You are probably familiar with the classic storybook world: the cosy home with its 1950s technology, the suburban safety, the two-storeyed dream house and the neighbours who know each other, the neighbourhood school, the big yellow school bus… The white, heteronormative, amatonormative households.
“Coming Soon” is a short story by American novelist and short story writer Steven Millhauser, first published at The New Yorker in 2013. (About 3,900 words.) Chang-rae Lee discussed this story with Deborah Treisman at the New Yorker Fiction podcast. The following are my thoughts after reading the story and listening to their discussion.
“You go to sleep one day, wake up and everything’s changed!” This is the sort of hyperbolic statement you might hear from someone describing the pace of change and their inability to keep up with it. Millhauser has taken a sentiment like this and turned it into something literal.
I believe this story has much in common with cosmic horror, and could be described as a contemporary version of that subgenre. Cosmic horror of the Edwardian era has limited appeal to modern audiences, but the big cosmic question remains: Do humans see reality as it really is? Like stories such as The Turn of the Screw,once you start reading this story, you realise that nothing in it is really clear. The less clear a situation, the more readers project our own personal nightmares onto it.
Clothes in children’s catalogues offer a glimpse into how the wealthy classes were dressing their children.
The dresses above look quite similar to girls’ dresses which came back into fashion in the 1960s.
The 1960s version was likewise a tunic style of dress with dropped waist (or no waist). The a-line shape, or a pencil shape, came back into fashion at the turn of the decade 1959-1960 and remained all through the Kennedy years.
The difference between the 1920s and 1960s dresses: different colours, simpler styles, new polyester fabrics. Hemlines were higher.
When looking at the development of children’s literature over the past two and a half centuries (which is about all you get, because children’s literature is a distinct and recent entity) two major movements have been influential:
Romanticism and Modernism in the 18th and 19th centuries
Postmodernism, Surrealism and a bunch of other -isms came later (post-colonialism, feminism, modernism…)
When we give serious attention to children’s literature, we find children’s literature (especially young adult literature) often anticipates movements in adult literature. As one example, The Lovely Bones is YAL started the huge dead narrator trend which eventually found its way into literary adult fiction. Certainly, literature reflects what is happening in broader society as well.
CHILDREN’S LITERATURE IS IMPORTANT LITERATURE
Children’s literature offers valuable insights into how culture changes.
In 1894 Helen Bannerman wrote a book called Little Black Sambo. This is now seen as offensive. At Bannerman’s time it was not [offensive to white people, that is]. The main character outwits the tigers and becomes a hero, so was seen as a positive representation of people of colour.
The Famous Five also reflects outdated views. In a dualistic view of humanity, good people catch ‘bad people’ and send them to prison, because that is what good people do. An interesting feminist subtext runs through the character of George, who is annoyed that the boys are allowed to do things she is not. George became one of the first pin-ups of the feminist movement. In contrast, Anne is confined to the home domain, making cakes, cleaning etc.
A contemporary book such as Sonya Hartnett’s Sleeping Dogs looks at incest and issues which were not covered in children’s literature of earlier golden ages. Children’s literature is immensely powerful because it gets to readers first. Children’s literature shapes who we are.
Peter Hunt is one of the leading commentators on children’s literature today. He is one scholar saying consistently that children’s books are immensely powerful.
Precisely because children’s books are so powerful, they are likely to be very specifically ‘directive’. They might be encouraging a certain behaviour in young readers. Generally speaking, children’s literature is less open to interpretation than adult literature. To balance the vulnerability of children, children’s literature can become didactic.
What does didactic mean?
Teaching in an open and direct way. Moralistic.
While a few dual audience texts do make their way into lists of great literature (e.g. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland), little else ever does. Children’s literature is not traditionally studied in university English courses.
People seen as The Major Writers — William Makepeace Thackeray, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Thomas Hardy, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde — all wrote children’s books as well as books for adults. But those books are largely ignored. Their serious adult books are the ones considered great.
Even today, children’s literature has been seen as the less than. This is where women writers were at in the 18th and 19th centuries — not yet considered worthy of our full attention. [No coincidence that children’s literature has until recently been considered women’s work, alongside anything to do with children.]
The comparison works for volume of output as well. Even in the 18th and 19th centuries, women were writing just as many if not more books than the men. Today, children’s literature is a booming industry but doesn’t enjoy proportional coverage by professional reviewers in major news outlets. The dead white male who writes books for adults is who you’ll mostly be studying.
Peter Hunt concludes that if we can shake free of the idea that children’s literature is intrinsically inferior, we can start looking at the literature properly.
The History Of Thought Which Influences Literature
18th Century thought
The basis of modern science rests on the idea that humans can observe and understand. (Humanism and individualism.)
19th Century thought
A slight change occurred. People realised that amidst this mechanical theory of the world there was no place for emotion in all of this (beauty, hate, horror). So romanticism came about and gave us wonderful music — Mozart, Beethoven etc. — human experience and human emotion provided a balance.
20th Century thought
A couple of things happened. People realised that actually we don’t have all the answers. (The Titanic was a great example of thought prior to this — people actually thought it was unsinkable.) We realised that humanity wasn’t as all-powerful and all-knowing as we thought. Millions of people were killed in WW1, which shattered a lot of views. Then came the Great Depression, followed by the second World War, even worse. And so all the certainties about what the human could do were shattered.
Throw in nuclear weapons and we realised we could destroy the entire planet. We craved a complete change in how we view our world. This led to movements which questioned ‘certainty’.
Artists and illustrators use tricks which tell the viewer where to look. Since humans tend to naturally follow the gaze of others, one focusing trick is to create eye lines all pointing to the focus of the work.
In the Norman Rockwell image below, the viewer’s eye is drawn straight to the dog. Notice how Rockwell does this. Almost every single character is looking at the dog, except for one guy who is looking at us and pointing to the dog. The characters looking at the dog also form a circle arond the dog, placing the dog at centre of that circle, though not at the mathematical circle of the artwork. (Compositionally, that wouldn’t look good.)
Rockwell has also utilised various examples of ‘pointing’. A boy’s violin case also seems to point towards the dog. An artist uses his paintbrush. Even the postie is holding something that seems to point to the dog. (I can’t work out exactly what it is, but that doesn’t matter.)
The sense of awe and connectedness astronauts feel as they gaze back at earth from outer space. Theoverview effectis a type of cognitive shift.
Who came up with the concept?
The writer Frank White, who since the 1980s has been interested in finding out from astronauts if they had experienced any shift in mindset, epiphany or self-revelation after seeing the Earth from the distance of space.
What did the astronauts say?
Astronauts reported feelings wonder, awe and transcendence:
“You start to see the world as what it actually is. It’s one place. We, collectively, are likely to make good decisions for ourselves and where we live when we see Earth as one place where we all live.”
“Holy moly. There’s not a single thing on earth that’s alive or been alive that isn’t connected to something else, in some way.”
THE OVERVIEW EFFECT IN FICTION
If you’re reading a picture book and you ever come across a page like this one, you might be seeing the overview effect as utilised by storytellers:
Philosophers use the word ‘sublime’ to describe this feeling of becoming one with something bigger as ‘sublime’. The scene with the Overview Effect tends to happen near the end, as the character experiences Anagnorisis. Quite often they are sitting someplace high, like a mountain or a roof.
I’ve noticed the Overview Effect utilised in all kinds of stories as I analyse narrative for this blog. In literature, it comes in various forms. Authors tend to use it in a similar way across a corpus of work.
The basic meaning of ‘autumn colour’ is clear. Even within that palette, there is a huge variety of hues illustrators use to depict fall. Below are examples including realism and heightened, saturated fantasy colours.
The author has said that her novels come from her short stories. “The Years Of My Birth” led to the novel The Round House. Despite the connection and clear evolution, the two are best considered separate works. However, in the New Yorker discussion it’s clear Treisman and Orange have read both. They know a few things which can’t be learned from the story itself, for instance the real name of Tuffy (Linda) which is hinted at but not explicit in the short story. If you’ve read the book, your reading of the short story will be influenced by what you learned in that.