Archive for the ‘variation’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Foon, Dennis. Skud.  Toronto Groundwood, 2003.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pratchett, Terry.  Nation.  London: Doubleday, 2008.

Nation is most interesting (in the context of my alternating narratives project) as a very messy version of the alternating narrative novel.  There are, yes, two central characters whose points of view alternate throughout the book.  They are, yes, representative of apparently opposite groups or cultures.  They do, yes, turn out to be surprisingly similar under their apparent difference, and they do, yes, find themselves united as a new community against people who represent the two older communities they are supposed to be members of.  Thus far, all as is might be expected in a conventional alternating narrative novel for young people, complete with the expectable themes about the importance of tolerance for otherness and the sanctity of individual character and individual empathy beyond the stultification of conformity.

But all that happens in the midst of other, less formulaic things happening.  There is, every once in a while, another focalized character or narrative section involving characters other than the central two–and that seems to happen whenever the novelist needs it to in order to move the plot forward or make something happen that couldn’t happen within the narrower confines of a strict adherence to the alternating pattern.  And there are also many elements introduced that seem to move far beyond the expectable thematic territory mapped out by the basic alternating narrative structure: a kind of free-flowing thematic ebullience that introduces the forgotten history of the island group as a once-world-dominating culture, perhaps as a way of raising questions about what’s primitive and what’s valuable; and also, a lengthy exploration of what faith means and what the consequences of losing it are; and also again, a theory of alternative universes that both accounts for the book’s divergences from known geography and becomes itself a thematic exploration of ideas of choice.  And so on.  It’s clear that Pratchett’s conception of what this book might be about is a lot more complicated than its more immediately obvious structural elements might imply–and that he has a liberating lack of concern for moving away from those elements when the drift of the book moves him that way.  It’s bravely anarchic, then–except not really, for I’m convinced it all makes sense and fits together in a subtler way. that creates a less obvious and more complicated pattern.  And in being that and doing that, it reveals how constricting the alternating narrative form can be, and how tightly and restrictively so many other novels make use of it.  What appears on first glance to be daringly complex in the context of literature for young people-the use of alternating narratives or alternating focalizers–is in fact as heavily formulaic as that literature most often is, with few exceptions as bravely tending to free form as Nation does.

In terms of the basic central alternators, Nation has a lot to say about cultural difference that isn’t particularly surprising.  The two central characters are Mau, a boy who is, after a tsunami,  the last surviving member of a people who have been the inhabitant on an island in the South Pacific, known in the alternate universe of this novel as the Great Southern Pelagic Ocean), and Daphne, an English girl whose father is 139th in line for the throne of England until a plague kills them all and makes him king, and who ends up shipwrecked on Mau’s island.  To begin with, the two are the only living people on the island; but as the alternating sections that focalize them reveal, both have their heads full of the patterns and constrictions and demands of their cultures.  His head is full of the grandfathers’ his dewad ancestors’  voices making demands of him to do as has always been done, hers of the intricate systems of repressive etiquette and class assumptions that her education has provided her.  These two systems of repressive communal values are then seen in relation to each other, their apparent differences (and the one’s understanding of the other as foolish superstition or incomprehensible silliness) undermined in the obvious parallels between them).

As a result of the alternations, readers are able to see the two characters understanding the same situations quite different’y, and understanding each other quite incorrectly.  There’s a kind of Rashomon affect, then, as two differing versions of the same event can each be seen through in terms of a reader’s knowledge of the alternative version.  Here that’s used for comedy more often than not, especially in terms of how the non-English misunderstand Daphne’s behaviour as a representative of a culture most readers are likely to be more familiar with, and how, on the other hand, contemporary readers can appreciate the absurdity of Victorian English customs and manners as perceived by the non-English characters.

But the tsunami has separated these two from the old ways, which no longer make any sense.  They must, then, move beyond them–and in doing so, not surprisingly, find themselves capable of behaviour that previously would not have been allowed them, find themselves liking it–and find themselves developing what is for them, if not for readers accustomed to this form, a surprising amount of empathy for and understanding of each other.  And as more survivors land on the island, they begin to form a new nation whose values emerge from their new situation and represent modifications and combinations and re-inventions of the old ways–and also, to a certain extent, a Terry Patchett version of of an improvisational, free-formed utopia.   It’s interesting, in terms of patterns and variatons, that there are extreme representatives of both the repressiveness of each of the cultures (the grandfathers and an old priest for one, Daphne’s the impossibly arrogant grandmother for the other) and the most unconstrained of its members (evil sailors for one, evil cannibals for the other)–and all meet their counterparts at the end, and are conquered by the improvisational but not ever anarchic new middle ground.

(Furthermore, this thematic focus on improvisational moves past repressive patterning, etc., nicely justifies the messiness of the novel’s structure along with its use of conventional alternatng narrative, so that its both imprivational and somewhat traditional.  it is itself a version of the central values of the new nation it describes, and repsents a similar compromise between two extremes of order and anarchy.)

Meanwhile, Mau and Daphne find themselves a new team together against the prejudices and constrictions of each of their backgrounds, and so there’s a kind of Romeo and Juliet thing happening also–and one that ends, surprisingly here in the context of a novel for young adults, in the traditional fashion: the loves are ot together.  She must return home to help her father rule his people, he must stay to rule his, so that their duty to their individual communities (and more importantly, to the new values they have forged together and want to keep afloat), trumps their feelings for each other.

I’m not sure what to think about the long history of Mau’s people that’s uncovered in their descent into the cave of dead ancestors.  It works to reinforce the equality of his supposedly primitive people and her supposedly more civilized people; but it does so by giving them a history of scientific rational knowledge and world travel that makes them sound a lot like the European colonizers of actual history, as if to imply that that sort of knowledge and that sort of world-encompassing culture is indeed a superior one.  On the other hand, it happened and is now over, its superiority forgotten as the current European one will be also?

One way or the other, this is a rich, ambiguous, funny, serious, thought-provoking novel, a pleasure to read and a pleasure to think about and still feel uncertain about because there’s still more yet to think about.