Archive for the ‘gender’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foon, Dennis. Skud.  Toronto Groundwood, 2003.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phallic masculinity

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

Warrior masculinity

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

Self-sufficient masculinity

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

Group masculinity

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

Structural/ cultural  masculinity

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

Psychoanalytical masculinity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas, Rob.  Slave Day.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.

This novel describes what happens to as group of people on a southern high school’s “Slave Day”–a day in which individuals are auctioned off to then act as slaves for those who bought them for the rest of the day–in particular, a group of eight alternating narrators.  Each of them tells, in the present tense, what’s happening to them and how they feel about it, as it happens.   There’s a very clear sense in this that they are all speaking to someone–there are certain moments of reticence or even downright lies, ones that sometimes only become obvious due to information made available in one of the other characters’ narratives.  But this implied narratee is more than a little strange.  It’s certainly not clear who it is–who they might be telling all these confidences too, except maybe, themselves–and if themselves, then why are they so cagey and secretive about so many things, or so willing to misrepresent things that might make them look bad to others?  And if there is a narratee, where is he or she and what is he or she doing in moments like this one: “So now here I am, underneath him with my uniform half off.  His hands are inching up the backs of my thighs and I can feel his fingertips start prying at the elastic of my panties” (99-100).  She’s talking to the naratee while all this is happening?  And the boy on top doesn’t notice anyone there? This is eye witness reporting with a vengeance–or maybe a partocularly sneaky version of the panopticon.

Nevertheless, despite that always-present naratee, the characters themselves are quite unconscious of what each other are thinking.  Indeed, that seems to be the main point here–that for all the appearance of a communal event, this high school is less a community than a place where isolates jostle against each other with very little sense of connection or understanding of each other.   The focalizing characters who know each other often misunderstand or misjudge each other–or even more often, just simply assign different degrees of importance to the same event, so that what one character finds monumentally significant is more or less meaningless to some of the others.  Often, also, the central focalizing characters have very little knowledge of each other at all–they may or may not even know each others’ names, and see each other as strangers in the background.  One of them, a boy who wants to be an actor, notices for a brief moment of another, the student president who believes he’s the center of everyone’s attention,  as merely “that black dude who’s always on the microphone”–and then immediately moves on to think of things much more important to himself  This is not, then, an interconnected clique or group of friends.  It’s a bunch of disparate people, some connected to each other, some not.  In this way Slave Day is more like, say, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway than it’s like the many novels for young people with large groups of focalized characters, which often seem to begin with relatively isolated characters but then move towards integrating them into some sort of shared community or communal experience.  Yes, there’s a shared communal experience here–life at high school, and the events of Slave Day in particular.  But it means something different to each of them at the start and also, at the end.  What emerges is a pretty bleak sense that groups of people together are really, in essence, groups of people in isolation and mostly apart from each other.  A few small things change here–but very few, and not very much, and the changes actually tend in some cases to drive people further apart rather than bringing them closer together.  The novel believes more in isolation than it does in connection and community.

Part of this sense of isolation is created by the fact that, while there are eight separate narratives all centrally involving events on the same day and in the same place and all engendered by Slave Day, they actually break down into four different sub-stories which really have almost nothing to do with each other.  Two narrators, a cheerleader and a football player, are involved in a situation in which this best friend tries to get her for himself, explored in terms of her becoming his slave for the day.  Another pair of slave/master narratives involve a a black rebel who purchases the back president of the school council, in order to make a point about the racism implicit in the day.  A third involves a would-be actor student who purchases the teacher who failed him in order to get revenge.  And the fourth concerns the beautiful spoiled daughter of the wealthy mayor and the younger boy geek she enslaves almost by accident.   Each of these pairs of master/slave characters is so involved in their dealing with each other that they are not aware of most of what is happening to the other three pairs.  (This is also a way in which Slave Day is unlike Woolf, I think:  while apparently a complex interweaving of disparate characters, it’s actually a much less complex interweaving of four novellas, each with its own plot.  Once more, a YA novelist finds a way of simplifying a theoretically complex and sophisticated narrative technique in order to produce fiction that seems more complex than it actually is. )

Also, the four distinct narratives have a variational relationship with each other, in that each of them involves a different version of power politics or enslavement in human affairs.  The cheerleader plot involves issues of masculinity and the domination of women by male power and male sexuality.  The football player is a somewhat shallow boy who buys into normative ideas about what matters that give him, a white male athlete, great power.  As the day goes on and he becomes ever more frustrated by the cheerleader’s refusal to have sex him, she becomes more and more aware of what’s wrong with her relationship with him (Slave Day, she says, and being his slave, doesn’t feel much different from any other day) –and also, what’s wrong with the other’s boy’s competitive and underhanded struggle for her.  She ends up free of both boys, a happily independent woman.  The rich bitch/geek plot explores both issues of social power (money) and the hierarchical structure of the high school world, in which he is less than meaningless and she is a star.   Each gains a small amount of insight into the other–she about his real worth, he about her real emotions under a veneer of toughness–but he ends up threatening to blackmail her in a way that ends her enslavement of him, threatens his enslavement of her, and provides him not just with independence but with an ugly lesson in how best to survive in a world of dog-eat-dog isolate.  He is less ingenious and tougher, but more dangerous at the end, not just to others but also to himself?  The teacher is enslaved by his loss of energy and insistence on strictness, the actor boy by his inability to do well at school while also helping to support his trailer park family.  Their story explores the power relationships of student/teachers and the power of societal and personal circumstance.  Each comes to know and understand more about the other (as do all these characters, in fact) as a result of the slave game, and in this case, there’s a move towards a very small amount of greater contact that enriches and changes both their lives.   Theirs is the most hopeful and positive of the four stories, and the one most like what you might expect of a YA novel with a group of isolated characters coming together.  The other stories end much less conventionally.

The fourth plot is the one most resonant in terms of ideas of slavery, as one African American boy enslaves another and makes public displays of having him pretend to pick cotton, shine shoes, and such–live out old stereotypes of racial power and enslavement.  It also represents a debate about ways of confronting one’s path in life as a person of colour.  One boy represents resistance to white power, the other acceptance and use of it in order to move ahead himself.   Ironically, the rebel seems to win–we’re told that there’s unlikely to ever be another Slave Day–but the other boy manages to keep his quest for success intact, and even gets the girl the rebel hoped for.  And yet–his winning is like the victory of the young geek, a triumph that defines him as self-centred, dangerous, and isolated.  As he himself says at one point (and what the novel seems to reinforce throughout),  “what’s more important–maybe he’ll learn that whatever else happens today, when all is said and done, I’ll still be me, and he’ll still be him” (47).   And as the rebel says at the end (although not about all these narrators it certainly applies to them), “”In our own ways, each of us got exactly what he wanted”–and that was a gain for some, and a loss for others.

At any rate, all of this amounts to a sizeable and many faceted discussion of how people have power over and are enslaved by each other,  how freedom might be indepedence or isolation, and what the ethical and personal implications of all that are.   It uses the alternating narratives to show how both slaves and masters have power and at the same time disempower themselves and others.

Lanagan, Margot.  Tender Morsels.  New York: Knopf, 2008.

I decided to read Tender Morsels as a break from my consideration of alternating narratives; all I knew about it was that a lot of people were talking about it, and it sounded interesting.  And I started to read it and, surprise, it contains alternating narratives!   I take that as evidence of how very common the use of these sorts of structures has become in children’s and young adult literature–no longer an innovation, albeit still a sign of some degree of literary pretension and sophistication.

Most of Tender Morsels is a third-person narrative about a woman and her two daughters who live in a world of forests and villages that sounds much like the typical setting of European fairy tales (see my paper “Once: The Land and Its People“)–appropriately so, for the plot centrally involves the women’s dealing with men who transform into bears, as happens in at least one of the Grimm tales.   Also appropriately, the plot centrally involves a wish-fulfilment:  Liga, who has been sexually used by her father and become pregnant by him three times, finally producing a daughter as a result, and then gang-raped by a group of village boys and producing a second daughter as a result of that, is given a better world to live in–the world as she would imagine it if it were to her taste, as she wished it.  It’s unclear why this happens–or who or what gives her the gift–it’s simply what ought to happen to her, and so it does.  So she lives near the same village, but in a version of it free of anyone who frightens her or might harm her–there are simply empty spaces where their houses used to be.  and everyone is pleasant to her, and she learns skills form people who would simply have ignored or looked down on her before.  Liga lives in that place, actually cut off from the real world that has forgotten her and knows nothing of her daughters, until the daughters have grown up.

Nevertheless, others accidentally (and dangerously, we are told), break into Liga’s world.  all of them are men, and when they defile her place separate from the dangerous sexuality of men, they each tell what happens to them in the first person.  One is a greedy man who persuades a witch to get him there so that he can bring back valuables and get rich.  the others are young men taking part in the village’s annual ritual, in which young men dress up as bears and chase and try to kiss all the women in town–a spring festival to make the crops grow, and a playacted freeing of male sexuality, which presumably works to purge it and keep it safe within.  In Liga’s world, when these men accidentally enter it, they appear as bears, one a safely restrained bear, the other a more potentially lustful and dangerous one.  They spend long times in Liga’s world, interacting as bears iwth her and her daughters, but then return home on the same day they left.  Their intrusion also leads to Liga’s daughter and Liga herself getting out of her dream world–a place which isolates and imprisons them even though it is only pleasant, for it’s not their dream.  So the novel gives its characters the wished-for safe place then reveals the necessity of giving it up–the need to be more than just safe, the need to accept the danger of contact with others (especially, it seems, men) in return for the pleasure and humanity of it.   But even then, the contacts made through the dream place play out in positive relationships for Liga and her daughters.  It has allowed the right people to find each other and to interact in the right way, beyond danger.  It’s still a wish-fulfilment fantasy outside of the wish-fulfilment place (which is proably what makes it a novel for young people?).

The alternating narrative here have mainly the effect of being what they are in terms of plot–intrusive: they insist not just on another view of the story, but as first-person interruptions of a third-person story, as alien presences in the dream world that represent various oppositions to its central values of peace and safety and comfort.  they are both dangerously unsettling and necessary if these women are to return to a realer and less safe but more alive world.  thematically, they represent the versions of maleness that create both difficulty and desire for women–greed, lust, nurturing and comfort.  So the book comes to be about how maleness intrudes into the lives of women–a theme mirrored by the use of alternating narratives.

This is a complex novel, although an entertaining one and in the light of the complexity, surursingly easy to read and be gripped by.  I very much enjoyed reading it and bering absorbed by it, even though  I have a feeling I’ve barely begun to understand it.  It would certainly repay a rereading, and not just because of the interest in its alternating narrative construction.

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.

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.