Voices In The Park by Anthony Browne

Have you ever wanted to go back and redo old work? A Walk In The Park is one of Anthony Browne’s earliest picture books — his second published after Through The Magic Mirror. Twenty years later (in 1998), Browne decided to redo this book in postmodern style. Now it is called Voices In The Park. In the earlier title, postmodern elements are nascently evident. Look closely and you’ll find minor elements that don’t quite fit the scene. The earlier version has a single voice. The updated book contains four separate voices in first person and is far more surreal.

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U.F.O. In Kushiro by Haruki Murakami

“U.F.O. in Kushiro” is a short story written by popular contemporary Japanese author Haruki Murakami. English readers first had access to the story in 2001, when it appeared in an issue of the New Yorker magazine. It was republished in 2011 after an earthquake and tsunami devastated northern Japan. Safe to say this is considered a Japan-disaster-story.

Bryan Washington joins Deborah Treisman to read and discuss “U.F.O. in Kushiro,” by Haruki Murakami.

But “U.F.O. in Kushiro” is not really about the Hanshin earthquake, one of Japan’s most devastating and expensive disasters in history. To convey the magnitude of disaster in a short story is difficult because of the phenomenon of ‘psychic numbing‘. I’m sure we’re all feeling that in the year 2020. It’s impossible to extend equivalent empathy to everyone affected by disaster, but when we hear about someone’s personal tragedies, we can be overcome with empathy for them, personally, because we can more easily imagine the trials of one person, or one small community.

To get around the psychic numbing, Murakami has focused on the story of an individual. Unusually for a ‘disaster story’ though, this individual isn’t near the scene of the disaster, but instead lives in Tokyo, three hours away from Kobe (by train). But in a different way this is a story about psychic numbing. The main character is entirely passive right until the end of the story. He does what he is told to do by others. He is numb because his wife has left him and he did not see it coming. ‘The ground shifts beneath him.’ The symbolism of the earthquake is very clear.

What big ideas is Murakami hoping readers will explore in this story? Which storytelling techniques does he utilised to take us there? Let’s take a look.

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Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People by Lorrie Moore

“Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People” is a mother-and-daughter road trip short story by American writer Lorrie Moore. This story was published in The New Yorker in November 1993. Also find it in Birds of America (1999) and The Collected Stories.

The title of this story comes from something the mother of this story is known to say often. This is the sort of thing that can sound affirming, but also passive-aggressive. (“By some people, do you mean me??”)

“Theda’s, of course, sweet as ever,” said her mother, “which is more than I can say about some people.”

Perhaps the daughter, Abby, has heard this her whole life, and this is partly why she is on a self-improvement journey.

The word ‘journey’ to describe a psychological path is much reviled, and I wonder if that’s partly because it’s a word mainly utilised by women. In any case, Abby goes on an actual journey (to Irish) hoping for a psychological journey, or, in the case of a fictional character, a character arc. The raison d’être of all road trip stories. Does she get one, though?

Well, yeah, kinda. But not the kind she was after. This story is about self-help spiritual journeys, subverted. When we embark upon self-improvement, sometimes we’re in for a shock. It’s about the futility of (too-)easily getting there and then going, now what? Is this all it’s cracked up to be? The Blarney Stone pilgrimage is an excellent example of the futility of tourist life, because we can pretend to ourselves that we’re visiting it for a reason. Of course the Blarney Stone does nothing for us. (I’m tempted to say pilgrimages are historically more meaningful because of the religious aspect, but then I learned that even in the middle ages, rich people would pay poor people to do their pilgrimages for them, suggesting they were never all that meaningful for the masses.)

Sometimes in satirical stories, characters themselves almost feel they’re a character in thier own story. This is a version of metafiction. Abby sees ‘storybook symbolism’ in her own experience of being a tourist:

Abby felt sick from the flight, and sitting on what should be the driver’s side but without a steering wheel suddenly seemed emblematic of something.

Later, Abby takes note of the ‘deadly maternal metaphor’ in the Celtic curlicues.

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You’re Ugly, Too by Lorrie Moore

You’re Ugly, Too” is a short story by American writer Lorrie Moore, first published in a 1989 edition of The New Yorker — Moore’s first for the New Yorker. Find it also in her short story collection Like Life (1990).

New Yorker editors pointed out to Moore several “vulgarities” of the writing process she had committed in the story. “All through the editing process, they said, ‘Oooh, we’re breaking so many rules with this.’

Encyclopedia.com

Why did the crew at The New Yorker feel Lorrie Moore’s short story — the first of hers they’d seen/discussed seriously — broke the ‘rules’ of writing? What rules were they talking about.

I wasn’t there and can’t tell you for sure, but I’d like to consider this question.

  • Zoë is a woman, but she’s not “likeable”. She’s not even likeably unlikeable. (At least, she’s not written that way, panding to readers’ desire to like their main characters).
  • Zoë’s actions never fully make sense to the reader, even after re-reading. Her actions at the party, like her sense of humour, are absurd.
  • Zoë is nihilist and therefore passive. A difficult character to write.
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Dance In America by Lorrie Moore

Rauschenberg painting

“Dance In America” is a short story by Lorrie Moore and can be found in the collection Birds Of America, published in 1998. Find it also in The Collected Short Stories. “Dance In America” first appeared in The New Yorker in 1993.

Louise Erdrich reads Lorrie Moores short story “Dance in America” and discusses Moore with The New Yorker’s fiction editor, Deborah Treisman.

This story may get you thinking about big ideas such as:

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My Mother’s Dream by Alice Munro

Frank Dicksee - The Mother 1910

“My Mother’s Dream” is a short story by Alice Munro, and the final offering in The Love Of A Good Woman (1998). This is an absolute masterwork in how to subvert an established narrative trope.

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Moving Molly by Shirley Hughes

Moving Molly may sound like a drug dealer’s handbook but is also a children’s picture book written and illustrated by Shirley Hughes (1981). Shirley Hughes is one of the big name picture book storytellers from my childhood. Another favourite is Dogger. I’ve also analysed Up and Up on this blog.

I know that Shirley Hughes’s illustrations are not for everybody. She has a highly recognisable style, but I haven’t seen much similar in modern picture books, possibly because digital illustration has changed the way illustrators work, and also probably because fashions have changed. When I describe Hughes’s style as ‘grimy’, I do mean it in the best possible way. Her colours are darker than you might expect for a picture book, the hues are almost a bit muddy, and the cross hatching adds life and texture, avoiding the illusion of utopia. The children and adults are not ‘pretty’. The illustration style matches her stories perfectly, because Hughes never gives the message that life is easy and perfect; her stories are set in the real world of children, full of appropriately child-sized struggle.

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Mister Magnolia by Quentin Blake

Mister Magnolia cover

Mister Magnolia is a picture book written and illustrated by Sir Quentin Blake. It won the Kate Greenaway Medal in 1980, and the Red House Children’s Book Award in 1981. This story is an excellent lesson in simplicity. Even the rhyming is simple; everything rhymes with ‘boot’.

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Rich As Stink by Alice Munro

John Collier - Fire

Gaslighting, parentification, spousification, self-objectification, coercive control… People living in 1974 did not have ready access to the language of psychology and found it difficult to describe emotionally abusive relationships, let alone talk about the shame. Likewise, there wasn’t the language to describe that disorienting transition from girlhood to womanhood.

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Six Dinner Sid by Inga Moore (1993)

Six Dinner Sid by Inga Moore

Six Dinner Sid (1993) is a picture book written and illustrated by Inga Moore.

The plot of the cat who goes from house to house pretending to be anyone’s will be familiar to anyone who’s ever known a cat. There’s an episode of cult hit This Country (“The Vicar’s Son”) in which Kerry Mucklowe eats her mum’s dinners, then sort of falls opportunistically into a scheme whereby she cadges dinner off an elderly lady living in the same village. The audience soon realises that Kerry is behaving exactly like a house cat.

Six Dinner Sid is a picture book cat who does the same thing. In these stories about opportunistic tricksters, there’s a storytelling rule which I have not yet seen broken: At the climax, their scheming ways are exposed for all to see. The mask comes off. Two types of stories rely heavily on the mask: thrillers and comedies. This is more comedy than thriller. For a thriller cat picture book which also uses a mask, see Slinky Malinki by Lynley Dodd.

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