems like a traditional use of alternating narrative in a binary-oppositional context.

At any rate: all is very complex, very confusing in the transmission, and, I have to say, not all that interesting–not as compelling as False Face or Out of the Dark or even the fairly over-intricate The Third Magic, all of which equally deal with male/female issues.  I think that’s because of what I’ve been describing–because the binaries aren’t used obviously or effectively, because what the alternating characters see and think and do and be doesn’t necessarily encapsulate a thematic concern.  Am I complaining because the novel’s not simple and straightforward enough?  I don’t think so.  I’m complaining because there;s an implication of meaningfulness in the use of alternating narratives that doesn’t seem to amount to much of anything here.  so the alternations tend to seem like an excessive frill.

Lodge, David.  Thinks . . . . 2001.  New York and London: Penguin, 2002.

This novel is so elegantly and intricately built on its alternating focalizations that I’m tempted to identify it as a meta-alternating narrative–an novel in which the structure of alternating narratives is so completely linked to and expressive of its meanings that it reads like a textbook case of how and especially why to deploy this sort of fictional construction.  There are two alternating protagonists, each with a separate style of communication.  Ralph is a cognitive scientist who embarks at the novel’s beginning on an experiment of recording all his thoughts as they pass through his head, first via a tape recorder and then by using voice-recognition software; Helen is a widowed novelist who keeps a written diary of what happens when she comes to his red-brick campus for a term to be a writer-in-residence.

So everything is impeccably binary-oppositional: he is male, she female; he a scientist with not much imagination and a faith in reason and logic, she an artist who thinks in imaginative terms and in the context of a knowledge of literature (Henry James figures significantly); he a sexual predator and enjoyer of all things sensual, a lover of the body who believes there is nothing beyond the physical world science describer, and she an inhibited and isolated thinker. prone to distance herself form bodily urges  The novel’s title emphasizes the focus on what they think of each other and how they understand (or, often, don’t understand) each other beyond their actual encounters: it refers to the convention  used in old comic books  of using the word “Thinks . . .” to identify the contents of a speech balloon as a characters’ unspoken thoughts.  And it’s metafictional, then, that their styles of recording their thoughts also represent thematic alternatives: the formless free flow of a mind letting go of the demands of logic or audience for him, the organized staging of events in complete sentences of grammatically correct writing for her.  His experiment as a scientist is to try to capture exactly how thought happens, to be in the moment as thinking happens, to capture the almost-physical reality of undigested thought; her task as a novelist and diarist is to reorganize and shape events into a satisfying story that is inevitably then, at a remove form the immediate.

The novel operates, then, as a sort of intellectual dispute between differing and apparently opposite ways of handling one’s experiences and one’s thoughts about them–for it’s very much a novel of ideas, and filled with theories of cognition and such, and with descriptions of a series of paintings that represent differing theories of how consciousness operates.  Helen has an idea that novelists get to heart of how emotions operate–express a shared truth about how people feel and think about feelings; and yet also believes in the sanctity of personality, a oneness unique to each individual.  He believes that consciousness is a natural phenomenon explorable scientifically, but is constantly finding what looks like evidence of a uniqueness theoretically impossible, and can’t fight a suspicion that nothing actually exists but his own thoughts–that his consciousness is the entire extent of reality.  Both, then, believe in what they believe about consciousness and also in the opposite of what they believe about it.

In between the recordings of Ralph’s thoughts and Helen’s diary are passages which describe conversations between them and with others from an outsider’s point of view, in the present tense and offered without any insights into what any of the characters are thinking,.  This, too, is commented upon metafictionally in the novel itself: at one point, Helen talks about “the kind [of fiction] that doesn’t attempt to represent consciousness at all.  The kind that stays on the surface, just describing behaviour and appearances, reporting what people say to each other, but never telling the reader what the characters are thinking, never using interior monologue or free indirect style to let us overhear their private thoughts” (62-3).  In addition, there are assignments written by Helen’s students in response to her request for them to write in the styles of well-known novelists–another way of getting at the question of “style” or “personality” or the possibility of something human existing beyond what scientific explorations can uncover.  The e-mail correspondence between Ralph and Helen included at one point reveals another way of communicating differences in style.

The novel’s major concerns are the isolation of consciousness (and the corollary of that,  the sanctity of its privacy), and also, the extent to which it is unique–the question I suggested earlier about whether or not there is such a thing as personality, as being human in a way that transcends what science can understand or emulate.

The issue of isolation and privacy emerges especially in terms of questions about secrets. Ralph offends Helen by reading her diary without her permission, and thereby finding out about his wife’s affair with another man.  Helen, weirdly and hilariously, recognizes her husbands habitual behavior during sex in a piece of writing submitted by one of her female students, and thus comes to learn that he, too, had affairs before he died.  Both find out something that changes their sense of everything from thoughts recorded on paper.  It’s unclear whether that’s good or bad–mostly it just shows how little we know of what happens outside our immediate perceptions, how possible it is for us to be wrong about the thoughts and actions of others, and how successfully writing can give us insight into this other beyond our ken.  In that sense, at least, this novel is on the novelist’s side of the dispute between Helen and Ralph: writing can give us unexpected insight into others that can hep us to better understand ourselves.  Even so, Helen has to acknowledge that her writer;s insight into personality has not been working in terms of her husband–and Ralph has to acknowledge that his own personal and scientific knowledge of sexual opportunism has not prepared him to expect similar behavior in his own wife.   both have been overconfident about the extent of their knowledge of how other people operate.

These parallel secrets also suggest an interesting kind binary-oppositional variation going on throughout, so that the novel expresses yet another key aspect that makes the book meta-alternating: the characters’ experience versions of variations of similar events, and thus can confront those events and deal with them in ways that reveal their similarities and differences from each other and that thus add to the commentary on the binaries that are the thematic core of the novel. Thus, near the beginning, both masturbate for differing and revealing reasons in adjacent sections–and similar pairing occur throughout.   Also, readers know the secret thoughts of both of them, the ones they believe they have hidden form each other, so that we know how she tries to deceive him or he her about why they are where they happen to be at a certain time, etc., and also, how the other one misunderstood that behavior.  It’s the standard soap opera ploy of letting reader/viewers in on the secrets and thus privy to a wider knowledge of every event than any of the characters actually involved in it.  It forces us to stand back from any one of the characters’ point of view, to be thoughtful about everything we know instead of just accepting one character’s version of events–and also, to worry about how a secret known to us but unknown to one of the characters will affect that character.

Thinks . . . is a novel of ideas, and one that doesn’t ever get very far away from its ideas.  The characters aren’t especially deep or complicated or convincing, the plot is constrained by its need to support the intellectual binary oppositions it’s most centrally interested in.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t an entertaining novel, because it is, or often a wickedly funny one, because it is.  But it does suggest how much and how centrally it involves a debate between alternative and therefore, how thematically involved the alternating narratives and the focus on how different people see or think about things differently are.   Even the university campus–two separate facilities with an empty space between–is described as (and literally referred to by one of the characters as) an allegory of the Two Cultures, arts and science; and Ralph’s building is in the shape of a brain, with two hemispheres divided from each other.

Thinks . . . is far more obviously and completely focussed on its binary oppositionality than most adult novels with alternating narratives are–in that way, it;s more like children’s versions of this form.  But then, its degree of thoughtfulness and its intellectual rigour about the implications of its alternations easily distinguishes it from the children’s novels, as does its conclusion, which keeps the alternating focalizers as separate and isolated from each other as they always were.

Crace, Jim.   The Gift of Stones.  1988.  New York: Scribner’s, 1989.

Okay, I am admitting defeat on this one.  I have absolutely no idea why this novel for adults makes use of alternating narratives.  All I can say is that it certainly isn’t for any of the usual reasons I’ve been identifying in all the many novels I’ve looked at for this project so far, both ones for young people and other ones for adults (like, say,  Julian Barnes’s Arthur & George, Joseph Boyden’s  Three Day Road, or Audrey Niffenegger’d The Time Traveler’s Wife).

The fact that the novel involves alternating narrative is itself kind of slippery.  While there are two alternating narrators here, there’s nothing too terribly obvious in the way of typographical convention, etc., to make that clear, or to separate them from each other.   The bulk of the book is a story told by someone unnamed about the life of the man she calls her father, a man of the late stone age whose life is shaped by the loss of an arm in childhood, an accident which renders him useless at most stone age pursuits, and eventually, drives him into the role of storyteller to his village.  So it goes for five chapters. But then the sixth chapter begins, “Listen here,” my father said.  I’ll tell you what occured.”  And he then continues his own story, in ongoing quotation marks, until the end of chapter 13, at which point the quotation marks end and the novel return to the original storyteller.  The same thing then happens once more, with the father’s story in quotation marks inside the original storyteller’s story from the beginning of chapter 26 to the end of chapter 28, followed by three more chapters from the original storyteller.   So while the father’s sections are separated from the rest in discrete sections, they’re nevertheless clearly connected to the rest in being double-voiced: the original storyteller includes them in her story as quotes from her father.  In a sense, the novel then both involves alternating narratives and doesn’t involve them: its single-focalized and double-focalized at the same time.  Very slippery, and ambiguous, and hard to grasp or understand.

That’s particularly true because I honestly can’t say that I notice any significant difference or opposition between the two narrative voices.  They both talk about the same thing: the events of the father’s life.  While the main narrator appears in both as a young child, she is a minor character in both, and she spends almost no time explaining herself or her own feelings, focussing almost exclusively in what her father did and what it meant to him and others.  furthermore, he does the same thing, focusing on what he did and what it meant to him and others, and she often says that she’s just reporting what he has told her, and in fact, their voices sound more or less alike, except that she speaks of “he’ and he speaks of “I.”  If they’re going to be so much alike, and if he doesn’t say anything or add anything different to her view of who he is, then what’s the point of switching from one to the other?  I don’t know.

But I can say at least that there’s a lot of conventional ways an alternating narrative might have worked here that don;t actually happen. The book is rife with oppositions that might have been mirrored in alternating focalizations or points of view.  There are the practical stone workers and merchants of the village as opposed to the protagonist’s role as bard and encourager of imagination.  There is the comfort and organization of the stone-worker’s village as opposed to the wilder place on the shore where the storyteller meets the woman he falls in love with, Doe, a deserted survivor who sells herself to keep herself and her daughter alive.  There is the age and gender difference between that daughter and the man she comes to call her father, the storyteller.  There is the difference between the stone age stonecutters of the village and the orderly traditional life they lead, as opposed to the new ways implied by the bronze arrow that kills Doe, and that quickly kills the village’s livelihood.  All of these, key oppositions that the novel’s imagery makes much of,  might have been mirrored and represented by characters who would each give us one point of the view of the dualism.  That’s what happens in just all the other novels with alternating narratives.

But it doesn’t happen here.  I have a glimmering of the sense that it has something to do with one of the most central of the novel’s many binary opposites: the one between was might really have happened to anybody and the wonderful, exciting things the storyteller is able to make of those bare bones of fact–between truth and story.  A point made often in the novel is that, once the storyteller learns the art of storytelling and uses it keep himself alive, there is no longer any way of knowing if he is ever really telling the truth.  The daughter can report of his life before he enters it or even, after that, while she was a young child, only what he has told her about it, and always in the context of the knowledge that his habit is to embroider, to tell different stories to account for the same facts, and so on.   You might then expect that his sections might allow insight into the actual facts underlying the embroidery–tell us what really happened and how he really responded to it.  And they might, if they were giving us insight into his actual thoughts.  But they don’t.  Instead, they represent in a slightly different way what he has told his daughter, so that they are just as suspicious and slippery as the rest, even though the father starts his first section by saying “I’ll tell you what occurred.  I’ll keep it simple too.  I won’t tell lies.” Which might not be true.  Later, he offers three different versions of Doe’s death, in one of which he kills her himself–but none of these has any more status as truth than the others. So his sections merely confirm what hers have already established–if we expect truth, we’re not going to find it here, in this man’s version of events.  Paradoxically, both narratives agree on the undeniable fact that he is not to be trusted–and that therefore, nothing we have been told in the novel and think we know is to be trusted (the daughter never invites us to mistrust her veracity as a narrator–but how can we not, when the novel insists on the uncertain status of storytelling?)  So the narrative alternate to make the point that there is no story truer than another, or falser than another?  Once you start storytelling, you’re stuck with uncertainty?

And all of this uncertainty is in the midst, as I said, of many binary opposites and alternatives, and their status as opposites isn’t actually questioned: the village is different form the wild, the bronze age is different from the stone age, and so on .

Fori nstance, especially, one of the most interesting oppositions is that two central characters are hit by arrows that lead to great change.  The stone arrow that hits the boy’s arm early in his life leads him on journey out of the village into wild, new places, and into his life of storytelling as he returns to report on the strange things out there; it opens him, up to a new life, and the villagers up to a new life of the  imagination.  The bronze arrow that hits Doe later on, ther first seens by these people, forces them to give up their trade and allow the storyteller to move them out of the village and off into their own wild adventures in a changed and changing world.  There’s something here about the parallel between the wildness of stories and the less pleasant insecurity of being forced to give up what one has always known and depended on.  Being in the wild, whether it’s imagination or reality, is both exciting and unsettling, freeing and dangerous, satisfying and uncertain.

But still, I don’t get the reason for the alternating narratives–even though I do have a pretty firm sense that they do work and that I might after more thinking come to understand how.  In other words, the novel seems to possess a complexity and a subtlety I haven’t yet mastered.  I don’t get it.  What’s most instructive to me about that in terms of my project is that, even though the presence of alternating narratives in books for young people seems to imply a surprising degree of innovation and sophistication, I can’t think of a single example of an alternating narrative novel for young people that so studiously avoids the obvious thematic implications of this sort of construction and that makes so complex and subtle a use of it.  As I’m coming to realize more and more, the most interesting thing about such novels for young people is how, for all their apparent innovativeness, they express and confirm the conventions of literature for young people–how the genre works to pull innovation back into the same old ideas and ideologies.  Literature for young people, especially young adults, is certianly now more complicated than it once was, andm ore sophisticated–but it still tends to repress real innovation or individuality beyond what the genre has always reinforced and allowed.  The Gift of Stones makes that obvious to me simply by not being so constrained or repressed.

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?