Archive for the ‘verse’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you tell I don’t like it?

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

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

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

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

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

Carvell, Marlene.  Sweetgrass Basket.  New York: Dutton, 2005

In this novel of what claims to be free verse, two young Mohawk sisters leave the reserve to attend a boarding school, and tell of their experiences there in alternating “poems.”  As is typical of texts of this sort, the sections are in the first-person present tense, as the two alternating characters report (to themselves apparently, for these are not thoughts shared with other people) events and their responses to them as they happen.   The effect is of alternating solitudes or isolations–only readers can know what goes on in both girl’s minds, and they are deprived of knowledge of each other.  But here that hardly matters–there is very little to distinguish the two girls, whose thoughts are “poetic” in exactly the same way as each other.  Indeed, I can’t see any reason why there are actually two characters here–or at least I didn’t for a long time, until one of them died, and so it became clear that they’d have two separate fates and one would have to deal with the death of her sister.  But before then, it just seemed like an unnecessary duplication–a way of loading even more misery into the book as we read how two characters suffer rather than just one.

In that way, Sweetgrass Basket follows the pattern I’ve noticed in books written by Aboriginals or people who claim contact with aboriginality.  Unlike books by people of European descent, which tend to involve a central white character and a central native one, these books tend to have two aboriginal characters as alternating focalizers, as here, and have less to do with conflicts between different people (standard in the books by white people) than they do with two people playing different parts in the same experience, but not often or intensely in conflict with each other.  so these two sisters have their occasional differences, but really are more alike than not, and combine to convey more of the experience they share than fight with each other.  They are then both on the same side, with their white enemies–cruel teachers who mistreat them–not provided with focalizaitons so that we can get their version of events.   The result is certainly one-sided, in that there is no positive or justifying view of why the white people think the school is a good idea or how they see it as beneficial–they’re just mean old cranks and sadists, and that’s that.

A stronger book might have allowed them to have at least their own view of how they were doing the right thing for good ends–even if it turned out they were wrong about it.  Here I just find myself being crankily dismissive because the authorities are all just plain evil through and through, and even seem to be aware of their own evil and revel in it.   I’d be more likely to be persuaded if the bad guys thought they were the good guys. In other words, this book just reverse the old Hollywood good cowby/bad Indian stereotypes, and so seems equally shallow and melodramatic.

Carvell, by the way, claims only to have been inspired by her husband’s Great Aunt’s experience at a residential school–a pretty distant way of claiming some aboriginal authenticity, although she does make a fairly typical sort of property claim when in her acknowledgments she thanks her husband “for letting his family be mine.”   She does, though, avoid the usual white claiming of aboriginality by not having any terribly predominant white characters to make such claims within the text–but it does seem a book mainly designed to make white readers feel bad about what our ancestors did  (I do sense a primarily non-aboriginal readership as the main intended audience–I’m not exactly sure why.  Maybe because it’s just about how awful white people in power are, with very little sense of what an aboriginal reader might do about it or learn from it.).   The few helpful older people seem to be immigrants or minorities or of African American descent.   In other words, every aspect of the book insists on white mainstream guilt, unrelievedly.  and so it mostly avoids the possible implications of difference in alternating narrators, and the possible subtleties in presenting differing points of view.  It is simply and determinedly one-sided and monological.

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

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

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

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

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

Some don’t:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little, Melanie. The Apprentice’s Masterpiece.  Toronto:  Annick, 2008

Medieval Spain, fifteenth century.  There are two focalizing characters: Ramon, the son of a scribe, a Jew whose family has converted to Christianity but nevertheless experiences an increasing intolerance of “conversos”–those not of longstanding Christian blood; and Amir, a Muslim slave who comes to work for Ramon’s father.  The book presents, first Ramon’s story, then, after a brief repetition of the last events of Ramon’s story from Amir’s point of view, the continuation of Amir’s life separated from Ramon, and then, thirdly Ramon again as he re-meets Amir in different circumstances.  The narratives don’t alternate throughout, in other words, and tend to tell just one side of the story at any given time, so that readers are left without knowledge of what’s going on as the other central character understands it (until much later we learn how Amir understood events he experienced with Ramon in his own later narrative).

Furthermore, the book is set up as a series of poems, each a page or two, and separate enough from each other so that each has its own name.  Each describes a character’s thoughts in one specific moment (and in the present tense), and there is little sense of connection between the moments–indeed, a lot of what happened is left unreported, so it comes as a surprise, for instance, when Amir’s section comes along, to learn that he and Ramon had developed something of a friendly relationship.  Ramon himself hasn’t really thought about that, though, at least not in the moments recorded here; in them, Ramon is almost exclusively a nuisance to Ramon.  And Ramon has other things on his mind more pressing to him, it seems, like a girl he believes he’s in love with–but it’s something of a cheat for the author to leave the other moments unreported so that what didn’t matter to Ramon himself can then become more important to Amir as reported later in Amir’s section and then very important to Ramon himself, as reported in the last section when he tries to save the life of the boy he once, I imagined, just disliked.

It’s a somewhat manipulative trick not to be told of things happening that will turn out to be important later–a trick dependent on the fact that the book presents itself as poetry, so that any narrative flow is implied rather than actually present in the isolated bits of narrative each poem presents, and it’s up to readers to figure out how these moments connect to each other in terms of a plot or connected sequence of events.  Readers get to play connect the dots, sort of, and here, the specific dots simply leave out  other moments that turn out to be important in the characters’ later relationship retrospectively.  This is maybe a way of taking the isolation and then connection inherent in an alternating narrative structure to an extreme: offering deceptively isolated moments only in order to unveil the surprising connections between them later on.  (After having thought about Dr. Atomic, I might call this isolating aspect of alternating narratives, leading to often explosively climactic connection, an atomic bomb effect.)

The book is, of course, about characters somehow isolated (here by racial and religious prejudice, primarily) becoming connected, and about apparently different people discovering their hidden sameness.  In a way, that’s more or less what all stories with alternating narratives are about, or at least, it’s one of the most obvious ways a novelist can make use of this kind of structure, so that either this form inherently suggests that kind of ideological position or else the widespread power of that ideology (especially in terms of how adults want young people to understand the world) leads many writers to the alternating narrative as a good way to express it.  Structure creates substance, or substance invites structure?  I don’t know which, or maybe both.

Here, the issues are both religious and familial.  It’s Jews vs. Christians vs. Muslims, and the sanctity of the individual mind and individual family against all three.  Ramon can’t understand why his father seems more interested in Amir than in himself (although it becomes clear that, despite family blood, Amir has been an equally  obvious successor of Ramon’s father and sharer of his values as is Ramon himself–and it’s Ramon’s own understanding of that and recommitment to those values he hadn’t earlier been able to share that brings him together with Amir   He first, though, has to learn what was hidden from him (and us)–that his father had come to love Amir enough to have actually freed him from slavery, and asked him to call him Pappa, etc.–but that rather than all this being a rejection of Ramon, the father had kept Ramon out of knowing it for fear of its danger to him.  So political circumstances have isolated one boy from the other even while love and empathy were making the members of the same family, and doing it while putting them in enough contact to experience a mutual empathy they can acknowledge and act on only much later.

So external circumstances–politics, religion–separate those who are not truly different.  True community is with those who share our commitments and ideals, not necessarily, as the inquisition would have it, with those who share our blood or our faith.  There’s an implication that religion and politics are the enemy here–what divides and corrupts.  (It’s also interesting that, despite one being a Christian Jew and the other a Muslim, these boys echo many alternating narrative characters by being, in fact, on the same side against a common enemy, in this case the Inquisition.  Alternating narratives rarely pit good guys against bad guys, and tend instead to prefer to show two different [but in the end not-so-different] responses to the evil left unfocalized.)

To begin with, Ramon, as an embattled converso, is set up as a sympathetic sufferer of intolerance and injustice.  He  then reveals his own intolerance for the outsider Amir, and so must learn to be more genuinely tolerant by understanding his own tendency to self-aggrandizement and prejudice, and to act against it.  At first, he sees himself as confused, half-Christian, half-Jew, (and indeed, without really experiencing or expressing any actual faith in anything), while Amir knows who he is–and claims (to himself? it’s unclear who the audience for these monologues is) to be a devout Muslim (even though his texts really give little evidence of that in the way of emotional involvement, etc.; he’s a religious person who doesn’t sound the least bit religious, and who says he’s praying but who never actually prays).

Ramon must be punished, then–for intolerance, though, not for lack of faith: the book seems generally unhappy about faith.  So he falls in love with the wrong girl, and somehow ends up ordering the slave Amir around and into danger and backing himself into the corner of having to become a scribe for the Inquisition. Later, knowing how that led to Amir’s being attacked in the street and then having to flee (and eventually, becoming a slave yet once more) Ramon feels a guilt he must then expunge.  At the end, after Ramon desperately tries to save Amir’s life, it’s Amir who helps save Ramon’s life.  Empathy triumphs over religion.

About difference, the text offers a quote from the poet Hafiz:

How can two different eyes behold you as you are?
Each will see according to what it knows.

That’s a basic principle of the world of alternating narratives.  But often, as again here, the difference is mostly theoretical.  Amir and Ramon don’t really sound different from each other in their different narratives–it’s like the same voice describing different circumstances in the same way.  And neither sounds terribly committed to whatever religious values they’re supposed to espouse.  They seem like twenty-first century people claiming a faith they don’t actually seem to feel or be immersed in.  Religion is referred to, then, but not actually present except as that which divides soul-mates (recognizable to readers as self-centring modern individuals like ourselves) from each other.  And in the end, individual character triumphs over faith and race claims, and two boys who think and sound almost exactly alike acknowledge their allegiance.

Yet once more, also, I have to complain about the so-called poetry that’s so fashionable in novels for young people these days (see also: The Braid and Beating Heart.  These pieces in The Master’s Apprentice just read like personal musings, with little sense of concentration of emotion or of language that particularly expressive–and the line-breaks seem to be there just to make them look like poems, for they don’t add anything to the ideational or emotional structure or rhythm of the pieces.  So the pieces are more like diary entries than what I would be willing to give the name poetry to.  Just being an old-fashioned snob, I guess.  But I do think that a story told in something like real poetry might well have the intensity to survive the distancing and isolation of all these separate little sections, and that doesn’t happen here because the language simply isn’t interesting enough to be worth paying attention to for more than the story it’s telling–the events.

Also, these present tense narratives sound very narrative-like–more like a statement of how someone feels or what he remembers as spoken to an audience than like interior monologue, which is surely less narratively organized, and more dramatically conflicted?  So really, they are more narrative than poetry.  (And it’s weird that these fifteenth century Spanish boy says things like “Here’s what I don’t get” or that something “feels gutsy”–very recent idioms, meant, I suspect, to make the text seem lively but that somehow just stick out like unruly cowlicks and draw attention to themselves, and that end up confirming the unacknowledged similarity of these two theoretically different characters who both share a 21st century mind).

Boy, am I sounding like a grumpy old poop.  But I’m suspecting that the only reason there are so many book set up this way these days, as supposed free verse that’s free of verse, is because, unlike what used to be called poetry, this widely spaced prose is easy to read quickly, and you can say you’ve read a whole fat novel that, laid out in the more traditional way, would be about half the apparent length.   Not verse for language lovers, then, but easy-to-read prose for language haters.  Feh.

Frost, Helen.  The Braid.  New York: Frances Foster/Farrar, Straus, 2006.

The book consists of a series of “poems”–or, I guess, would-be poems, for I fail to see much in the way of what I would personally consider poetry in them.  The language isn’t terribly distinguished or even all that interesting in and for itself (i.e., as separate from what it describes–and it certainly doesn’t give me the sense that what it describes is worth hearing about because of the way the language captures it), and there’s no intensity of perception, no sense of something specifically caught and understood by means of a very specific choice of words.  It’s basically just the narratives of two girls alternating with each other) as they describe and respond to their experiences, in poems with lines so long that they almost fill the page as much as a block of prose would–and they have no obvious rhythmic patterning, etc., so it’s hard to understand how exactly it is they’re not prose.

That’s where the author’s “notes on form” become relevant.  she explains that “The last words of each line in one narrative poem are the first words in each line in the following narrative poem, sometimes in a slightly different form.” Meanwhile, between the narrative poems are what she calls “praise poems,” shorter ones that look more like conventional lyric poems of our time, (and I have to say, rather tiredly conventional ones in both imagery and sentiment) “each of which praises something named in the narrative poems,” and “The last line of one praise poem is braided into the first line of the next praise poem.” So there’s a lot of complex organizing going on here, and I suppose I ought to be thinking about Yeats saying,

A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.

And I would, if I thought the end result worked.  But it doesn’t in fact seem a moment’s thought, but instead rather laboured–and weirdly, in the endnotes, calling attention to its organizational principles in a way that does for me make the stitching and unstitching naught.  It’s like a giant Lego model of a roller coaster, the kind you look at at wonder at all the effort that went into it and yet you can’t actually take a ride on it.  It’s just intricate organization for its own sake (although here it does claim a purpose, although for me not persuasively–more about that later).  In being fussily over-contrived, though, and once I’ve had my attention drawn to the contrivance, I find it distracts attention from whatever there is of a story.

The story is about a Scottish family in 1850, who emigrate to Cape Breton in Canada after being forced off their land.  But one sister can’t bear to leave and stays behind, and so we have the two separated and thinking across the miles of each other, connected only by the braid of their intertwined hair each has half of.   The text itself is clearly then an attempt to weave a similar braid, in that it makes connections between events in the lives of each of the sisters that the other knows nothing about.  It is, in other words, an artificial contrivance that is supposed to reveal a connection between the two sisters despite distance–a connection they don’t and can’t actually have anymore.  And the extent to which it remains a contrivance implies the extent to which the book tries but fails to be upbeat about the situation of these girls forever apart from each other.  Despite physical distance, despite all the evidence, they are still, the book insists, somehow connected with each other–because look how they share diction and metaphors! (Not that they themselves know about the metaphors, so it’s only readers who get this imagined happy ending.)  It’s a wish-fulfillment fantasy, then, imposed against logic on material that has to be clumsily manipulated to allow it.

As a set of alternating narratives, then, this book represents a common use of that form: a perception of connection between two quite separate and different stories that can emerge from a reader’s knowledge of both stories, knowledge that neither of the characters in the alternating narratives possesses.   It’s an ideal form for interweaving–or, I guess, “braiding,” two separate threads of plot in ways that make two stories into a third more complex story.

Here, however, we have a story of immigration in which a family is in fact forever divided and its two separate parts out of contact with each other.  Imagining a connection beyond that is just sentimental hope triumphing over bleak but inevitable reason–and ignoring one of the central truths of the immigrant experience across history, that when you leave you leave things you love behind, forever.  I guess it’s that sentimental insistence that love conquers all even when you’re never going to see the one you love again that I most dislike here–it makes light of the harsh facts of the lives of most immigrants, and the bravery of accepting actual separation.  There’s even a nigh-unto-impossible coincidence of the man the girl who stayed behind loves, forced to go across the Atlantic himself, running into the other sister and them being able to come back home again and thus being able to bring news in both directions.   What are the odds?

While Frost calls her longer pieces “narrative poems,” and while they do sort of tell the stories of these two sisters, the novel doesn’t actually feel like much of a narrative.  It certainly isn’t, as a whole, a narrative poem, because each of the pieces is built around a discreet emtoion-driven episode, so much so that the whole seems quite disjointed.  The focus is on small perceptions and insights, not on what happens next.  Despite efforts to join the episodes together by means of the line-braiding and all, each one remains distinct, and the connections exist more on a symbolic level than on any narrative one.   There’s little sense of a plot-driven thrust forward through the whole, and by and large, the alternating between narratives creates little in the way of suspense or, for me, interest.   It’s more like a series of moments captured but unconnected except by the organizational contrivances than like the moment-leading-to-moment that is the basic thrust of narrative.

There are many novels for young people with alternating narratives that allow for actual moves from isolation to connection, from distance to togetherness.  Among the ones I’ve read, in totally random order, are Jones’ The Merlin Conspiracy, Schwarz’s Initiation, McDonald’s Swallowing Stones, Creech’s The Wanderer, Oates’s Big Mouth and Ugly Girl, Bruchac’s The Arrow Over the Door, Swindell’s Abomination, Browne’s Hunted, Wilson’s Secrets,  Macdonald’s The Lake at the End of the World, Barnes’ Killing Aurora,  Metzenthen’s Boys of Blood and Bone,Fitch’s The Gravesavers, Heneghan’s Promises to Come, Katz’s False Face, Clark’s The Dream Carvers, Katz’s Out of the Dark, Hughes’s Log Jam, Hartinger’s Grand and Humble, Watts’ Flower, Doherty’s Dear Nobody, Chambers’s Postcards from No Man’s Land, Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy Van Draanen’s Flipped, Woodsons If You Come Softly Peterson and Ruckman’s rob& Cohn and Levithan’s Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Rapp’s 33 Snowfish, Huser’s Skinnybones and the Wrinkle Queen, Flinn’s Fade to Black, Baker’s Up Molasses Mountain,  Caswell’s Double Exposure, Mahy’s The Other Side of Silence, Katz’s The Third Magic , Brooks’s Mistik Lake, Flesichman’s Seedfolk, Flesichman’s Seek, Klause’s The Silver Kiss, Browne’s Warriors of Alavna, Ellis and Walters’s Bifocal, Ure’s Come Lucky April, Harrison’s Facing the Dark, Schmidt’s Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, Dyer’s Ms. Zephyr’s Notebook, Farmer’s Thicker than Water, Nilsson’s You & You & You, Katz’s Sun God, Moon Witch, Jones’s Deep Secret, Hughes’s The Maze, Juby’s Another Kind of Cowboy, Stone’s A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl, Draper’s Copper Sun.  This book is different from most if not all of these in that it purports to make that move without actually allowing the characters to make it.  The two threads or isolated characters don’t actually come to intertwine, they only do it symbolically.  They would be unlikely, of course to have made it back together again historically in the context of a story of immigration–which might be why more typical immigrant stories with alternating narratives alternate between characters who meet in the new land.  But it’s the wish-fulfilment aspect of the implied symbolic connection of people sundered by history that’s most noteworthy, and to me, most unconvincing, here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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