Tomorrow When The War Began Questions

Tomorrow When The War Began

The following are some resources I used with New Zealand high school English students some years ago during a novel study of Tomorrow When The War Began by John Marsden. Posted here in case anyone still finds this useful.

How many wars has New Zealand been involved in during the last 50 years?

  1. The Cold War (1950 to 1953)
  2. Korean War (1949)
  3. Malayan Emergency (1960)
  4. Vietnam War (1965 and 1971)
  5. September 11 Attacks (2001)

Was there any warning before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre Towers in New York? (September 2001)

Are there any civil defence guidelines for what to do if New Zealand was attacked by another country?

Where is East Timor, who invaded it in 1975, and what was New Zealand’s response to this invasion?

TIME LINE FOR TOMORROW WHEN THE WAR BEGAN

(CUT THE PIECES UP THEN STICK THEM ONTO A PIECE OF PAPER IN THE CORRECT ORDER.)
The narrator says that Robyn told her to write everything down.Ellie decides to go camping up in Hell.
The narrator introduces us to the members of the group.The group drives to Tailor’s Stitch in the Landrover.
The group set up camp in Hell.They find a snake in a sleeping-bag.
Ellie sees waves of jets flying overhead.The group heads back to Ellie’s house in Wirrawee
The group goes to Homer’s and Corrie’s housesThey decide to go into town later that night to see what is happening
Ellie, Corrie and Kevin see people being held in tents at the showgrounds.They get trapped in Mrs Alexander’s back yard.
Ellie blows up three soldiers with a ride-on lawn mower.Robyn and Lee don’t return from town.
The group makes plans to load up the vehicles and head to the shearer’s quarters.A helicopter circles the house, sees Flip and signals a jet to blow up Corrie’s house.
They find Robyn in her own house, although she was meant to wait on the hill.They return to rescue Lee from the restaurant and destroy several vehicles on the way out.
They find Chris (in his pyjamas) after rolling the car into the dam.They carry Lee back to Hell.
Ellie finds the Hermit’s hut.The group reads some documents they found in the Hermit’s hut.
The group decides to do something to slow the enemy down.Fi and Ellie steal a petrol tanker and Ellie drives it to a secure location.
Homer drives the cattle over the bridge using a camera flash to scare the cattle.The tanker blows up the bridge.
We learn that Corrie has been shot.Kevin and Corrie leave the group for good.
Author’s note: John Marsden tells us that the story is based, in part, on real events 

AN EXTREMELY SCAFFOLDED ESSAY WRITING EXERCISE

Describe an important idea dealt with in the text.

Explain why this idea is important.

INTRODUCTION

An important idea in the novel by John Marsden, Tomorrow When the War Began, concerns growing up despite adversity.  All the main characters in the novel change over the course of events in the story, especially Ellie, who starts off as an ordinary rural Australian teenager and ends up a more mature, introspective adult.  Ellie’s growth as a character is important because Marsden hopes she will be an important role model for the novel’s teenage audience.

PARAGRAPH ONE

  • Describe Ellie at the start of the novel
  • Find evidence from the text to show she is an ordinary teenager (a mimetic hero if you want to use Northrop Frye’s terminology)
  • Make reference also to the teenagers’ comments about the Hermit, and how they think he must be terrible because he killed his own family.
  • Finally in this paragraph, explain how this is related to the fact that at this stage of the novel the teenagers see things in black in white.  They don’t see shades of grey, for example how it might be considered right to kill others in some circumstances.  Explain that this part of the book is important because the teenagers seem familiar to the audience, and can identify with them.

PARAGRAPH TWO

  • Compare this to an incident part way through the novel when they are way out of their comfort zones, doing things they never thought they could do. (You choose the incident, perhaps the lawnmower one.)
  • Explain that the setting is important here because if it weren’t an isolated, rural area, help would be readily available and they wouldn’t have the opportunity to show what they are capable of.
  • Explain that one of the reasons Marsden wrote the series was to show that under difficult circumstances, teenagers can shine.  And that this incident demonstrated the teenagers doing exactly that.  This idea is important because it helps the teenage audience feel strong and capable.  Teenagers in this book are capable and valued.

PARAGRAPH THREE

  • Now pick an incident near the end of the book (eg. the bridge incident)
  • Include a quote to show that Ellie is now a much more introspective character.
  • Explain that through the narrator of Ellie comes Marsden’s voice, and he is inviting us to think about things that we may not have thought of before (eg equality between Australia and the invaders), whether it is right to kill in some circumstances and not in others.  By having Ellie as a reflective character, and seeing her change, Marsden is triggering change in the readers, too.

CONCLUSION

The idea of personal development through adversity is linked to other, thought-provoking ideas in Tomorrow When the War Began.  Marsden’s point is that it is not until teenagers go through tough times that we fully understand the shades of gray surrounding some issues.  He hopes that his narrator Ellie will be a model for teenagers reading the book, who reflect on issues carefully, and perhaps become more open-minded for doing so.

ANALYSIS OF AN ‘EXCELLENCE’ ESSAY (NCEA level one)

(This was an example of excellence when NCEA had just started. Standards may have changed in the past 15 years.)

TASK: Describe an important character in the text.  Explain why he/she is important.

Tomorrow When the War Began – John Marsden

An important character in this novel is Ellie. She is important because she shows how human beings can adapt to their circumstances. She was drawn into a war situation and faced adversity. This required her to adapt and mature.

Ellie began life as a rural teenager. She lived on a farm and her life consisted of school, friends and family. She was sheltered: “Our lives had always been so unaffected by the outside world.”  She loved “being a rural” and had little pressure other than to milk cows. Despite this gentle lifestyle I gained an impression early on in the novel that Ellie is an intelligent leader, confident in herself and showing strength of character. This is further shown when Ellie and her friends are thrust into a volatile war. Ellie was forced to kill three soldiers in order to save herself and her two friends: “This is war now and normal rules don’t apply.”

We see Ellie being reflective and realising that she has special qualities. “It was hard for me to believe that I, plain old Ellie; nothing about me, middle of the road in every way; had probably just killed three people.”  She questions her own motives and eventually accepts her situation. The reader sees  her able to make adult decisions.  “I stopped being a normal teenager and began to become someone else.”

Ellie is important because she shows that within us all are qualities that emerge only when circumstances change. Human beings can adapt to almost all situations, showing a courage and an ability to cope with adverse circumstances. Ellie is important because she shows the complexity of human nature and our ability to reflect on our lives.

  1. What exact words did the student use to answer the question in the first paragraph?
  2. What is the reason given for the character’s importance?
  3. What is said about Ellie’s character early in the novel?
  4. What example from the novel backs it up?
  5. What change has the student noticed in Ellie over the course of the novel?
  6. What evidence is given for this change?
  7. How is the essay concluded?

***

TOMORROW WHEN THE WAR BEGAN QUIZ

(The following are simple know-it-or-not type questions and can be used competitively between groups and with a time limit attached.)

  1. What is the narrator’s name?
  2. Who lived in Hell before the group did?
  3. What game did Homer invent in Year 8?
  4. How did the group get to hell?
  5. Who had to stay at home and work on the farm?
  6. What is the name of the town they live in?
  7. What public holiday was the country celebrating?
  8. Who has Thai and Vietnamese parents?
  9. Who does Homer develop a liking for?
  10. What was in the sleeping bag?
  11. What happened when Ellie went to the toilet at night?
  12. What was the first indication that something was wrong at the farm?
  13. What is Homer’s surname?
  14. Whose parents write a note to the kids?
  15. Where was everyone being held?
  16. What is Ellie’s ex-boyfriend’s name?
  17. What had been happening at the show grounds before the kids left?
  18. How does Corrie hurt her leg when they are chased from the showgrounds?
  19. Where did they get trapped?
  20. How did they get away?
  21. Who gets separated from Ellie and the others?
  22. Where do they meet after going into the showgrounds?
  23. What is Homer’s ethnicity?
  24. After coming back from town the first time, where do they initially plan to hide?
  25. Where do they keep a lookout?
  26. Where did Homer and Fi hide?
  27. What do Ellie Corrie and Homer see while on look-out?
  28. What happens to the family photos?
  29. What makes the soldiers in the helicopter suspicious?
  30. What happened to Corrie’s house?
  31. Where do they find Lee and Robyn?
  32. Who did Robyn and Lee meet in the town?
  33. What had happened to Lee?
  34. Where was Lee hidden?
  35. How do they get Lee out?
  36. Where do they get it from?
  37. What kind of car does Homer pick them up in?
  38. What do they eventually do to it?
  39. What happens immediately after this?
  40. How did Lee get back to Hell?
  41. What ritual did Corrie have in Hell?
  42. When listening to the radio, which country do the children hear refusing to help?
  43. Who can butcher the feral animals they catch?
  44. Where do the pairs plan to have their base when they go back into Wirrawee?
  45. What was the title of the half a book they found in the Hermit’s hut?
  46. What was the Hermit’s name?
  47. How did his wife and child die?
  48. What had Chris “souvenired” from town?
  49. How did Homer scare the cattle?
  50. Who drove the petrol tanker?

JOHN MARSDEN: WRITING THE WAR

Part of a Creative Writing series of videos. Possibly hard to get now, except floating around in high school English department resource rooms.

Watch the video and answer the following questions.

THEME

What gets Marsden angry about teenagers?

INFLUENCES

What did Marsden want to show in “Tomorrow”?

SETTING

Why was it important for the book to be set in a rural area?

TARGET AUDIENCE

Who is the target audience?

PLANNING

How does Marsden write?

What had Marsden decided about the plot before he started writing?

What person does Marsden like to write in?

VOICE

When does Marsden know that he has ‘grasped’ the essence of a character?

What does every character have to have?

What does Ellie reflect on?

OTHER CHARACTERS

How does Marsden bring other characters to life?

STATUS

What do characters in any novel have to do?

What is a typical way in which they do this?

What examples are given?

  • Kevin
  • Homer

HARD TIMES

What has to happen for change?

What does the writer need to do to make characters suffer?

HELL

Why did Marsden use the setting of Hell to launch the story?

Why did he call it Hell?

THE HERMIT SUBPLOT

What is the main similarity between the main plot and the hermit subplot?

How does Marsden show the similarity symbolically?

What do the rotting wood and rose symbolise?

BACKGROUND DETAIL

What three things does a writer need to be conscious of all the time they are writing?

FOREGROUND

What is the foreground for?

How does a writer create a good main story?

RELATIONSHIPS

What does a book need apart from action?

REFLECTION

What does reflection mean?

WHO ARE THE INVADERS?

Why is Marsden careful not to identify the invaders?

MARKETING

Why does Marsden like to take more responsibility for the marketing than many authors?

FINALLY

What is Ellie’s comment about story telling?

American Honey Film Review

American Honey film poster

American Honey, directed by Andrea Arnold, is the granddaughter of Thelma and Louise — a road journey with classic mythic structure which follows the coming-of-age (or not) of an 18-year-old named Star. Star comes from a tough background — the classic orphaned underdog, with a mother who has overdosed, and an auntie(?) who requires Star to look after her young kids rather than looking after Star, who definitely needs protection, from the abusive guy she’s got hanging around.

Star has an allegorical name — an ironic name, because this kid will never be a starlet. Refreshingly, she doesn’t even want that. Star explains to Jake that her mother chose it because we’re all made of ‘Death Stars’. Now it’s not ironic. This is an example of Heidegger’s Being-toward-death — Star has already had this character arc. She’s lost her mother to meth. She’s faced death before. By this point in her 18-year-old life she’s learning to live with the fact that we’re all headed for the grave. This explains her hedonism. When Star explains her name to Jake, this is more of a revelation to the audience than to Star herself. Star has not fully come to terms with death — that takes some decades. She mulls it over on several occasions — when she realises the trucker she hitched with has been carrying a load of cattle, and when she accidentally steps in blood (or what looks like blood) in a ditch.

It’s inevitable that a disenfranchised kid like Star will fall into bad company, because most any company is better than what she’s starting out with. Bad company rolls into town as a band of magazine hawking troubadours in the guise of magazine salespeople, with a subculture reminiscent of Lord of the Flies. They’re headed to Kansas — synonymous to most outside Kansas with The Wizard of Oz — another mythical journey starring a girl. Arnold encourages the connection with a cut to a pair of sparkly red shoes which belong to Star’s little cousin. But this is no dreamland. This crew are outlaws with their own set of rules. They punish each other physically for coming last in their sales ranking system. This is headed by a matriarch rather than a patriarch, and reminds me of Alex Garland’s The Beach. The matriarch as villain is an interesting device in a feminist film, and at this cultural moment almost a necessary one, to avoid the hackneyed old ideas of women as one hundred percent victims of the patriarchy, or the dreaded Female Maturity Formula, in which girls have already been through their character arcs, existing only as models for boys to have theirs. We need more female villains. Krystal is wonderfully complex. We get just enough to wonder about her backstory.

American Honey matriarch

Other reviewers have doubted the entire premise of this road trip — who buys magazines anymore? Andrea Arnold lampshades this by having Star ask it up front. What’s never clear is if there are any magazines. If there were, they wouldn’t make money. My interpretation is that there are no magazines. People are paying for a scam. The magazines exist only to justify the begging. Why else do they need to travel so far to get away from each town?

Freshly free of childcare responsibilities, Star’s road trip kicks off. Road trips are hard to write well. They tend to feel splintered — one damn encounter after another. The road trip is by nature a linear plot shape — a masculine plot shape. But when road trips star girls and women, they tend to look a little different. Star’s trip is circular, as they move through areas completely foreign (wealthy and built-up) back to a poor area which reminds Star of her own home. Female journeys are more likely than male journeys to be circular in this way.

We now get to see the childlike side of Star, who isn’t ready for the world of work. She plays the fool, gets high, and doesn’t know a violent man when she sees one. If Jake promises her ‘a present’, she’s putty in his hands. She’s come from nothing, so a present equals love. This movie is basically a love story — or can we call it that? It’s not a love tragedy, either. Like Arnold’s Fish Tank, this is the arc of an emotionally neglected teenage girl falling in with a bad older man, then finally making her escape, or not.

American Honey love story

Arnold makes sure we empathise with Star by giving her numerous Save The Cat moments — twice she rescues an insect. Eventually she uses her sex work cash to buy groceries for neglected kids. Star has a strong moral code, in opposition to Jake’s. She has no time for lying and bullshit. Her reaction alone tells us a lot about her backstory — she’s had nothing but lies and bullshit her entire life. She’s also empathetic because she doesn’t want for much, and we see that as an endearing thing. She meets a trucker and tells him she wants lots of kids and her very own trailer. It never crosses Star’s mind that she could maybe have an actual house. The truck driver himself comes across as extremely empathetic — unlike the truck driver in Thelma and Louise, he’s not turned into the villain — he’s big into boats but despite driving miles for his job, he admits he’s never been to the ocean. He’s not young. We know he maybe never will. This could be Star in three decades’ time — it’s quite possible Star will live her life dreaming. And is dreaming enough? That’s where the symbolism of the magazines come in. If anyone wonders why people would still buy them, the trucker gives us the answer — the magazines are dreams — dreams that even poor people can hold in their hands. The trucker buys two subscriptions, and for him, that will have to satisfy his love for actual boats.

The film employs only a couple of professional actors — the rest are amateurs recruited from carnivals and suchlike. This feels like cinema verite. Each of them looks interesting and distinct. It feels like the actors were left to ad lib. You really feel like you’re in the bus with these young people, for better or for worse. If you’ve ever been on a bus trip, to summer camp, stayed in a hostel, flatted, or partied, you’ll get this.

There’s commentary about rich and poor in America as the bus travels from mega wealthy to poverty stricken areas, where the problems look different. When Star gets to the house of neglected children we’re given closeups of photos pasted without frames to the wall, a near empty fridge, Mountain Dew. This is how we’re shown, tis could be Star’s own house. She’s missing her little cousins and now she’s back in Texas, where she grew up with her meth-addicted mother, she’s come full circle. This is the beginning of her epiphany, though we never get to see what that epiphany is. Maybe she realises this is her entire lot in life, which is why she buys food for these strangers with her sex work money. Or maybe she realises she can use situations like these as a negative example, and start planning to get out of it. The overall message is egalitarian — echoed in the film credits, which list only names, with no distinction between actors and film crew. Krystal explains that poor people will buy magazines because they feel sorry for you, but rich people will buy them because they feel guilty for being rich. Krystal’s take on life may or may not be accurate, but this is how Arnold encourages to view the rich and poor as basically the same, only with different angles on the same societal problem of late stage capitalism.

There’s commentary about homophobia — it’s subtle, but one of the gay characters doubts he can go door to door in redneck country. Subtext reading: he’s not safe here. There’s little commentary on race — this is not Andrea Arnold’s story to write. Our main girl is a woman of colour, but this is a story about white America. It’s clear these white kids identify with Black culture — they have a love for rap and call each other the n-word. It’s left up to us to decide why these kids align themselves with a culture that’s not entirely their own.

The ending is left open for the viewer to extrapolate. Jake gives Star the turtle and she sets the turtle free. Then she joins the turtle in the water. One interpretation: Star is now free like the turtle, having experienced a revelation. Meanwhile, the others dance over a fire to Raury’s tribalistic anthem ‘God’s Whisper’. If that’s not religious imagery of rebirth, I don’t know what is. Then again, Star has given away Jake’s (stolen ring) present before — is this the part where Star finally sees this violent, coercively controlling man for what he is? Maybe. But if she doesn’t see it now, she never will. Take a close look at the lyrics to God’s Whisper, though — you may need to look them up because the song feels morphed and warped in the film — and it’s clear Star has realised who Jake really is:

I won’t compromise
I won’t live a life
On my knees
You think I am nothing
I am nothing
You’ve got something coming
Something coming because I hear God’s whisper
Calling my name
It’s in the wind
I am the savior
(Sing it again!)
Savior
Savior
(I can’t hear you! What?)
Savior (What?)
Savior

The outro music is “I Hate Hate” by Razzy Bailey — an ironically breezy tune with children backing up in the chorus.

That’s why I’m singing now
I hate hate, everybody sing it with me
I hate hate, let’s all get together now
I hate hate, the good Lord above
Don’t you know I love love
Oh, you got to have love

“I Hate Hate” can be interpreted in two ways. The singer either despises ‘hatred’, or they really, really hate something (with the double ‘hate’ serving to emphasise). I interpret this choice of song as Star’s acknowledging to herself that she hates this man, but this experience isn’t going to stop her from living life to the full. It’s okay to acknowledge the bad stuff, and that’s how we move on. Mind you, the irony could have a darker side. She could acknowledge this guy’s terrible and yet choose to stay with him.

For us, Star’s journey ends here. Does she use this newfound hatred to escape? For all we know, this young woman could keep traveling these American highways forever, trapped in a hot bus with a bad man and a stifling, drug-addled rag-tag crew who don’t seem to see abuse when it’s right in front of them. This is the water they swim in, and this is how abuse works. Streetwise matriarch Krystal does see it, but she’s toxic and ignores it. She may even revel in watching it play out, accepting the abuser back when she promised his victim he was gone.

Why do girls fall for these guys? Many outsiders have wondered that about women who stay with bad men. Star’s journey in American Honey affords us a view of destructive attraction from the inside, because Shia Labeouf makes an excellent job of him. He’s been well-written, too. We should now be left with a little insight for how these relationships happen, and empathy for the girls involved.

Although American Honey is comparable to Thelma and Louise, I make the comparison mainly because there are so few road trips starring women. Arnold avoids the problematic, overdone trope which concludes Thelma and Louise — that in order to achieve perfect freedom, a female character must pay the ultimate sacrifice: her life. (In stories about men, it’s more often the male best friend who pays with his life.) I am left hoping for the very best for Star. I think she might be okay now that she’s a little more worldly. More importantly, the real-life audience might be a bit more okay, too. Watch this with your young adult daughters and discuss with your sons.

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

The Chocolate War cover

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier was not written with a young adult audience in mind, but class sets of the book found their way into English departments all over the world. Though this is not my favourite Cormier novel, it remains his best known. Heavy in symbolism and discussable themes, The Chocolate War also makes for a good case study in juxtaposition. The novel begins with a juxtaposition in the title — chocolate is sweet and comforting; war most certainly is not.

There are many resources for teaching and studying this book in a high school literature class. This blog focuses on the storytelling: What writing lessons can we take from this young adult story from 1974, banned and beloved in equal measure?

Content Note

I feel readers deserve a content note about Robert Cormier novels, and about The Chocolate War in particular. This novel has been widely banned, but my reasons for the content note are probably different and girl readers in particular deserve this acknowledged: Cormier writes consistently from the male point of view and objectifies female characters as part of his commentary on how awful boys can be. Cormier never proved he could write well-rounded girls, to be fair. Even when he writes a female character (not in this book) she self objectifies or she is murdered or both. The Chocolate War contains implied rape of girls at the nearby girls’ high school. Archie, a psychopathic character, ‘usually manages to persuade one of them into his car’. He gives them a ride home ‘with detours’. The older I get the more icky I find this. Here’s my exact beef: Robert Cormier and many other writers who imply/describe sexual assault feel the need to include girls — otherwise absent in the story — in order to amplify the awfulness of a particular boy character. This is done for characterisation reasons, yet that’s not how sexual assault works in real life and I expect a bit of mimesis here. Despite his heterosexual orientation, a character as awful as Archie does not need to prey on the girls at a different school entirely. If ever there was a clear psychopath in young adult fiction, Archie is it.

Archie was always puzzled about whatever there was inside of him that enjoyed these performances — toying with kids, leading them on, humiliating them, finally.

Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War

There are plenty of boys he can pick on to assert his sexual dominance, without leaving his own school. My problem here is the extent to which writers are comfortable with the implication of male on female sexual assault, but can’t seem to even fathom male on male sexual assault. Written in the 1970s, going this far may not have even crossed Cormier’s mind, or maybe he self-edited, who knows. Archie carries out his own version of sexual assault on Emile, pretending to take a photo of him after finding him in the toilets masturbating. But it’s never implied that he does to the other boys as he does to the girls. And I don’t think his heterosexuality has anything to do with that. Archie’s 1970s pretend camera would be an actual camera in the 2010s. This kind of timelessness is why some schools continue to study The Chocolate War with modern teenagers, though I think the objectification and assault issue requires a discussion. Though uncomfortable to talk about, the problems with glossing over this aspect of Archie are two-fold:

  1. As a culture we underestimate the rate of male on male sexual assault (important emphasis: rape is about power over others, not about orientation);
  2. We become uncomfortably comfortable with the image of the assaulted female, to the extent where, as a culture, we have now learned to look the other way. To what extent is the male gaze designed to be titillating? Does it matter really if it’s not meant to be, and still is? At no point are readers encouraged to find descriptions of the boy characters titillating, regardless of the reader’s orientation.

These are not the exact reasons The Chocolate War has found infamy as a frequently banned book. This novel has been banned  due to:

  1. Frequency of sexual references
  2. Detail included in the sexual scenes e.g. masturbation
  3. Physical violence
  4. Bribery
  5. Negative portrayal of the institution of school
  6. Catholic schools in particular get a bad rap

But mostly? The issues in this book are so heavy they are difficult to discuss with 30 teenagers, some of whom will have been sexually assaulted themselves, some of whom will sexually assault/have already assaulted. I find it far easier to write about these issues on a blog than to manage a class discussion, and to have that discussion go in the right direction. When schools ban books, that’s sometimes a factor. The Chocolate War is one of those novels which requires the reader to bring their own morality to the table. We’re to look at these boys as an example of treating people badly. But what if some readers do not have morality to bring? What then?

Three Types of Young Adult Novels

Further to the banning, it’s important to note that Cormier did not intend The Chocolate War for a young adult audience. The reading age happens to be twelve, however. That seemed to be Cormier’s natural writing style.

The American Library Association classifies adolescent literature into three categories:

  1. Books Written Specifically for Adolescents
  2. Books Written for General Trade Market Which Have Adolescent Main Characters
  3. General Books of Interest to Young Readers

The Chocolate War belongs to category two and was seen by many as a good text to study in schools.

THEMES IN THE CHOCOLATE WAR

There are many. Here’s a big one:

“Do I dare disturb the universe?”

from T.S. Eliot, in a poem he wrote in his early 20s.

At its heart, this question “Do I dare disturb the universe?” is about power. It serves as an apt metaphor for what adolescents often seek to know about themselves. Jerry Renault takes up this question in Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974).

Jerry hangs in his school locker a poster of a man walking alone on a beach that bears the caption “Do I dare disturb the universe?”: “Jerry wasn’t sure of the poster’s meaning. But it had moved him mysteriously.” The Chocolate War explores the question of whether Jerry can disturb the universe—of what will happen to him if he dares assert his personal power. […]

In The Chocolate War Jerry Renault has power in agreeing to exist in harmony with the forces of oppression at Trinity High School, The Vigils and the teachers. He is defeated by novel’s end because he has chosen to break the contract and so be oppressed by the power structure. Foucault would say instead that rather than possessing a certain amount of power to begin with, Jerry actually exists in a chain of power, a chain that involves the selling of education as a commodity and that results in the commodification of the chocolates. Their sale is a means of production for the students. Jerry’s power in the situation is fluid: he both has and does not have power, depending on his relationship to the market forces at specific points in the novel’s time. When he overwhelms the market by providing a model for the other boys’ non-participation in the means of production, the market retaliates by attempting to obliterate him in a “war.”

Foucault even supplies the term “war repression schema” as a synonym for the “domination repression” model of power; he makes much of the notion that “power is war, a war continued by other means”. […]

The Chocolate War is the same sort of dark adolescent fantasy that Lord of the Flies is: when adolescents achieve total control, they become totally corrupt. Both novels are metaphors for the concept that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

[…] Anne Scott Macleod argues that what happens at Trinity is a microcosmic metaphor for American politics. […]

Perry Nodelman interprets the chocolate war as a metaphor for the Vietnam War. […]

Jan Susina interprets The Vigils as the Mafia. […]

Cormier himself has identified big business as the central metaphor of the novel.

At the heart of all these interpretations is the recognition that The Chocolate War is a political novel. It is an investigation of social organisation and how individuals interact with that organisation. The novel communicates that institutions are more powerful than individuals, but that individuals who engage their own power can affect the shape of the institution. Cormier implies that as social organisations, institutions are not to be trusted. […]

When ideologies in YA novels focus specifically on government, they tend to convey to adolescents that they are better served by accepting than by rejecting the social institutions with which they must live. In that sense, the underlying agenda of many young adult novels is to indoctrinate adolescents into a measure of social acceptance.

Robert Seelinger Trites in her book Disturbing The Universe: Power and repression in adolescent literature

But is The Chocolate War any more political than your typical young adult novel?

Few adolescent novels are as direct as Cormier’s are in addressing government as a form of social organization, although almost all adolescent novels are informed by ideologies that are political in nature. That is, all novels are influenced by their authors’ sociopolitical beliefs.

Robert Seelinger Trites in her book Disturbing The Universe: Power and repression in adolescent literature

STORYTELLING TECHNIQUES OF NOTE

Juxtaposition and Irony

The Chocolate War is a story of irony and juxtaposition, which makes the title so apt. Examples from chapter one:

  • ‘A terrible stillness’
  • ‘Suddenly he loved that voice, “Show up tomorrow”.’
  • ‘A strange happiness invaded him.’

And in chapter two we get all the ironies of Archie:

  • ‘Archie the bastard. The bastard that Obie alternately hated and admired.’
  • Archie looks like an All-American Boy but it turns out he’s atheist, which is not very American at all, especially in 1974.
  • ‘That’s what baffled everyone about Archie — his changes of mood, the way he could be a wise bastard one minute and a great guy the next’
  • Although Archie is really mean, he ‘disliked violence’.

Norman Stanton: ‘a blustering bragging character with wild red hair and eyelids matted with yellow crap’

Roland Goubert: The Goober. Juxtaposition: Very tall yet like a child.

Brother Leon: Can control a class but Archie sees vulnerabilities. Assistant Headmaster but in Archie’s eyes he is simply an errand boy for the head. Not worthy of respect. However, like Archie, this man has two juxtaposed sides to him. “In the classroom, Leon was another person altogether. Smirking, sarcastic. His thin, high voice venomous. He could hold your attention like a cobra. Instead of fangs, he used his teacher’s pointer, flicker out here, there, everywhere. He watched the class like a hawk, suspicious, searching out cheaters or daydreamers, probing for shortcomings in the students and then exploiting those shortcomings.’ This man will make a good shadow character for Archie.

Leon is an ambiguous character. In Chapter Six we see him carry out a cruel taunting on a student then tells the class he’s delivered a lesson. He hasn’t delivered a lesson without causing the boy in question grief, so is this similar to doing something really mean and then calling it ‘a joke’? Another juxtaposition.

‘Emile was a brute, which was kind of funny because he didn’t look like a brute. He wasn’t big or overly strong. … Wise guys usually sat in back. Emile didn’t. He chose seats near the front where he’d be in better position to harass the teacher.’

‘Emile, you’re a beautiful person’, says Archie, watching Emile steal fuel from a weaker kid’s car. But Emile never knows if Archie is serious or not — in fact, stealing fuel probably does count as beautiful in Archie’s eyes, because Emile can be useful to him. At the end of Chapter Six, Emile is ‘somehow disappointed’ that the owner of the vehicle hasn’t caught him stealing gas. This is a different kind of irony — an emotion the the audience wouldn’t expect in most people.

The sale of chocolates is such a cozy thing to do — this part of the plot could easily be used in a middle grade novel set in a genuine utopia. But here, the chocolate fundraiser is juxtaposed against the evil of the school.

Goober is the reflection character for Archie. Whereas Archie is delighted at chaos, Goober is utterly bewildered by it, not comfortable at all. We are set to root for Goober because he is such an underdog, but we are equally keen to see what Archie gets up to, because Archie is interesting. Without each other, this book would feel too pathetic or too mean. These boys balance each other out for the reader.

Jerry Renault is the Every Boy — most readers have not lost their mother to cancer, but we can empathise with him because we feel our lives would look like his if we did. Apart from the ghost of a dead mother, nothing much stands out about Jerry. He’s like the Jerry Seinfeld off Seinfeld actually — the characters around him are more individualised.

Among the teachers, too, we have a replica of the classroom, with the Brothers responding in contrasting ways to the same event. Brother Eugene is the grown up Goober — sensitive and emotional and vulnerable. Brother Leon understands Archie the best, though Archie does not have a sociopathic equivalent on staff, which is good for him. The teachers have power by virtue of being teachers, so Brother Leon is still a formidable opponent for Archie.

STORY WORLD OF THE CHOCOLATE WAR

The Chocolate War is an American novel with a USA setting.

Obie describes the school as ‘a lousy little high school like Trinity’. This is a Catholic school. The culture revolves around sport. Football is everything. It is clear from this that we’re talking about a boys’ high school, with its particular brand of hyper-masculinity. Boxing turns out to be other other big sport at Trinity — another dangerous, combative pastime.

The Trinity brothers wanted peace at any price, quiet on the campus, no broken bones.

This is a run-down school — the football field needs seeding and the bleachers need replacing. This needs to be a run-down school because if it were wealthy the need to sell all those chocolates wouldn’t be as dire.

Within this school we have something akin to the mafia:

The Vigils kept things under control. Without The Vigils, Trinity might have been torn apart like other schools had been, by demonstrations, protests, all that crap.

The school is populated with a variety of teachers, some good, some not so good. Brother Eugene: one of the good brothers who teach at Trinity. ‘A peaceful sort’. He exists to contrast with Brother Leon.

The Vigils meet in a small room behind the gym.

Obie works at the grocery store stacking shelves for a part-time job. A friend of the family owns the store, suggesting a cosy, small town where everyone knows everyone.

But this version of American suburbia is an snail under the leaf setting — underneath, things are rotten. Case in point: The Vigils. The gang headed by Archie. These boys run the town. Lead by Archie. President is another bastard called Carter. Obie is secretary and underdog.

For fun there’s the Teen-Age Canteen where the boys have the opportunity to meet girls, referred to as ‘broads’, because these boys objectify female characters as if they’re an entirely different species.

NARRATIVE TECHNIQUE IN THE CHOCOLATE WAR

In a novel, even the unseen narrator can be considered a character. I feel the narrative voice is masculine, perhaps someone who knows these boys really well, a stand-in for a fellow student at the school. He talks about girls as if they are a different species: “The girl was heart-wrenchingly, impossibly beautiful.” (Not the way girls usually describe each other.) However, he is also closely emulating the voice of the characters themselves. ‘Close’ third person.

This close third person narrator reminds us occasionally that he is telling a story. Here, he lampshades some pretty obvious symbolism. Perhaps as he was writing even Cormier thought the cross symbolism felt a little heavy handed:

The shadows of the goalposts definitely resembled a network of crosses, empty crucifixes. That’s enough symbolism for one day, Obie told himself.

Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War

Cormier’s narrator is an all-knowing, misanthropic, pessimistic character who can zoom right into the psychologies of the characters as if he knows them better than they know themselves (he does), and that’s because he sees through their eyes. The narrator is one of them. However, The Chocolate War does not have the immediacy of voice common to most young adult novels. Most are written either in first person right after the events, or occasionally in third person right after the events. Perhaps because this was never meant for the young adult audience, Cormier’s narrator seems much older, as if he’s looking back in time as an unnamed student in this school, but with the psychological insight of a 40 year old man. The advantage of this kind of narrator is that his wisdom can fill in the gaps for an audience who has yet to give much thought to how social groups and dominance works. A teenage narrator would seem preternaturally gifted in psychology to believably write this stuff.

The Chocolate War does not ask the young adult reader to trust in the voice of a single speaker or to accept a single, unchallenged view of events. In alternating chapters we are given thirteen different characters’ perspectives on events. Within some chapters, especially chapters twenty-five and thirty-five, the reader gets multiple points of view. Although Jerry Renault’s views are those most frequently shared, they do not account for even one third of the book. Despite the fact that no adult’s thoughts are represented (we never see into Jerry’s father’s or Brother Leon’s or Brother Jacque’s thoughts, for instance), the book does not limit itself to a single adolescent’s view of the world. The reader develops a sense of a complicated world through the recognition of competing positions and perspectives that are quite different from each other despite their all being “young adult”.

The Chocolate War is not written in first-person address, though the narrator reports throughs from the position of the characters being portrayed. We are told, for instance, that “The Goober was beautiful when he ran”. We understand that Goober himself considers this to be true in contrast with the rest of his life, including the moment under narration in which he attempts a terrifying “assignment”. Here we see what Gerard Genette would call indirect address.

Mike Cadden, The Irony of Narration in the Young Adult Novel

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE CHOCOLATE WAR

QUESTIONS AND REVELATIONS IN THE CHOCOLATE WAR

Cormier is a master of this technique:

If you have too many scenes that just set up questions and knock ’em down, then the story will seem plodding and episodic, and it won’t build a larger narrative. So you have to mix quick payoffs with longer mysteries. Usually the question that ends the scene is a practical one that’s instantly answered by the circumstances of the next. But you should keep your audience looking further ahead, breathlessly wondering how the events they’ve just witnessed will affect the rest of the story.

Matt Bird, The Secrets of Story

Cormier was a master of the question and revelation sequence. He makes readers work just the right amount before handing over the information. I started to make detailed notes on how Cormier was achieving this, but it soon got so complicated I gave up the task. Just know that this book looks simple at first read but is extremely intricately plotted, with set ups and pay-offs, perfect foreshadowing and expert subtleties. If I planned to write a book similar to this I would persevere with my detailed notes.

SHORTCOMING

Our protagonist (in its original, Greek sense — the character who gets the story going) is Jerry Renault. We see him getting beaten up in the first scene, straight into ‘action’, in its most widely used sense.

Hey Coach, you pit on me, Jerry protested. Stop the spitting, coach. What he said aloud was, ‘I’m all right, coach,’ because he was a coward about stuff like that, thinking one thing and saying another, planning one thing and doing another — he had been Peter a thousand times and a thousand cocks had crowed in his lifetime.

Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War

He is not the right body type to be playing football. Too skinny. Ironically, this is his dream.

Chapter two flips to Obie.

Obie was bored. Worse than bored. He was disgusted. He was also tired.

There we have them — Obie’s main psychological shortcomings in the very first line. Cormier is masterful the way he combines unexpected emotions. We can imagine how someone would mistake disgust for boredom, though may not of thought of this before.

The alternating points of view establish that this is not a story about any one character or hero, but about a community. The community itself is the main character, and this community has a dark, seedy underbelly.  Another story like this is Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx. Another is The Lottery by Shirley Jackson.

The boys in this story each has their own shortcoming, except for Archie, who demonstrates better than anyone in YA literature how psychopathy is an evolutionary advantage.

DESIRE

Archie is kingpin and has a very specific goal. It’s Archie’s goal which drives the story, making him the ‘main character’ in a sense. His aim is always to inflict as much psychological pain as possible on those around him.

Certain other boys desire the approval of Archie. Emile is another sociopath, though not quite as smart. I suspect circumstances have deprived him of empathy, whereas Archie seems ‘born evil’.

Goober just wants to be left alone to run.

Jerry doesn’t want anything at first but gets sucked into the drama and wants to passively aggressively claim some status for himself. He doesn’t have to do much to earn that — in fact, he has to do the opposite of something — nothing, so the little rebellions prove too tempting.

So in these characters we see the whole range of desire, from ‘leave me alone’ to ‘I’m going to turn this little community upside down.’

OPPONENT

The coach is Renault’s first opponent, though it remains to be see whether he is an ally. Teachers can swing either way — in fiction as in real life, they can seem mean but actually have students’ best interests at heart. This coach is a stereotypical mean guy. He looks like ‘an old gangster’ and even has a movie-star scar on his cheek. ‘But a helluva coach, they said’. Turns out the meanest looking coach isn’t the most dangerous adult in the school.

Obie’s arch nemesis is Archie. Archie is depicted as an ‘all American boy’, with blonde hair blowing in the wind, sitting in the bleachers. ‘Archie turned and smiled at [Obie] benevolently, like a goddam kind passing out favours.’ Archie is soon set up as the main force of evil — the true, evil villain of the story. Even the title is drawn from him — minions must buy him Hersheys or else get on the wrong side of him.

There’s no true friendship in this novel. When a pecking order is being established it has to be constantly maintained. Everyone is everyone else’s opponent. Though it appears Goober and Jerry could have been friends, they weren’t for the entirety of the novel.

PLAN

Each character has his own plan in an intricate big struggle for top of the hierarchy. The boys are each a different example of one way of going about gaining dominance within an institution. For instance: Jerry — passive aggressively, by refusing to do as asked, then getting a bit addicted to the adrenaline of rebellion and taking it further. Archie — like a sociopath, taking power from others, killing their spirits Goober — Just trying to get along unnoticed, manoeuvring around the power plays of others These characters are mirrored in the characters of the teachers.

BIG STRUGGLE

The minor big struggles of the pranks and the refusal to sell lead up to the big fight — a literal big struggle scene which we suspect may have killed Jerry Renault. (You have to go back to the first sentence of the book to be sure, but it’s metaphorical — his spirit has been killed.) This fight has been set up by Archie to get Jerry back for refusing to start selling the chocolates again. He is pitted against Emile Janza, a strong physical opponent. Students can buy raffle tickets. They write on the tickets who gets to hit who and where. Things get out of hand when Emile loses control of himself.

ANAGNORISIS

Jerry is almost dead when he comes to some kind of understanding:

The knowledge, the knowledge: what he had discovered. Funny, how his mind was clear suddenly, apart from his body, floating above his body, floating above the pain. ‘It’ll be all right, Jerry.’ No, it won’t. He recognized Goober’s voice and it was important to share the discovery with Goober. He had to tell Goober to play ball, to play football, to run, to make the team, to sell the chocolates, to sell whatever they wanted you to sell, to do whatever they wanted you to do. … They tell you to do your thing but they don’t mean it. They don’t want you to do your thing, not unless it happens to be their thing, too. It’s a laugh, Goober, a fake. Don’t disturb the universe, Goober, no matter what the posters say.

The Chocolate War

When writing anagnorises: Make your character come to the absolute brink of (spiritual/actual) death before giving them their epiphany. Otherwise it won’t feel like they earned it.

Seelinger Trites makes use of the word ‘epiphany’ when describing the revelation that takes place in this novel, and points out that the anagnorisis experienced by Jerry in The Chocolate War is completely typical of young adult literature:

[The] intertextual question that lies at the heart of The Chocolate War — “Do I dare disturb the universe?” — is representative of an ethos that informs many adolescent novels. The chief characteristic that distinguishes adolescent literature form children’s literature is the issue of how social power is deployed during the course of the narrative. In books that younger children read…much of the action focuses on one child who learns to feel more secure in the confines of her or his immediate environment, usually represented by family and home.

Children’s literature often affirms the child’s sense of Self and her or his personal power. But in the adolescent novel, protagonists must learn about the social forces that have made them what they are. They learn to negotiate the levels of power that exist in the myriad social institutions within which they must function, including family; school; the church; government; social constructions of sexuality, gender, race, class; and cultural mores surrounding death. […]

In The Chocolate War, for example, Jerry Renault must negotiate his place within a family, in terms of a religion, and in his school.. Jerry’s epiphany is a recognition that social institutions are bigger and more powerful than individuals. The lesson he learns is a primary one in Young Adult literature.

Robert Seelinger Trites in her book Disturbing The Universe: Power and repression in adolescent literature

YA literature reassures readers that the world is your oyster if only you can find the power within yourself to rise above it or up into it.

SYMBOL WEB

To help lead a character (and readers) towards a anagnorisis, authors often make use of a symbol which they return to again and again. In YA novels, it’s quite often photos. But it can just as easily be something else. In The Chocolate War, it’s “The Love Song of Alfred Prucock“. Jerry sees a poster with Do I Dare Disturb The Universe? (the inspiration for Seelinger Trite’s book on YA literature) every time he opens his locker.

This is a classic case of: The reader has the anagnorisis even if the character doesn’t. When the character doesn’t have any revelation, the author has to use recursive tricks like a photo, a line from a poem, a stamp on a hand (in The Changeover by Margaret Mahy) to ram home the message for readers.

NEW SITUATION

I would like to point out that Jerry’s advice to Goober can be read two ways. It can sound like he’s saying, ‘buckle in, do what they tell you.’ But Seelinger Trites believes the message is yes, do disturb the universe:

Jerry’s final words in the novel echo the novel’s opening statement, “They murdered him.” His final lines are unspoken thoughts that he directs to his friend Goober: “Do whatever they wanted you to do…They tell you to do your own thing but they don’t mean it. They don’t want you to do your thing, not unless it happens to be their thing, too…. Don’t disturb the universe, Goober. Although Jerry appears defeated and is even possibly dead by novel’s end, the book still answers the question affirmatively: yes, he can disturb the universe. In fact, he should disturb the universe. Doing so may be painful, but Jerry has affected other people with the choices he has made.

Robert Seelinger Trites in her book Disturbing The Universe: Power and repression in adolescent literature

RELATED

  • The events in this novel ring very true to me. They probably ring true to you, too. Weird things happen in schools. This viral thread about the bread reminds me of the incidents in The Chocolate War, though doesn’t end as darkly.

Illness and Disability in Children’s Literature

The Doctor exhibited 1891 Sir Luke Fildes 1843-1927 Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894

Illness, disability and disfigurement has a problematic history in children’s literature. What are the main problems, today and in the past, and how might writers aspire to do better?

A BRIEF HISTORY OF CHILDREN’S LITERATURE AND ILLNESS

When you think of classic children’s literature and illness, you’re likely to come up with The Secret Garden.

The Secret Garden […] presents ideas that could certainly be called subversive, since at the time they were new and of dubious reputation. In this case, however, they are ideas about religion, psychology, and health. Colin’s self-hypnotic chanting recalls the sermons of Christian Science or New Thought, in both of which Mrs. Burnett [the author] was interested. The idea that illness is often largely psychological, and can be cured by positive thinking, permeates [The Secret Garden]. Another new concept is that of the healing power of nature, of fresh air and outdoor exercise. Today we take ideas like this for granted, but Mrs. Burnett grew up in an age when the only exercise permitted to middle-class women was going for walks. The Secret Garden also shows the influence of the new paganism that found a following among liberal intellectuals of the time. It contains a kind of nature spirit in Dickon, the farm boy who spends whole days on the moors talking to plants and animals and who is a sort of cross between Kipling’s Mowgli and the many adult incarnations of the rural [man-beast god] Pan who appear in Edwardian fiction.

Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grownups: The subversive power of children’s literature

The Secret Garden is a typical example of literature from the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature, which from 1850 until the first world war.

Now we are in the Third Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Children’s stories have never been so accomplished or diverse. Still, there have been expressions of concern lately about the amount of ill-health in contemporary children’s literature. Ill-health is one of modern children’s literature’s defining features.

Author Philip Womack and his fellow judges read 60 books to come up with the shortlist for the Branford Boase award, which rewards children’s authors at the start of their careers and has honoured names from Meg Rosoff to Mal Peet in the past. According to Womack, at least a third of the submissions this year had a “very similar narrative: there’s an ill child at home, who notices something odd, and is probably imagining it, but not telling the reader. They’re all in the first person, all in the present tense, all of a type,” he said.

[…]

“Children’s adventure it seems has become internal, the setting no longer the outside world but frequently the family, with narrative tension and action arising from issues such as mental health and individual trauma,” [Julie Eccleshare] said.

[…]

For Womack, small-scale dramas, focusing on illness or disability, can be done well – he pointed to titles including Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and RJ Palacio’s Wonder – but “in order to write this kind of narrative you need to be very skilful and I just think the problem is that publishers and authors maybe imagine that if you give a character an illness, they will be sympathetic”.

Domestic Dramas Crowding Out Adventure Stories Warn Children’s Book Prize Judges, The Guardian

It’d be easy to assume, then, that there’s one clean trajectory threading the history of children’s literature, starting at healthy and robust, moving to physically ill, to mentally ill, to so protected and cosseted in cotton wool that it’s impossible to get injured, but inevitable to suffer mentally. Or, the main character is literally dead, narrating from beyond the grave. The Lovely Bones type narratives are the epitome of illness, in a way.

But the history of illness in fiction doesn’t look like that at all.

Helen Scherfbeck, (Finland,1862 - 1946) Recovering Child, 1888
Helen Scherfbeck, (Finland,1862 – 1946) Recovering Child, 1888
Newton Alonzo Wells - Castor Oil
Newton Alonzo Wells – Castor Oil
Convalescent by Gerda Rydberg Tirén 1858-1928, Stockholm
Convalescent by Gerda Rydberg Tirén 1858-1928, Stockholm
Eastman Johnson - The Little Convalescent
Eastman Johnson – The Little Convalescent
Norman Rockwell, Girl Sick in Bed, 1937 convalescence
Norman Rockwell, Girl Sick in Bed, 1937

Why do we see more illustrations of children in bed, or wrapped up, in earlier ages? I wonder if it’s because our modern culture no longer remembers the concept of convalescence.

This book evinces an earlier attitude that sick children should stay in bed. A modern parent might say that if a child is well enough to require diversions in bed, they shouldn’t be in bed.
How to treat a rooster by Alexey Krylov, illustrator Vladimir Lubarsky
How to treat a rooster by Alexey Krylov, illustrator Vladimir Lubarsky

Ill-health in storytelling goes back to oral folktales. The Grimm Brothers produced seven different collections of tales. The final (considered definitive) was specifically designed to sell to families with children, and for that volume the Grimm Brothers fleshed out the oral tales they collected, adding their own puritanical Christian and misogynistic morals. But the two eldest Grimm brothers started off as pure collectors, and it was only in 2014 that Jack Zipes published his translations of that first, unadulterated collection of oral fairy tales into English. In the preface, Zipes writes:

The tales of the first edition are often about “wounded” young people, and many of them were told to illustrate ongoing conflicts that continue to exist in our present day. For instance, the tales frequently depict the disputes that young protagonists have with their parents; children brutally treated and abandoned: soldiers in need: young women persecuted; sibling rivalry; exploitation and oppression of young people; dangerous predators; spiteful kings and queens abusing their power; and Death punishing greedy people and rewarding a virtuous boy.

Zipes emphasises that these tales existed for several hundred years before the Grimm Brothers collected them. He’s also keen to remind us that these tales weren’t originally designed for children. They can’t really be considered children’s literature, partly because there was no clear delineation between the concept of adult and child. Zipes makes a link between ‘wounded’ and the ‘underdog’ as archetype:

Throughout the tales of the first edition, there is what I call an ‘underdog’ perspective. That is, there is almost always a clear hostility toward abusive kings, cannibals, witches, giants, and nasty people and animals. There is always a clear sympathy for innocent and simple-minded protagonists, male and female, little people, and helpless but courageous animals. Kings often renege on their promises or abuse and exploit their subjects, including their daughters, and they are either exposed, dethroned, or killed.

Even in modern storytelling, audiences have a strong preference for the underdog. In fact, one of the best ways to get an audience to side with a villain (antihero) is to show him (or rarely, her) in a vulnerable, low-status or put-upon position during the set-up. We see it in Breaking Bad, when Walter is sprung washing cars by his high school students. We see it in The Sopranos, when Tony does procures a CD player for his old mother who treats him like dirt.

This leads into reasons why stories about sick main characters are popular, and why writers might make use of illness to explore various ideas about the human experience. Let’s look at some case studies.

Cancer: The Fault In Our Stars

Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.

Marketing copy for The Fault In Our Stars

The blockbuster contemporary sick-lit YA novel is of course by John Green. Published 2012, The Fault In Our Stars has since been made into a film. Green took a few years between that and his next book, which is not about cancer but about mental ill-health, based on his own experiences with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

When one partner of a love story has a major illness, this is a legitimate and believable way to keep to love opponents apart. This is increasingly more difficult to do as a writer of love stories, because in our more free Western culture it’s fine to get together with the person you love, without a novel-length amount of longing and lust. That alone would be a bad reason to write terminally ill characters. Writing about cancer might be a way for teens with cancer to see a representation of their experiences in fiction — an experience previously ignored, and therefore taboo.

There’s another big reason which may account for the popularity of The Fault In Our Stars. As Nicole Galante argues in her paper “A Genre Against Them: Regulating Young Adults Through Literature“, most YA literature affords young people power… if only they are patient (and don’t die). This is a false kind of power, and probably not all that pleasing to read. This tendency accounts for the fact that most YA stories are ‘future-oriented’.

However, stories in which characters have no guaranteed future cannot be future-oriented. The characters must find a way to grasp hold of their power in the here and now. This makes literature about sickness surprisingly fresh.

Popular as it is with its target audience, The Fault In Our Stars did catch a little heat. Some readers felt Green went beyond ‘depiction and representation’ and slipped into ‘glorification’ territory.

Trust me, I understand that the deification of pain and suffering is a longtime feature of fiction. I bring up The Fault in Our Stars because as much as those characters explicitly and repeatedly speak angrily of people who idealize death, the text itself idealizes death; that book is widely beloved. The idea that suffering distills us down to something pure is an old and lauded trope of Western fiction.

It’s just a super shitty one.

Deborah, Dreamwidth
Mental Illness: Am I Normal Yet?

Green’s Turtles All The Way Down is not the only blockbuster book about OCD. The following year gave us Am I Normal Yet? by Holly Bourne.

All Evie wants is to be normal. She’s almost off her meds and at a new college where no one knows her as the girl-who-went-crazy. She’s even going to parties and making friends. There’s only one thing left to tick off her list… But relationships are messy – especially relationships with teenage guys. They can make any girl feel like they’re going mad. And if Evie can’t even tell her new friends Amber and Lottie the truth about herself, how will she cope when she falls in love?

Marketing copy for Am I Normal Yet?

It’s interesting that the marketing copy says nothing about the main problem in the book — Evie is living with OCD. This is kept as an early reveal. Am I Normal Yet? is a popular YA novel and the first in a series known as The Spinster Club. The narrative is surprisingly didactic at times, launching into Tumblr-like tirades on issues such as the casual flinging about of terms like ‘OCD’ and ‘panic attack’ when the speaker has no idea what these conditions really mean for people living with them. As per the marketing copy, this is mostly a story about a young woman who is delving into dating, a bit later than her peers, due to her early teenage years being filled up with the nothingness and imprisonment of OCD. Like various other stories (The Sopranos, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, Big Little Lies), sessions with the therapist provide further insight into the main character’s head, even though it’s written in first person. Such self-examination in someone so young would otherwise seem unrealistic.

Plot-wise, Evie’s OCD depicts an exaggerated response to the normal (but healthy) anxiety shared by all young people as they enter the dating world. Strangely, I was reminded of Diary of a Wimpy Kid when reading this. Greg Heffley is younger of course, and prepubertal. (My favourite word. Go on, say it aloud.) Greg is disgusted by adult bodies, which comes to the fore (in sometimes sexist and fatphobic ways) as he visits the local pool, for instance. In this young adult novel Evie is older in years, but still having trouble reconciling the admixture of emotions around finding sex and romance appealing, yet repulsive. Evie’s OCD shines a light on something common to many — the unaroused state of looking in at romance and thinking it’s totally gross and crazy, versus the state of arousal and attraction, in which all of those feelings (normally, ideally) go straight out the window. In short, the main character’s OCD examines a common disconnect around romantic love and the dirtiness of sex.

Memory Loss: The Secret History Of Us

There is a subcategory of young adult novels which star young women who have lost their memory. The memory loss might be due to an accident, or there might be science fiction/paranormal/crime elements. She gradually recovers her memory over the course of the story. This is a subcategory of the amnesia story — a narrative device which allows reader and main character to discover the setting together, creating extra empathy for the main character.

I’m searching for the chosen one/long-lost princess/heroine, who disappeared as a baby. I’m definitely not going to check orphanages for pretty teenage girls who have suspiciously specific amnesia.

@Brooding YA Hero
EXAMPLES

In 2008 we got The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson. Set in near-future America, seventeen year old Jenna awakes from a coma after a terrible accident. Memories slowly return as she watches movies of her life. It reads as a teen medical drama.

In 2011 we got The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodgkin. Mara wakes up in a hospital with no memories of how she got there. She can’t remember the accident that killed her friends. She has PTSD and her family is concerned for her mental health. (Unlike many paranormal young adult stories, Mara has a family who cares about her.)

In 2014 we got Don’t Look Back by Jennifer L. Armentrout, about a young woman whose best friend has gone missing. Sam herself wakes up with no memories. The facts of Cassie’s disappearance are buried deep inside Sam’s memory.

2017 gave us The Secret Memory Of Us, whose plot looks very much like a newer version of The Adoration of Jenna Fox.

Olivia wakes up to realize she doesn’t remember. Not just the accident—but anything from the last four years. Not high school. Not Matt, the guy who is apparently her boyfriend. Not the reason she and Jules are no longer friends. Nothing. That’s when it hits her—the accident may not have taken her life, but it took something just as vital: her memory. The harder she tires to remember things, the foggier everything gets, and figuring out who she is feels impossible when everyone keeps telling her who she was. But then there’s Walker. The guy who saved her. The one who broke her ribs pumping life back into her lungs. The hardened boy who keeps his distance despite Olivia’s attempts to thank him. With her feelings growing for Walker, tensions rising with Matt, and secrets she can’t help but feel are being kept from her, Olivia must find her place in a life she doesn’t even remember living.

Marketing copy of The Secret History Of Us by Jessi Kirby

The ur-story of the ‘female led love story with memory loss’ is Sleeping Beauty. When the young woman remembers nothing of her past, authors have a lot of storytelling techniques at their disposal:

  • The female main character can undergo a sexual awakening, even if she’s had one before. We tend to romanticise our first sexual experiences, replaying them over and over in our minds. In The Secret Memory Of Us, Olivia gets to experience her first kiss with a boyfriend she has had for a while, and therefore safe with. In the story, she’s literally redoing her first kiss. To the young reader, this feels cosy and safe.
  • The female main character is at a permanent disadvantage. The boys around her — namely, her love interests, her brothers, everyone — knows more than she does. This allows the writer (and readers) to indulge in the helpless girl fantasy, in which adolescent girls are saved by more mature, competent boys. This is a common and enduring fantasy. The wide appeal of the Twilight books stand as evidence of that.
  • But if the female main character is passive through no fault of her own — e.g. a car accident — the author can also depict her as a ‘strong character’ with plenty of agency. Unlike Bella Swan, Olivia can’t be described as passive. The main character of a memory loss story can be really quite proactive in reclaiming her memories, piecing clues together with the singular focus of a detective. In other words, the memory loss plot allows an author to create a young woman who is both helpless and proactive at the same time.

SICKNESS AND GENDER

Writing at Bitch Media, Alana Kumbler noticed a commonality in YA stories about sickness:

A girl is forced to face the reality of her illness, engages in recovery through her ambivalent relationships with other sick teens, and ultimately figures out how to “come out” to the “normal” kids and gain acceptance even though she’s marked as different.

Kumbler also noticed some problems. One is to do with the cover art:

They [girls depicted on the covers] are unmarked by their illnesses, so there’s no physical difference to bar identification between healthy reader and ill character. The covers, then render illness invisible while simultaneously reinforcing our cultural imagination of tragically beautiful illness as the province of vulnerable white female bodies.

Another problem is to do with the accidental enforcement of the rules of femininity:

Illness novels (like other YA novels for girls) emphasize the importance of protocols of femininity, which must be followed regardless of whether one is sick or well. In McDaniel’s Six Months to Live(1985), for example, the central characters do each other’s makeup while in the hospital.

Another problem is in line with the point Barbara Ehrenreich made in her book about relentless and unhelpful positivity, Smile Or Die:

[The sick teenage girl is] urged to fight cancer through “imaging” techniques

Separately, the patriarchal nature of the medical system generally goes unchallenged and unexamined.

Kumbler lists some character tropes common to illness YA:

  • main characters defined by fashion choices, extracurricular activities, hair type, and parental occupation
  •  the cute and charming terminally ill child
  • the amputee/cancer survivor potential boyfriend
  • the strong, attentive older brother
  • the “normal” guy at school who serves as crush object but is often a jerk
  • the father who can’t accept his daughter’s illness
  • hospital staff with accents or personality quirks (an Irish brogue, a tendency toward clumsiness, extreme perkiness)

And describes a common plot:

  • Typically, mysterious symptoms lead to diagnosis
  • Which leads to denial and angst
  • Which ultimately leads to either acceptance and cure or acceptance and death.
  • Illness is more common than disability, and when there is disability, it’s usually the result of an earlier illness. This is because there’s a lot more potential for drama in a new diagnosis.
  • The girl commonly keeps her illness hidden, but is punished when the secret comes out.

SICKNESS ON TV

It’s not just young adult literature which has been including characters with mental illness as part (or main character) in the cast. This is a trend also seen on television.

TV, and comedy especially, has really delved into mental illness recently. What do you think makes that such a prescient topic right now?

It’s funny because it definitely does feel like that’s a thing that’s happening on TV and that we are a part of it. But it was never our intention to really delve into exploring mental illness or different versions of depression or anything like that.

I think we’re just seeing more and more are shows that are allowed to take their characters seriously. I think that’s something BoJack is and I think the fact that you’re seeing more and more shows that are serialised goes hand in hand with that. In the past, a character had a funny quirk, but you couldn’t really delve into that because you had to make every episode make sense on its own. You couldn’t go too dark with it; you had to keep that status quo going for as long as possible.

But now you’re seeing the creators of the show really take those quirks seriously, and the actors can take that seriously and go, ‘Okay, well what does that mean that this character acts this way? Or react to these situations in this manner? Why would his character do that?’ You can keep asking questions and following up on that. These characterisations get richer and deeper and more deeply felt.

If you look at the last 60 years of television, I think you’d actually see a lot of characters that exhibit the symptoms, perhaps, of the kind of thing you see now. The only difference is now you can really unpack that and we’re given the space and the interest to really explore those things and take them seriously — and take the characters seriously.

Junkee
RELATED

Tuned In: ‘BoJack Horseman’ Is A Surprisingly Honest And Insightful Look At Depression

PROBLEMATIC DISABILITY NARRATIVES

To summarise:

  • It’s possible the balance of sickness and illness is pushing out adventure stories, but is publishing a zero sum game? If there’s a problem, could it be publishers are promoting domestic dramas more than they’re promoting adventure stories? So, a problem with marketing? Or is it readers themselves who are leading the charge here?
  • In representing serious illness such as cancer, and combining them with love stories, lightening the tone, are authors accidentally glorifying those very illnesses they’re hoping to realistically depict?
  • In a memory loss love story, does the proactivity of the female character in regaining her memory and solving the mystery really compensate for her inherent passivity? Related: If a young reader enjoys ‘female passivity’ fantasies, is that going to cross over into her real life, causing problems in relationships?
  • In medical dramas which give a lot of information about the illnesses and symptoms, the descriptions can border on the grotesque, turning the story into a gross-out experience. An injection can almost seem titillating.
  • By focusing heavily on a character’s illness, the author is setting the character up as separate from the reader. There’s a risk the author will end up making the reader feel like a caring person with a character arc which starts off invoking reader repulsion for reader pity.
  • Sick characters can position the character as a source of inspiration for non-sick readers. Perversely, sick characters can be set up as someone to idolize because of their illness. Idolisation doesn’t equal social acceptance or recognition.
  • A new diagnosis allows dramatic potential in loss of social status, beauty and romantic potential, as if it’s impossible to be ill as well as have social status, beauty and romantic potential.
  • In stories where a girl is punished for ever having kept her illness hidden, this is a clear message that it’s wrong to keep your own medical details to yourself. (This actually reminds me of some problems with the current #MeToo movement, in which authors writing about any sort of identity must come out publicly in order to be accepted as a legitimate voice.)
  • Teen illness stories are rarely narrated by the sick girl herself. First person narration via healthy best friend or sister has traditionally been a common viewpoint. In Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the story is narrated by a boy who lives nearby. The Fault In Our Stars may have marked an abrupt shift  in how illnesses are depicted in young adult fiction. Green’s book is narrated by Hazel herself, which avoids all sorts of problems (mentioned above). Namely, if the girl dies at the end (or even if she doesn’t) the person who undergoes the character arc is the bystander, not the girl herself. Like the titular Million Dollar Baby, the sick/disabled girl is the sacrificial lamb for the (more important) bystander.
Disability And Disfigurement As Moral Problems

Disfigurement is a separate issue from disability, but worth a mention.

Disability and disfigurement aren’t the same thing, though of course a person can have both. Disability is about what a person can or can’t do (or the fact that society says they can’t, or doesn’t set them accessible paths); disfigurement is about how a person’s body appears.

But disfigurement, specifically, is alive and well in children’s literature — often used oppressively by the narrative. It’s often a symbol of evil, or a punishment, or something negative, or something meaningful on moral levels, as something for a character to “overcome.” It’s almost never simply a way that bodies can be. But in real life — like disability, like fatness, like other embodied aspects that literature uses oppressively — disfigurement is simply a way that bodies can be. We need to call out oppressive use of disfigurement in children’s literature. Notice when it’s a symbol. Notice what it’s a symbol of. Notice when it’s a punishment. Talk about it.

Dicey Tillerman

“If you give handicaps & scars to your characters only as a way of marking them as evil, outcasts, tough and manly, or to make them feel exotic/mysterious (aka, to other-ize them), think about what that says to your real-life readers, and then think outside the stereotype box.”

Naomi Hughes on Twitter
See Also

‘Curious affection’ or ‘monstrous affliction’? Revisiting Patricia Piccinini from Overland

TO STRIVE FOR AS WRITERS

  • When characters are sick, they need to be the ‘main characters’ of their own stories. Whatever the narrative technique chosen, they should be the ones undergoing the character arc. The safest way to achieve this is to narrate the story via the sick character, not from her sister/boyfriend/neighbourhood boy.
  • Descriptions of the medical treatments need to be a careful balance between realistic/informative and grotesque. Ideally, we need #OwnVoices narratives.
  • We all know someone with illness. We’ll all lose health at some point. The stories overall should challenge the positioning of able and healthy bodies as normalcy.
  • When the sick characters are female, authors have a great opportunity to challenge more general standards of femininity rather than to support them. (The Patriarchy Is Killing Us, But Literally)
  • Related to this, there’s plenty of opportunity for critique of the current medical establishment and its various problems, including refusing to take young women seriously when they report problems with their bodies.
  • There’s also plenty of opportunity for political commentary of user-pays health systems, and how that alone can wreck families. Or how having an illness without a name is harder to deal with. Or how having an invisible illness is a different experience from having an obvious one.
  • The stories should leave teen readers with a more nuanced and complex understanding of illness, including the surrounding politics.
  • Artists, musicians and writers have got love covered, but few have managed to write what it feels like to be in pain. Especially chronic pain.

Anyone who has fought the medical establishment as a teenage girl knows that, as far as most doctors are concerned, teenage girls are not considered honest or accurate reporters of their own unusual symptoms

Deborah, Dreamwidth

The End Of The Fxxxing World Storytelling

The End Of The Fucking World

Listed on IMDb as a comedy drama, The End Of The Fxxxing World is a darkly comic coming-of-age tale with a major crime at the centre of the plot. It is also a twisted and cynical romance. The script is written by Charlie Covell, based on the graphic novel by Charles Forsman. Forsman is an American writer, from Pennsylvania. Covell is a British writer and longtime actress. You may have seen her in Siblings or Peep Show and most recently Marcella.

End of the Fucking World

STORYWORLD OF THE END OF THE FXXXING WORLD

How to adapt an American story for British screen, filmed in Britain?

Jonathan’s idea was always to try and do Americana, British-style. So if you look at the way Lucy Tcherniak and Jonathan both shot it, there are lots of nods to American TV shows, hopefully, and American landscapes. So we were trying to find parts of the UK that didn’t look quintessentially British – we filmed the finale on the Isle of Sheppey, and so hopefully there’s a feeling of expanse like you’d get in the Midwest. I think it was almost trying to do a Fargo-take on Britain, so they move from suburbia to an English version of the Wild West.

interview with Charlie Covell

Speaking of Americana, the audience is reminded periodically that this is ‘not a Hollywood movie’. Which is true — it’s a limited British TV series. The car isn’t going to blow up because it’s not a movie. Then it blows up. Both characters are informed by media they have consumed over the course of their lives. Alyssa’s behaviour is explained by her enthusiasm to watch the porn channel in the hotel room. She has no doubt been exposed to a lot of that. She’s seen a lot of crime shows (haven’t we all), and she calls upon her knowledge of crime fiction when deciding to clean the house after their murder. This gets around something all writers wrestle with — how to stop characters sounding like they’ve got their dialogue straight out of someone else’s crime fiction? One workaround, used here and also used in Thelma and Louise, is to acknowledge the fact that your new-to-the-life criminals probably did get their dialogue from elsewhere. Thelma repeats the souped up show-off dialogue of Brad Pitt’s character. Alyssa finds rubber gloves and bleach.

When Alyssa smashes her phone, this solves a big problem for contemporary writers, telling tales about people who would normally be fully contactable. This is fully in keeping with Alyssa’s character so it works. “I’m so glad I smashed my phone,” she says, later, reminding us that no one can easily find them. When we take technology away from our characters, the story immediately has a retro feel. This one feels almost like the 1970s or 1980s, especially with the style of Alyssa’s father’s jacket, and even the architecture of the house they break into.

STORY STRUCTURE

The big question introduced in the pilot: Will James really murder Alyssa? If so, how? This question sustains the entire series.

The voice over technique affords novelistic advantages as we hear the thoughts of Alyssa and James, juxtaposed against how they are acting and what they are saying. Watching The End Of The Fxxxing World is like reading a novel which alternates point of view after each chapter. A film which uses a similar technique is About A Boy, also British. Sure enough, both The End Of The Fxxxing World and About A Boy are based on books which alternate points of view.

In line with the ‘Americana’ aims, The End Of The Fxxxing World is basically a Thelma and Louise plot with young adult main characters.

  • Two characters go on a road trip, each of them hoping to have some kind of fun. One of them in particular just wants something to change — anything. She needs some kind of awakening.
  • Both Thelma and Alyssa are escaping domestic violence.
  • An initial rape scene ends with the other killing the rapist, who has raped many times before.
  • This is just the first crime in a series of others.
  • There are stops in cheap hotels, and other characters along the way, who they foil.
  • The characters they meet are stereotypes, which make our heroes seem more human.
  • One of the cops on their trail feels great empathy for them, engendering empathy from the audience, too.
  • After their last big crime, Alyssa, like Thelma, declares that she’s never felt so alive, or more like herself. She’s finally found out who she really is.
  • The pair look set to ‘drive off a cliff together’ (try to motorboat across the channel with no supplies and no fresh water), though that would’ve been too faithful to Thelma and Louise, so they change it a bit.

People who have seen Bonnie and Clyde have said this is the millennial version of Bonnie and Clyde.

See also: Comparing Bonnie and Clyde With Thelma and Louise

Road trip movies take the shape of mythic stories. These stories can feel episodic (and therefore lose narrative drive) because of all the different settings and characters encountered along the way. Modern audiences don’t have much time for episodic stories. So modern storytellers have to find ways to make their threads interweave. In Thelma and Louise, the Brad Pitt character keeps cropping up, for instance. In The End of the Fxxxing World:

  • Alyssa and James’s parents have never met, but they are eventually filmed sitting side by side on the couch. These characters come together rather than drift apart, lending cohesion.
  • There is plenty of conflict between Alyssa and James themselves. They spend part of the story each on their own. When they come back together, more cohesion.
  • It’s critical to have a definite end goal, even if they end up off track. This end goal has to be established early. (Alyssa’s father’s place.)
  • There is a parallel journey going on — in this series it is the cop duo, tracking them. Because they’re following the same mirrored journey, this gives narrative cohesion.

We therefore don’t mind that Alyssa and James briefly meet a number of temporary characters and spend every night somewhere else.

For another Road Trip story see my analysis of Little Miss Sunshine.

CHARACTERISATION

The writers of The End Of The Fxxxing World use a trick employed by Cormac McCarthy in No Country For Old Men. In this case not one but two unsympathetic characters are introduced. The girl is annoying but the boy is portrayed as psychopathic. Terrible though these people are, they suddenly seem relatively normal once they happen to break into the home of a serial murderer. Likewise, Walter White seems benign when compared to the experienced drug lord running Albuquerque.

Alyssa is not initially a likeable character, but she is is constantly fascinating. Like Lady Bird, she is far from perfect but she knows what she wants. She wants an adventure. She’s going to get her adventure even if she destroys her life in the process. (Alyssa is a more extreme version of Lady Bird of Greta Gerwig’s film.) Alyssa is a Thelma-character in some ways, but a Louise in others. By the end of the story she is a young Louise — we know she’ll be cynical and world wise now that she’s even seen through her Dad.

The character arc of James is imbued with comic darkness — he thinks he’s a psychopath. It turns out he’s not — his deadness inside has been a defence mechanism, which started the day he witnessed his mother drive into the pond. Through his relationship with the gregarious, assertive Alyssa, he learns that he is capable of feeling things after all. Tragically for him, he learns this lesson the moment he dies.

This series inverts a number of gender tropes.

  • When female characters break free they are very often required to sacrifice their lives the moment they achieve their aim, failing to break free at all. Thelma and Louise is a classic example of this. It’s so common it’s problematic, genderwise. Plenty of men are sacrificed in movies too, but not in this way. But this time James dies in a typically feminine way.
  • The cops are both women.
  • At the petrol station it’s a woman boss who is mistreating a male underling working in customer service, and who tries to play the hero by apprehending Alyssa.
  • Because Alyssa is so nihilistic in her own right, the show avoids turning her into some Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

In other ways, gender norms are not subverted. A disproportionate number of the male characters are perverts. James winds up sacrificing himself for a girl. Alyssa’s father is a stereotypical useless, uninvolved manchild.

The female cop duo are not in the original comic. One character has been split into two. This is interesting because in most paper to screen adaptations, characters are culled, not added. There is no romantic subplot for the cops in the comic. Their story mirrors the story of Alyssa and James, in a way. Neither is sure they really want to be with the other, but they are each drawn to the other anyhow, in a constant push and pull. The antagonistic relationship between the cops allows for dialogue about the themes: How much empathy and leniency do these kids deserve? Are they still kids?

James’s plan to kill Alyssa comes to an end after a few episodes. To be honest, this almost turned me off watching it. I don’t think I’d have continued had this plan continued longer. But when his plan is changed, he no longer has any plan at all. He’s basically a stunned mullet. It is Alyssa who comes up with all the plans from there on in. This is fairly common in a story with two main characters — one of them makes all the plans, the other goes along with them.

Alyssa’s father Leslie is a comical character — a tragic hippie trope. Portrayed as pretty dim, the joke at the end is that he’s not as dim as we thought he was — he knows enough to call the cops and get reward money. Jeff Kinney use’s Greg Heffley’s older brother in a similar way, setting him up as stupid, then rewarding the audience with the occasional ironic lightbulb moment where he seems pretty genius. Alyssa’s father is soon brought down again, because Alyssa is smarter by a long shot.

Lady Bird Film Study

Lady Bird film poster

Lady Bird is an American coming-of-age film written and directed by Greta Gerwig, who won a bunch of awards for it. I can see why.

A similar film, but underrated, is The Edge Of Seventeen. If you loved Lady Bird, watch The Edge Of Seventeen. Also, if you like Lady Bird, you like young adult fiction. Lady Bird may not feel like a YA story because this is also a story about a mother who is learning to let go. In this respect I liken it to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.

Another film considered just as good as Lady Bird, but about a black, gay man is Moonlight. Here’s why we should be paying attention to that film, too.

SETTING OF LADY BIRD

Though set in 2002, Lady Bird is considered a ‘period piece’. 9/11 was a year ago, and this influences American culture at the time. The character Lady Bird is drawn to New York, not despite the bombings, but possibly because she’s drawn to excitement (naively).

The story is not autobiographical, but Sacramento was chosen because Gerwig knows this area so well, having grown up here and attending a Catholic girls’ school. The significant thing about this setting: It is not New York. A young woman like Lady Bird feels like nothing important happens here. This story could equally have been set in the Midwest, or in the American South.

PLOT OF LADY BIRD

As Steven Colbert says in his interview with Saoirse Ronan, you can tell someone the entire plot of this film and still not ruin it, because this is very much a character driven story. When listed, there’s nothing in this plot which stands out as spectacle, or ‘original’. The brilliance of this story is in the emotional impact, which is created by well-drawn, relatable characters and focus on details.

STORY STRUCTURE OF LADY BIRD

SHORTCOMING

If you’ve seen the film Frances Ha, you’ll start to see Greta Gerwig is associated with a type (in Frances Ha as an actress, in Lady Bird as writer and director). This type is a young woman who:

  • Has artsy aspirations without the talent to match
  • Schemes her way into situations with the sorts of people she wants to mirror
  • Makes social mistakes/self-sabotaging decisions
  • Is assertive almost to the point of aggression (especially as perceived when it comes from a girl)
  • Doesn’t process consequences well

Frances Ha as a character is a softer character than Lady Bird. But for comparison purposes I’m picking a different film altogether—Diablo Cody’s 2011 film Young Adult, starring Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary. Critics and audiences alike found the character of Mavis Gary unlikeable, but not in a cool, antihero way a la Walter White — in an unpleasant ‘why am I wasting time watching this person’ kind of way.

Honestly, I think part of it is that Charlize Theron seeks roles that play down her Amazonian good looks (e.g. Monster) but because of how she looks she’ll always be the pretty girl. Studies have been done on beauty, and once you’re over about a seven out of ten your beauty is no longer beneficial to you. (Outside modelling and certain kinds of acting, I guess.) So part of the audience reaction to Mavis Gary might have been to do with Charlize Theron, and our perception that because she conforms to The Western Beauty Ideal then any other failings are absolutely her own fault.

But the unlikeability of Mavis Gary was definitely also in the writing. Female characters don’t need to be likeable. I doubt Diablo Cody was even trying to make a likeable character in Mavis. I’m sure she wasn’t. The problem is, Mavis isn’t sympathetic, either.

Below is an early clip from the movie in which Mavis tries to be a trickster character. Bear in mind, audiences love trickster archetypes.

Notice her trick fails. Mavis Gary now comes across as a bit simple, and also unkind. My sympathy is with the young woman checking her in, and I don’t think it’s just because I’ve worked in customer service. But Lady Bird is also a trickster who fails.

  • She gets caught stealing wafers from church
  • She pranks the nun’s car and gets caught.
  • She whispers something outrageous during an anti-abortion talk and gets herself suspended from her Catholic school.
  • She cracks on she’s living in a flash house and is caught.

The difference is that the audience is already on side with Lady Bird. As my daughter put it, “I don’t like Lady Bird but she’s funny, so I like her.” Lady Bird is a lovable rogue. An interesting aspect of human psychology: Just because someone is rude doesn’t mean we don’t want to be around them. Especially if that person is a fictional character. And in real life: Rude people secretly impress us, even if we don’t really like them.

  • The audience is primed to hate self-appointed dobber girls like the one who catches them eating wafers.
  • The nun finds the prank funny. The nun obviously likes Lady Bird.
  • Most of the audience of this particular film would be sympathetic to Lady Bird’s reaction to the anti-abortion lady, if not to Lady Bird’s way of protesting.
  • Lady Bird is caught out lying about her house, but apologises immediately. Her vulnerability is transparent as she asks if they’re still friends. The popular girl looks into her mobile phone and we know this is going to get around. We also understand Lady Bird’s reasons for wanting to appear rich. There is a huge difference between her home and the homes of her private school classmates and most people feel uncomfortable in the company of people vastly more wealthy than ourselves.

Objectively though, the character of Lady Bird is — all things considered — just as self-centred, just as dismissive of people around her and just as rude as Mavis Gary — most of the time. The wonderful thing about writing YA characters is you can legitimately show a number of sides to them as they try to figure out who they are.

Lady Bird is given zingers in her dialogue — the kind of zinger we would like to carry up our sleeves. The audience loves characters who speak the truth, or their own truth, without duplicity.

“Lady Bird. Is that your given name?”
“Yes. I gave it to myself. It was given to me, by me.”

We have also seen Lady Bird throw herself melodramatically from a moving vehicle in order to make a point to her mother. This kind of self-sabotaging slapstick is funny to watch.

She sees the funny side of situations, like when she’s caught by her brother stealing a magazine. The screenwriter has chosen the unexpected reaction here. The more expected reaction is mortification or fear or embarrassment. But no, Lady Bird is an original. She laughs. Later, she laughs when the goody-two-shoes church girl tells her off for eating the wafers. We like characters who drift through a story able to laugh at things. I think this is because we, as audience, are able to see the lighter side from our seats, and this pushes the amused character closer to us, almost breaking the fourth wall. In contrast, Mavis Gary does not have a sense of humour.

Another reason we’ll happily follow Lady Bird: She knows exactly what she wants and she goes for it, even when she’s nervous. Even when it’s ridiculous. We like characters who know what they want and go for it.

Here she is expressing interest in a boy. Lady Bird doesn’t wait around to be asked.

That particular scene does double duty—she feels misunderstood by her boss who accuses her of flirting. “I wasn’t flirting.” And it’s true. She wasn’t. Flirting is a passive thing that girly-girls do. Lady Bird was expressing directly and assertively interest in a boy and setting up a rendezvous. When characters are misunderstood by other characters, we empathise with the side who is misunderstood. We don’t like Mavis Gary in Young Adult because the other characters peg her correctly and treat her possibly better than she deserves to be treated.

Other characters love Lady Bird. It’s clear her mother loves her very much. Her father loves her in a more demonstrative fashion. Lady Bird’s teachers love her, even after she pranks the nun (harmlessly).  I call this the Gone With The Wind trick. We only put up with Scarlett O’Hara because she’s surrounded by people who love her. In contrast, Mavis Gary has no one. The character of Gemma is a mirror character to Lady Bird — Gemma is not supposed to be liked by us. Gemma is the Popular Teenage Girl trope, though she’s written a bit more subtly than most characters of this trope. She is acted beautifully with an absolutely vacant face. In the pool scene it is clear that Gemma doesn’t want for much in life — she just wants her popular high school life to continue along a rich girl track, in the same suburb. As mentioned above, it’s harder to empathise with characters who don’t have a strong desire line. This might be because without a strong desire, characters are boring to watch.

Surrounding your main character with laughable tragic stereotypes is another way to make the main character the likeable one. Lady Bird’s brother and girlfriend are getting into the vegan, hippie movement but their logic doesn’t hold water (at least, for much of the viewing audience).

But this particular story isn’t all about the teenage daughter. This is also the mother’s story. I really felt for Marion McPherson, driving away from the airport, then circling back because she didn’t want her daughter to see her crying. This moment reminded me of the heart-wrenching moment in Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood, where the mother realises that her child’s childhood has come to an end, and that she’ll be entering a new phase of her life as a distant advisor parent rather than as a manager parent.

This is a scene which can only be appreciated by older viewers, I feel, more so if they are older parents. Australian TV personality Amanda Keller describes it beautifully below.

DESIRE

Lady Bird  establishes the Desire Line of our main character very early on — in the opening scene. This diatribe could sound on the nose, but because it’s an argument the scriptwriter gets away with more. (A truism about argument dialogue in fiction.)

The desire for something more, something big, something MAGNIFICENT! is not original to Lady Bird. This is an old desire, seen in classic literature:

Lucy never knew her desires so clearly as after music. She had not really appreciated the clergyman’s wit, nor the suggestive twitterings of Miss Allan. Conversation was tedious; she wanted something big, and she believed that it would have come to her on the windswept platform of an electric tram.

A Room With A View, E.M. Forster

Note that in older classics, the functions of story come much more gradually. Lucy displays no real desire to the reader until the beginning of Chapter Four. Forster’s novel is described on the cover as ‘The tender story of a young girl’s awakening’. (I wouldn’t call a young woman a ‘young’ girl but that’s by the by.) The wanting of Something Big But Don’t Know Quite What Yet is characteristic of coming-of-age stories. (And though I haven’t done a study on it, I suspect it’s especially common with young female characters, because of the cloistered environment they’re brought up in.) It also describes Thelma in Thelma and Louise. The desire to be something else isn’t even necessarily noble.

OPPONENT

Lady Bird’s mother is her not-so-secret ally opponent — on the surface this mother/daughter relationship is antagonistic, but underneath the mother is wholly supportive. Shouty-arguing juxtaposes tender moments such as lying in bed together, asleep. Marion is wholly justified in being annoyed with her daughter for insisting on going to New York to study. She works so hard as the only income earner and now her husband is taking out a second mortgage on their house, when Lady Bird could have had an education nearby.

Lady Bird finds herself a romantic opponent, which seems to go remarkably smoothly until she realises he’ll never be into her. The next boy also goes well, until it turns out he has maybe lied to her about his virginity. Or maybe Lady Bird imagined an alternate scenario. The latter is probably more likely, because we’ve already seen that Lady Bird is prone to flights of fancy. The post-coital scene works well because Kyle Scheible isn’t being all that unreasonable. I can see the writer has sympathy for his own worldview.

The more interesting peer opposition is between Lady Bird and her best female friend, Julie. This is ultimately a love story between a girl and her best friend and between a girl and her mother. The boys come and go. When they dance together at the end, it is clear that beats from the romantic genre have been overlaid onto the friendship between two girls. Bicker bicker, kiss kiss, only it’s platonic.

PLAN

The desire mentioned above is no help to the story until your character makes a plan. Lady Bird’s plan is to:

  • Do some things to bolster her college applications
  • To her this means being in the school production
  • Get into one of the best East Coast colleges
  • More immediately, her plan is to find a high school boyfriend
  • And when that doesn’t work out, her plan is to get with the cool band boyfriend
  • In order to do this, she needs to ditch Julie and get in with the popular girl, who knows him.

It’s all of a piece. Unfortunately, as part of this plan to Be Someone, despite coming from ‘the wrong side of the tracks,’ Lady Bird loses herself to her goal. The goal itself is not the problem — her plans to get it are terrible. She’ll need to come to this realisation over the course of the story, and she does.

BIG STRUGGLE

Because this film covers several relationship dynamics, there need to be an equal number of Battle Scenes.

  • With the first break up: Walking into the toilet cubicle, followed by crying with Julie in the car
  • With the rock band boyfriend: Sitting at the end of the bed, after un-special sex
  • With Gemma: In her real kitchen, her lie uncovered
  • With Julie: In the school yard, in which Lady Bird accuses the friend’s mother of having fake tits
  • With the mother: It’s to pick ‘a’ big struggle scene because every scene between mother and daughter is full of conflict. This is the genius of the screenwriting here — the big big struggle scene is very quiet and contracted. The mother doesn’t say much at all and Lady Bird ends up slamming the car door. This is the scene that leads to the anagnorisis (for the mother), so that’s how I am confident that this is Their Big Battle. Note also that relationships aren’t like movie sex — two characters in a big struggle aren’t going to have their anagnorisis simultaneously. Lady Bird does not have any anagnorisis at the airport. This is not her scene. It’s only later, once her father gives her the mother’s trashed love letters that she realises how much her mother loves her. Speaking of which anagnorises…

ANAGNORISIS

The film could have ended with Lady Bird leaving at the airport. But it didn’t. If it had ended there, the airport scene would have had to be from Lady Bird’s point of view. Instead, this wrapped up the mother’s character arc. The mother has learned that she needs to let go of her daughter.

Instead, the story follows Lady Bird to New York, where she settles in, slowly, and starts to appreciate some of what she had back in Sacramento. This is symbolised by her wandering into a Catholic church after a real bender of a weekend. Not religious at all in Sacramento (she was only sent to Catholic school because the state school was considered too dangerous), she now embraces some of what the church has to offer. Or perhaps it mostly reminds her of home. Lady Bird’s anagnorisis takes place as she watches the singers in the church. We only know she’s had some sort of epiphany when she calls her mother afterwards. The function of the New York scene sequence is to show Lady Bird’s anagnorisis.

Another coming-of-age film which could have ended in a boy’s hometown but actually followed him as he began his new life in New York: Adventureland. Some reviewers thought the film would have been better without that final sequence. This is not something that has been said of Ladybird. This is because the ending sequence of Adventureland ends with the main character joining his love interest in New York. The audience didn’t need to know whether that relationship was going to work out or not. A feature of teenage-hood is falling in love and then quite often needing to move on from that person, even though things might have worked out if both characters had been thirty and ready to commit.  Moreover, there is nothing ironic or surprising about the New York scenes of Adventureland.

This is not the case with Lady Bird. We need to see her make a big mistake, getting herself hospitalised after drinking too much. We do need to see her reclaim her birth name, because that tidies up her character arc — she is comfortable to be herself now. Being away from Sacramento makes her proud to be from (and of) Sacramento. We need to see her wander into the church. Now we know that Lady Bird has fond memories of her high school years.

Here’s what makes Lady Bird rise above other, similar films: Greta Gerwig has pulled off a a story in which both mother and daughter experience a self-revelation, each because of the other. This creates a powerful story with a moving ending.

As The ScreenPrism states, what helps Lady Bird deliver its unique, emotional punch is that it is a story from “the perspective of the teen and the parent learning to let go.” Yes, Marion is over-bearing and often unfair but Lady Bird is selfish and often acts in disregard of those around her. Without one perspective, we wouldn’t be able to see the other in a sympathetic light. Together, both mother and daughter prove that there is no easy way around growing up, no way to ensure that you won’t get hurt and no way to be the best person you can be. It’s all a process of gradual understanding. Gerwig’s Academy Award nominated screenplay uses multiple perspectives to show that just because you feel sad, doesn’t mean that it’s all about you and just because it’s not all about you, doesn’t mean that you can’t feel sad.

Movie Maker

I’ve treated Lady Bird as the main character, but to backtrack, Marion’s character arc is set up more subtly but set up nonetheless. There’s almost a Save The Cat scene in which Marion gives a baby present to a work colleague who has just become a new father. Later, in the clothing store, she comments on some other acquaintance’s new baby (or perhaps it’s the same baby). What’s the interest with babies? Babies are so full of potential. When you have a new baby, that baby could be anyone. Marion is losing her younger baby. Her interest in other people’s says a lot about her mindset. She still wants to mother. She makes eggs for Lady Bird who ungratefully complains they’re undercooked. “Make your own fucking eggs, then,” Marion says. She wants to mother, but it’s now unappreciated. This is something all parents go through. It’s highly relatable.

NEW SITUATION

We know Lady Bird is going to be okay in New York. I suspect she’ll be really proud of coming from Sacramento after a little while, though the previous night she lied that she came from San Francisco, repeating an old pattern.

Her relationship with her mother will improve with geographical distance between them, but whenever she visits home for special occasions they will continue in their old, established dynamic of bickering I bet. Lady Bird might even return to Sacramento after she graduates. I hope she did!

FURTHER READING

Matt Bird’s Ultimate Story Checklist for Ladybird

In The Middle Of The Night by Robert Cormier

in the middle of the night

In The Middle Of The Night is a young adult horror novel by American author Robert Cormier. Written in the mid 1990s, this was one of his later works.

PARATEXT OF “IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT”

The cover reads like the poster for a horror film and gives us a horror tagline: “The sin of the father will be visited upon the son.”

Although Goodreads reminds me I read (and reviewed!) this book back in 2013, I have zero recollection of ever picking it up. This probably says more about my memory than about the book, though I do have strong memories of some of Cormier’s other work, particularly Fade, which I read as a teenager and which left a strong impression.

I’m reading In The Middle Of The Night again making read-along notes as I go, hoping to learn what I can about horror and suspense from a master of the form.

This time as a learning exercise I am reading a thriller/horror taking notes as I read. I want to see how a master storyteller controls his reveals and reversals. You’ll see I was wrong about a few things, and had trouble working out what was going on in the beginning. This is the book’s biggest shortcoming. Another look at Goodreads reviews tells me other readers had the same trouble. Why did I have trouble? For some reason, Cormier used the name Dennis twice, for two separate, unconnected people. The first was a minor character, Dennis Denehan, brother of Lulu’s best childhood friend. Later I was confused by the name Denny, the name of our main character. Why did Cormier do this? I guess it makes sense that within the world of the story, Jean Paul might have named his own son after one of the boys he felt responsible for killing, but it really did affect my ability to work out what was going on.

The other factor for contemporary readers picking up this book from the mid nineties, both the ‘contemporary’ world and the ‘past’ world of the story feel a bit retro now, so the usual markers that stand out as markers of time don’t work quite as well — I had no idea really about screening eras of I Love Lucy.

Prologue

Beginner writers are often told not to write prologues, which stands in direct opposition to the fact that a lot of popular books open with prologues. (There are problems with prologues and other people have explained all the reasons why. Bear in mind, it’s #NotAllPrologues.) Cormier, too, opens this story with a prologue. He ticks a few things off in this prologue:

  1. Some of the novel is written in first person, and ideally, with a first-person homodiegetic narrator, the reader gets a reason why all of this is being written down. “I am writing all this down. I have never kept a diary or a journal or anything like that. My thoughts and memories were enough, but now that she has begun to assert herself. I find that it’s necessary to keep a record. Why? For my own good, my own testimony, in case anything happens.” Likewise, readers are given a reason why Greg Heffley writes his Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and why two girls are writing The Popularity Papers (by Amy Ignatow). I am constantly amazed how authors come up with original reasons for why their storytellers are writing things down. (You’d think there would only be a couple of reasons, right?)
  2. The middle grade examples I gave are comedies, but Cormier has given us a creepier reason for writing something down: We immediately feel the character might die. And that is another function of this prologue — to introduce the creepy tone. Cormier even lampshades the story problem he has just created for himself — the problem EVERY writer creates for themselves when they want to do two incongruous things, making us wonder if the character will die but also having that person still alive to write the story — he writes “Stop pretending, she says. You know what’s going to happen.”
  3. Cormier also introduces a slightly creepy brother/sister relationship. Anyone who has previously read Fade by the same author might be wondering if this is going to be a story of incest.
  4. Aunt Mary is introduced. Cormier contrives a situation where adults won’t be a problem; first of all these kids are orphans. Second, their spinster aunt is well-meaning but busy, with a childlike naivety. So she’s not going to stand in anyone’s way.
  5. We get some idea of the time. This is a time when kids are play-acting I Love Lucy. As a non-American reader I’m a bit confused about the setting — this is a show from the 1960s, but perhaps kids of the 90s watch re-runs? Mention of the ‘phonograph’ makes this a bit clearer. Yes, this boy is writing as an adult.
  6. Lulu is established as an unreliable character. She likes to make up stories to cheer her brother up.
  7. The narrator is established as Lulu’s mirror character. Whereas Lulu is loud and lively and makes friends easily, the narrator is bookish and quiet.
  8. We’re introduced to Dennis — the brother of Lulu’s best friend and neighbour, Eileen.
  9. We have basic details about the geographical setting: A town called Wickburg with its own local traditions. They live on the second floor (of low income housing?) below a big family of kids.
  10. Foreshadowing: The magician likes to make people disappear. Who else is going to disappear?
  11. Clues about the horror genre of this story: The parents who died apparently went to see a horror film at the drive-in. That’s a good clue that this story, too, is a horror.
  12. Sure enough, by the end of the prologue, Lulu is dead.

Why was this written as a prologue and not Chapter One? Because the rest of the novel has its own structure, with four parts. Chapter One switches to third person narration.

PART ONE

Chapter 1

We don’t know this is about Denny (briefly mentioned in the prologue) until a page and a half in, but Denny is now 16 and his family gets a phone call in the middle of the night every year, starting a few weeks before the anniversary (of Lulu’s death).

I remain confused about the name Denny for a while. Is the older Denny the younger Denny’s uncle? Why has this name been recycled? Or is it the same guy?

Chapter 2

The Power Of Not Naming A Character

We’re back to first person. Interestingly, we don’t know this guy’s name. Who is he? At first I haven’t picked up the switch in generations. Am I the only one with this particular problem, or would the story have benefitted from something like ‘Twenty five years later’ under the chapter heading, to show this guy is no longer a kid?

At this point we only know the first person narrator by the nickname Lulu bestowed upon him: “Baby” , or “Baby-Boy”. This in itself seems weird. Is he really messed up? Lives alone as a serial killer? An possibly incestuous background, obviously full of the trauma of death?

Is This A Ghost Or Is This A Nutter?

It’s clear pretty immediately that Lulu is a ghost, which explains Cormier’s decision to avoid conventional dialogue punctuation in favour of italics for Ghost Lulu. (Ghosts can’t talk in the conventional way, or so we would assume.) Alternatively, this could be a setting in which ghosts aren’t actually a thing — perhaps our main character simply thinks they’re a thing — and Baby-Boy is having some kind of hallucination, and will act on what he imagines to be Lulu’s behalf. His reliability is not yet established. (I mean, he hasn’t even told us his name.) “A sigh escaped me, like a ghost abandoning my body” encourages that interpretation. Lulu tells Baby-Boy that it’s time to stop calling and time to do something by way of retribution. Baby-Boy tries to persuade her not to.

Revenge Theme Established

In stories (as in real life) vengeful characters suffer the consequences of their actions. This is obviously going to be a story about revenge. What will Cormier have to say about revenge?

Chapter 3

Now that we’re back to Denny’s third person narration it’s clear this book is going to take the form of alternating points of view by chapter.

We have a classic 1950s-esque scene with the mother in the kitchen watching coffee percolate while the father reads the newspaper. This is your classic ‘cozy kitchen’ scene. Denny’s life is safe and normal. But we know from the phone call at midnight that this is not a genuine utopia but an apparent one.

Denny’s eating tasteless shredded wheat, which is a sign of the era. (Eras can be marked pretty clearly according to what characters eat for breakfast.) This is the 1990s. With the mother standing watching the coffee rather than cooking the breakfast and being all cheerful, I detect some nostalgia on the writer’s part about what a morning should really look like (and it is dependent upon the mother’s emotional and domestic labour.) In close third person point of view, the son gives us a critique of how old his mother looks. (I assume the mother, ideally, should look pretty and young, to boot.)

Cormier gives us something similar to a ‘looking in a mirror’ thumbnail sketch of Denny: “Himself: what did his mtoher and father see when they looked at him? The obvious: dutiful son, good student — not brilliant, not a genius (definitely not a genius), but a regular kid. Did not give them cause for alarm. Polite. Oh, sarcastic sometimes, when things piled up and no one spoke or said anything. Unco-ordinated, awkward at sports, quiet. Spent a lot of time in his room. Reading, mostly jink but some good junk too — the 87th Precinct novels he was racing through./That’s what someone would see, peeking through the window: a regular family.” In short, Denny is the boy equivalent of Bella Swan — very useful as the main character of a horror/supernatural story because this boy can function as The Every Kid. He has zero distinguishing features, at least according to him.

A horror story Every Kid is especially terrifying — This could happen to you, too, young readers. It also means Denny doesn’t have much in the way of distinguishing Shortcoming or Need. Instead, we are given surface details about him. Denny is portrayed as quite different from his own father — whereas the father is small and neat, Denny seems to attract grime and creases. Will this prove metaphorical? Just as likely: Readers are being reminded that Denny is not his father, and sons should not be punished for their fathers’ wrongdoing.

This hasn’t always been the case. It’s a modern, Western idea that children are separate from their families. Throughout history, and in other parts of the modern world, people are very regularly punished for something a family member has done. This is more likely in less individualistic societies, where family members are considered different facets of the same ‘person’.

By mentioning the imaginary audience looking in through the window I am put in mind of a horror film camera technique whereby the camera sort of follows a character as they go about their ordinary business. The scene thereby seems to almost be taking place underwater, with the camera as some kind of shark, floating without sound towards its target, waiting to surprise. An opening scene of Broadchurch uses this technique, and you’ll see it in Panic Room and various other horror suspense films. The ocean has two distinct parts to it: the ocean surface, which you can see, and the ocean deep, which you can’t.

The mother suggests they take the phone out. “Especially this year.” Unfortunately I’ve already read spoilers on the back cover and so I know this year is significant because Denny is sixteen — the same age Dennis was when he did something which lead to the death of Lulu. This says something interesting about back cover copy. When Cormier wrote this book did he mean for the publisher to give so much away on the back? (While the inside of a book is created by the author, the cover illustration and copy belong entirely to the publisher.) Did the publisher forfeit suspense in favour of selling more copies, or was theirs a literary decision? Did they think Cormier wasn’t giving enough away, early enough, so helped readers along?

The horror genre is furthered in the reader’s mind when we see Denny has assigned horror monster names to the kids at the bus stop. This is similar to ‘genre parody’, except there’s no comedy element here. Instead it becomes simply metafictive: The character in a story immerses himself in the genre of the story he himself is in. This is done for comic effect in a completely different kind of story — Jane The Virgin. In that story, Jane immerses herself in telenovelas. The story Jane The Virgin itself is a spoof of a telenovela, using conventions from that genre such as a high number of coincidences, melodrama and a character web who become more and more entangled with each other.

At the bus stop Denny is cast as a sympathetic underdog — he’s the eldest by far (and therefore alone), and also humiliated somewhat, as his father won’t let him get a car until he’s seventeen. Nor will he get a licence. Humiliation is one of those top-tier emotions readers can easily identify with: when a reader feels humiliated for something out of their control we are on their side. The younger kid knows Denny is old enough to have a licence. As well as reinforcing his humiliation, we as readers now know Denny’s exact age without having to be told directly. Is this story going to espouse the dominant ideology of underdog stories?

We also see from the bus stop scene that Denny is passive. He lets a younger girl step in to break up a fight (a kiddie fight which nevertheless foreshadows a high-stakes big struggle to come). “See?” Denny tells her when she confronts him, in unsympathetic, bossy-boots fashion. “It’s like a war. You win one big struggle and the war still goes on.” This sounds like it might be a theme in a nutshell. We are also reminded that Denny has been running from something his whole life and has basically given up the fight. I predict a Call To Adventure which he won’t be able to turn down, because the safety of his family will be at stake. Later in the story he will double down on this and fight to ‘the death’ (spiritual death, coming out a different person).

The girl — a bluestocking, Hermione Granger type — sits next to Denny on the bus. I’m disappointed in this dynamic, or rather, sick of seeing it. Why do men write attractive fictional who seem sexually interested in boys who have just proven themselves to be hopeless?

The narrator briefly alludes to a character called Chloe. Who is Chloe? A girlfriend he had at a former place, before the family were forced to move?

Chapter 4

School Buildings As Haunted Mansion

Norman Preparatory Academy, introduced in chapter four, is the perfect example of ‘school as haunted mansion’:

Normal Prep.

It was the nickname for Norman Preparatory Academy, named for Samuel J. Norman, a deceased Barstow millionaire, whose former home, a three-story mansion, now served as the academy’s administration building. It was so damn normal, which is exactly what Denny liked about it. And hated about it. Both at the same time.

The school looked almost too normal: two class-room buildings, located at right angles to the mansion, bright red brick with clinging climbing ivy, two storeys in height. The lawn between the buildings was mowed to such perfection that it resembled artificial turf, although no one would dare play football on its surface or even walk across it. An iron gate guarded the entrance to the academy.

We knew as soon as we heard ‘Normal’ Prep that this was going to be no ordinary school. Like Denny’s house, the school, too, is introduced as a possible snail under the leaf setting.

(By the way, my expectation that this novel was going to alternate points-of-view by chapter has been foiled. I’m pretty glad actually, because every time the narrator change it pulls us out of the story.)

Rich and Poor Together

I have assumed — naturally — that Denny comes from a rich family if he’s being sent to this fancy school, but Cormier correctly predicts my erroneous assumption and tells us that his father has to work overtime at the factory in order to send him there. This could introduce another interesting dynamic: Denny is now a working-class boy attending a school full of rich boys. Whenever writers put rich and poor together they get instant conflict — interesting kinds of conflicts, because the values are very often different.

A Geographical Setting That Gets More Specific As The Story Progresses

We’re told Denny’s family used to live ‘down near the Connecticut border’, which gives us a more precise location within the American continent. (Perhaps American readers have already worked out exactly where this story takes place?) On the other hand, this ‘zooming in’ slowly on the physical setting turns the reader into a kind of ghost in our own right — like the ghost of Lulu, if we get a little more information about this family, we too will be able to follow them around and haunt them.

(Though there are places in America called ‘Barstow’, is this particular Barstow supposed to be a real place?)

Ghost Metaphor

Cormier uses a ghost metaphor to describe the way Denny moves through his day — at school in body, but not in spirit. Nobody ‘sees’ him. This aligns him with the actual ghost who presumably plots to kill him. The reader can see this — the characters themselves cannot. Revenge related message: The person you hate the most is more like you than you think.

Manic Pixie Dream Girlfriends

We’re given the backstory of Chloe. She was his first sort-of girlfriend — Denny is so passive that he lets girls make all the moves. Like the girl at the bus stop, Chloe was also full of action.

Well-intentioned Opponent

On the steps, Denny is ‘stopped by’ a guy called Jimmy Burke. At first I expect Jimmy to be your classic school bully (also, bullying incidents often take place on stairs). But no, this is a different sort of Opponent. Jimmy is well-intentioned — presumably inviting Denny onto the student council for the specific purpose of including an outsider, helping him to make friends. That said, an opponent in fiction doesn’t have to be ill-intentioned. Jimmy is an opponent because he stands in opposition to what Denny wants from school: To blend in, unnoticed. Parents in young adult fiction are also quite often well-intentioned opponents, standing in the way of the young adult with the intention of keeping them safe or whatever.

Chapter 4 ends with Denny on the bus wondering if he’s up for a big struggle. This is in reference to joining the school council, standing against some bad stuff going down under the surface of the snail under the leaf setting of school, but speaks to the bigger big struggle to come. There is nothing subtle about this story structure (and ‘not subtle’ is not a bad thing).

Chapter 5

Denny is back in his apartment now. The phone is ringing.

Symbolic Character Quirk

The mother has ‘a strange approach to labelling’. She writes ‘coffee’ on the cookie jar. This little character quirk has a deeper meaning: Denny’s mother is constantly hiding. Her homelife is literally ‘not what it says on the tin’.

When Denny finally answers the call and it’s a mysterious girl. She says something mysterious about them not being friends ‘yet’. Cormier describes the voice in ambiguous terms — Denny can’t be sure whether the voice comes from a girl or a woman or what. (This could therefore still be the deluded alive brother acting on Lulu’s behalf.)

Chapter break.

Flashback scene. Angry father in kitchen telling Denny to never, ever answer the phone.

Another flashback scene to when Denny was seven years old. Shifts in settings are easy in horror: This scene is introduced with the sentence fragments, “Seven years old. Third grade. Home from school.” Mom is sick in the bathroom — she says it’s a 24 hour bug. Denny answers the phone for the first time, presumably.

We learn the father’s name: John Paul Colbert.

Mother comes up behind Denny and scolds him for answering the phone, momentarily at least turning the mother into her own sort of monster. With both parents lying to him or hiding things from him Denny is totally alone in the world. We are even told in this scene that he’s never even had a babysitter. Denny realises ‘he’s never been really alone’, which is the opposite of reality — Denny is nothing if not perpetually alone in the world.

Double carriage return, back to the present. ‘Answering the telephone’ are the two incidents that link this scene to the flashback scenes.

Desire Is Solidified

“Suddenly he was eager for the telephone to ring.” This marks a change in Denny. He desires something. Until now he has been completely passive. He has been hankering for some kind of big struggle, and this person on the other end of the line is going to provide him with one. Ironically, as soon as he wants the phone call it doesn’t come in the middle of the night.

Jump Scares

“But something had awakened him.” Turns out to be his father. This is almost mandatory in a horror story: Once the main character starts to be scared they are on edge (as the audience is). Something will happen but it turns out to be benign. In the Australian crocodile horror movie Black Water, something nudges ominously against the tin boat, but it turns out to be a petrol can. Minutes later the entire boat is overturned by an evil croc. Audiences know this trick as used in horror stories, but it works anyway. It may even be mandatory, though I’ve yet to explore that sufficiently.

Against Subtlety

Cormier does not shy away from stating symbolism which may be obvious to an experienced reader but not to many younger ones, and this is perhaps what makes this a young adult novel. Of Denny’s father:

Sitting there, forlorn, in the middle of the night. But he and his father and mother were living in a kind of middle of the night even when the sun was shining.

Thus, the double meaning of the title is explained, and I learn that writers shouldn’t necessarily shy away from that.

Chapter 6

The story switches back to Baby-Boy. We know this not because it’s sign-posted at the top but because of the presence of Lulu and the first-person point of view.

Possession

Wait, what? In a flashback to the scene of the accident in the theatre, we get a surreal, white scene in which we learn Lulu never died at all. She made a ‘miraculous’ recovery. “I’m not Lazarus,” she tells her brother. I don’t know anything about Lazarus, apart from the idiom ‘back from the dead’. Bible readers will know the Raising of Lazarus story from the Bible. Jesus restored him to life four days after he died and he became a saint. The subtext of Lulu’s words: She is no saint. It is implied at this point that she died, then came back as a kind of vengeful machine, perhaps sent instead from the Devil. She has come back with one mission: To get even with whoever caused the balcony accident.

The horror genre is full of Biblical references and, honestly, most of what I know about the Bible I’ve learned from looking something up after watching a horror.

The end of this chapter, and of part one, provides the Evil Monster (Lulu, back from the dead) a clear motivation for wrong-doing, and makes us wonder how she’s going to exact revenge upon young Denny and his family.

Writers are advised to set up the rules of the setting early on. It’s interesting that I’m still not sure about the rules of the supernatural in this particular story. I had thought Lulu was a ghost but now she is a different kind of ghost — more like a vengeful zombie. It’s probably enough that I know this story contains supernatural elements, and it’s okay if I am slightly wrong about these, amending my vision of the world as I progress.

PART TWO

Chapter 7

Finally we get some questions answered.

This is what Denny’s father, John Paul Colbert, thought about in the middle of the night: how his life changed for ever at the age of sixteen when he became assistant manager/head usher at the Globe Theatre in downtown Wickburg, Massachussetts.

Naturally, we’re expected to have worked this out for ourselves by now. Cormier was a fan of making readers work a bit. Eventually we’re told whether we’re on the right track or not. The reader should have had this question: How is thread A of the novel related to thread B? It’s a safe question to assume readers have asked. Readers always want to know how two different stories are related.

This is still third person point of view, but the ‘camera’ has homed in on Denny’s father.

This chapter takes us to the part where the balcony has just collapsed.

Chapter 8

Mostly an action chapter, concluding with John Paul waking up after six days in hospital. His parents show him a newspaper article and we learn that John Paul is to be questioned.

The reader now has a question: What could the 16 year old usher possibly have done to be thought responsible for the collapse of a balcony? My experience of real life news makes me think of a tragedy in my own country, in which a group of tertiary students were standing on a balcony in a National Park. The platform had not been made for that many people. New Zealanders know it as the Cave Creek disaster. That happened in April 1995, coincidentally the same year this book was published. Given the lag in publishing, Cormier no doubt wrote this story before the Cave Creek disaster.

Could the character of John Paul be guilty of allowing too many people onto the balcony? Did it collapse from overweight? I’m keen to find out, and also wondering from a writers’ perspective what kind of theories other readers might have regarding John Paul’s culpability.

Chapter 9

The details of the disaster continues to be conveyed via John Paul reading newspaper reports. This is a writing technique that no longer works — now it would be the Internet, with far more theories and much more information for someone to sift through before getting to any semblance of ‘truth’. A young audience today reading about John Paul on the Internet wouldn’t necessarily believe the Internet news in the way that we and John Paul are obviously meant to believe the journalists.

In this chapter we also have the emergence of another ‘ghost’ like character in the form of a woman who points at John Paul with a long, bony finger. “You killed my Joey!” she screamed (whether she’s real or hallucinated.) What is it about the gendering of these accusing apparitions? Notice that in stories, characters are less often tortured by a male character pointing an accusing finger. Paranormal creatures who kill us are more likely to be gendered male. I believe this narrative gendering comes back to that old truism: Men are terrified women will laugh at them (disapprove of them); women are terrified men will kill them. This woman is terrifying because she disapproves.

It becomes clearer later in the chapter that this ghostly woman is not a ghost at all, but a real woman. (Other people can see her and they talk about her.) This is the second time Cormier has played this trick on us, making us wonder if a female character is an apparition, then telling us she’s actually real.

My theory about a balcony collapse has more to it — there’s a fire. We are left at the end of this chapter knowing John Paul had something to do with a fire. The fire weakened the structure. How did John Paul start a fire? Was this pyromania or entirely accidental?

As John Paul leaves the hospital we can see he’s a crucified young man. People are holding pickets up in protest of whatever it is he did.

Notice Cormier has given John Paul the revelation before he’s given it to the reader. John Paul knows exactly what he’s done wrong, but we readers will have to keep reading to find out. If Cormier does this well, readers will have our own kind of revelation, applying John Paul’s mistake to our own lives.

Chapter 10

John Paul is going through a depressed phase of his life. Cormier does not shy away from a bit of pathetic fallacy:

The coldness of November greeted him as he stepped out of the house, and he raised the collar of his jacket. The sky, dark and low, pressed down upon him. Tree branches, stark and leafless, were like spiderwebs climbing against the greyness of the sky.

Cormier has used the symbolism of the seasons to match up with John Paul’s inner state. He was happy in summer, with his plum summer job and the pretty girl, but now his life is terrible and sure enough it’s also winter. It’s rare to find a happy main character in winter. A writer can still subvert this convention by contrasting a downcast character against the happiness of a blue sky and people going about their summertime activities.

The scene with the librarian and the microfiche took me right back to the nineties. Ah, microfiche. University students no longer need to be inducted to the joys of research with the microfiche machines as I was in 1996.

We learn that John Paul has been ‘cleared of responsibility’ for the tragedy. But John Paul was still ‘a part of it’. Because this is a character with a conscience, being legally in the clear doesn’t count for much. This aspect of a character endears them to a (non-sociopathic) reading audience.

The nice letter from the girl — Nina Citrone — shows just how much this male character puts stock on what girls/women think of him. This seems to be a theme running through Cormier’s work (at least, those novels that I have read so far); Cormier’s teenage boys are very, very concerned about what women and girls think of them. A glance from the right girl can make or break his year. (When girl characters are written this way, readers tend to think the girls ‘pathetic’ and the books are thrown into the romance category, even when the romance is a subplot.) This is why the phrase ‘strong female character’ has become problematic in recent years — it comes from an acknowledged double standard that female characters have to be strong. Strong does not equal real.

When there are no big headlines about John Paul being cleared of wrongdoing, Cormier is saying something about the nature of the media. The media loves a witch hunt, but stories fizzle out and the protagonists of those real life stories are left to deal with consequences and clearances on their own. Also, plotwise, if John Paul was never publicly cleared of wrong-doing, this explains why there are people who can never move on.

We are told that John Paul has a difficult relationship with newspapers. This takes us back to the first time the reader met John Paul — ‘hiding behind’ a newspaper in the kitchen but not really reading it, from Denny’s point of view. The newspaper in this story is serving as a character motif. What does it symbolise? When John Paul ‘hides behind’ the newspaper, it stands for his public reputation as contrasted with his private self.

Chapter 11

John Paul goes back to school. No one is paying attention to him. Remember the logline for this book: “The sin of the father will be visited upon the son.” A large portion of Part One was dedicated to showing the reader how invisible his son is — actively invisible. (That’s actually a useful concept — even the most passive characters in a good story are ‘actively passive’ — they go out of their way to do nothing.)

John Paul meets Nina — like the son, John Paul attracts actively romantic girls. He now has a sort of girlfriend.

Question: Is this Denny’s mother? (In real life, unlikely. In stories, however, teenage romances are more likely to last.)

Notice how Cormier ends this chapter. He’s sent John Paul on an emotional, heart-soaring high, but an anonymous quip calling him a ‘killer’ brings him plummeting back down to earth.

Question: Who sent that to John Paul. (We kind of know, don’t we? Baby-Boy or his sister.)

PART THREE

Chapter 12

We’re back to Denny’s point of view. Cormier makes sure we know this by starting the first sentence with ‘Denny Colbert’. He’s waiting for the telephone to ring. Whereas his father is symbolically connected to newspapers, Cormier is going out of his way to connect Denny to phones.

After yet another mention I’m moved to look up ’87th Precinct novels’. I learn that ‘the 87th Precinct is a series of police procedural novels and stories written by Ed McBain (pseudonym of Evan Hunter).’ They were published from the mid 1950s to the mid 2000s. Perhaps this series was important to Robert Cormier, and because they continued to be published, perhaps American readers are familiar with this series. I’d never heard of them. Now that Cormier has started talking about a mystery/detective series, I’m guessing this novel is going to metafictively switch tracks — I am now expecting Cormier to make use of some conventions from the detective genre.

We get a bit of backstory about when Denny first began his job at the theatre — an insight into the relationship between Denny and his own father. This is a story about the connections between fathers and sons.

Chapter 13

The point of view switches back to Denny. Denny is teased about his ‘girlfriend’ on the bus. Cormier provides us (and Denny) with the girl’s name after a few pages. Dawn is an unsympathetic character to this ‘girl’ reader — the classic guy’s gal, who thinks girls are too bitchy and boys easier to get along with. (Does this endear her to boys, though? Does this make her the perfect Cool Girl?)

Cormier really rams home how passive Denny is: He fails to get the number of the girl he has fallen instantly in love with. He walks past a fight where he could have stepped in. He avoids giving an answer to the guy who wants him to join council and make a difference. The difference is, now he’s starting to get angry with himself.

He finally does something active by applying for a part-time job. The man at the convenience store is looking for someone older, though. The wish to be slightly older is probably pretty common when it comes to sixteen year olds (though I never felt that way personally). Most YA readers can probably relate.

Something exciting has to happen in this chapter after all that passivity and disappointment. Trouble comes with a knock at the door. A smarmy reporter wanting the ‘human side’ of John Paul’s story, through the son. We know that he’s untrustworthy because Cormier has him hand over a grimy business card.

On the way to church Denny has a conversation with his mother about his father and how nice he is, visiting the dead kids’ cemeteries as his own version of church. The chapter ends quietly.

Chapter 14

Another quiet chapter. Why does this chapter exist?

The council guy is still keen for Denny to run. This guy’s enthusiasm contrasts with Denny’s reluctance to do anything much at all. Though Denny does want something. He wants money and a learners’ permit. (Freedom.) Denny’s desire is entirely selfish — he hasn’t yet learned to look outside himself.

The chapter about Denny having trouble even getting a part-time job contrasts with his father’s getting a plum job at the theatre at the same age. This is Denny assuming his father is going to be against him getting a job at all (because his own experience turned out so tragically) but being pleasantly surprised to learn that John Paul is a reasonable man.

So this chapter was about reinforcing contrasts. I feel neutral about Denny as a person — he hasn’t inspired empathy yet. Is he going to turn out a hero or is his passivity going to lead to his downfall?

Chapter 15

Okayyy, so Denny is actually a stalker. I had a feeling this might happen. Cormier definitely has voyeuristic interests, at least in his work.

One afternoon, [Denny] stood outside Barstow High School in another attempt to find Dawn. He had discovered that Normal Prep’s school day ended aa half-hour earlier than Barstow High and that he could, with luck and perfect timing, reach dawn’s school a minute or two before hundreds of students burst out of the place as classes ended for the day.

He had stationed himself in front of the school near the nine orange buses whose engines throbbed while waiting for their passengers. Denny figured Dawn would be getting on one of the buses.

Have you noticed that Denny is not the only stalker in this story? But, so far, Denny’s stalking is presented as ‘the normal thing to do if you’ve missed out on getting a girl’s number’, whereas the stalking done by the female character — the vengeful ghost chick — is crazy. This is a common dynamic employed by Hollywood screenwriters. While stalking behaviour in male characters is rewarded, women are killed. Will Cormier subvert this trope? Please don’t let Denny ‘get the girl’. I do see what Cormier is doing — I have already established that Lulu and Denny are mirror characters, so they must both also do their own version of stalking.

He doesn’t find Dawn (this time) and goes home alone.

Chapter 16

Finally, with no good reason, Denny picks up the phone. The smokey voice on the other end of the line has a lot to tell him — specifically him, not his father. Denny hangs up, at first thrilled but suddenly terrified.

Chapter 17

Point of view switch to Baby-Boy, describing his sister, the crazy stalker woman, Lulu. As Lulu and Baby-Boy talk about how it’s not the father’s fault, it is clear that Lulu is a horror machine — she won’t be stopped, not by reason, not by anything. She has a ‘cruel slash of a mouth’ and her face is ‘taut’. The old Lulu is gone. This is the archetypal horror genre monster. Cormier has linked her to the Christian church by talking about Heaven/Hell/Limbo — horror tropes come straight from the church.

Part Three ends with Lulu doubling down on whatever horrible thing it is she plans to do.

PART FOUR

Chapter 18

Halloween is approaching — a great time for horror happenings in suburbia, especially in children’s stories. It kind of makes me wish we had Halloween here in Australia — it would be nice to feel a frisson of fear. Note that Cormier has specified ‘no rain yet’. (No tears yet — no catharsis of emotion, but just you wait…) The wind blows the leaves in swirls — another kind of pathetic fallacy indicating change to come.

Denny is sullen and pessimistic about Halloween, disapproving of all the pumpkins. Denny is anti-childhood, and will be until he is confident he himself has left childhood behind. At the moment he’s stuck in his own kind of limbo — along with his mirror character, Lulu — between adulthood and childhood. He doesn’t like the painted faces on other peoples’ pumpkins but he still wants his father to carve him his own.

Denny finds something nauseating when he gets home. He has to clean it up. Cormier withholds from the reader what he has found. I’m thinking maybe a dead animal, small enough to flush down a toilet. No, it is human poo.

Now Cormier reveals that Denny and Lulu have had a number of conversations that the narrator hadn’t told us about. It seems Denny is falling in love with her a little. Cormier made sure to show us that Denny is the sort of boy who falls in love in an instant, so this makes sense.

Lulu is using her sexuality — basically a version of literary phone sex — to control Denny. This is where Cormier really makes the most of the season symbolism already introduced — Lulu categorises women according to season — summer is a voluptuous woman, Halloween is a witch. It’s clear Denny is responding to her only because of her sex appeal because the middle-aged male reporter tried to get Denny talking, to no avail. So here’s another gender trope: Women use their sexuality to get what they want from men.

Back to the present — Denny waiting for Lulu to call him on the phone, but she does not.

Chapter 19

The horrible twelve-year-old boy at the bus stop tells Denny that Dawn works in a certain shop at the mall, and comments lasciviously on the size of her breasts. Denny is apparently disgusted by this phrase, but probably only because another boy is saying it — he has objectified her similarly himself.

Denny has undergone an overnight character change and for once in his life he’s proactive. He goes straight to the counter where Dawn works. Dawn is delighted to see him. Turns out she even called him a few times, though Denny didn’t answer.

Okay, so now our alarm bells are supposed to be going off, right? How did she get his number? Normally I’d assume from the phone book, but the Colberts have an unlisted number. This has been established. Is Dawn Lulu? Somehow? A tool of Lulu? Possessed by Lulu? Significantly, Dawn works at the perfume counter — a symbol of bewitching femininity. In stories perfume can work almost like a poison, or a magic spell — always women casting spells upon men. (Well, I’ve yet to read a story about a women bewitched by Lynx, though the marketers of Lynx inverted the trope to comic effect in their The Lynx Effect series of commercials — which nonetheless still manage to sexualise women.)

Anyhow, by now we are supposed to be suspicious of Dawn. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be, but now I am.

Lulu asks Denny, “Would you like to know what I look like?” This is masterful on Cormier’s part because he now knows I want to know if Dawn is Lulu, somehow. A few pages later the narrator tells us “But Dawn Chelmsford was not the voice on the telephone,” thereby answering the question I had at the exact right time. If Denny himself had not started to wonder, I would have considered him stupid and irritating as a character. Denny says the voices are different, but I’m thinking of all the horror films I’ve seen and I know that when someone is possessed, the demon changes their voice.

Denny rushes home from school for his afternoon session of weird ghostly phone sex but is momentarily delayed by the reporter, who this time tries to garner his sympathy by saying he has a wife and kids and mouths to feed. Denny still does not talk to him.

Chapter 20

A creepy conversation between Lulu and Baby-Boy. Baby-Boy is the conscience, telling Lulu off for enjoying playing with the emotions of a teenage boy. In a faux-feminist way, Lulu asks him if it’s wrong to enjoy what she’s doing. She’s never had a sexual relationship with anyone. I have suspected she is grotesque after her injuries from the accident — now I’m more sure. The exact nature of her injuries will probably be revealed later… In stories a deformity equals malice. I previously normal-looking character who subsequently becomes deformed becomes malicious. Let’s see.

Chapter 21

The previous creepy scene juxtaposes with this scene: Denny bored to tears in history class.

Between classes, Denny runs into the guy who didn’t fight back. Denny asks why he didn’t fight back. The guy tells Denny to think about it, thereby forcing the reader to also think about it. Why don’t people fight back? Also, why is Lulu so intent on fighting back? That afternoon we get a theme of the book imparted via this guy’s dialogue:

“Know what? I didn’t figure I was the victim that day. They were. Those guys avoid me now, they look ashamed like they did something dirty. And you look at me almost the same way…”

There’s a small reveal: Everyone at Normal knows Denny’s secret. Denny had assumed he was anonymous, but he’s been exposed the entire time. I sense this small revelation is prelude to a larger but related one.

Cormier is using Halloween as a bit of a ticking clock device now, telling us that Halloween is in just three days and the reporter’s deadline is tomorrow, after which he risks massive exposure again.

This chapter is divided into two parts. In the second part Denny and Jean Paul are up at the same time in the middle of the night. They have a rare heart-to-heart and I realise why Cormier has made the father an immigrant — to put a mild communication barrier between them. (Though it’s unrealistic that the father wouldn’t speak native-level American English, having immigrated so young.)

Denny has a anagnorisis:

“Sixteen, Dad. You were sixteen when it happened! You were my age.” The knowledge overwhelmed him. He didn’t know how he would have handled such a thing. All those children dead an all those accusations. But his father had handled it. Had endured, had survived.

In short, Denny realises he’s not so old after all, and that things aren’t always as bad as you fear and that people can endure a lot before breaking. Denny realises that not fighting is one way of ‘dealing with’ things. (This goes back to what I earlier noticed about how Denny is actively passive himself.)

Cormier puts Denny’s anagnorisis into action by sending him to a telephone box to tell the reporter (in that passively-active way) “No comment”. So there’s a writing tip: if the anagnorisis happens during a conversation, have the character do something — however small — to put that new awareness into action. This scene also marks the end of the reporter subthread. We won’t be left wondering what happened to Les Albert.

I’ve started to really wonder if Dave in the store is Baby-Boy. I’m confident Cormier wants me to think this. Dave has flu the same day Lulu does not call, and as we know, these two are always together.

Lulu calls the following day and sure enough, Halloween is D-Day. They arrange to meet on Halloween night at the corner of Denny’s street. No, Denny! Don’t do it! Remember the shit stain!

Next we have Les Albert’s article, where the reader is told exactly how the blaze started (well, sort of? I don’t see why the match was lit? As a torch?) There is a moment of tenderness between father and son. The mother pops in to suggest they go away for the weekend and avoid the attention but father and son are united: they’re staying right where they are. This story began with a huge emotional wedge between father and son but the relationship itself has undergone a character arc and now they are close.

Chapter 22

The big reveal! Dave is at the wheel. (I guess ‘roof’ is an American word for ‘toupe’?)

This is the big struggle chapter. Dave turns out to have a conscience, and sacrifices his sister to save Denny. A reveal at the end of the chapter tells us he took his own life, too.

I suspect Cormier struggled a bit to come up with sufficient motivation for Lulu. The idea that Lulu was terrified by the nothingness of ‘death’ is at odds with my own thoughts on how it works. I’ve read Elisabeth Kubler Ross, who said that two types of people tend to have the least problem with death: the very religious and the confidently atheist. It’s that murky middle part you want to avoid. I do remember Christopher Hitchens saying, right up to the last, that he was comforted by the idea that there would be nothing.

But this is fiction, after all.

I appreciate that Cormier did not give Lulu a deformity. She was grotesque because she was old, though she didn’t have use of her legs due to the accident, not because she was old.

The chapter concludes with another anagnorisis — maybe home is the place you go to because there’s nowhere else to go. However bleak that sounds, having a home at all is a fortunate thing.

Chapter 23

Since the big struggle scene is over all that’s left is for us to get a sense of the new situation. Oh no, hang on, we need to know if Dawn is connected to any of this business.

The chapter opens with the jostling at the bus stop juxtaposing with the sorry scene with two deaths. But this return to normality has an interesting change: there’s a creepy new kid there, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. This boy immediately feels like a symbol — a new ‘cancer’ in Denny’s life.

We’re told the phone keeps ringing. At first it could be that the evil didn’t die with Lulu. But then I learn that this is reporters.

As the book ends we’re told — as if it’s important to us, like it is to Denny — that Dave’s name is Dave O’Hearn. Plotwise, Cormier is making sure we’ve connected the dots, I guess. Baby-Boy is to be replaced with a more ordinary, human-sounding name. Also, knowing the guy’s full time achieves a kind of verisimilitude, and a sense of real closure. When you know someone’s full name there is the illusion that you really know them.

The scene with Denny in church, knowing about the blankness while his mother prays shows that Denny is now even more separated from his mother than he was before, and now he has several secrets he’ll keep from his parents, on his way to becoming a man.

Cormier pulls together the ghost theme, alerting me to some symbolism that hadn’t even crossed my mind: “He had loved nothing, loved nobody, because the Lulu who spoke those words to him had not been real, hadn’t even been a ghost or a phantom, only a fantasy.”

The story has to end with Dawn and Denny sitting silently, side-by-side on the bus. Because if he had ‘got the girl’, this would have been one of those stories where the crazy stalker woman gets killed, but the crazy stalkerish boy who has nothing to really offer a girl gets rewarded. I was pretty worried Cormier was going to let me down for a moment there, but I am breathing a sigh of relief that this is not one of those stories.

We Are The Best (2013) Storytelling

We Are The Best is a Swedish film adaptation of Coco Moodysson’s (director Moodysson’s wife’s) autobiographical graphic novel which she never completely finished.

We Are The Best film poster

PREMISE OF WE ARE THE BEST

Three girls in 1980s Stockholm decide to form a punk band — despite not having any instruments and being told by everyone that punk is dead.

STORY WORLD OF WE ARE THE BEST

  1. The year is 1982. This is the world of punk, and without having the graphic novel in front of me (which looks like it stars punk characters), the director definitely prides himself on being a punk and antiestablishment. In the early 80s punk had supposedly died and New Wave ruled.
  2. The creator of the autobigraphical graphic novel says there were no role models around that time for girls of this age. There were Swedish girl bands, but they were older and their songs were about having sex “and we thought that was disgusting. We wanted to look tougher, like boys.” A modern audience might at first read these girls as proto-lesbian but context is clue; these girls are perhaps a little femme phobic, and have definitely grown up in an environment which equates toughness with masculinity. So that’s where that comes from.
  3.  Stockholm, Sweden. These are city kids who seem to attend public school but without the ‘inner city’ problems you might find in somewhere like America. There’s enough money. That’s where some irony comes in — these girls are too young and too sheltered to really know what they’re standing up against.
  4. Winter.

STORY STRUCTURE OF WE ARE THE BEST

Anagnorisis, need, desire

This is a coming-of-age story. I believe the characters are 13. Mira Barkhammar, who plays Bobo , was actually 13 during filming. Mira Grosin, who plays Klara, was only 11; Liv LeMoyne, as Hedvig, was the eldest at 14. Anything around this age is the classic time for a coming-of-age tale.

In the first scene Bobo has already begun her transformation. She has cut her hair, and we see her mother embarrassing her by pointing out the new short cut to a large gathering of adult friends at a party. Over the course of this story, Bobo learns that she doesn’t need to play second fiddle to her more exuberant, prettier friend Klara. She takes the first step with a boy. Rather than being the follower of Klara, the addition of the conservative Christian Hedvig to their group means that Bobo learns, like Hedvig, to think for herself. She also learns not to let a boy come between her and her best girlfriends.

At the beginning Bobo already knows that she doesn’t want to be like everybody else. This is what has drawn her to punk. But she hasn’t yet learnt to be her own person entirely — she’s under the influence of Klara.

She is wrong about her own uniqueness and individuality. She professes to not care about what others think of her, but she is deeply wounded by rejection from the boys who she doesn’t even like. She’s on the right track to intellectual freedom, but her need for peer acceptance is holding her back.

She is also dismissive of everything and anyone who doesn’t fit her version of cool. She can’t accept Hedvig as a friend without wanting to change her first. She is dismissive of other people’s musical tastes, including Hedvig’s.

At first it seems as if Hedvig changes the most — why isn’t she the (secret?) hero? But take a closer look and you’ll see that even though Hedvig has her hair cut, she hasn’t changed that much; she is solid and independent at the beginning of the film, and remains so throughout. Sure, she’s gained two new friends and become more cool than she was, but she is still the same basic person. Bobo definitely ‘grows’ more than either Hedvig or Klara. Klara doesn’t really demonstrate that she’s changed at all. She thinks she’s the best at the beginning of the film, and even in the final scene she declares ‘I am the best’, showing that she’s all about her own self. She genuinely doesn’t care about other people, or what they think — even when those people are her best friends.

Ghost

Later in the film, when Bobo is being comforted by Klara after throwing up on Klara’s older brother’s records, Bobo tells Klara that she’s sick of Klara getting all the boys and being invited to all the parties. We don’t know it at the start, but Bobo has a history of rejection. This explains in retrospect why she has been drawn to punk and to Klara, and why she is so upset when Klara hooks up with the punk boy they go to meet.

Story World

The arena is a school and its local surrounds in Stockholm, Sweden.

They are heading into winter time and snow has settled on the ground. This means the characters are forced to basically live indoors, except for the scene on the roof, when Bobo sort of threatens to jump off. The season is significant because it’s an ironic one — coming-of-age stories are often about ‘blooming’, and therefore spring, but punk is an ironic, subversive, transgressive genre, and so the story inverts the usual season and has Bobo heading in to winter.

The city is an entirely man-made space.

The important tool for the girls is an electric guitar, because an electric guitar will propel them into the realm of ‘cool’, or so they think.

This is a contemporary story set around 2013.

Shortcoming & Need (& Problem)

Bobo has distanced herself from the crowd, which is fine, except her only ally in the world is Klara, who is an imperfect friend. Klara can be a little callous, and is inclined to take the limelight. Bobo has no self-confidence. Feeling she is ugly, she has cut off her hair and refused make-up to buck the expectations of her gender.

Under Klara’s influence, Bobo also can treat others badly, which appears when the two of them basically bully Hedvig into getting a punk haircut.

Bobo’s crisis at the beginning of the story is that she is not accepted by her peers, namely boys. She has no idea how to fix this and doesn’t even know she wants to.

Inciting Incident

Bobo and Klara impetuously decide to start a punk band and participate in the autumn concert. But they are too late, and the middle-aged woman in charge says they’ll have to come back next year. This annoys Klara so much that she thinks if she can’t play in the autumn concert she doesn’t want to play at all. But they decide to keep playing so they can show everyone just how good they can be.

But actually there is a series of three inciting incidents. This is preceded by the older boys calling them ugly. The girls decide to book the drum room, partly to piss them off and partly because they genuinely want to start a band. The desire to perform in the autumn concert comes out of that.

The audience can see that these girls are nowhere near good enough to play in any concert. They’re full of verve but have no skill. By putting themselves forward, they’re risking further and more permanent rejection, which puts the audience on edge. (Similar to About A Boy.) In this way, the two girls have got themselves into ‘the worst trouble of their lives’.

Desire

Bobo wants to be cool in a non-mainstream way. She is a conformist non-conformist. The goal that extends throughout the story — the concrete goal — is to perform in front of an audience and achieve accolades of some kind.

The importance of this desire increases throughout the story because with the addition of an accomplished and gifted musician (Hedvig) they become genuinely accomplished. The stakes become higher because the friendship between Bobo and Klara is compromised over a boy, so they need to reunite, and they can do this by working in unison to perform a concert.

Ally/Allies

Bobo’s main ally is her best friend Klara. Klara and Bobo share the same desire of wanting to prove themselves punk and prove themselves to be cool.

Opponent

The most obvious opponents (though they are numerous they’re basically one personality) are the older boys at school who refuse to take the girls seriously. They call them ugly and try to bar them from the drum room and insist on calling theirs a ‘girl band’. The boys, too, are competing for the goal of performing on stage and winning cool points.

Bobo’s mother is oblivious to Bobo’s inner workings, and doesn’t realise that by drawing attention to her daughter’s hair in front of a crowd she is being excruciatingly inappropriate — Bobo cut her hair to avoid attention rather than to get it — her whole point is that looks shouldn’t matter, so compliments defeat the point.

Fake-ally opponent

Klara is the fake-ally opponent — sometimes ally, sometimes opponent — if only because she does ‘punk’ better. She has a more genuinely punk hair cut. She probably rates higher on the sociopathic spectrum, and is able to genuinely not care. Bobo doesn’t have this luxury. She is empathetic, as demonstrated when her mother breaks up with the latest man friend. By following Klara, Bobo is self-sabotaging, somewhat. Klara wants Bobo to be cool, but she wants to keep her in her place. She doesn’t want her to go out with her brother, for instance, shitting all over the fact that Bobo likes him. Both Klara and Bobo are competing for the exact same goal, so that’s good.

Klara has sufficient complexity to be this person. She knows about the party the boys are having, but hasn’t revealed it to Bobo. She appears to be up-front about everything, but her candour comes across as aggressive. “I just want to check you’re not jealous, or anything.”

The other interesting thing about Klara is that she starts to feel more like Bobo’s ally as the story progresses. By the end of the film they are on a more equal footing, despite Klara maintaining that ‘she’ is the best, despite Hedvig protesting that ‘we are the best’.

In this story, Klara was introduced after Bobo. Klara has no specific plan to bring her friend down — hers is more of an ignorant dilemma.

Changed Desire And Motive/First Revelation & Decision

While the girls started off wanting to perform in the autumn concert not caring that they sounded shit, they changed to wanting to learn their instruments properly after witnessing Hedvig on stage. (The reveal is that Hedvig is pretty good at music, even though she’s super uncool.)

Plan

Now they’ll persuade Hedvig to teach them about music, and in turn they’ll draw her out of Christianity so she can be cool like them. (And she won’t bring them down.)

Opponent’s Plan and Main Counterattack

The boys continue to undermine the girls.

Klara has a plan to contact some punk boys they know of, so they can go and meet and make boyfriends. But she doesn’t really care about whether the other two make boyfriends. While Klara is not deliberately evil, these scenes give the audience a chance to see the regular dynamic that goes on between these two best friends.

Drive

Klara decides to get Bobo back. She calls the boy who liked Klara (though he doesn’t seem to any more) and arranges a meet up. She wants to persuade him to be her boyfriend, not Klara’s. She manages this, though the boy tells Bobo he’ll have to break up with Klara first, then never does. Calling your best friend’s boyfriend is a bit of an immoral action, even if the relationship seems to have fizzled. But Bobo is desperate for acceptance. We see this when she spits on her own reflection in the bathroom mirror.

Bobo’s actions have now changed in a fundamental way because before this she would never have gone behind Klara’s back, or assumed she could take a boy from Klara.

Attack by ally

There are two plots in this story: There’s the conflict between Bobo/Klara and Hedvig (or Hedvig’s mother), then there is the big struggle between Bobo and Klara as they each wrestle for power within the relationship.

In the first plot line, Hedvig’s mother is the voice of reason when she calls the girls to her house for tea and biscuits then gives them an example about how they shouldn’t try to change someone just because they want to be her friend. You have to accept people as they come.

In the other plot line, Hedvig (her mother’s daughter) is the voice of reason the whole way through, encouraging the girls to reconcile. She’s not a very outspoken girl, so she needs to be pressed to say much, but there are conversations in bedrooms during which Hedwig refuses to join in with the other two when it comes to shitting over other people’s likes.

Apparent Defeat

Despite every effort to be cool, even cutting her hair short like Klara’s, Bobo still misses out on a boy she really likes. We see how devastating this is for Bobo when she jumps around on the roof, risking her life, trying to divert the hug that’s going on between her best friend and the boy she likes.

Obsessive drive/changed drive

The revelation Bobo has is that: No matter how hard she has tried, she cannot win boys as long as Klara’s around.

She’s going to have to take control.

Audience Revelation

Sure enough, when we see Klara and Bobo in action with the boys, we not only see the day in its own right, but we see the whole history of their friendship. We see that Klara is indeed more popular with the boys (at first) and that Bobo plays second fiddle. We are probably older and wiser (this is a film for adults) and know more about the friendship dynamics than Bobo does. Because of this history, we are now given a little distance between ourselves and Bobo, and we’ll see why she does what she does, by calling the boyfriend.

Gate/Gauntlet/Visit to Death

Bobo spitting on the mirror shows us that she has reached rock bottom in self-esteem. It happens after their visit to see the boys.

Battle

Sure enough, there is a showdown between Bobo and Klara when Bobo tells Klara that the boy has been ‘cheating on you… with me’. The fight gets physical and is broken up by pacifist Hedvig. This shows how similar Bobo and Klara are at this point.

Anagnorisis

Bobo learns that she can’t be Klara, but she is just as worthy as Klara.

Bobo has also learned from Hedvig that you can’t change people in order for them to be your friend, and she applies this same revelation to herself. She can’t change herself to fit her ‘ideal version of a friend’.

Moral decision

Bobo has learned that she must ‘be herself’ rather than be a follower. She demonstrates this resolve onstage with the audience booing at her.

New Situation

This is demonstrated on the bus home in the final scene after their disastrous concert. They have been rejected in the most terrible way — an entire audience turned against them. But they are determined to call themselves ‘the best’ anyway.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl film poster

Me And Earl And The Dying Girl is a metafictive coming-of-age film based on a young adult novel by the same name. The book is an example of ‘sick-lit‘.

Greg […] is coasting through senior year of high school as anonymously as possible, avoiding social interactions like the plague while secretly making spirited, bizarre films with Earl, his only friend. But both his anonymity and friendship threaten to unravel when his mother forces him to befriend a classmate with leukemia.

Deadline Hollywood

Okay, I admit it. I thought, “This is very much like The Fault In Our Stars.”

But remember, the sick-lit genre popular in this Third Golden Age Of Children’s Literature did not actually start with John Green’s young adult novel — it started way back in the late 1990s with The Lovely Bones.

The young adult novel by Jesse Andrews Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was published in 2012 and released as a film three years later in 2015. Jesse Andrews was the main scriptwriter for that. Here I’ll be talking about the film because I haven’t read the book.

Apart from a breakdown of story structure, in this post I’d like to touch on:

  • “sick-lit” — yes, it’s a derisive term but what else can I call it?
  • the female maturity principle
  • mothers in coming-of-age stories
  • tear-jerkiness and how to achieve it
  • the metafictive elements of this self-aware coming-of-age tale

TAGLINE OF ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL

“A little friendship never killed anyone.”

GENRE BLEND OF ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL

drama, comedy >> coming-of-age tearjerker

SENTENCE BEHIND THE STORY OF ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL

I’m having trouble with this. Could it really be as simple as:

Sometimes it takes proximal death to teach us the value of life?

SETTING OF ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL

The author himself attended Schenley High School, Oakland, Pittsburgh, not that long ago (as of 2017 he’s only 34). The story is set there, and suburban surrounds.

The majority of the film adaptation was actually taped at Schenley High School.  When the cameras showed us the corridors from above I noticed that the tops of the lockers were dusty and the place had a general run-down look to it compared to slightly more glossy depictions of high schools in other teen dramas coming out of America. As it turns out, this may not have been because the set designers were actively aiming for a run-down state school — the real Schenley High School closed its doors back in 2008 after 99 years. This was originally an expensive school to build — one of the first to cost a million dollars, which was a lot back then. In 2013 the historic but closed school was sold to some developers who plan to turn it into luxury apartments. Anyhow, the filmmakers must have scooted in there before that happened.

In short, this setting is not some anonymous mid-western place, or a fictional high school set in a real town — this is a very real setting and locals of Oakland can no doubt recognise the landmarks, especially the Children’s Hospital.

The first thing I notice is “Squirrel Hill North”. I’m guessing squirrels are important to the people of Oakland, Pittsburgh.

Greg lives in a large, warm house, indicated by its highly decorative wallpaper and yellow hue.

Rachel lives in a similar kind of house with a bedroom that looks like it was probably set up by an interior designer. A feature of Rachel’s bedroom is that there are lots of scissors hung decoratively above her desk. I thought this was a cool idea (because first of all it would be hard to lose every pair of scissors in the damn house) but it was actually a Chekhov’s gun — later it is revealed with Rachel would have been using those scissors for (book carvings). In fact the art of intricate book carving as depicted in the film requires more than just a bunch of big scissors, but the scissors are — of course — symbolic in other ways.

STORY STRUCTURE OF ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL

In a very similar technique to that used in The Edge Of Seventeen we have a storyteller narrator taking us through the story, popping in at various point. The storyteller is the main character and their voices haven’t aged, suggesting they are telling the whole story pretty soon after the whole thing happened. The narrators are still young, still relatable to a young audience, and despite going through the harrowing events as described in the story, are still sufficiently flawed for us to find the storytellers interesting in their own right. (I’m treating the character and the storyteller as different entities because one has been through the character arc while the other is yet to.)

SHORTCOMING

If you ever meet a white middle-class called Greg in a story he’s probably going to be an Average Guy. We’ve got Greg Heffley in Diary of a Wimpy Kid, for instance. (If he’s called Gregory plus a weird last name, my rule of thumb doesn’t work.) Dan is another name like that. The audience is encouraged to look past common male names like that and see the person underneath. These names have no character and no symbolic value.

Anyway, Greg in this particular story is so ordinary he is ridiculously self-effacing, to the point where he doesn’t see the point in anything, including in applying for college. You may know a few of these boys in real life. If not (and you’re at this blog), you’ll have met them in YA, for sure. Think slightly more more self-effacing than a John Green boy. I’d liken Greg’s feeling of hopelessness to James Sveck of Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You (who also happens to have depression), or to Joe of Kings Of Summer.

Of all the fictional characters I’ve ever met, Greg reminds me most of Josh Thomas’ character based on himself (Josh) of the Australian sit-com Please Like Me. They even kind of look similar.

Josh Thomas, Please Like Me
Greg of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Whereas Greg says things like this:

You know I’m terminally awkward and I have a face like a little groundhog.

Josh says he has the body of a woman and the face of an old man. Both characters are reactive rather than proactive — the classic witty underdog. The audience feels for them though because even if other characters in the setting do not laugh at his jokes, the audience finds them funny. We learn to see the underdog as the true wit — what’s wrong with these other characters?

Summer. What does that word even mean, right? More “summ.” Winter, same deal. More “wint”?

Greg, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Both Greg and Josh are close to a female with an illness — in this case it’s the daughter of his friend’s mum who has leukemia; in Josh’s case it’s his on-screen mum with depression. Josh Thomas has been praised for bringing awareness to mental illness here in Australia.

Do you have to be under a certain age to find these characters appealing? I haven’t done a wide enough survey. Speaking for myself, I find these characters fine for a short time and then they get irritatingly self-absorbed.

In Greg we have a guy who has actually found his passion — and what else can a teenager hope for? — but is so negative he doesn’t realise he’s found it already:

The idea behind each one was we took a film that we like and made the title stupider. And then made a new film to reflect the new stupid title. It’s a formula that only produces horrible films, but for some reason we kept using it.

DESIRE

Writers are told time and again: Your character has to want something!! If your character just sits around moping no one wants to read your shit!

But but but in real life there are definitely people who sit around moping and reacting to stuff and don’t their stories need to be told too? I mean, doesn’t that describe A LOT of teenagers you know? It may have even described you as a teen, and don’t you deserve to see yourself reflected in fiction?

As this story makes clear, a writer can absolutely make a story about a mopey guy who doesn’t really want anything. (I don’t know quite as many mopey girls who don’t want anything, but I’m on the look out.) Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is obviously a very popular story, too. The book has won awards. But there is a trick that must be utilised if you want to write about a generally depressive, nihilist, unmotivated character:

You know that trick when you’re writing an unlikeable character where you surround that character in other characters who obviously do like them? Well, same trick applies here. If your main character doesn’t want anything, surround him in people who do want things. They will force him into things. These characters are by definition his opponents — not in the criminal/evil/monster sense, but they’re probably going to be members of his family or in his wider social sphere.

What does Greg’s mother want? She wants him to be a good human being. Her way of going about this is a little misguided, but ultimately successful, let’s face it. She also wants him to apply for college.

What does Rachel’s girl friend Madison want? She wants Greg to do something amazing for Rachel by making her a short film.

OPPONENT

And of course anyone who wants Greg to do anything at all is his opponent. It’s tempting to cut this paragraph short by saying “Greg is his own worst enemy.” That’s true enough, and would be absolutely true in real life, but for the sake of a story we need a few human opponents otherwise you haven’t got enough to beef out a complete narrative.

In this particular story we have the mother spurring her son into action. She makes him go spend time with Rachel even though he (quite rightly) thinks it would be weird to suddenly strike up a friendship with someone just because she’s dying. Once this is in action and the mother steps out of the story we have another maternal figure pop in: Rachel’s pretty friend who insists Greg make a movie for Rachel. We see her again when she’s swearing at him, asking why he hasn’t finished it yet. This provides Greg’s motivation for the second part of the story, which would otherwise flag as he sits around thinking his film is too terrible to show anyone.

On this topic, the need for teenagers in non-fantasy stories to have an opponent means that, inevitably, parents end up filling that role. I feel mothers (and female teachers) get an unbalanced share of the ‘annoying adult’ roles. It was disappointing to see actor Connie Britton wasted in this way — I’ve recently seen her in Nashville in which she is a fully-rounded character with a wide acting range, but here she is nothing but a neurotic nag who has even been going through her son’s stuff. TV fathers rarely get that role, unless there is good reason to suspect his kid is on drugs or something, but the overbearing mother who goes through her teenager’s things for no good reason? A common trope. Notice that once the mother’s power to boss Greg around wore off, it was another female figure who stepped in to boss him around. This is a version of what I call The Female Maturity Formula, in which all girls are Mothers-In-Waiting, naturally more caring and nurturing (and concomitantly annoying), in opposition to their male stars-of-the-show, who must go through something harrowing before starting to grow up.

This is not the problem of any individual story but applies to the corpus of popular stories. Mothers are generally a damn nuisance in coming-of-age stories. It is very rare for a teenager to have an excellent mother. Juno (2007) is one exception — not only that, Juno has a great step-mother. But then Juno is more of a bildungsroman than a coming-of-age story. Her goal isn’t ‘to have sex’ or ‘get the guy’ — she’s already done that after the first five minutes of the movie.

The character of Rachel, although this is not a love story, is written very similarly to any love opponent in a typical love story. When we first see them together on screen there is conflict:

Rachel: Is that a black power salute?
Greg: No, I was going in for a fist bump.
Rachel: I can’t fist bump you from up here.
Greg: Yeah, I realize that.

I’m not saying much about Earl in this story breakdown even though he gets quite a lot of screentime. That’s because there’s not all that much to say about him. He is the funny character who provides comedy. Apart from that, he plays one main role — he is the ally who attacks Greg for his wrong choices. You’ll find someone to fulfil this role in almost every popular story:

I’m so tired of you treating this girl like she’s a burden. You know, her life is over after this! And you want to come over here bitching and whining about some irrelevant bullshit!

In this self-aware coming-of-age story the character of Earl is also wise beyond his years, and his understanding of Greg is comical because this is the kind of character analysis we’re only supposed to achieve after the entire story is over and we’re writing an English assignment on it:

Rachel: So you and Greg are coworkers?

Earl: Naw, we just friends. He just hates calling people his friend. Dude’s got issues.

Rachel: Yeah, he does. What’s going on?

Earl: Man, I don’t even know. It might be his folks. I mean, dude’s mom always tellin’ him how handsome he is, which he ain’t. So now he think he can’t trust anybody close to him. Dude’s weird-ass dad don’t socialize with anybody ‘cept the cat. So that’s a role model ain’t got no friends. Bottom line, dude’s terrified of callin’ somebody his friend…

PLAN

Greg’s plan: Hang out with Rachel and make her laugh as much as possible. Also, she is a reason for him not to do any schoolwork whatsoever. So on one level he must have planned not to do any of that.

As mentioned above, Greg’s concrete plans-of-action come from the women around him.

BIG STRUGGLE

Greg has arguments with everyone in their turn.

He has an argument with Earl, who tells him not to be so self-absorbed.

He has an argument with Rachel, who he first fails to cheer up one day and then when she eventually does crack a joke he gets the shits with her because she’s meant to be sad about dying (and besides, he’s the funny man, not her).

Something cancer movies haven’t managed to get right: A patient who has genuinely lost her hair due to cancer treatment doesn’t have a permanent shadow of stubble on her scalp, nor eyebrows for that matter.

Obviously I have a few issues with the character of Greg, and these are correctly anticipated by the author, who has straight-talking Earl tell Greg exactly what I’d like to tell him myself:

Earl: Like you care so much about what other people think, boy, you go around here kissing everybody’s ass pretending like they’re your friend. Look, nobody gives a shit about you, Greg! All right? Nobody gives a shit.

This goes quite a long way towards making the character of Greg bearable for me.

But is this series of arguments the real big struggle, narratively speaking? Actually no. I’ve analysed enough stories now to know that these interpersonal conflicts need to add up to something big. A fight to the death.

The real big struggle scene of this story, therefore, is the bit where Greg blows off the prom to visit Rachel in hospital. He takes her flowers, shows her the film against the white of the hospital wall and she dies then and there. The film-within-a-film itself is the big struggle, in storytelling terms.

ANAGNORISIS

Greg mulls over Rachel’s death. We see him hang out in her room, going through her stuff. He (and we) realise that Rachel had hidden depths at this point. Although she’s ‘The Dying Girl’ in the title, and the boys get their own names, finally we get to see Rachel for more than just The Dying Girl. For instance, she loved to make those book sculptures, demonstrating a high degree of artistry. She has a quirky sense of humour evidenced by the drawings of squirrels on her wallpaper. She is more like Greg than Greg realised. I rather cynically thought if only he’d stopped trying to crack jokes for five minutes and listen to her he could’ve realised that in real life. I’m not sure how common this response is to the denouement.

Another revelation is that Rachel had probably been waiting for Greg’s film before dying. That’s the narratively convenient thing about cancer — a character (and also a person in real life) can hold on for a big event before moving on. Heart attacks, strokes and accidents, in fiction as in real life, do not allow for that. This is probably why cancer is gaining a reputation for being an overly romanticised fictional way to die.

NEW SITUATION

When we see Greg going ahead with his college application we realise he’s going to (re)apply to get in even though he doesn’t have the grades for it. Once again, a female character has been responsible for his pulling finger. She’s even composed a letter to the enrolment office on his behalf, and encourages him to do the same from beyond the grave.

We never learn whether Greg gets into college or not.

Are we supposed to believe that he is transformed by the death of someone he got close to? That he will take his own life by the reins from now on? A cynical audience may see that nothing Greg has done yet has been without the help of a female — dead or alive — and unless he goes through life relying on women to do his emotional labour, he may well die unfulfilled and alone. Fortunately for him, Greg is smart, good at making films and has a self-deprecating sense of humour. I’m left in no doubt: He will find the right girl (or a series of them, until he wears them out) and he will do just fine. He’s also white and middle-class so I’m sure he gets into college somehow.

TEAR-JERKINESS AND HOW TO ACHIEVE IT

I find it hard to believe that these tricks work for so many people because they don’t work for me. This may be because I am cold and heartless, or because I’ve seen it done a few too many times before, but if you want to leave your audience in floods of tears there are a few things you can do to help that along:

  1. The person who dies is young and good-looking and likeable
  2. The dying character has been waiting for something significant/quirky and doesn’t die until right after that has come to fruition
  3. The main character rejects a significant life event (or portion of life) to sacrifice time for the dying character
  4. There are arguments before the moment of death to do with selfishness, optimism, acceptance and hopelessness
  5. The main character finds the dead character had hidden depths, but not until after she is gone
  6. The dead character has put something in place before she died, to ‘come back from the grave’. The book offers her letter to the admissions board; the film even has her voiceover, which is kind of similar to hearing someone’s answering service after they’ve died. Terribly sad and a little bit spooky.
  7. Flashbacks to when the dead character looked healthy and plump and pretty

Dear Pittsburgh State Admissions, I’m writing on behalf of someone who gave me half a year of his life at the time when I was at my most difficult to be around. He has a very low opinion of himself, which is why I think it’s necessary that you hear from someone who sees him as he actually is: A limitlessly kind, sweet, giving, and genuine person. No matter how much he would deny it. The drop in his academic performance this year is the consequence of all the time he spent with me and the time he spent making things for me and how hard that was for him. You can ask him about it, but his sort of over the top humility will probably get in the way. No one has done more to make me smile than he has. And no one ever could.

Rachel’s letter from beyond the grave

This particular story goes one step further, and I personally find it overly manipulative: The storyteller’s insistence that The Girl Doesn’t Die. Greg’s voiceover reassures us of this several times over the course of the story. This despite him initially telling us that in his senior year he killed a girl. This is a red herring, and because the only other main girl in the story is Madison, and because she’s basically bossy and unlikeable I was wondering if something would happen to her the night of the prom, without Greg there to protect her or whatever. But no. Nothing happens to Madison; Rachel dies and Greg’s voiceover tells us he lied. Reason being, he didn’t want to believe it himself.

This revelation is meant to punch you in the guts. I’m sure it worked for a goodly proportion of the audience, too. Narratively, the audience is walking in Greg’s shoes. Greg at no point believes Rachel is going to die, so he puts the audience through the same journey. That’s the explanation, anyway.

SELF-AWARE METAFICTIVE COMING-OF-AGE STORY

The film-maker part of Greg (and the author who created him) is aware of popular narrative, especially the subgenre of the coming-of-age story. Greg mocks this in a hipster fashion (which, come to think of it, makes me think he would’ve got into film school):

Generally in a coming-of-age story there is a hot girl who you destroy your life over. This is done in straight fashion in Kings Of Summer and many others:

One last thing. Hot girls destroy your life. That’s just a fact.

Greg says this at the moment Rachel starts to warm to him:

So if this was a touching romantic story this is probably where a new feeling would wash over me and suddenly we would be furiously making out with the fire of a thousand suns. But this isn’t a touching romantic story.

Despite Greg telling the audience that this is not a romantic story, it is nonetheless a love story. I would love to know if the audience is meant to believe this is something else, a bit like Nicholas Sparks writing chick-lit then cracking on he’s actually writing ‘love tragedy’, or if we’re meant to laugh at Greg thinking this is not a romance when it so obviously is. Or perhaps the author truly intends to test the audience when he has Greg say:

So again, if this was a touching, romantic story we’d obviously fall in love and she’d say all the wise, beautiful things that can only be learned in life’s twilight or whatever. And then she’d die in my arms. But again, that’s not what happened. She just got quieter and unhappier.

The writer demonstrates a strong sense of narrative structure by using a metafictive technique of subtitling the bits when the story changes direction. This is usually something only the writers/screenwriters are cognizant of. The audience isn’t usually meant to notice these turning points, but because Greg himself is a film-maker we are in on his knowledge:

The writing on the lunchbags is a running gag — written as a joke by his sociology lecturer father, perhaps.

But how self-aware is this story, really? Part of me thinks if this were truly self-aware the gender stereotyping would have been challenged, at the very least. On a surface level the gendering isn’t stereotypical — the girl asks the boy to the prom, for starters. But this is a foil: as I’ve mentioned above, the Female Maturity Formula is alive and well and goes completely unchallenged here.

Another gender trope that went unchallenged here: In comedy of all kinds the girls are disproportionately playing the ‘straight guys’. In this story, too, Greg regularly cracks jokes until Rachel smiles. Owing to her dire predicament, there is a ‘reason’ within the setting for her to be Greg’s straight guy. She exists narratively not only as a ‘love opponent’ but also as the instigator for Greg’s character arc. Because this girl dies he becomes a better person.

Of course, it’s not always the guy who gets to be funny. Sometimes it’s the girl who is funny. The guy might be depressive. She turns up to teach him to love life. This has been called the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl trope which ended up being applied far more widely than the person who coined that term ever wanted it to be, but it’s a useful concept because — again — despite the girl getting to be funny and cute, it’s the male character who undergoes the character arc. Whether she is the straight guy or the funny gal, female characters are not getting enough character arcs of their own. I would like a self-aware coming-of-age story to do that more often.

Storytelling Tips From Kings Of Summer (2013)

Sometimes when you find out a story used to be called something different right up until the marketing team stepped in, the original name can offer extra insight. Kings of Summer was originally called “Toy’s House”. The main character is called Joe Toy, and I did spend a bit of time wondering if this is a symbolic name. The boys build themselves a house in the woods and set about pretending that they’re living off the grid. And it really is a pretence, because all the while they’re using a sum of stolen money to buy roast chickens from a nearby fast food restaurant.

After learning the original name I realised this is basically a Doll’s House Story, in which characters play out a scenario in a form of play that becomes quite serious.

GENRE BLEND OF THE KINGS OF SUMMER

comedy, drama >> coming-of-age, adventure story

I will call this ‘quirky comedy’.

TAGLINE OF THE KINGS OF SUMMER

Why live when you can rule?

Bear in mind that this is a tagline, not a theme. A theme is not posed as a question but rather as a declarative sentence.

SENTENCE BEHIND THE STORY OF THE KINGS OF SUMMER

Unlike the tagline and marketing copy the writers’ designing principle is never made public, so I am guessing here. I bet it goes something like:

A boy learns that he can’t hasten the onset of manhood by rejecting society and the people who are closest to him.

SETTING OF THE KINGS OF SUMMER

This is a heavily symbolic setting. First we have the whole fairytale-esque symbolism of the forest thing going on. We just know anything taking place in the middle of the woods ain’t going to be a walk in the park.

The soundtrack to the film also gives us a clue about interpreting this setting. The song “Land Trunt” (played over the Game Night scene) for instance has a spaghetti Western vibe to it — this explains both the choice of ethnicity of the Italian tagalong kid and also the way the boys feel about their mission. They are cowboys, pioneers, opening up their own Wild West. Other music on the soundtrack is gangsta, e.g. “Pickpocket. These boys are finding out who they are. One moment they’re cowboys; the next they’re gangsters.

The bird house — either stolen by or constructed by the boys, I can’t remember — has an obviously misaligned entrance, symbolising the ‘Tim Burton’ off-kilter world these boys have constructed for themselves on a larger scale. A bird couldn’t live in this house, and they won’t be able to survive in theirs.
At first the boys enjoy the immense beauty of nature and we are taken along for the ride, enjoying the colours of sunset and the freedom of the wilderness stretching every which way (except in the opposite direction, straight back to the golf club and the fast food joint, comically).
These characters build like men and have fun like children, symbolised by the slide they must have nicked from a playground.
The window to the loft seems to be a rear window from a scrap yard or something.
Bonfires usually put an audience in mind of ‘rejection’. We think of book-burning, flag-burning and so on.
“Taking the plunge”. This particular scene reminded me of Alex Garland’s The Beach. Leo DiCaprio stars in the film adaptation — another Robinsonnade story in which characters remove themselves from society and live Lord of the Flies style with nothing but themselves (oh, and disease) as opponents.
My eight-year-old daughter found the letterbox hilarious. “Why on earth do they need a letterbox?” she asked. It exists purely for comedy, of course. These boys say they don’t want anyone to find them out there, but they invite society right in. Like their rickety house, their real desires are completely misaligned with their overt desires.
Their roof, like their entire plan, has a few holes in it.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE KINGS OF SUMMER

There are 3 main types of adventure stories — two of them are very old. The first is the Odyssean structure, in which a character goes on a long journey, meets a bunch of opponents and returns home a changed person. (Or maybe they find a new home.) This kind of story is about 3000 years old.

The second is the Robinsonnade, so named after Robinson Crusoe of course, in which a character doesn’t go anywhere but spends most of the story holed up somewhere — maybe it’s an island, maybe it’s a cabin in the woods — and the opponents are right there with him (it’s usually a him). This kind of story is as old as Robinson Crusoe.

Kings of Summer is — you guessed it — a Robinsonnade.

SHORTCOMING

Similar to Nadine, the main character of The Edge of Seventeen, Joe is a significantly flawed character.

Joe needs to become a man. This is to be pretty much expected when watching coming-of-age films starring boys. It’s clear how much pressure there is on boys to

  1. Not be women
  2. Not be gay
The facial hair Joe manages to sprout while in the woods is an attempt at wild masculinity. Failing to grow a full beard, he keeps the moustache.

The problem is, while Joe has a few skills — plenty for his age — he certainly doesn’t have the wherewithal to leave civilisation behind. I am reminded of an interview I listened to with Jon Kraukauer, who wrote the 1996 biography of Christopher McCandless, Into The Wild. An enduring question most people have after either watching the film or reading the biography: Did Chris mean to die in the wild? Kraukauer thinks no. As a young man he himself did all sorts of reckless things as an intrepid rock climber and if you read his book about rock climbing (Into Thin Air) you’ll see that he came close to death himself. Kraukauer describes the mindset of certain young men who do these things — they really do believe they’re invincible. He argues that McCandless really did not mean to die in the wild. I believe the fictional character of Joe Toy (who is frolicking in the woods as if it’s his personal ‘toy’ playground) is a Chris McCandless/Jon Krakauer type of teenage boy: Full of swag and bravado and disdain for society.

The masculinity theme of the story is introduced near the beginning of the film when Joe has his t-shirt ripped off him by a gang of anonymous corridor bullies. Instead of expressing nervousness or admiration for Joe’s naked torso she nonchalantly offers him one of her t-shirts. It is clear that Kelly does not consider him a love interest. This is symbolised by the fact that he’s wearing a girly pastel yellow t-shirt with a rainbow on the front — and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the rainbow is a gay symbol.

The character of Biaggio is a purely comic character who exists not only to make jokes and (at one point) give the audience a hilarious fright, but is also Joe’s reflection character: Biaggio is of small build, does not grow a beard in the wild and has no problem declaring that he is has no gender.

Biaggio, pretending to be a character in some kind of war movie

This is a kid who is completely at home with who he is. Baggio is the Fregley from Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, who is similarly immune to the huge pressures of adolescence. Greg Heffley is another boy character who is concerned with becoming a Man, which means finding his role in the masculine pecking order, aiming for as high as possible.

Fregley from Diary of a Wimpy Kid

DESIRE

It’s not immediately clear what Joe wants. Well, it’s clear that he does not want to be living at home with his father, who annoys the hell out of him but this is not an active desire. It gradually dawns on the audience what Joe is planning with his friends. He is berated by his father for leaving ‘tools’ on the driveway. What’s he using the tools for? Turns out he’s building a house in the woods. Meanwhile, his best friend Patrick has a father who has a comically great habit of knocking on the wall of the den, saying there should be a stud in there. It’s only clear in hindsight that these boys have quite a bit of carpentry knowledge, and it has come from at least one of the fathers.

OPPONENT

  1. The parents
  2. The best friends
  3. Kelly — Joe’s love opponent
This scene at the police station is a great comedic scene which serves to highlight the different characters of the parents. The parents themselves are friendly opponents.
Kelly, Joe’s love opponent. The audience knows she’s the love opponent from the get-go, no least because she is blonde and pretty. Also nice, with no distinguishing personality traits.

PLAN

We see the boys carrying out the plan rather than discussing it. This has been going on for a while before the story starts. They’ve been magpie-ing a variety of items — stealing from playgrounds, construction sites and people’s houses — in order to build their own sharehouse in the woods. They plan to move there as soon as it’s liveable. They will hunt for their own food and spend the rest of their days living apart from society, free from the pressures of home, school and work.

BIG STRUGGLE

There are two main struggles in this story:

  1. The interpersonal struggle, between the two best friends
  2. The struggle against nature, with the snake inside the house

The interpersonal big struggle comes about because of a girl. They both like this good-looking girl, who ends up choosing Patrick over Joe. Since Joe has a sense of entitlement about ‘getting the girl’, he can’t accept this. In his mind, he likes her more and he therefore deserves her. There is a big fight (an actual fisticuffs) between the boys and a seemingly irreparable rift. Joe declares that he needs to be left alone, and for a while, he is. He goes full wildman, obviously having run out of money for the precooked roast chickens (we learned exactly how much money was taken during the police station scene with the parents — it was under $300). He even ends up murdering a rabbit and skinning it, throwing away his “Living In The Wild” handbook, realising that there is no substitute for experience. This is a symbolic moment too: “There’s no preparation for adulthood like plain old teenager/life experience”.

The big struggle scene between the boys has been foreshadowed by a montage of scenes showing us how these characters are spending their time in the woods: A lot of time is spent playing childlike, competitive games.

Then of course there is the snake scene.

I watched this with my Australian-born husband who laughed and said, “A snake would never behave like that.” That’s true, but the thing is, sometimes writers of stories need ‘nature’ to make a strike. They did it in Jaws (even though sharks don’t hunt people). Larry McMurtry did it in Lonesome Dove with the impossible and infamous cottonmouth incident, killing one river-crosser and impressing upon the audience that nature can and will kill them off one by one. More recently we have Andy Weir’s The Martian, in which the main character is subjected to a horrific dust storm and must therefore leave his spaceship. In fact, horrific dust storms can’t happen on Mars because of its lack of atmosphere. If something hits you on Mars, it’s like being bashed with feathers. Weir has been criticised for this incident in an otherwise quite scientifically accurate story, and has said numerous times that he needed ‘nature to strike first’.

Snakes, sharks, storms… Writers across the generations have taken our natural fears and anthropomorphised them into beasts with intent to kill us. Fans of mimesis in storytelling need to put that aside in order to enjoy narrative. However, a comedy such as this one is over-the-top ridiculous in places, and just like the cheesy lines of Desperate Housewives, they can get away with more because of the knowingly satirical setting they’ve created. Kings of Summer never really strives for scientific accuracy and so we don’t expect it.

ANAGNORISIS

In the vast majority of stories the hero’s overall change moves from slavery to freedom. This doesn’t happen in this particular story — the hero’s plan for total and complete freedom is totally foiled — not least because he doesn’t really want it. (He wants a girlfriend, not to live like Chris McCandless.) At the end of the story Joe’s father advises him not to hurry to become a man. Joe has moved from slavery to freedom, back to slavery (for now). This is a comic tragedy.

NEW SITUATION

We know that Joe will eventually have some of the freedom he craves — he just has to get a few years older, then he’ll be off to college like his older sister. The subplot of the relationship between the older sister and her father has given us a clue that Joe will never be completely free from his family.

The final scene shows us the state of Joe’s friendship with his best friend. Meeting each other at the lights (significantly, the parents are in the drivers’ seats), they give each other the middle finger, but in comedic, playground fashion. We can guess that these guys are still friends, but their friendship has shifted for good. Now that his best friend has ‘got the girl’, they have left true boyhood irrevocably behind, and for a while they’re in that in between stage, sometimes childlike, sometimes behaving like adults.