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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you tell I don’t like it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marsh, Richard.  The Joss:  A Reversion. 1901.  Chicago:  Valancourt, 2007

Marsh, best known as author of the scary and truly unsettling novel The Beetle (1897), was a writer of popular junk for inexperienced or unsophisticated adult readers–and not always a very good one.  His stories, for instance, collected in The Seen and the Unseen (1900) often start well, and then sort of just poop out, as if he’d lost interest, or couldn’t think of another twist to maintain the suspense.  and something similar, unfortunately, happens in The Joss, which starts incredibly well and then goes pretty steeply downhill, and ends without ever offering an adequate explanation of its main mysteries.

Indeed, the main reason for that descent in The Joss seems to be the presence within it of alternating narratives–or, I guess more accurately, not so much alternating ones as successive ones.  The novels consists of four sections or books, followed by an “Author’s Postscript.”  Each of these is identified not just with a title, but following the title, with a sentence identifying the narrator; thus, in Book I, “Mary Blyth Tells the Story,” whereas in Book II, we have “The Facts of the Case According to Emiuly Purvis,” followed by Book III, “Mr. Frank Paine Tells the Story . . .” and Book IV, “Captain Max Lander Sets forth the Curious Adventure . . .”  Mary Blyth, the first of these narrators, is lively and entertaining, and Marsh does an excellent job of communicating her stubbornness and fearlessness and vitality as she confronts some truly weird and fascinating occurrences.  But then, the other three narrators are much less lively and even kind of vapid, and while they communicate more of the events that involve Mary so centrally,  they never actually do clarify what they’re all about.  It remains a sort of Orientalist mystery, the mere fact of characters having allowed themselves to become involved in strange Asiatic religions and their godless gods apparently enohg to allow for all the mysteriously inexplicable happenings that occur in a dark houses in central London.  Readers learn how strangeness became imported into that house form the mysterious and clearly repellent East–but not exactly what the mystery is or why it’s so repulsive.  Perhaps this wouldn’t have been so disappointing if the first section hadn’t been so involving, for really there’s nothing spectacularly or unusually wrong here.  The second narrator is a typical frightened damsel in distress–only annoyingly weak in comparison to her strong friend Msry, and the narrator of the last section tells a quite typical story of intrigue and adventure and violence at sea.  It just somehow doesn’t seem enough because what happens to Mary is so truly disturbing, ands because she responds to it with such character and vitality.    Marsh seems to have figured out just how a story told by an interesting character in a personal way can add energy and dimension to a novel–and then, more or less, forgotten about it.

Nevertheless,  The Joss seems important to think about here because it is, as far as I know or have been able to figure out so far, the first example of explicitly asserting the names of different narrators for different sections of a novel.  I can’t think of another, in fact, until Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, published in 1930.  As most people usually think about it, As I Lay Dying would seem to be a much more typical kind of book to feature alternating narratives–it’s experimental, demanding, stream-of-consciousness, highly literary, an artifact of high culture.  So it’s intriguing that it should be preceded in this particular innovative technique by a book so clearly of the genre of junk literature.   And for that reason, it might be a particularly significant novel for me to be aware of in thinking about alternating narratives for young people.

One thing occurs to me if I think of the differing effects Faulkner achieves in The Sound and the Fury (1929) and As I Lay Dying.  Both offer parts of the story narrated from different points of view, but the first of them is more like The Joss than the second, in that it presents a series of four narratives from differing points of view, without ever actually alternating the narrators.  Unlike The Joss, The second Faulkner novel does alternate narrators, bringing each of them back again more than once, and has a lot more of them–which seems to be what might have spurred Faulkner to label each of their sections with their names, as he hand;t odne in the earlier novel; otherwise, As I Lay Dying would be much more difficult to figure out than it already is.  So the names are a way of communicating hard stuff to readers–a sort of didactic device.  No wonder, then, that they should appear in a book like The Joss, intended for less experienced or sophisticated readers whom one might well assume would have trouble figuring out that different people are supposed to be telling of different events unless it’s clearly spelled out–even when the stories being told are the easy and conventional thriller adventure ones.  That this sort of name-labelling occurs so often in alternating narrative for young readers might then equally reveal how their writers seem to he conscious of how this writing style might be stretching the abilities of inexperienced young readers. the names, in effect, make these novels a sort of theoretically sophisticated writing technique offered in its most simple and most available way.–the genre of writing for young people, once more, pulling back the unexpected and innovative into the area of what’s relatively easily knowable and acceptable.  And the names label sections in most writing for young people that are much more easy to make sense of that Faulkner’s streams of consciousness in As I Lay Dying.  The clear line between the popular novel of a century ago and the supposedly more experimental writing for young people of today is, I think, very illuminating.

One other thing that The Joss shares with a lot of alternating narratives for young people is that, while there’s a clear binary oppositions between good people and bad ones, with the bad ones all being very clearly identified as being from or being tainted by the mysterious Orient,  no bad characters is allowed to present a point if view of his or her own.  So we get four people all on the same side telling of events and confirming the same or similar impressions of the badness of the truly bad Orientals, just as many YA novels involves significant oppositions–between slave-owners ands slaver, or Nazi and Jews, etc.,–but never offer one of the people on the clearly wrong side as as focalizing narrator.   So a clearly binary oppositional world-view is not represented in a nevertheless binary narrative, as two people on more or less the same side disagree a little but agree in their opposition to the one clear and obvious enemy.  Once more, the clear line of similarity between a popular fiction of an earlier day and supposedly sophsiticated fiction for young people now is highly instructive.

Why, if they don’t present oppositional points of view, are there different narrators in The Joss?  It’s more a question of plot considerations, I think.  The four narratng characters don’t have exactly the same experiences, and each knows of parts of the mystery that the others don’t, or has experiences to report that the others don’t.  There’s a sort of filling in, going on then,  as readers learn more than any of the individual characters know of the story they’re all helping to tell.  Also, there are comparison being made, especially between the two female narrators, who are really quite opposite in character despite their friendship. And the all show us how the others seem to people outside themselves as well as what they individually feel and think inside–so there are other comparisons and contrasts available also.

The Beetle also has four successive narrators; more on that, possibly, later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barnes, Julian.  Arthur & George.  New York: Knopf, 2006.

Since I mentioned this novel while discussing Barnes’s Talking It Over, it seems useful to say a bit more about it here.  Arthur and George tells the story of how Arthur Conan Doyle, mostly famous as the inventor of the arch crime solver Sherlock Holmes, helps George Edalji, a lawyer sent to prison for attacking animals and other crimes, to get out of a wrongful conviction.  This is based in actual historical events, and I have to admit that, while I greatly enjoyed reading it, it’s hard to tell exactly why it’s a novel exactly.  It’s very good at creating the characters of Doyle (enthusiast, sportsman, lover, etc.) and Edalji (which Barnes seems to have made up even though there was such as man and such a case–but little biographical info?–whereas his Doyle is based on biographical materials?).  And they are interesting characters, and in an interesting situation, especially in terms of the racial backgrounds of the central characters in a time of racial tensions and empire–but it isn’t clear why it forms a cohesive whole, why exactly Barnes wants to tell this story.  What does it amount to thematically?

Nothing particularly obvious, at least to me.  I suppose it shows how class, race, colour, and so on influence how people are thought about and how they think about themselves, but that hardly seems enough, and in any case, is surely inevitable in the context of a specified historical place and time?

In a way, even, the history weighs it down as a novel.  It has to follow the contours of what’s known (even though Barnes invents beyond that), and so things happen that seem somehow extraneous to the central concerns–like, for instance, Doyle’s interest in spiritualism.  This doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the Edalji plot, except insofar as Edalji is always rational and has no truck with it, and so there’s an opposition to be considered, but isn’t really all that subtle or interesting a one.  But the spiritualism has to be there, because it was a fact of the real Doyle’s life.  And as a result, the novel somehow seems more random than a novel should be–or perhaps, infuriatingly, it’s just more subtle than I’m managing to get.

Moreover, it never really seems to justify the alternating narratives.  We see inside each man’s thoughts, but they are not necessarily understanding or misunderstanding each other in ways that surface as particularly thematic, nor are any of the usual things happening that an alternating focalized narration is usually used for.  All it does is allow the story of two men quite different from each other and who start out unconnected but then become connected to be told–with the implication (inherent in the form?) that somehow one’s life contrasts or counterpoints the other’s.  Two quite different people come to be involved, but that still doesn’t seem enough to justify all this effort.

Nevertheless, there is clearly a paralleling of the alternating narrations.  The book moves unevenly through the characters’ lives, with some short alternating sections and then long sections devoted just to one of the characters–but when the latter happens, then it happens in turn with each of the characters.  Also, the plot involves a history of life-changing events–for Edalji, being arrested, tried, convicted, and imprisoned all in one long go, for Doyle, meeting a younger woman he falls in love with even though, he thinks, he’s more or less happily married.  So I have the sense that if I spent more time at it (which might well be worthwhile), I could unearth a whole saga of counterpoints and variations.

The whole clearly follows an expected pattern: Arthur and George start quite separately and have little or nothing to do with each other, but then one hears of the other, and then they meet and become involved–and then, in this case, move apart into isolation again.  They effect each others lives, but they don’t become a happy family or community, as most conventionally happens in children’s fiction with alternating narratives.

They are, in fact, significantly different to start with, and, intriguingly, remain so throughout  Difference does not, as most often in fiction for oyung people, lead to sameness or perceptions of shared selfhood or interest.  Doyle is gregarious, manly, active, sexually alive, Edalji is the opposite of all those.  One of the men is already famous, the other obscure until he becomes notorious for his supposed crimes.  Arthur feels saddled with Sherlock Holmes, yet agrees to take on Edalji’s case in spite of his disclaimers about interest in crime-solving.  Edalji, son of a Parsee and a Scots mother, has been raised in an isolated household and is a weird isolate, but thinks of himself as thoroughly English and quite normal.  Is Holmes then an opposite?  He is the quite normally and thoroughly an English establishment stud, but constantly dwells on his Irishness, his being different.  Both, then, lack self-perception?  And are their lacks of self-perception related to class and race–how their views of themselves are at odds with the cultural norm’s dominant view, which affects their lives despite their refusal to see it?  That works more readily for Edalji than it does for Doyle, perhaps, who wants to be “different” rather than “same,” instead of vice-versa.

And finally–what does Doyle’s spiritualism have to do with anything?  He is the thoroughly rational man suckered by himself, whereas Edalji is the unusual eccentric guy suckered by his sense of his own normalcy.

So maybe this novel is about something after all.  Even so, even the Julian Barnes website ( seems uncertain about that, offering this impressively vague and embracing statement about the novel:  ” It is a novel about low crime and high spirituality; guilt and innocence; identity, nationality and race; and thwarted passion.  Arthur & George explores what we think, what we believe, and what we know.”  Golly, is that all?  How narrow can you get?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barnes, Julian.  Talking It Over.  New York and Toronto: Knopf, 1991

A book by Barnes much earlier than Arthur and George (2006), this one reveals then a longstanding interest in narrative alternations.  Talking It Over is about a love triangle–about two men of apparently opposite character who’ve been friends since school, and the woman one of them meets and marries and then the other steals away.  These three are the alternating narrators.  The novel itself often makes claims to being a sort of Roshomon situation–the characters seeing and understanding the same events differently.  See for instance, the quote from Shostakovich’s autobiography: “He lies like an eye-witness” (222).  Also, while we’re getting their versions of events, we can’t particularly trust them because they are aware of the person who is recording their stories–and perhaps even have a glimmering that they are actually characters in that person’s novel.  One way or the other, their awareness of a storyteller they talk at allows for their misrepresenting what happened or how they felt about it even within their own narratives: this offers  no stream of consciousness interior view of their minds, only what they’re willing to share, which will inevitably be then privileged in terms of presenting just what they want someone else to know.   Indeed, this is often a subject, too.  Oliver says, e.g., that we remember only what we care to out of the vast range of possible details and events.  “I don’t remember.  I won’t remember.  Memory is an act of will, and so is forgetting” (16).

But in fact, the novel challenges that idea.  For one thing, it never really does work as a Roshomon story.  We don’t get different characters’ views of the same events; instead, we get each character telling us only what they choose to tell, and it often happens later that we discover they’ve kept things back, from each other and also from the person they’re talking to through it all–the novelist, perhaps?  Me?   As they “talk it over,” then, they become the novelists of their own fictions, fictions built on not particularly whole truths.   This is not a case of people interpreting the same events differently in terms of their differences of character, etc.; it’s a case of people creating, consciously, different versions of events that then hide more detailed and more complex truths.  In “talking it over,” they reinvent it, quite deliberately, in order to create musunderstandings in each other and in readers.  The ending involves a deliberate act of staging.

The central characters are the stolid bankerly Stuart, his more artistic friend Oliver, and Gillian, who moves from Stuart to Oliver.  Stuart is not quite so completely stolid and dull as Oliver imagines, and Oliver manages to keep things secret from Stuart also–they are neither as caricature a representative of the dulls vs. the artsies as they each imagine the other to be.  (Thus, Stuart claims that “I’ve always thought you are who you are and you shouldn’t pretend to be anything else.  But Oliver used to correct me and explain that you are whoever it is you’re pretending to be” (19)  Neither of these turns out to be true–Stuart does pretend (by leaving things out for both Stuart and readers) and Oliver is more (or perhaps sometimes, less) than he pretends to be.

And on the other hand, they both work hard to maintain those images for each other.  The last section of the involves Oliver, who throughout the novel actually struck me as an egocentric, wit-obsessed, cruel human being, quite unattractive and quite objectionable, getting the girl–perhaps a wish-fulfilment fantasy for the witty Julian Barneses of the world? On the other hand, however, maybe he;s lost the girl at the very end–or she has lost him.  And Stuart really is quite dull.  In the end, I guess, you have to feel sorry for the mysterious Gilliam for allowing either of them into her life.  And why she does so remains more or less blank: she prefers to keep it that way, it seems.  Indeed, a key expectation not ever met here is that she’ll end up explaining it all, offering insights into the other two that help to account for why things work out as they do.  But in fact, she says little about that, and ends up seeming merely passive, and easily led, and then she creates disaster, perhaps, when she does act   That also makes the story about the relationship between the two men, with Gillian thrown in as a sort of prize for them to fight over.  It’s about how they need to be opposite to maintain each other’s sense of self, and how that leads them into a peculiar competitiveness that governs all their behaviour–with perhaps, Gilian as the unwilling (or willing?) victim? Also, she loves a Stuart who is what he created for Oliver?  Or does she love the real man beyond that, and hate when he turns into the caricature? (Or, as she claims still love him–love them both?)   Annd I can ask the same questions about how she feels about Oliver–how does the caricature version impinge on her feelings for him, before and after she fall in love with him?

Gillian’s work as a picture restorer seems operative here–she removes a veneer to find a different picture underneath: does that happen in her relationships with the two men?  On the other hand, Oliver, as usual has an opinion about this: “”There is no real picture under there waiting to be revealed” (122))  and later, Gilliam makes a related significant comment: “”Stuart had his idea of what I was like, he’d decided upon it, and he didn’t want to hear anything different” (175).  So this is where life escapes from the confines of story, where what you’ve invented as your life isn’t adequate to account for expanded or changed facts. Stuart, ironically (?), is the one stuck in an imaginary reality that Oliver and Gillian move beyond?  Oliver turns out to be open to more possibilities, less stuck in a pretence.  The irony is that the stolid normal guy is the one stuck in an invented image.  He is less capable of the vulnerability of openness to other stories than the poseur who believes in posing.

The ending involves a stages scene (staged by Gillian for the benefit of a concealed Stuart who doesn’t know she’s staging it) that goes very wrong, and we’re left hanging as to the consequences.  Is Gillian finally on her own, without either of the two men?  Has she created a reality by pretending to it?  Or did her staging in fact work as she’d intended?

All of that merely suggests that I’m somewhat confused by, and about, this novel.  All I know for sure is that the alternating narratives (and the fact that they’re addressed consciously to an audience) are a key operative part of everything, and a way of moving towards a clearer understanding.  Structure, then, and focalization, are a key to meaning–what the novel is about is how different stories by and about people can be compared in order to understand more.

Why does Gillian’s mother suddenly appear as a narrator, 145 pages in?  Because the events of her life–a husband who leaves her for a school girl–might have made Giulian seek the apparent safety of Stuart?  that would imply a  fairly trivial and over-obvious explanation for her, a cheap way of filling in then novel’s blanks.  And then on old girlfriend of Stuart appears (183), and some pages later, Stuart and Oliver, as narrators now in a narrative space rather than the people they narrate about in a story space, gang up and push her out of the novel.  All this offers a  sense of allowing for messy possibilities beyond the rigidity of the three alternators, an openness to more stories than just the ones we appeared to have already settled on?  A sudden change of a regular pattern like this would never, I think, appear in a children’s or YA novel, where pattern and regularity tend to be everything, even in the midst of innovation and complexity.

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