Archive for the ‘binary opposites’ Category

Hughes, Monica.  Log Jam.  Toronto: Irwin, 1987.

Opposite to what tends to happen in novels presenting similar situations written more recently, Monica Hughes Log Jam rejects the power of Aboriginality in favour of white middle-class values.  The novel’s  pair of intertwined narratives involve a white middle class girl with family problems and an Aboriginal boy in quest of his heritage–so that its rejection of that heritage is surpringly straightforward.

The Aboriginal character, Isaac, having messed up life in the city and then escaped from a detention centre, begins by turning his back on the white world in what is represented as an effort to return to the past, to find “the way back to his grandmother’s country” (5).  The white girl, Lenora hates her new blended family and the wilderness the camping trip meant to bond them together has led her to, and longs for the life back home in the city.   But while one character seeks the wild and the other the city, and while one seems to represent the personal problems of being a middle class girl with a new family and the other the social problems of being Aboriginal in the context of contemporary Canada, their paths are parallel.  Both are “in prison” and flee it for what once was, a golden time past. Despite their clearly enunciated differences–her whiteness, his aboriginality, her wealthy, his poverty, her law-abiding, his criminality–there is a connection between them they are unaware of. At one point, Lenora

struggled with a bitter concept.  Maybe all of us are alone most of the time,.  Each one in his or her own prison.  No matter how hard you try, you can’t really share your thoughts, the things that matter most.   . . . . Maybe life is really about understanding this prison and trying to break free of it, any way you can. . . . Maybe just reaching out to someone else who’s trying too get free would do” (153).

Not surprisingly, then, the story brings the two together in a way that allows them to understand each other and solve their individual problems together.  But the solution is for both of them to return to where they were at the start–her to a family she no longer understands as imprisoning, but him to an actual prison.  If it’s wrong of Lenora’s new relatives to be “an indestructible threesome, needing no outsiders” (45), and self-indulgent of one of her new stepbrothers to speak of his canoe trip with his father and brother as “one last chance to go back to the old days, when there were just the three of us” (69), then it’s equally foolish of Isaac to separate himself from the white world and want to return to the old Aboriginal life.  If it’s wise of Lenora to adapt to her new situation, then it’s equally wise of him to accept his.  The paralleling works to erase the assimilationist political implications of the non-Aboriginal fate Hughes imagines for Isaac and for the Aboriginality he clearly represents generally.

Lenora is a reformer, and what she wants is right–so it’s right to believe that “[f]amily traditions have to be adapted to family changes” (44), and she is right about the non-Aboriginal future she encourages Isaac to seek.  The strangest aspect of the book, however, is that Isaac, wanting a return to his Aboriginality, believes himself to be on a traditional vision quest:

When his spirit showed itself, whether it was a rabbit or bear, eagle or deer, the young man would know that he was to live under the protection of that animal, learn its cunning or strength, its keen eyes or its swiftness.” (75)

But what comes to him is a young white girl, Lenora–“she had been sent to him, there was no doubt about that” (118)–and he does in fact learn to live under the protection of her people and in terms of her values.  In his mind, therefore, she takes on Aboriginality, but in a distressingly deceptive way that the book clearly approves, for what she has to teach him in that guise is the virtue of renouncing Aboriginality. She quite literally tells him to do just that: “I mean, it’s no good talking about sun dances and spirit searches and stuff like that.  They’re yours, anyway.  Private and nobody else’s business . . .” (157).  As in Welewyn Katz’s False Face or or Bebe Faas Rice’s The Place at the Edge of the Earth or so many other novels of htis sort, aboriginality is to be kept safely separate from a contemporary world that has no place or need for it.
Lenora offers Isaac this advice in the context of assuming that only one person can help him–her practical-minded new stepfather, a stereotypical patriarch of the old school whom she at first despises.  First she must acknowledge that she herself needs and wants his protection. She remembers “that instinctive feeling when she had first met Harry.  That here at last was someone steady and secure.  Someone who could be trusted not to throw over a job for a dream . . .” (107), as her own impractical father did.  And later, “With a rush of thankfulness, Lenora realized that indeed Harry could be counted on to do something to help . . . how comfortable it was, how safe it felt to have someone in the family you could trust to really help you” (156).  In order to get that help, Lenora tells Isaac, “What we’ve got to do is work out exactly what to tell him so that he understands” (1570.  The novel not only requires a renouncement of the Aboriginal, then, but does so as the price for obtaining the desirable approval of a paternalistic white man.
In the light of that, it’s not surprisingly that the novel confirms the rightness of Isaac’s acceptance of white values by denying him the land he claims as his.  His wish is to “[g]o back to the river and the lake.  Find your spirit and live the way your grandmother taught you” (31).  But as he says later, “I think that then I was running away from reality” (166); seeking Aboriginal roots in a traditional Aboriginal place is unrealistic.  It turns out that Isaac’s grandmother’s house is underwater, caused by a dam–there is in fact no land to flee back to: “Kind of funny, isn’t it?  All those years I was dreaming about the place I wanted to be, the place where I thought I belonged, it wasn’t there.  It was under water” (167).
Furthermore, the traditional life Isaac seeks is one he views as being in tune with the wilderness–a lifestyle he views, like so many other characters in these novels–as being at odds with white ideas about property and even home; “If Grandmother’s stories were right, his people had done pretty well for thousands of years with no fixed address . . . . the earth under his back was his home.  This spruce above his head was home. This forest was his address” (41).   But once more, Lenora’s views of the forest are wiser.  Like so many characters throughout the history of Canadian literature, She finds it “terrifying” (19), and sees that “The shadows of the trees fell across a more open stretch of road, like prison bars” (23).  She therefore flees this too-wild place for the safety of a traditional Canadian garrison under the governorship of a typical patriarch–the exact opposite journey to what Isaac wrongly hoped for. The novel offers only these two alternatives–the non-Aboriginal life of contemporary society in the present or the now-impossible Aboriginal life of the wilderness in the past.  As more or less happens in Katz’s False Face and Rice’s The Place at the Edge of theEarth and Kevin Major’s Red Blood Ochre, there is no acknowledgement of a possible middle term–no apparent way an Aboriginal can live Aboriginally and in the present.

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.

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.

Hopkins, Ellen.  Identical.  New York: Margaret K. McElderry, 2008.

This novel is so over the top that it almost becomes entertaining for its sheer over-the-topness.  Almost, but not quite, because what’s over the top about it exactly what makes soap operas over the top, and so it’s just too expectable to be all that interesting.  Indeed, I’ve seen the central (and theoretically surprising) plot points of this novel over and over again, especially on (and I now admit to a secret vice) One Life to Live, which specializes in contradicting its own title, sometimes by having supposedly dead people return to life again, and often by having characters suffer from dissociative identity disorders–as is the case in this novel.  On One Life to live as here, furthermore, the cause of the disorder is the sexual abuse of the child by her father.  Under stress because of the accident in which one of his identical twin daughters died, and which has caused his wife to retreat from him, the father (himself, it turns out, a victim of distant and damaged parents and forced to partake in child porn films when he was 10) abuses the remaining twin–who then solves her trauma by imagining herself to be herself, the abused one, and also, alternately, the other twin, alive and there to look after her, as well as to indulge in drugs and sadistic sex with various unworthy boyfriends.  As the long and convoluted last sentence suggests, this is, quite simply, cream of condensed melodrama, with a surprisingly small cast of characters engaging in more nameable and ever-so-contemporary issues and traumas than you can shake a stick at:not just the DID and the father’s abuse of his daughter, but also drugs, alcohol, sadomasochism, bulimia AND anoxeria (one each for each of the main character’s two separated personalities), self-involved and unloving parents, mysteriously disappeared grandparents who return, a dangerously attractive and arousing male teacher with a nice butt, a parental affair with a neighbour, a pushy jealous girl at school, an unbelievably kind and loving boyfriend who’ll put up with everything and anything, and a partridge in a pear tree.

Well, not really a partridge–but all the rest.  And the characters discuss all of these and just about everything else in their life in terms of thickets of pyscho-therapeutical jargon–again, much like One Life to Live or any other soap on any other network.  In the light of its setting in a rich southern Californian upper-middle-class lifestyle, It’s has an OC or The Hills vibe, and is in that way astonishing similar to another recent YA book I’ve discussed here earlier, Marci Dermansky’s Twins (not California, but equally selfish princess-y) –but with poetry.

Poetry?  Yes, indeed, melodramatic pyschotherapeutic poetry a la self-inhvolved senstive types in Creative Writing 101.  Identical is yet another of the current plethora of YA novels written in what purports to be free verse.   As in just about all the others, the verse is so free as to me to appear to be free of verse   But here, as in Helen Frost’s The Braid, which I discussed in an earlier post, the ickily prosaic descriptions of a so-typical-it’s-stereotyped teenager’s stream of thoughts are, at least in theory, shaped (or wrestled) into something that’s supposed to look like poetry by means of a range of structural pyrotechnics.  The transitions between the two alternating focalizations occurs always on a double-page spread, the left side being the character’s whose voice we’ve been hearing in the past few sections, the right side being the other one who’ll we be hearing for the next few.   Both of these are set up at a series of parallel short stanzas the last short phrase of each of which is on a line by itself–and those phrases form a comprehensive sentence in themselves, and are repeated in both the poems, but with a substantially different meaning in terms of the differing contexts of the two different utterances.  Sometimes the imply opposite meanings, sometimes just different ones–which I guess confirms the book’s interest in issues of being identical but different–as the two twins are supposedly identical but different, and turn out in fact to be absolutely identical–one person claiming to be two.  Some of the transitional sentences make sense:

I wish
this moment
could eclipse
The shadows
around me
always haunting me

Some don’t:

Not me
I like it
I get off
he gets off
most of all.

In addition to these transitional devices, there are also a number of shaped poems–shaped in the most cliched of ways, like a poem about love shaped more or less like a heart or one about the father’s drinking shaped like a bottle.  And one makes a giant L followed by the single word “lust.”  Guess what it’s about?  hint–it’s not greed or sloth.

But for all that, and a bewildering variety of differing line lengths and other shapes and such over an astonishing 565 pages ofr angst, nothing ever sounds like anything more than an attempt to describe the main character’s thoughts about herself in a single, detached moment.  As in other free verse novels of this sort, the focus is on present-tense perception or self-analysis, and there’s little sense of how the individual moments are connected.  It’s very piecey and fragmented, and, for all its endless melodramatic excess of event, surprisingly uninterested in building a suspenseful plot.

And that, of course, is exactly why the novel can perform its main trick, which is to deceive readers into believing there are two main characters rather than just one deluded one.  (Something similar happens in terms of tricky uses of alternating narratives to represent what turn out to be varying versions of just one character or life in Brent Hartinger’s Grand and Humble, Brian Caswell’s Double Exposure, Michael Lawrence’s The Crack in the Line,  and Sonia Hartnett’s Surrender, so it’s hardly all that innovative an innovation.)  It did take me a couple of hundred pages to realize I was being deceived, although there were even then discordant notes, such as not knowing who had died in the family’s apocalyptic car crash and wondering about it, or worrying about why these two girls living in the same house never actually reported having conversations with each other about anything, and sometimes nevertheless seemed to know what has happened to each other in their separate lives (a few times I thought the author had forgotten which twin she was working with at the moment and accidentally given her the other one’s memories).  But (thanks to One Life to Live, I guess) I began to suspect DID fairly early on, and found myself desperately hoping that the novel wouldn’t go there, because it would just too silly, and, given the high-pitched hysteria of everything else about it, not being surprised that of course it did go exactly there after all.

In a more positive vein, I can also say that this is one novel that actually makes the indistinguishability of its two focalized characters work.  That’s problematic in other novels–like, for instance, Melanie Little’s Apprentice’s Masterpiece or Bruce Coville’s I Was a Sixth Grade Alien (both discussed here earlier), where supposedly quite different characters of quite different backgrounds sound just the same even before they discover their commonalities.  But here, they are in fact the same, so what seems a flaw in the writing turns out to be a clue to the real situation–although, I suspect, an unintended one, for the two competing personalities do keep insisting on their utter lack of similarity, indeed, their absolute oppositeness–she’s so insecure and I’m so brave–even while sounding exactly the same.

My thanks to Rebecca, who recommended Identical to me after reading my previous entry on The Braid (see her comment on that entry)  Despite my obvious unsuitability as an audience for its particular mixture of operatic angst and poetic pretension, I’ve learned much from reading it.   Most especially, it has confirmed my growing sense that, despite its apparent sophistication as a literary technique, the use of alternating narratives in fiction for young people tends to confirm conventional aspects of that kind of writing far more than it challenges it: as happens throughout literature for young people, it tends to involve exaggerated binary opposites (good and evil, home and away, etc.) that then mediate each other, and it gets used to confirm common and conventional thematic concerns (as here, for instance, coming together is better than being isolated, and grandparents may be better for you than parents are, and above all, supposed difference usually hide a shared similarity that can bring people together and make them one).  Indeed, as a literal example of how two apparently divergent voices can be inherently monological, it neatly represents something essential about literature for young people generally.

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.

Jenkins, A.M.  Beating Heart.  New York: Harpercollins, 2006.

The alternating narratives are visually distinguished from each other–his is third person present narrative that looks typically novel-like, hers a first person collection of thoughts set out on the page to look sort of like poetry (but hardly actually ever achieving anything poetic–the only thing this spacing of a few words over a lot of blank paper accomplishes, besides the death to far too many trees,  is to make the book a very quick read; I actually managed to get through two-thirds of it in just one wait in my doctor’s office, and he wasn’t even having one of his bad days).  The alternating characters are a girl from the past, now a ghost inhabiting her former residence, and a boy in the present who moves into the house and into what was her bedroom, where she is immediately aware of him, and he is increasingly aware of her presence.

Why she is there as a ghost is not immediately obvious, but it gradually comes out that she fall in love with a young visitor, slept with him, and then assumed he would marry her.  But instead, he kills her by suffocating her, and no one knows he did it.  He got off scot free, and she still haunts the house, still in love with him and unable to let go.

Meanwhile, in the present, the boy is in a relationship with a girl, loves the sex but has to admit he really doesn’t love her or even find her all that interesting out of bed.  So there’s a parallel, in a way, or perhaps a contrapuntal relationship: a girl used sexually who’s hoping for love, and a boy who just wants sex and can’t or won’t commit to love.  He gets his way, and when she tries to get hers–a commitment from him to loving her–he find himself wanting to kill her.  One iof the boy does kill his girl.  One doesn’t–and that’s what the novel is actually about.

The novelist’s choice of focalizing characters has interesting implications in relation to conventional gender assumptions.  She clearly represents conventionally “female” attitudes, ones very clearly at one pole of a firmly antithetical set of opposites: she is frillily italicized, sensitively poetry-like, and committed to emotion over passion, love over sex, meaningful relationships over random randiness; not surprisingly, she is also of the past, representing nostalgia and pastoral rather than evolutionary survival of the fittest, nature over aggressive conquering of everything.   He is more or less the opposite of all that, a boy of our time with a commitment to lack of commitment and a focus on self-interest.  This would, obviously, have been quite a different novel if we had that boy from the past and the girlfriend in the present as the protagonists: if we went by conventional assumptions, we might then assume that nothing much of interest to readers would happen, since they’d both want the same thing, i.e., a good time and nothing much more–she’d ask him to say he loved her and he’d say it to get what he wants and that would be that.   Or maybe we’d have a less-clichéd, more sensitive boy now, or a more moral and upstanding boy representing a different cliché of the past, and that would create a quite different effect again.  Thinking about these alternatives reveals exactly how much the novel does bring conventional gender assumptions into play and depend on readers recognizing them.

It does so, I think, in order to suggest a break from them.  The plot revolves around the ghost girl’s confusion of the contemporary boy with her old lover: she thinks he has returned.  In a sense, he has, for this boy is in a similar relationship and behaving in it in a similar way.  But at the end, he does not actually kill her–although he does duplicate the beginning of a suffocation attempt, either out of a similar anger at his girlfriend or because he is somehow being forced by the ghost to relive her past.  He avoids being a murderer, it seems, because he is not actually that old boyfriend–he is someone else, an actually sensitive boy with a young sister he loves and feels concern for.  And since he can feel concern for others, he can escape fulfilling the old self-interested pattern being imposed on him.  She, too, can then escape that pattern–for his doing so seems to teach the ghost that she can do so, too, that it is possible to let go and move on.

The alternating narratives here work most interestingly in terms of how they operate across the two relationships–how the alternations of people in two different stories about two different relationships come to form a third story as they alternate with each other, and then suggest the various parallels and variational relationship in the other two stories.  Contiguity creates new and different meanings and introduces a whole other plot or story arc than the one each of the two alternating focalizers thinks he or she is experiencing.

One other thing that interests me here: the set-up is very much like that of a traditional Harlequin romance (or even, say, Jane Eyre: the story of a theoretically more powerful, more brutal, male in search of sex and a theoretically more passive, more sensitive female; he threatens to overpower her with his lust, but she eventually conquers him with her love into agreeing to a moving ongoing relationship.  This novel doesn’t exactly end that way, for the two central characters are not together, and one boy doesn’t agree to love and one girl doesn’t survive–but at the end, lust has been constrained and controlled, and both the central characters are committed to love, for sure.

Nelson, Blake.  Gender Blender.  2006.  New York: Delacorte, 2007.

As the back cover suggests, “something FREAKY happens”–more or less as it once did in Mary Rodgers’s Freaky Friday, except this time the two characters who switch bodies are a middle school boy and girl.   It’s played mostly for laughs, as the two then have to deal with the unexpected embarrassments of a different sort of body–he gets her first period, she has to deal with peeing standing up and getting an erection.

Because mostly what they feel about the bodies they find themselves in is panic, I sense a kind of subtle body-hatred here.  The boy has a crush on another girl whose breasts he admires, but he doesn’t express any apparent interest in fondling his own once he has them, or in exploring the geography of his vagina or whatever–and the girl is horrified by the idea, suggested by him, that she might masturbate to get rid of her embarrassing erection, which she experiences purely as embarrassment, with no sense of bodily tension or pleasure. It’s something she looks at (in horror) but appears not to actually feel.   I realize that these kinds of silences are mandated by the censorious nature of books for young people–but in this particular case, when the focus is so intensely on body experiences and obvious actions and reactions are simply not mentioned at all, it does seem most peculiar indeed.   A boy’s only response to the knowledge of being in a girl’s body is horror, and so it goes for her in the opposite direction.  Aren’t bodies a horrible thing to have to deal with?

The point of all this is clearly to make points about how boys and girls need to understand each other better, and, I assume, how they ought to avoid gender stereotypes.  But what’s most noteworthy is exactly how much the book depends on gender stereotypes–i.e., completely.  These two are almost binarily oppositional representatives of their genders are they are most stereotypically understood in popular culture.   He is sporty, larger, physically active, reckless, messy (pockets full of junk, unconcerned about his appearance), egocentric, competitive, not very clean, kind of dumb at school and not really concerned about it, and unable to express emotions or talk about them with his male friends.  She is a gymnast but dainty, tidy, careful, a Type A striver with excellent grades and with a need to please her parents and others, concerned with clothes and fashion, and with a supportive group of female friends to discuss her feelings with.  Gender stereotypes R Us.

Readers have to accept these stereotypes, it seems,  in order for the characters to experience something so totally different and so obviously germane to the question of gender that they can learn from it.  Rather than being about the shallowness of gender stereotypes then, it’s about their absolute truthfulness and, I suppose, the danger of acting without respect for what’s so utterly alien, inevitably different from and opposite to yourself.  The book confirms the alienness of ourselves to each other as males and females even while seeming to make a plea for understanding and tolerance.   In a supposedly funny ending, the two, back in their own bodies and having agreed to be friends, end up immediately in a divisive squabble and have to pull back.  The war of the sexes, it seems, is ongoing and utterly unavoidable, because boys will be boys and girls will be girls.  So much for the transcendence of stereotypes.

Furthermore, there is little about either of these characters that doesn’t merely confirm the stereotypical–so there can’t possibly be any point made about getting past gender stereotypes to see the individual they disguise.  Here, get rid of the conventional characteristics and there’s nothing left–there isn’t really any individual to find.  (It’s true that she can play ball well enough, and have enough drive, to make him the pitcher on the A team, and he makes it clear to her parents that her life is too full of planned activities, but that seems merely to confirm the stereotypical qualities of their genders rather than challenge them.)

In a class report at the end, The girl reports she learned that boys can be lonely because they have to be tough and hide their feelings, and the boy reports he learned that girls have to be responsible and think of others first.  So the stereotypes are confirmed yet once more.   And there is nowhere in the book a sensitive, artistic, or communally-minded boy, or a messy, emotion-hiding girl. The alternating narratives allow, as usual, an exploration of difference, and end up with, perhaps not so usual, a confirmation of it.

In addition to being rather infuriating on the subject of gender differences, the book offers an explanation for how these two get switched that opens up another area of intolerance.  It seems that an arrowhead Tom found and had in his pants pocket when they bumped heads is the cause, for they are reliving a Tohaka love curse, the Tohaka being an Eskimo tribe–not, notice anything so respectful as an Inuit nation, but two racist slurs in one phrase.  To add icing to this poisonous cake, Nelson even invents his own Tohaka god named, with a clear intention of cuteness, Winnihecket.  This is aboriginality as found in Peter Pan, but produced a whole century later and on a different continent where actual Inuit have an actual culture.  So much for respect for alien others.

Griffin, Adele.  Where I Want to Be.  2005.  New York: Speak/Penguin, 2007.

This book is strangely similar to Marci Dermansky’s Twins:  two sisters, (close in age but not in this case actually twins) are in many ways opposites: one is considered attractive, the other not so much; one is sociable and well-liked, the other isolated; one is a version of the “normal” teen, the other not only strangely imaginative but in fact diagnosed as mentally ill and on (and then off) meds; one is growing up, the other refusing with all her will to leave childhood  The less popular one has depended on her sister as her only friend, and when the other sister makes other relationships outside the family and gets a boyfriend, the less normal sister feels deserted and acts strangely as a result–much as in Twins, although here everyone is aware of a diagnosed illness and thinks of it as such, and so it seems less melodramatic and horror-movie-like, as if in between driving each other mad in Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford had visits from a sensible public health nurse who prescribes valium and walks in the park.

The focus, as in Twins, is on how the sisters have to learn to move on beyond their claustrophobic relationship.  The major difference  is that in this case, one of the sisters is already dead.  She died in a car crash some months earlier, but she appears nevertheless in chapters alternating with her sister, as we hear of her ghostly attempts to cling to the visceral world and the past.  She clearly needs to move on (isn’t that always the case with ghosts, poor dears?), and it seems she has by the end.  But her sister also has been pulled back into the relationship she was moving beyond by her sister’s death–she has become fixed and isolated herself, refusing to go out and seeing only her boyfriend, refusing to think about the future in favour of holding on to the past,  fearing the movingo n will mean she is guilty ofr deserting her sister.  So she too has to start moving again, and give up the ghost.  At the end, the living sister goes to where her grandparents used to live, where readers already know the ghostly sister has fixated herself, and suddenly knows that her sister has given her permission to move on–and so both sisters are freed.

In addition to the binaries I listed above, there is the key one of the dead and the living.   It seems to underlie all the others.  Thus, the living sister’s narratives are in the first-person present, providing her with an immediacy at least in contrast to the ghostly one, whose thoughts are described in the third person past.   And while there is a parallel resistance in the earlier parts of the story to moving forward into the present, that gradually changes as it become clear that the ghostly sister is reliving the same idealized events of her past every day over and over again, whereas the living one begins haltingly to engage herself back into the present and on to the future.  The past/present narrative pattern supports a past/presen thematic concern.  And the major thrust is of the deadening weight of the past and madness and stultifying eccentricity, the freeing lightness of a focus on what is to come and is sane and normal and open to change.

The living sister is not actually aware of her sibling–but it turns out that her boyfriend, a boy who became different after an accident that affected his brain, apparently is.  And he’s the one who brings the living sister to finally meet the dead one.  He has become the living sister’s only real support, and she clings to him exactly as her sister has clung to her–so there’s a kind of echo effect here, a variation of the same situation (alternating narratives, once more, as variational in their relationship to each other).   It becomes clear to the living sister that she is holding her boyfriend back more or less as her sister is holding her back–she has to be better so that he can move on also.

One thing that intrigues me about all this is that the happy ending therefore involves the separation of all the characters from each other.  In giving each other freedom, they also all imply that family in the life of a young person–indeed, everything you know and do already–is a sort of stultifying trap.  You can only mature and be happy if you move beyond the comfort of those who already love you into independence and individuality and openness to change.   The idea that maturity and true selfhood is post-familial and inherently fluid seems very ideological and very American, and distressingly dismissive of family ties and indeed all lasting ties to others.  (I realize I’m overstating this in terms of this book, which at least pays lip service to the living girl’s ongoing love of her parents and her boyfriend–but the overall effect is that these ongoingness of such relationship is never anything anyone should count on or value more than one’s freedom and right to change.  And ideas of this sort seem to underly the vast majority of contemporary children’s and YA fiction.)

Why the alternating narratives?  Since that’s the main focus of my interest in all these books, I always have to ask that question.   The answer here, I think, is that readers get to see how the two apparently opposite sisters are sharing versions of the same central problem, that the difference also contains a similarity, one that supports the book’s central concerns.  Indeed, this novel is an excellent example of how structure supports and communicates thematic concerns.  No less important, readers as always in these situations get clues from one narrative that allow them to understand more than characters in the other narrative do, and to know solutions to mysteries before characters do.   just be giving different viewpoints on the same basic situation, this sort of structure invites and encourages an attention to details that encourages readers to become mystery solvers.   And finally, there’s a feeling of the binary that emerges–this and then that, one thing and then the other and opposite–that helps to my mind to identify this as a book written for young people.  Children’s literature seems, yet once more, inherently binary.