Archive for the ‘other things’ Category

Bainbridge, David. Teenagers: A Natural History. Greystone.  Vancouver: D & M, 2009.

This is an incredibly bone-headed book, and I’m wanting to take a closer look at why because it seems to represent a specific kind of boneheadedness increasingly widespread now–a mechanistic conviction that whatever people do is substantially mandated by biology or some other sort of “natural” imperative imbedded in us by evolution or anatomy and inescapable. In this case, what teenagers are (always are, it seems, and always must be) was established by the evolutionary development that produced homo sapiens–and while Bainbridge does acknowledge here and there the possibility that human beings might occasionally be influenced by their personal genetic makeup or history or the culture that surrounds them, he nevertheless falls back immediately into his basic, fundamental assumption: whatever teenagers do now, as a stereotyped group, must be what they have always done in some form or another throughout history and in every culture, because evolution made them that way and required that they act that way.   There is really never anything that people choose to do that wasn’t in fact a choice actually made by the inherent will of their species trying to be the fittest to survive.

Indeed, his faith in the evolutionary imperative is so complete that he tends even to assume that counterproductive things that people do–things like experimenting with addictive drugs and such that might well lead them into serious trouble–must have emerged from some aspect of human biology that was a positive force in allowing human beings to survive. He says, for instance, that “even the most unpleasant changes [in puberty] confer some benefit on us, or at least they did as some point in the past. When you start to view puberty as a product of evolution,much of what happens to teenagers begins to make sense” (42). He then has to admit that there’s no known evolutionary advantage in various typical patterns of body hair, or in things like teenage acne. And he never considers the possibility that things of this sort might be the kinds of evolutionary mistakes that could end up dooming homo sapiens to the dustheap of history, and therefore be evidence of lack of fitness to survive. Even though he insists that homo sapiens has existed for little more than an eye-blink in terms of evolutionary processes, he sees every single aspect of human biology as nothing but evidence of what has kept us going and therefore what is and always must be true about us and what will and always explain all of our social behaviour–until, I suppose, a species fitter for survival comes along.

His absolute conviction that every aspect of our biology and behaviour emerges from the evolutionary imperative is revealed most clearly in his ongoing habit of using language that ascribes will to biological organisms–their main if not only urge is an inherent will for their species to continue, and so, he keeps saying, they decide to adapt their biology in an effort to do so.

I’m not about to dispute Bainbridge’s obviously substantial knowledge of human biology and of recent developments in the sciences that study it. He does seem to know a lot, and he does present it in clear and interesting ways. Nevertheless, he does then tend to jump illogically from what is known about biology to the conclusion that it accounts for things such as the typical behaviour of teenagers, their typical rebelliousness, etc.  It seem fair to assert, as he does, that “evolution has given us our teenage years for a very good reason–in the long run they help us to succeed as individuals (that is what evolution does” (4). But having a period in which one makes the biological transition between childhood and full maturity dos not necessarily mean what Bainbridge unquestioningly understands the teen age to be: a collection of cultural norms and stereotypes garnered from the popular culture of the last fifty or sixty years. He asserts, very unpersuasively, “We all know the teenage mind” (100), as if there was just one shared by all teenagers. Indeed, adults can share tales of their lazy, rebellious teenagers because “this stereotyped nature of teenage behaviour suggests that there are certain ordered, consistent changes that take place in all teenage minds” (113-114).

For Bainbridge, indeed, “teenagers are not a social idea–they are quite simply different from everybody else” (12). In asserting that, he ignores a vast history in which those in the teenaged years behaved quite differently than stereotypes imply they do now, and a huge spectrum of other understandings of how people do and/or ought to behave in their teenage years in the variety of differing cultures and subgroups existing even just now in the world today. In all these differing circumstances, I suppose, it might be possible that teenagers still felt and feel not only the same biological urges, but also, an urge towards the same culturally-mandated expressions of those urges, as do contemporary James Deans and Taylor Swifts and such, even though the culture they were or are part of didn’t acknowledge then as being distinctly teenage-like, as being evidence of a separate category of human existence in need of an name and an special kind of analysis and understanding. But I think it highly unlikely that young Buddhists in Asia or young serfs in medieval Europe or young Hutterites living apart from contemporary mainstream culture in colonies in Western Canada or young devout wives of Mormons patriarchs were or are all just secret Barbies and Jonas Brothers at heart.

For that matter, not even all the young, middle-class white people in first world English-speaking countries from which Bainbridge derives his stereotypes display the stereotyped behaviours that popular culture identifies as typically teenaged and that Bainbridge insists are biologically mandated. I can’t say that I much recognize the teenaged years of myself or my own three children in his descriptions of what it always is to be a teenager. His argument might be more convincing if he didn’t just take it for granted that what the media tells us teenagers are now is both true and universal and an inevitable product of biology. According to Bainbridge, all teenagers “undergo an active process of rejection of their parents which is probably essential for their development as individuals” (221). But surely a lot of teenagers in the past and now have made it and do still happily make it into adulthood without rejecting their parent’s values in any way at all. Does that mean they are biological mistakes and, presumably, therefore doomed not to reproduce enough to keep their genes surviving? It hardly seems likely.

For me, the most annoying aspect of Bainbridge’s work is that, in trying to establish that being teenaged is indeed a unique and special stage of human life, he had to invent both a childhood and an adulthood quite unlike it; and his version of childhood in particular is particularly unconvincing, not to mention, an insult to children.

He tends to assume that all adults everywhere always have been just like he is himself: “All adults have similar memories of adolescence, distorted, distanced, and rationalised by the lens of age” (76); furthermore, it happens not because of nostalgia or the imposition of cultural stereotypes on our own past, but because “our brain has changed since we were teenagers.” And in order to define teenagers as newly aware of and sensitive to relationships and the feelings of others, he seem to feel he has to insist that children are devoid of these qualities–that their biology prevents them from thinking deeply, or feeling deeply, or understanding anyone or anything deeply.

He says, “we now think we evolved children to be little brain incubators–charming, unthreatening people whose brains are not finished, but who do not eat much of our valuable food because they are small. It makes sense to keep them small for as long as possible, because all they have to do is talk all the time, break things, and manipulate adults” (69). I suspect Bainbridge is trying, and failing miserably, to be funny here.

Or again, the second decade of life is “a time when we start to ascribe extremely subtle and complex interpretations of the world around us–this is why a ten-year-old could not write a sonnet” (108). And yet some ten-year-olds do write sonnets, and many more have very complex understandings of the world and the people around them.

Or again, horrifically, “Children may be charming little people who can talk and think a little, but we do not become fully mentally human until we are teenagers” (132). Yes, I checked it–that’s an accurate quote.

Among other things, furthermore, as the teenae years begin, “many of us start to see ourselves as individuals at this time” (183). “As the first ten years of life elapse,” in fact, “children occasionally refer to how they see themselves and how they think others see them, but these flickerings of self-analysis are interspersed with long periods of an endearing ignorance of self. . . . While children are rather poor at self-analysis, preferring instead for adults to show them the correct way to do things, adolescents are the complete opposite” (189). Furthermore, “a major reason why depression often starts in adolescence is that this is the first time when the brain has sufficient cognitive abilities to be able to suffer it” (200). And we need to be teenagers in order to “start to discover the subtleties of nuance, sarcasm, irony, and satire” (138). Yeah sure–so much for Dr. Seuss and all.

All of that, of course, merely confirms some very old and very wrong assumptions about childhood–assumptions that have allowed and still do allow far too many adults to treat children cruelly or pre-emptorily, on the basis that they don’t have the feelings to be hurt by it or the intelligence to see through it.

In the light of the concerns I have with the arguments presented in this book, I probably shouldn’t be surprised to learn that Bainbridge is by profession a–wait for it–veterinary anatomist! Who better to understand and analyze the problems of human teenagers than an animal doctor, right? He says, “I must emphasize that, as a veterinary surgeon with zoological training, it is philosophically pleasing for me to view humans as ‘just another species.’  After all, they are animals like any other, subject to the same rules of biology as any other, and amenable to study” (15)  In point of fact, they are not quite so amenable to study–Bainbridge complains more than once about the impossibility of conducting the appropriate experiments on human teenagers that would, for instance, allow scientists to determine the significance of chemicals essential in the developmental process by depriving control groups of them–shades of Dr. Mengele.

But the real problem here, once more, is that Bainbridge’s focus on humans as animals tends to ignore or slide over ethical issues–to conclude, for instance, that men are biologically mandated to be aggressive and women passive, so that controlling male aggression or women taking charge of their own fates come to be viewed as evolutionarily regressive acts, or perhaps, even, impossible. What am I make of a statement like this: “If men’s brains are hard-wired to be attracted to fine-limbed, smooth-skinned, high-voiced, round-faced people, does this explain paedophilia? Are male paedophiles simply men who are more attracted to the characteristics women retain from childhood than those women acquire to puberty” (61). If so, what ya gonna do about it, eh? Biology requires that these men prey on boys, so let ‘em at it.

In viewing humans as animals, Bainbridge also tends to ignore the ways in which we are cultural beings. “[I]t is obvious to any casual observer,” he insists, “that brains of teenage boys and teenage girls often work in different ways” (89)–their brains, mind you, not their culturally-inflected minds. In cartoons and bad movies and silly advice columns, yes–but in actual real life, as a matter of course? And note the taken-for-granted assumption that sex differences account for all gender differences: “surely a brain develops differently if it is housed in a male body than in a female body?” (90), and “Teenager inherit a brain that already knows what sex it is” (96–not surprisingly, Bainbridge has a hard time accounting for homosexuality, which he sees as both inherently genetic and counter-evolutionary, since it doesn’t lead to breeding). That’s really not all that far away from assuming that, say, brains are inherently different in bodies of different skin pigmentations. In fairness, I acknowledge that Bainbridge does wonder if “perhaps our sexuality is less hard-wired than a rat’s” (95).

In response to Bainbridge’s obsession with evolutionary explanations, I’m tempted to argue that the real reason for the success and survival of homo sapiens as a species has been its incredible imaginativeness and flexibility in developing differing kinds of social and cultural arrangements and understandings, and that rather than being at the mercy of its biology, it has survived and developed exactly because of its ingenuity in inventing a huge and complex and contradictory range of ways of organizing and understandings itself in response to that biology. That why there is history. The teen age has been significantly different in different times and places, in ways apparently not interesting to the veterinarian approach.

Advertisements

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.
Go-getting
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
Polygamous

Warrior masculinity

Competitiveness
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
Self-control
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

Independence
Egocentricity
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.”)
Non-nurturing

Group masculinity

Male bonding
Male homosociality: most important relationships are with other men
Misogyny
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
Peacockery

Structural/ cultural  masculinity

Patriarchal
Hierarchical
Binary oppositional: “us vs. them”)
Colonizing
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

While avoiding work on alternating narratves, I’ve put together a book trailer for Ghosthunters 2: The Curse of the Evening Eye,  the sequel to The Proof that Ghosts Exist.  Here it is:

Not Alternating Currently

Posted: March 11, 2009 in other things

I’ve had to mothball my work on alternating narratives in the last while, in order to give some talks at conferences in Vanocuver and Troisdorf, Germany, and to work on a draft of the third novel in the Ghosthunter’s series, The Hunt for ther Haunted Elephant.  I hope to  get back to it again in April.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After the various positive comments for The Proof That Ghosts Exist, the novel by Carol Matas and me, that I recorded earlier (see Responses to the Proof That Ghosts Exist) comes this late bloomer, from School Library Journal:

MATAS, Carol & Perry Nodelman. The Proof That Ghosts Exist. Bk. 1. 216p. (The Ghosthunters Series). Key Porter, dist. by PGW. 2008. pap. $6.95. ISBN 978-1-55470-014-1. LC C2007-906679-8.

Gr 4–7—Molly and Adam have been given the task of watching their father closely during their lakeside vacation. Several of the men in his family have died the day before their 35th birthday, and the Barnetts are determined to protect Tim’s life. Meanwhile, the siblings connect with the ghost of Tim’s father, who helps them piece together the mysterious deaths. The book ends on a cliff-hanger. A cut above generic series fiction, Ghosthunters nonetheless is a serviceable, not stellar mystery. It contains the requisite spiders, screams, and knives, but the story itself is workmanlike. Molly and Adam are obvious foils for one another, and the dialogue tries too hard to point out character development. The authors explain clues rather than allowing the plot to reveal information, and the story is linear rather than three-dimensional. Ghost stories by Marion Dane Bauer, Mary Downing Hahn, or Betty Ren Wright will serve as well or better.—Caitlin Augusta, The Darien Library, CT

Oh dear.  So much for “endearing and intrepid protagonists, and a mystery complex enough to sustain interest across volumes”  (Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books). So much for “Simply put, The Proof that Ghosts Exist is a fun book to read from start to finish” (CM Magazine).   We are, in fact, merely linear and serviceable–and, it seems, above all, nothing to laugh at.

Those who don’t mind a little comedy mixed in with their ghosts or characters with a little self-awareness or a plot that doesn’t require special glasses to make sense of it might he pleased to hear that Book Two of The Ghosthunters, The Curse of the Evening Eye, will be forthcoming soon in Canada and will be available a few months later in the U.S.

curse-evening-eye-cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are comments from both Canadian and American reviews of the novel by Carol Matas and me, The Proof that Ghosts Exist, the first book of the Ghosthunters trilogy.

Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books:

As this is the first novel in a planned trilogy, there is little resolution offered as to the likelihood of their success (though the lighthearted tone certainly does not suggest the imminent death of their father). However, compelling side characters (particularly the mysterious Reggie, the giant and ominous nurse who literally appears on scene after the sibs’father is injured), endearing and intrepid protagonists, and a mystery complex enough to sustain interest across volumes will all easily draw readers back in to see what happens next.

the booksforchildren wiki:

There’s scary fun here. Molly and Adam must face their fears, and there’s some amusing play with ghost story conventions. 

Lessons from the Tortoise:

This is a funny, imaginative excursion into the world of ghost-hunting–highly recommended for middle-grade readers.

North Bay Nugget, October 25,2008:

The Proof that Ghosts Exist by Carol Matas and Perry Nodelman (Key Porter, ages nine to 14) is a rip-roaring ghost story filled with chills, thrills and more than a few laughs. Maybe it’s just a horrible coincidence that the Barnett men tend to drop dead the day before their 35th birthday. But Molly and Adam’s mom isn’t taking any chances. She has decided to spend their dad’s birthday at their remote — and safe — cottage by the lake. What could go wrong? As Molly and Adam find out — everything! The kids struggle to make sense of the odd events and figure out what’s really happening at the lake. This is the first volume in the Ghosthunters trilogy and will leave readers eagerly awaiting the next installment in this Canadian story.

CM Magazine:

Ghosts that kill provides the spook-a-riffic basis for the mystery that Adam and his sister Molly try to solve in The Proof that Ghosts Exist by Carol Matas and Perry Nodelman. This is the exciting first book in “The Ghosthunters” trilogy, and so, although some mysteries are solved, the book leaves the reader with many unanswered questions. The author duo begin the story on the premise of a family curse and then continue to mix in more mysterious elements to keep readers guessing and build the suspense. The Proof that Ghosts Exist is both an entertaining, light read and a thought-provoking story about the supernatural world. . . .

The success of this novel is in the way Nodelman and Matas tease the reader with questions of who is evil, what is evil, how do you fight or stand up to an evil that knows all of your weaknesses? Adam and Molly’s love for their dad keeps them motivated to face their fears, although, at the moment, they can only trust their instinct and the words of their grandfather. A gentle humour takes the edge away from the suspense. Simply put, The Proof that Ghosts Exist is a fun book to read from start to finish.

Nodelman and Matas effortlessly weave mystery, suspense and humour throughout the novel. As they prove that ghosts exits, the writing duo raises of number of fun and frightening questions about the supernatural world and the connection of the living to it. The Proof that Ghosts Exist is a light read that is truly “filled with chills thrills and more than a few laughs.” Highly Recommended.

The Jewish Independent, April 18, 2008:

Another story that requires readers to check their skepticism at the door is The Proof that Ghosts Exist (Key Porter Books) by Carol Matas and Perry Nodelman, but it’s wonderfully written and very entertaining – even a bit scary at times.
Molly and Adam Barnett’s family is reaching a potentially dangerous milestone: their father’s 35th birthday. For generations, Barnett men have died on the day before they turned 35. To try and avoid this tragedy in their own family, the Barnetts head to their remote cottage, where they will be away from the stresses and dangers of the city and where the children – without mom, who has to stay in town to deal with important business – can keep a close eye on their dad.
Of course, nothing is as easy as it seems and Molly and Adam have to piece together the mystery that plagues their family, all the while dealing with ghosts and more tangible threats to their and their father’s lives.
The Proof that Ghosts Exist is the first book in the Ghosthunters trilogy so, of course, it leaves readers in the lurch. But anticipation is half the fun, right?

Saskatoon Star Phoenix, May 17, 2008

Carol Matas and Perry Nodelman’s collaborative junior fiction novel The Proof that Ghosts Exist (Key Porter, paperback, $11.95), first in The Ghosthunters trilogy, is certainly well-suited for ages nine-12. Reminiscent of the glib Goosebumps novels for the same age group, Matas and Nodelman’s title operates on a premise similar to one used by British author Alan Gibbons in a book for older readers, Scared to Death: that a particular force of evil is capable of bringing on whatever it is that frightens people the most.

For Molly, it’s the sensation that she’s trapped in a small, close space. For her younger brother Adam, it’s creepy crawly things. For their father, Tim, who lives under the shadow of an approaching thirty-fifth birthday and the knowledge that both his father, and grandfather, died on their thirty-fifth birthdays, it’s his wife!

Humorous passages, including segments about an odd lakeside neighbour named Reggie who initially appears to nurse Tim’s strained ankle, keep this a light read for kids who like to be scared — but not too much.

Bookloons:

The Proof that Ghosts Exist, first in a series, offers a historical mystery, adventure interspersed with sibling banter, and a strong dose of the supernatural.

And, of course, there’s the infamous and very creepy book trailer:

I’ve given my permission for a post I wrote recently on the Child_lit listserv to appear on Susan Thomsen’s Chicken Spaghetti blog. The post is about picture book texts and their relationship to poetry.

Here’s a book trailer for my new book, The Hidden Adult: Defining Children’s Literature, out soon from Johns Hopkins University Press.

The book presents close readings of six stories in order to try to develop  a clear definition of children’s literature as a distinct literary form. I begin by considering the plots, themes, and structures of six works: “The Purple Jar,” Alice in Wonderland, Dr. Doolittle, Henry Huggins, The Snowy Day, and Plain City—all written for young people of varying ages in different times and places—to identify shared characteristics. I point out markers in each work that allow the adult reader to understand it as a children’s story, in order to shed light on ingrained adult assumptions and reveal the ways in which adult knowledge and experience remain hidden in apparently simple and innocent texts. I then engage a wide range of views of children’s literature from authors, literary critics, cultural theorists, and specialists in education and information sciences, in order to develop a theory of children’s literature, exploring its commonalities and shared themes.

You can find out more about the book on the John Hopkins website, and order it from the Amazon websites in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and elsewhere.