Archive for the ‘more than four narratives’ Category

I’ve found a review of Life is Funny, discussed in my last post, that I wrote back when the book was pubished in 200.  It takes quite on different slant on some of the same aspects of the novel:

Life Is Funny is about as shapeless a novel as they come. It has eleven main characters, most of them students at the same New York City high school. Each chapter is a monologue in which one of these young people tells about, or perhaps merely thinks about, events in his or her life, in a voice unlike all the others. Only two characters get more than one chapter, and while some of the characters figure as major or minor players in the stories of others, some don’t. As well as shifting from character to character, the book moves from time to time, over a period of seven years, so that the events described are distant from each other even when, occasionally, they happen to the same people.

What holds these diverse fragments together? Technically speaking, a little too much. Unconnected characters just happen to visit the Statue of Liberty at the same time or end up on the same farm miles from their New York neighborhood. But despite these coincidences, Life Is Funny successfully conveys a sense of the confusion and incoherence of being alive. Life’s essential shapelessness is exactly what the novel is about.

In exploring the bewildering business of being alive, E. R. Frank provides her young protagonists with an environment filled with condoms, strong language, and bloodshed, and with an amazing assortment of problems. Here are just some of them: interracial tensions, disloyal friends, friends in trouble, friends who commit suicide, being bullied, being a bully, repressive parents, parents who are mentally or physically abusive (or both), absent parents, foster parents, fathers or brothers who are sexually abusive, sexual confusion, virginity, lack of virginity, pregnancy (both one’s mother’s and one’s own), termination of pregnancy, self-afflicted violence, bed-wetting, poverty, shoplifting. Not to mention bad hair days.  As described in Life Is Funny, life seems to be anything but.

Nevertheless, Frank insists, it is. The novel’s title emerges from the mouth of Gingerbread, the adopted son of an interracial couple, a strangely round-faced boy who suffers from attention deficit disorder initiated when he was born addicted to crack. His girlfriend, Keisha, says, “I asked why he laughed so much, and he said, like it ought to be plain as day, Because life is funny, and maybe that’s when I for real started to fall in love.” Gingerbread voices the principles by which just about all these characters live and which the novel is clearly recommending: being able to respond positively, with joy and with a great deal of resilience, to the confusion and incoherence that are part of being human. Some readers might be surprised that Frank specifically allows her characters the joy of sex–a commitment to bodily pleasure rare in books for young people.

Frank tends, perhaps, to make things a little too easy, focusing on stories that end happily toward the conclusion of the book in order to create an argument for optimism in the face of trouble. But Life Is Funny remains an enjoyable novel for young adults, imaginatively and honestly conceived, intricately plotted, and energetically written.

This appeared in The Riverbank Review.  I seem to have become more cynical since then.

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Frank, E.R.  Life is Funny.  New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2000.

This is another example of a series of fairly separate short stories each focalized from a different first-person present point of view and woven together into what announces itself as a novel–although how exactly it becomes one, how it has any actual cohesiveness, is not necessarily all that easy to figure out.  The eleven main characters, each the first person narrator of events as they currently happen to him/her,  are all, somehow connected, but usually quite tenuously–not in a any way that easily identifies them as a specific community.  Some are each other’s best friends, some live next door to each other or got to the same school, some merely pass each other on the street from a distance and are barely aware of each other’s names.  It all appears to centre on the same neighbourhood in Brooklyn, but some of the characters with connections there then end up connected to others who live in different places who become focalizing characters–so there’s really nothing holding them altogether except the fact of their one-to-one connections with each other, in a sort of rhizomatic set of joins that eventually does connect them all.

Furthermore, the novel covers seven years–two narratives for each of the first six, one for the seventh–and so the characters are over a range of ages and face the problems that typically (or normatively) occur over the whole range of teenage years and a little before and a little beyond, and some ar always much older or younger than others  And only two of the characters have more than one narrative, both of those repeating in the section labelled as being the sixth year.  so the overall effect is of a totally non-cohesive group who are nevertheless connected–albeit very loosely.  It’s a challenge to think about how they might all come together to form a cohesive novel.

And in a real sense, they don’t.  Each of their stories is different, and the connection between them seems at least superficially to have more to do with random happenstance than with any thematic connection or significance.  But then, because they are different and have their difference from each other in common, that almost seems to become the point, at least for a reader in a position to observe their shared lack of similarity.

Each of the characters copes with a different but relatively common problem of adolescence–and almost all of them have some kind of problem with parents.  So for all the difference in their specific problems and situations (some are well off, some very poor, some white, some black, some of other racial backgrounds, etc.)  all are equally beset by a problematic world and insufficient parenting (insufficient in different ways in each case, but always insufficient).  Their different situations and problems then develop a variational relationship, all varying around the theme of bad parenting and coping with that and other problems involving especially sex and money. The book becomes like a catalogue of adolescent angst and woe, as the wide range of problems that appear alone and front and centre in other YA books all appear here together in one place where their appearing together reveals a set of similarities underlying their apparent difference from each other.  Whether your father beats your mother or your mother is an addict, parents tend to be quite untrustworthy and often dangerous.  (Indeed, the only helpful adults throughout the book turn out to be understanding teachers or adoptive parents, not natural ones, and the children often need to support and in effect parent their parents or each other). Then, whether you have an attention disorder or an urge to cut yourself, you need to finds ways of coping and moving beyond it that have a lot to do with a faith in yourself and a trust in the right others–like friends and non-related professional adults.

In the light of the inevitable comparisons of these apparently differing situations, the focus moves away from the specifics of each problem and onto a more general sort of philosophy of how best to deal with any and all problems–who to be, how to feel about life in general, who to trust, etc.  It all tends towards a kind of rhetoric implied by its title–“life is funny”–how best to cope with or think about Life with a capital L.  And the fact that eleven different people are caught in the act of thinking about their differing situations in similar ways encourages attention to that sort of concern.

Except for creating that sort of focus, though, I’m not sure i understand why all the connections between the separate characters–some of them dependent on some pretty far-fetched coincidences–like differing apparently unconnected characters showing up at the Statue of Liberty at the same time.  The connections are not in any obvious way part of why life is funny, or what we readers are invited to be thinking about life generally?  There’s no obvious rhetoric about a human family, e.g., or brothers under the skin, or anything like that–although that’s certainly implied in terms of the similar responses to the different situations by the different characters.

Another result of the comparative thinking encouraged by the presence of so many apparently unrelated focalizing characters is, since they clearly are  intended to represent a spectrum of possibilities, they draw attention to missing parts of a complete spectrum.  Two things caught my eye here.  First, as far as I can tell, and for all the attention being paid to the possibilities of being sexually abused by relatives or the possibilities of enjoying or using sex amongst peers, there doesn’t seem to be a gay character here, neither as an adult or as a child.  If there is one, he or she hasn’t yet come out even to him or herself.  Second, for all the horror of these damaged lives, the book is amazingly and astonishingly upbeat.  for all the inadequacy of their parents, these young people are all amazingly together.  Even the ones who seem most damaged are still sane and even happy somehow, deep inside, in ways that gradually reveal themselves to themselves and to readers.  No one is especially vicious or deranged by the viciousness and derangement of their surroundings.  They retain a weird innocence, a vision of what I might like to identify as a middle class ideal of blissful childhood that triumphs over all the negative forces surrounding them.  You have to wonder why the parents of all these ever-so-resilient young people were so easily defeated when they are so strong and self-reliant or empathetic with each other.  As if by magic, they all survive and triumph over their bad upbringing, and even when they do have problems or fall into bad times, they manage to keep that light shining inside.  In the light of its vast catalogue of woes, it’s an outrageously optimistic book, and for all the victimization, they are no actual victims–only apparent victims who haven’t met the right saviours yet.  Very strange–and yet that seems to be the point here.  The character Gingerbread, who actually says that life is funny, is the resident philosopher king of all this, a spirit of joy that triumphs over all odds and thus represents the best way to be, with no sense of the fact that life really is tough and that people really do often fail at it or are failed by it.

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.

Anderson, Rachel.  The Bus People.  1989.  New York: Henry Holt, 1992.

Originally published in the UK, this book is a set of interconnected stories–a form of alternating narrative I haven’t looked at closely before.  in this case, they really aren’t all that interconnected.  The central characters in each of the stories are children who ride a bus to a special school for children with various mental and physical deficiencies, and there are sections at the beginning and the end which focus on the driver of the bus and his view of his passengers.   But by virtue of their various problems, and also, clearly, by the choice of the author, the characters have very little in the way of contact with each other.  They just about never think about each other or even seem to be all that aware of each other, and the stories about them are not about what happens on the bus but about other moments and experiences in their lives away from each other  So what is connected for readers–a set of insights into the diverse situations of what is actually, for all their problems, a fairly diverse set of characters, is not really connected at all for the characters themselves.  Even at the end, which makes a halfhearted attempted at a conventional children’s literature happy ending by having a flat tire on the bus result in the children getting off and playing in a group together, is hardly a representation of a movement from isolation to a community: the children all play at the same time, but not necessarily with, or even with very much awareness of, each other

Perhaps that’s a deliberate irony here: as a result of their problems, these characters are isolated, imprisoned inside themselves–and indeed that’s the central theme running through all the stories, whether as a perception of another character in the story or as the central concern of a character him or herself.  I have to say that I’m not totally convinced that actual people in these circumstances are so obsessively centred on their own isolation from everyone else.  They, after all, often do not have the other experience of “normal” connectivity to compare their own situation with; they don’t necessarily know how relatively isolated they are in relation to the experiences of other people.  But the author, identified on the jacket flap as “herself the mother of a mentally handicapped child,” has a clear conviction that conditions like these are most inherently and importantly isolating, for it’s an idea that comes back again and again, as well as being the central sense that emerges from the lack of connection between the theoretically connected stories.  they actually represent a set of variations on themes of misunderstanding and isolation.

For instance, the first story is about a mentally handicapped girl all set to be her sister’s bridesmaid, until some nasty interfering aunts say it will be embarrassing–and everyone in her family, astonishingly, agrees.  (I can accept the aunts’ annoyance as a possible thing, but I’m astonished that a family so ready to allow the girl to be a bridesmaid that she has the dress and all would suddenly cave in and hurt her at the last minute–it just isn’t logical, and it seems to happen only to make a luridly melodramatic point about how thoughtless people are.)  The story then twists the knife by allowing this mentally challenged person to have a clear, subtle, and accurate perception of everything that’s happening and what it all means not only emotionally but ethically.  It’s as if she were a Henry James unable to communicate and so doomed to be misunderstood and underestimated–and not just cut off from others, but tragically isolated in the prison of her own very profound understandings of what she sees and others refuse to acknowledge.  Indeed, many of the other characters are similarly isolated in a similarly rich understanding of their own situations that those around them are ignorant of and prefer, clearly, not to know about.  It’s as if the author cannot imagine, or simply refuses to imagine, that other people might understand their situation differently from the way she does.  One section begins, “If Fleur spoke, this is the story she might tell,” and the story that follows once more gives her a very clear understanding of herself as an empathetic outsider with a more usual understanding of psychology and morality might see her.  The actual otherly-abled child has been replaced by what I have to understand as a wish-filfulment fantasy of her as inherently understanding and wise–and therefore,  in a situation doubly ugly, for not only is she mentally deficient and damaged, but she is perfectly able to understand her own situation and insightful about it and so, imprisoned not only by lack of understanding but by a horrific possession of understanding also.   These are, I have to say, really creepy stories, in ways I’m fairly sure the author didn’t intend to be creepy.  they amount to horror stories

Not only are the characters mostly unaware of each other, but the stories that feature them as central characters represent a wide variety of narrative techniques.  At the start, Bertraim is in the present tense in a story told by a third person narrator, and at the end, the narration is in the past tense.  in between, some stories are in the present, some in the past, some in the third person, some told by a first person narrator’s point of view.  The sense of a random variety of different effects once more emphasizes the distinctness of these stories from each other, the insufficiency of the attempt to suggest community or connections between desperately isolated and imprisoned people.

Frost, Helen.  Keesha’s House.  2003.  New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2007.

There are no characters in this novel (by the Helen Frost who wrote The Braid, discussed here in a previous entry) and in fact, really, no plot.  It consists of a series of poems in traditional forms, mostly sestinas and some sonnets, each presenting a statement in the present tense by one of seven young people, each in the same order in a series of different sections with different titles and, in two separate sections, similar present tense statements by various of the adults involved in the lives of these young people.  I’m calling these “statements” because it’s hard to come up with the words to accurately describe what they’re trying to be.  They seem at first glance like attempts to capture the characters’ thought processes–but they are far too objective in their descriptions of what purport to be intense moments of confusion or emotion to have the feeling of thought, far too much ability to summarize succinctly what their emotions mean:

What it meant to Dad
was that he didn’t know me.  I turned into someone
he’s hated all his life.

I suppose I could put that intense knowingness and awareness and linguistic capability down to the fact that this is appearing in what claims to be a poem.  But if so, then making these statements “poetic” in that way and in the first person at the same time seems an error.  The characters are meant to be young, inexperienced, and having trouble sorting out who they are and what to do with their lives; and at the very same time, they’re sounding very assured, very adult, and very much like a middle-aged counseller might perceive them and talk about them from a position outside their own heads.

And perhaps partly for that reason, they are quite unconvincing-without character.  they come across as stereotypes of teenager angst, the characters having no feelings or habits or hobbies separate from the ones attached to the one large problem each of them has.  Each represents one common form of teenage trouble:  being pregnant, having a pregnant girlfriend, having abusive parents or stepparents; drinking; being gay.   Indeed, all have exactly the same problem, for the initial problem in each case translates into ways in which all these young people have been failed by the adults in their lives, who abuse them, or who won’t understand or sympathize with their situations; and as a result, all feel unsafe or uncomfortable in what claims to be their home, and all therefore leave home.

The central plot device is about how a man, himself dispossessed when young, has inherited a house that he then allows young people to stay in without questions or supervision; he just allows them to be there.  Having been failed by adults and the mainstream societal values they represent, these seven teens find a better, more loving, safer home with each other.  The book then hopes to operate as teen wish-fulfilment fantasy, taking it for granted that most adults, especially those in parental roles, are vicious, self-seking, thoughtless monsters; the only good adults here are not parents but empathetic councillors and therapists or someone hwo just lets teens be on their own.  And yet, at the same time, those counsellors and such takes for granted a whole bunch of quite conventional contemporary ideologies about how to be a better and saner person that emerge straight from the mainstream of pop psychology healing.   The novel then reads as a sort of mindless celebration of the wonders of being yourself and loving yourself and such–a celebration of egocentricity and self-concern masquerading as healing.

It also comes across as a clear statement of a sort of smug and theoretically liberal guilt, which pats itself on the back for being so caring and understanding and empathetic abut these poor lost souls whom most adults don’t get and actually damage.  Aren’t we adults (all except me, the author of the ever so empathetic poems seems to imply) all so tough on poor besieged teenagers? And aren’t I so sensitive and caring for noticing it and caring about it and taking their side?

Can you tell I don’t like it?

But my dislike for the shallow values and one-sided situations and pseudo-liberal values presented here matters, in this context, because it does perhaps throw light on what’s wrong with how alternating narratives come into play here.  The character keep insisting on how nobody understands them and their individual personalities and needs, and meanwhile, the poems that express these thoughts all sound exactly like each other, as if all in the same voice.  For all the theoretical interests in individuals, the writing offers no sense of individuality–everyone is exactly the same victim, and thinks about his or her victimhood in exactly the same way–as, i suppose, a not very perceptive adult would assume “teenagers” think.   It is, then, a book, about “teenagers,” not a book about actual people.  The claim to be in different voices merely confirms an erasure of difference, an imposition of mindless stereotyping on the world of the young.  The alternations are only superfically alternative to each other.

Also eraing difference is the weird use of these traditional poetic forms.   There is no apparent reason for their use.  They add nothing to what the characters say except the sense of a similar rhythm and character in their supposedly different speech patterns.   I have no ideas why the verse is here, and neither the text nor the author’s note at the back about the forms suggests one.  It just ends up seeming like a way of showing off by the author: look how clever I am, I managed to express regular-sounding sentences in the form of complex verse patterns so well you hardly even notice the verse patterns.  Indeed, I suspect that most readers, young or old, are unlikely to pay much attention to them, except as an odd intrusion of repetitiousness into the ongoing character revelations, etc.   There certainly isn’t any sense that these theoretical complexities of language might repay further attention, make each of or any of the individual poems more revealing with as closer look ast them.

What they do, mostly is justify the fact that the book is very short, and therefore easy to absorb.  Yet once more, apparently sophisticated techniques of storytelling are turned, in as text for young people into ways of maintaining simplicity and lack of sophistication.  That the sections of this book are poems makes it not just shorter but simpler than a connected narrative might well be–and much less likely to be truly emotionally effective.  Nothing actually happens, since the characters are always caught in moments of reflection after the fact, after what happened happened.  The action occurs between the poems, not in them, and instead of happening, it’s always being explained and therefore its potential for danger or excitement explained away.   We’re meant to focus on the therapeutic value of coming to terms with events rather than on the interest of the events themselves.   The book is, then, because of its separate alternating sections, deliberately distancing and uninvolving in order to be deliberately and singlemindedly therapeutic–and very simple in its thematic content as well as its depictions of characters and situations.

I don;t suppose I need to add that, exactly as expected in this ever so conventional and stereotyped world,  the characters do what characters in a multi-focalized young adult novel almost always do:  they move from isolation into connection with each other, in a new community based on their shared bad situations and away from the oppressive power of the inevitably bad parents in their lives.   For all its focus on adults things like having babies and sexuality and murder, its a very childish book, creating a children’s-lit kind of wish-fulfilment utopia for its characters by the end, in a way that I suspect seriously misrepresents the potential for universal happy endings in the lives of actual young people with this sort of problems, the possibility of this kind of therapeutic thinking working a hundred percent of the time, the the possibility of young people like this being able to live together unsupervised in harmony.

As my Bubba Esther would have said, “Feh.”  What particularly saddens me is that a book like this represents what most adult experts imagine YA literature should be well enough to have named as Printz honour book–one of the most prize-deserving YA novels of its year.  It certainly does represent that weird amalgam of pseudo-literary pretension, clichéd characters and situations, and pop psychology that way too much literature identified as being “for young adults” all too often is.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pinkwater, Daniel. The Snarkout Boys And The Baconburg Horror.  New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepherd, 1984.

This book represents an interesting anomaly.  It’s a sequel to The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, in which Walter Galt tells of the supposedly wacky events of life while sneaking out at night to go to movies.  But the sequel to the first person narration is a multi-focalized novel.  Walter tells part of the story.  But in addition, there are sections (in a different font) in the first person voice of a mysterious someone who’s a vampire, sections in which a third person omniscient narrator follows events in the life of a different character, Walter’s friend Rat, and also does some other omniscient narrating about other characters, increasingly so toward the end–and also, there are transcripts of TV news reports, of a sort of filmscript version in the present tense of a city council meeting, of various letters from officials to officials, and so on.  And within some of these texts are transcripts of others, including some deliberately bad beatnik poems.

Both books are celebrations of the carnivalesque, I guess, in the Bakhtin way–a love of certain kinds of excessive freakishness that expresses itself in terms both of the funny and relatively harmless eccentricities of the central characters and in the world around them–various people with weird habits or tics or names or jobs or collections,  midnight gatherings to hear random speeches amongst strange outsiders, strange combinaitons of food, and so on.  But neither novel really represents an escape from repression into the carnivalesque, since the characters and their names and their interests are carnivalesque already.  The novels as a whole are carnivalesque escapes for readers, then, in which already carnival-like characters move away form their norms into more excessive versions of the carnival–but always in a lighthearted sort of way, a diluted for of absurdism.  the wohle world is a sort of carnival-lite.

So in any case, what happens when you repeat the same characters in quite similar situations, but change the ways in which you organize and focalize the story?  What’s with the alternating narratives?

Not much, really.   There’s nothing particularly surprising here, in spite of the greater chaos and carnival and disorder and multivocalizing of the sequel.  The difference is just that now the form seems to echo the content, and thus to offer a more visibly and readerly obvious celebration of random anarchy.

And yet, hidden in all that is something very conservative–perhaps just the pull of children’s literature as a genre, a sense that writing for young people needs more order than anarchy even when it presumably celebrates anarchy?  All of the sections in Baconburg Horror representing differing narrative points of view are carefully organized and sequenced, so that if one suggests something might be impossible, the very first sentence in the next one describer the supposedly impossible thing happening: a sort of joke that emerges from the juxtaposition of two different points of view as one narrative undermines the preceding one, but making the joke establishes  the very careful controlling force of the novelist organizing all these merely apparently random materials.  You can freel safe aobut the anarchy here.

It finally becomes clear that all the differing points of view are in fact, in aid of one central plot line–the mystery being unfolded.  Unlike many other multi-focalized books, this is not really about how people do or don’t interconnect in a communal whole.  It’s not really obviously or consciously thematic at all.  There’s a suggestion of interest in the ways in which apparently random events and differing isolates do in fact come together in an interconnected whole story–but that’s perhaps inevitable in the context of a mystery being solved.  Beyond that,not so much.

All in all, then, this is very safe wackiness–not much like the violence and actual anarchy of Harpo and Groucho or the Three Stooges or even the characters in Waiting for Godot.  For all the silly jokes and threats, it all seems kind of harmless–the ingenious chaos of imaginative play, perhaps, but play inside the safe confines of an adult-policed playground, play that imitate anarchy in less anrchic forms.  Once more as so often in literature for young people, the doors open on innovation and danger, and then quickly spring back shut again, in very instructive ways.

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.

Hesse, Karen. Witness. New York: Scholastic, 2001.

The text consists of a series of poems in free verse, each in the voice of one of eleven characters who all live in a small town in Vermont in the twenties.   The free verse here seems a little less free of verse than that in a number of other supposedly free verse novels I’ve been reading lately; each character does tend to have a distinctive voice, individual speech mannerisms and so on, and also, there’s some sense of implication–of wider meanings beyond the literal of the sort I expect of poetry:

daddy says:
how alone do you want to be, leonora?
you’re already nothing but a wild brown island.

So maybe this isn’t great verse but it is verse.

The novel describes events surrounding the arrival of the Ku Klux Klan in town.  The various characters express opinions about it–some favourable, most not so much.   The less Klan-favouring characters include a twelve-year-old African American girl and a six-year-old Jewish one, each in a family which is the sole representative of its race in the otherwise white, mostly Protestant town.  Each of these girls suffers from the prejudice of others–but also, as the novel progresses, finds friends and supporters, as a basic human decency emerges and then triumphs over the apparent appeal to morality and American values the Klan purportedly represents, and as knwledge of individuals triumphs over stereotypes.  As the Klan reveals an uglier side, more of the townspeople turn against it.

The novel then has the typical structure of fiction for young people–bad situations that get better, as horror moves gradually and apparently inevitably towards the utopian.  It seems neither convincing nor historically accurate–but I can’t deny it’s very satisfying as wish-fulfillment.  And in the midst of it all,  all sorts of other magical things happen, too.  A very prejudiced teenager learns to think of Jews and Negroes as individuals, even though he first flirts with the Klan; the Jewish girl and the black one both find the strength of character all on their own to come to the rescue of those who have made their prejudice against them clear and obvious–they;re ever so much better than their enemies, as, of course, all Jews and African-americans are.  Meanwhile, the worst of the Klan bigots has revealed a serious character weakness (he takes advantage of a young girl) and has left town (or died–it’s not exactly clear to me which), and many of the other townspeople have seen the light or developed the strength of character to publicly profess the anti-Klan feelings they’ve been hiding; the world is, by the end, a gloriously better place.  The novel has something like the structure of a traditional girl’s book, like Heidi or Anne of Green Gables.  The innocent, whimsical, and charming Jewish girl, a new arrival in a rural place, shows the way to her elders by charming them with her utter spontaneity and innocence and connections with the natural world around her, just as Heidi and Anne of Green Gables did.

So what is gained here by the use of the many alternating focalizers?  As I’ve discovered is typical in a book with a large number of alternating focalizers, the focus is on how individuals relate to a community.  Here as most often, many isolated voices tend either to become entwined into a more complete and integrated community, or refuse to do so and must leave the group–skip town.  Readers get to see how a range of different individuals react to the same events, how they see and make sense of the same things differently, and how their actions have differing impacts on each other.  Readers also know ways in which the characters affect each other that they are not themselves aware of–an overriding knowledge of everybody that gives greater insights into the meanings and implications of each of their individual perceptions.  Thus, knowing of the fear and sensitivity and basic niceness of the black girl as we overhear vher thoughts and responses, readers have information that contradicts and trumps the blind prejudice of the Klan leader and minister.  Readers also know that the teenage boy accused of shooting the Jewish girl’s father is not guilty, and who is, and so have that soap opera pleasure of hoping secrets are revealed in time to save the innocent.  As, of course, they are.

Witness is presented as if it were a play–divided into five sections, labelled Act One, Act Two, and so on.  But there is in fact nothing inherently dramatic in it.  There are no interactions between the characters–no dialogue except in the sections involving a husband and wife who talk together.  Otherwise, what all the characters do is just think about things they’ve already done and experienced–readers are privy, it seems to what goes on inside their minds, the one thing that theatre usually keeps us ignorant of (except in terms of how characters express it to each other–the exception, I guess, is the Shakespearean soliloquy, and these poems are indeed sort of like that).   There is, I guess, a kind if dialogue in terms of the ones readers can construct from hearing how the differing voices understand each other; but it is an act of readerly construction, not something that actually happens in the book itself.  So it’s only theoretically dramatic, a theoretical drama that develops in terms of the alternating structure.  As in other free verse novels, each individual section is quite isolated from and separate from all the others, and it’s up to a reader to work out how it all fits together and to see contradictions and connections and communal ties that characters themselves are rarely ware of.  In a sense, the structure creates the community, in ways the community itself can’t possibly be aware of.

So it’s a trick of structure that becomes thematic here, and that reveals aspects of the characters’ lives never really known by them individually or even as a group.  Perhaps all alternating narratives imply that sort of interactive meaning larger than anything known by the individual alternating characters–and perhaps all require this sort of relational work of readers, putting separate streams of information  together to see more than the characters do.  Which is what happens in the theatre as audiences view a well-made and well-directed and -acted play.  So maybe alternating narrative is inherently dialogical?