Taking Mr Ravenswood by William Trevor

Anders Zorn (Swedish painter) 1860-1920 Impressions of London, 1890

Taking Mr Ravenswood” is a short story by Irish-English author William Trevor, included in Last Stories (2018) and previously unpublished. The author had already died by the time this story was released to the rest of us. This is an excellent example of the ambiguity lyrical short stories are known for. To get a sense of what happens in the story, it is necessary to read the symbolism. In line with the ambiguous, post-Chekhovian lyrical short story tradition, William Trevor offers aesthetic but not dramatic closure. But mostly, I think, he is leaving us to construct a large part of the plot.

Continue reading “Taking Mr Ravenswood by William Trevor”

I Am Not A Fox by Wolf and Groenink

I Am Not A Fox is a picture book written by Karina Wolf and illustrated by Chuck Groenink. If you’ve ever read “The Ugly Duckling” and thought, “hmm, that message has problems”, then this one might be for you.

Continue reading “I Am Not A Fox by Wolf and Groenink”

Bluey Australian TV Show Storytelling

Bluey Family

Remember that time an episode of British cartoon Peppa Pig was taken off air in Australia? It was the episode which taught kids that spiders aren’t scary. Not a lesson Aussie kids need to learn.

Well, fast forward a few years and Australian kids now have their own cartoon series reminiscent of Peppa Pig. Bluey is made at Ludo Studio in Brisbane. There are currently about 60 people working on the show.



I no longer have a little kid in the house, but we both checked out Bluey on ABC iView, because a Twitter friend recommended it thusly:

https://twitter.com/DevinMadson/status/1219892040718176257

Bluey is getting a 9.5/10 rating on IMDb and was nominated for an Emmy. Bluey is marvellous.

First, why does Bluey remind me of Peppa Pig? The nuclear family set-up is similar. Instead of pigs the family are dogs. Bluey is an Australian blue heeler, making this a specifically Australian show, but not so Australian that the series won’t garner an international audience. (Bluey could be any dog, because she is first and foremost a kid… a human child in an animal’s body.)

Turns out the Peppa Pig comparison is no coincidence. I subsequently learned Joe Brumm set out to make an Australian Peppa Pig.

The art style is similar. Look at how both shows deal with aerial perspective (hint: It’s in the colour of the outlines.)

Foregrounded characters have dark outlines. Background scenery is coloured in high key and outlined in a darker hue of the object fill.

Peppa Pig characters and backgrounds are a little more simple.

But the colour palette of Bluey is more appealing than that of Peppa Pig, and I wonder if Luke Pearson’s Hilda has been an influence.

A scene from TV cartoon series Hilda

A highly detailed scene from Bluey

A more typically detailed scene from Bluey

Child Development

Bingo and Bluey are 4 and 6 years old, the ‘social emotional developmental phase’, as described by Joe Blumm. He really likes this age because the kids are learning not so egocentric anymore. They want to play imaginative games but that involves other kids also having their input. The games temper their egocentricity. They need persistence to stay in those roles. The show is for that age. There’s no reading or anything like that, aimed at a more abstract age.

Blumm does not believe that kids are little adults. He wanted to create a show specifically for 4-6 year olds. His interest in psychology has clearly influenced his character development.

Family Life Realism

Another comparison is Olivia the Pig, but Bluey leaves Olivia in the dust. Bluey is clearly the brain child of people who know parenting and know kids. Ian Falconer (who wrote the original Olivia picture books) is not a parent himself and this shows in stories such as Olivia and the Missing Toy, in which I want to break the fourth wall and slap the pig parents. The actions of Olivia’s parents make no sense regarding Olivia’s character arc. In Bluey, the influence of good parenting has a direct effect on the child characters. This is realism.

Although the TV adaptation of Olivia no doubt included many parents on staff, to me it never ever reached the level of parenting realism achieved in Bluey, because the source material was lacking. Or maybe my perception of the Olivia series is partly coloured by the fact I’m not a rich New York parent. Perhaps the very Australian-ness of Bluey makes it feel like a more realistic portrayal of parenting to me (currently modern parenting in Australia).

But it’s more than that. Joe Brumm has two daughters, and the producer’s got two daughters and both his brothers have got two daughters. If you’re asking, “Why is Bluey a girl?” there’s your answer. But does the question really need to be asked? Why is it still so unusual to see a girl character without a massive pink bow telegraphing her gender smacked on top of her head?

What else makes Bluey feel ‘real’? (Code for ‘relatable’)

Integration of technology into family life

When Bluey wants to talk to her grandmother she simply calls up on the tablet. Granny doesn’t live in the same house, but she is only a call away. When Bluey and her father get back from the vet, distraught after finding a dying budgie, the mother is right there in the driveway waiting to offer comfort. It is clear that the father has called in advance to tell the mother what’s happened. This is how families are using technology.

In some ways story craft has become more difficult because of technology. How to put your fictional kids in real peril when parents are one phone call away? These kids are still too young to realistically carry mobiles, so there’s that. But my point here is that technology has also made story craft easier in some ways. The writers don’t need to show a retelling of the story to the mother, and no one would ask how she already knows.

MODERN PARENT-CHILD INTERACTIONS

Compare this show to any show from 15 years ago and you won’t find parents as realistically active and involved as these ones are. The parents in Bluey exist on the same hierarchy as the kids, but not in a way that subverts, in a carnivalesque way.

There is a long, long history of dispatching with parents in children’s stories but for modern kids, this won’t ring true. About half of the Bluey episodes include parents in the puppies’ imaginative play. I believe these are the best episodes, and my 11-year-old agreed. By including parents in the play, the writers are able to model more adult-like emotional literacy, and this show is very much about emotional literacy.

How do you apologise to someone (after leaving them out of a game)? How do you cope with being factually incorrect (about Grannies and flossing)? The parents are there to nudge the kids in the right direction.

Like any modern kids’ story, the lessons in Bluey are not taught overtly by the adults. The child characters receive prompting after being allowed to experience hard feelings on their own. At no point are they told that their bad feelings aren’t okay. It’s okay to be in a funk for the entire session at preschool. It’s okay to run out on a game if you need some time alone.

I was initially a little disappointed that it seemed the father constantly having fun with the kids (Mother as Female Maturity Formula, Dad as Doofus Fun Guy). But a few episodes in, the mother is shown participating in one of the kids’ games. Moreover:

  • Both mother and father make the bed, together (even though the mother is gently admonishing the father for some housework matter that supposedly didn’t happen yesterday)
  • The mother isn’t busy cooking dinner and waiting on the family while the dad has fun, like we often see in older stories. In the pilot episode of Bluey the mother is out at a baby shower (supposedly a fun social outing for her) while the rest of the family stay home and have fun of their own.

THE KIDS FEEL LIKE REAL KIDS

Bluey’s puppy characters are voiced by children, and these kids don’t sound like they came out of London’s most expensive elocution school. I don’t know how they did it, but it sounds naturalistic.

That said, it’s more than voice acting that achieves the sense that these puppies are ‘real kids’.

On Northrop Frye’s scale of mimetic heroes, the puppies are low-mimetic. They’re not tricksters. For example, one morning Bluey wakes up her father one morning and mimics everything he says and does. Eventually the father says, “My name is Bluey and I smell like a monkey’s butt!” Bluey isn’t savvy enough to NOT fall for that one, and the father good-naturedly ‘wins’. Fathers do tend to win these sorts of games, because fathers have been around longer.

Humour of Bluey

When looking at humour in kids’ shows I like to use taxonomy from the creator of The Onion.

LANGUAGE HUMOUR

There’s plenty of language humour in Bluey, with words specific to the show. These examples of familect (I’m guessing from the creator himself) are likely to become part of the wider cultural lexicon, much like ‘Yoink!’ and ‘Eat my shorts!’ from The Simpsons.

https://twitter.com/ariannaoliver_/status/1190978865767862278?s=20

A lot of the jokes on this show are funny because they are relatable family moments. Family moments might be given its own terminology e.g. ‘a tactical wee’. Giving something ordinary a name is funny in its own right.

CHARACTER HUMOUR

IRONY

In “Copycat”, Bluey’s father observes she has finally stopped copying everything he says. Ironically, Bluey has learned how to deal with grief over a dead budgie and has been channelling him exactly in her make-believe game in which her younger sister refuses to die like the budgie did.

PHYSICAL COMEDY

This medium lets creators play with an unlimited amount of cartoon violence but Bluey is restrained in that regard. Instead we enjoy physical comedy such as slipping on a can of beans or watching grandparents attempt the flossing dance move, and failing.

In episode one, the father has been twisting his daughter in rope swings, about to release her. When she asks him how babies get into their mothers’ bellies, he releases her for the spin to avoid answering the question.

If you like Bluey…

… and you are an adult viewer, check out We Bare Bears. This show is more squarely for an older audience, though I’m sure younger kids would be intrigued by it. The pace of talking will be too face for the 4-6 age group.

Up At A Villa by Helen Simpson

Henrietta Rae - The Sirens 1903

“Up At A Villa” is a short story by Helen Simpson, opening her 2011 collection In-flight Entertainment. This is a lyrical short story full of symbolism.

Cover copy tells us to expect work a la Alice Munro. Of all the stories here, the images in “Up At A Villa” are most reminiscent of Munro — young and old are juxtaposed, reminding the reader that we are all young and old at some point, and therefore young and old at once.

As for the style and storytelling techniques, this story is far more similar to the work of Katherine Mansfield than to Alice Munro.

CHARACTERS OF “UP AT A VILLA”

This is a story of two groups of people. The first group comprises two heterosexual pairs of young people in their late teens or early twenties. The characters named Nick and Tina are romantic and flirtatious with each other. The other pair, Joe and Charlotte, do not feel that way about each other, or Charlotte does not feel that way about Joe. Helen Simpson paints this picture in extremely succinct fashion and we know it by the end of the third paragraph, observing these young people waking up from the forest after a drunken night of frolicking. We know this about them from the way they behave around the pool and in the water. We’d know it if we were seated nearby. And that’s where Simpson puts the reader. We’ve been given an invisible pool-side seat.

These two young couples juxtapose against another couple — older. This older couple has a new baby. This could of course be either of the young couples in another ten years’ time.

SETTING OF “UP AT A VILLA”

Herbert Draper - A Young Girl by a Pool
Herbert Draper – A Young Girl by a Pool. Angelic girls sitting prettily by contained bodies of water are far more dominant in the cultural imagination than Tina of this story.
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema - The Baths of Caracalla
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema – The Baths of Caracalla

There’s a fairytale vibe to this short story, which is probably set in Southern France. Local food provides this detail —pissaladière — cuisine of Nice. It’s Monday morning and everything is closed down in the village (fermé le lundi). The young couples have snuck onto this holiday villa to use the pool as they’ve run out of money, which reminds me of the opening of Brokedown Palace, the 1999 film about two young American women who eventually find themselves imprisoned for drug trafficking.

It’s mid afternoon and these kids have their morning sleeping in the forest, redolent with fairytale spookiness. Their hair is ‘stuck with pine needles’. They’ve become one with the forest, but could the story be making use of the double English meaning of ‘pine’, much as Robin Black did in her short story “Pine“?

In stories the forest can function as all kinds of things, most notably the subconscious. When they wake up in the forest, have they really woken up? What follows around the pool could easily be part of a dreamscape.

Helen Simpson inverts the general utopian beachspace of our imaginations by describing the Mediterranean this way:

Anyway they had fallen out of love over the last week with the warm soup of the Mediterranean, its filmy surface bobbing with polystyrene shards and other unsavoury orts.

‘Ort’ is an archaic word, linking this contemporary setting to an archaic world and means ‘a scrap or remainder of food from a meal’. Alongside breastmilk, this word choice links something which shouldn’t be eaten with food. (Of course breastmilk is food — the best human food that exists — but that’s not how the young observers see it.)

Three bodies of water are mentioned in this story: first the sea, then the pool, then the baby’s bath when Harvey asks the woman what’s so special about bath-time anyway? This creates a very subtle mise-en-abyme effect, from large down to small — the grievances are likewise becoming more petty, while at the same time carrying the magnitude of a sea for this couple.

‘Space’ and ‘Place’ are not the same thing. Drawing on spatial theory by Lawrence Buell and E. V. Walter, a place is seen, heard, smelled, imagined, loved, hated, feared, revered, enjoyed, or avoided. In contrast, the Space is the subjective dimension of located experience. Because certain Spaces exist in the shared cultural imagination, it’s possible to be familiar with a ‘space’ without having visited a ‘place’. For instance, if you live in Australia or have seen tourist advertising, you’ll be familiar with beachspace even if you haven’t ever visited (the place of) an actual beach. Likewise, we are all familiar with images of the Mediterranean even if we haven’t visited the Mediterranean:

Villefranche Beach, France
This picture of Villefranche Beach, France, is how I imagine the Mediterranean though I’ve never been there. It’s a beautiful blue edged and dappled in turquoise, and always a long distance view.

In other words, we know a Space of even if we don’t know the Place. This applies to the tourists in Helen Simpson’s story, whose knowledge of the Space has been replaced by unwelcome knowledge of the Place. Evoking the story of Adam and Eve — these kids were happier before they saw the polystyrene. Now their imaginative Space will be forever tainted.

What about the symbolism of the pool? In a few deft strokes, Simpson evokes a scene of ancient mythology — modernised, of course — but this pool could easily be a lake or a pond in a forest. The naked young people, the youthful bodies… well, they could be sirens, of course.

What do you imagine when you think ‘siren’? Probably of beautiful femme fatales fresh out of Romanticism…

Screenshot from Sirens, the 1994 movie
Screenshot from Sirens, the 1994 movie

… or perhaps something more like this…

Lord Frederic Leighton - The Fisherman and the Syren
Lord Frederic Leighton – The Fisherman and the Syren

… not the sirens of Ancient Greece, where winged and clawed bird-women lured sailors to destruction through the power of their song.

Sirens Are Actually Bird-Bodied Messengers of Death, Not Sexy Mermaids.

Audiences didn’t exactly appreciate John William Waterhouse harking back to the earlier era of sirens. I mean, these women are terrifying. And no one wants to go to an art gallery and look at terrifying women, do they? Women are supposed to be warm and sexy and alluring and welcoming.

[A woman’s] value [is] contingent on her giving moral goods to them: life, love, pleasure, nurture, sustenance, and comfort, being some

Kate Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny
John William Waterhouse - Ulysses and the Sirens
John William Waterhouse – Ulysses and the Sirens

The same thing has happened to witches, female vampires and basically any femme/androgynous mythical creature (including gothic male vampires). We love to sexualise anyone who’s not overtly manly.

Anyway, this story is perhaps Helen Simpson’s reclamation. Because of the varied history of siren mythology, these hybrid creatures are useful to storytellers when weaving an imagistic pattern. (Double-duty symbols always are.)

Though Simpson has left the siren mythology off the page, I think it’s there in her imagery. An important thing to understand about metaphorical chimera (and other metaphorical symbols in general) is that they also represent something within the characters. In common with a siren, these kids (especially Tina) are two things at once — their current youthful selves and the older selves they are forced to imagine.

If we read the young women of Helen Simpson’s short story as contemporary sirens, they are both of these creatures at once — tempting and terrifying.

What else is tempting and terrifying? All of us: tempting when young; terrifying when old.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “UP AT A VILLA”

SHORTCOMING

Age has always terrified the young. When we are young it’s difficult to even imagine ourselves as older. If younger selves imagine older selves at all, we see them as separate identities. When Tina whispers “Oh, gross!” at the sight of the mother breastfeeding, what exactly disgusts her? The narrator describes breasts with ‘huge brown nipples on breasts like wheels of Camembert’. Cheese is nice. But anything that’s not cheese, when compared to cheese, is not nice. Weird how that works, but there we have it. We love cheese despite itself, I guess.

Using free indirect style, Helen Simpson encourages the reader to react with disgust to the spectacle of a woman breastfeeding her newborn. This is a modern reaction. Scroll through classic art from the Victorian era and you’ll find many beautiful breastfeeding images, clearly romanticising the act of breastfeeding as beautiful, natural, life-giving and good. Simpson’s story is an inversion — contemporary life has inverted this aspect of motherhood.

So the Shortcoming of Tina is that she is disgusted by what she herself may one day become.

“She’s hideous,” whispered Tina. “Look at that gross stomach, it’s all in folds.” She glanced down superstitiously at her own body, the high breasts like halved apples, the handspan waist.

Joe and Nick have a different reaction — they are fascinated by it.

At this point Helen Simpson makes an astute feminist observation on why people don’t listen to women:

At some subliminal level each of the eavesdropping quartet recognised their own mother’s voice in hers, and glazed over.

DESIRE

Everyone at the pool wants to have a fun time.

More deeply, the woman wants to reconnect with her husband, who has retreated into himself since the birth of their baby. The young people want to live in the moment.

OPPONENT

Harvey and the unnamed mother are in marital conflict. It’s difficult to read without sympathy for them, especially the mother, who is in a very vulnerable position.

The complete lack of sympathy from the young people is striking.

The young couples came to France on a shoestring budget, buoyed by new love that didn’t last, because they’ve been let down by their surroundings. France is traditionally the country of love, but even France can’t help them. They’re each too self-absorbed to be in an adult partnership of equals (in common with Harvey, in fact).

Since the young couples want to live in the moment, the sight of older versions of themselves pull them out of that. (All are from England, cementing their more general similarity when in a foreign country.)

PLAN

We can deduce why the new parents are here — perhaps the woman suggested it, as an attempt at a brief respite from new parenthood, hoping to rekindle something from their pre-baby days.

“I thought the idea was to get away from it all.”
“I thought we’d have a chance to talk on holiday.”

BIG STRUGGLE

The married couple are failing at communication, clear from their conversation. The woman wants to talk; the man does not. The climax of their big struggle is when the woman howls in anger and grief.

ANAGNORISIS

The character of Charlotte has been kept silent for most of the story but after introducing her briefly as someone who has it together (aligning her with the mother), she brings her back in at the end.

Charlotte remembers a framed picture, and what follows is an ekphrastic description, cementing for the reader the subverted fairytale nature of this story:

As for Charlotte, she was remembering another unwitting act of voyeurism, a metaphorical framed picture from a childhood camping holiday.

It had been early morning, she’d gone off on her own to the village for their breakfast baguettes, and the village had been on a hills like in a fairy-tale, full of steep little flights of steps which she was climbing for fun. The light was sweet and glittering and as she looked down over the rooftops she saw very clearly one particular open window, so near that she could have lobbed in a ten-franc piece, and through the window she could see a woman dropping kisses onto a man’s face and neck and chest. He was lying naked in bed and she was kissing him lovingly and gracefully, her breasts dipping down over him like silvery peonies. Charlotte had never mentioned this to anyone, keeping the picture to herself, a secret snapshot protected from outside sniggerings.

Once again we have a description of breasts — symbolic, in this particular story, and metonyms for women at various life stages:

  1. The half-apple breasts of youth
  2. The sagging wheels of Camembert of nursing motherhood
  3. The full, womanly, pleasure-giving breasts of sexual womanhood

Charlotte is the character who experiences the Anagnorisis in this story, and it’s interesting that Simpson kept her quiet. She needed to be quiet to be afforded time to reflect. Unlike Tina, Charlotte realises that growing into a woman’s body is not a disgusting, terrifying thing at all. She’s had the benefit of witnessing this other image, which counteracts Tina’s commentary of this scene before them, a few years later.

The Anagnorisis in “Up at a Villa” is a great example of how a character can have an epiphany/understanding after connecting two experiences, even if the previous experience happened some time ago. In this case, the Anagnorisis phase will probably comprise a flashback or dream.

NEW SITUATION

High up on the swimming-pool terrace the little family, frozen together for a photographic instant, watched their flight open-mouthed, like the ghosts of summers past; or, indeed, of summers yet to come.

The final sentence links present time with future time, pulling that whole thread of the story together (the young are simultaneously old — that is why they fear it).

Why does Helen Simpson frame the little family statically, in a ‘photographic instant’? When the young couples run like deer, they’re not only running from the scene of the ‘crime’ — they’re running from the inevitability of youth.

So long as they’re running, by comparison that other, ‘gross’ family looks static, and behind that ‘frame’, completely separate. For this moment of running away, they can pretend they’ll never be older themselves.

thumbs_up_down

Slap Happy Larry Stories

I put this analysis into practice when writing my own short stories.

Header painting: Henrietta Rae – The Sirens 1903

In-flight Entertainment by Helen Simpson

In-flight entertainment

“In-flight Entertainment” is a short story by Helen Simpson, published in her 2010 collection of the same name.

Thanks in large part to Greta Thunberg (not pronounced how I thought it was pronounced), 2019 seems to have been a turning point in general attitudes towards climate change. The phrase started off as ‘global warming’ (too benign), became ‘climate change’ and is now ‘climate crisis’. My own country’s online newspaper now has its own ‘climate’ tab, prioritising its importance.

But even in 2019, those of us who think a lot about the climate crisis are still living in a bubble. Helen Simpson said in 2011 that if you suggest we might cut back on unnecessary air travel, reception is cold. While some people have indeed cut back on unnecessary trips, it’s business-as-usual.

1917 illustration by Heath Robinson planes
1917 illustration by Heath Robinson

With the climate crisis as focus, “In-flight Entertainment” is a short story about difficult conversations in the face of unwelcome yet inevitable change, and our ability to ignore what we don’t want to hear and go on with our lives. In the past, and on an individual level, this is a wonderful adaptation. Sometimes I wish I was a climate crisis denier. I think I’d be more content.

Which cognitive biases are we talking about exactly? Infuriatingly, it’s a raft of the things, all working together:

  • Hyperbolic discounting: We are very bad at understanding statistical trends and long-term changes, paying attention to immediate threats.
  • We overestimate threats that are less likely but memorable, such as terrorism. Stories of terrorism are memorable because they are stories of individuals (sometimes en masse, but individuals all the same). The Environment appears to have no face to it, precisely because it involves every face. When too many people are affected we lose compassion. This is known as psychic numbing.
  • Too much information confuses us, leading to inaction or poor choices.
  • We  remember immediate threats, so that they could be avoided in the future, but we’re constantly on the look out for opportunities (e.g. for pleasure — holidays and air travel).
  • Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene aside, we only really care about the two generations on either side of us (we can’t care further back than our great-grandparents or further forward than our great-grandchildren).
  • The sunk-cost fallacyWe are biased towards staying the course even in the face of negative outcomes. When the world is full of aeroplanes and the economy has been built around aeroplanes, well, we already have them so why not use them?
  • Justification. If we all quit holidaying in tourist destinations, entire communities would collapse. We justify our behaviours by focusing on certain details and avoiding others.
  • The bystander effect. Most of us are inclined to believe someone else will deal with a crisis. We may expect others to stop traveling on planes, but we ourselves have to. Our travel is necessary; others’ travel is not.

This is infuriating for the relatively few Cassandras out there, trying to persuade others that there is no government conspiracy, and that it is far cheaper to avoid a climate crisis than to try to eke out an existence after ecological collapse.

Eric Sloane (1910 – 1985) Night Flight Scene

SETTING OF “IN-FLIGHT ENTERTAINMENT”

“In-flight Entertainment” feels like it’s set in a near future when the world is divided into climate deniers and those who are resigned to it. Alan is accused of having grown up in a gadget-ridden childhood, referring to Gen Z (roughly between the ages of 7 and 22″ in 2019, so younger again at time of publication). Alan is of an age now when he has a wife (Penny) and kids.

Part of me thinks it could easily have been set in 2019, but I don’t think we’re quite at this point yet. Currently the world is divided into four groups:

  1. Climate crisis deniers
  2. Those who haven’t given it much thought
  3. Very worried people e.g. activists
  4. The tired and resigned

At some point surely categories 2 and 3 will disappear as the realities of climate change make everyone aware of it, and as even the most ardent activists realise the big struggle has been lost. This flight comprises climate crisis deniers and the tired and resigned. In this view of the near future, air travel doesn’t abate one iota.

The story veers backwards into Alan’s on-the-ground life — we learn that there have been apocalyptic protests at Heathrow, that Alan drives a luxury vehicle, that his parents oppose his carbon intensive lifestyle. Alan’s mother has a view on recycling that is stuck in the 1990s — that if we all pull together and make small economies then our collective efforts will save us. This worked for England during the war. The attitude carried us through the 90s, and can be seen in children’s literature designed to encourage recycling, e.g. Just A Dream by Chris Van Allsburg.

Zenas Winsor McCay (1867 - 1934) planes
Zenas Winsor McCay (1867 – 1934)
FLIGHT SYMBOLISM

Flight can symbolise various things but most notably it stands for freedom. Air travel is the ultimate luxury, though many of us living in rich countries would no longer call it that — we consider the freedom of flight a birthright. The plane is therefore a perfect setting for this story.

The story opens with description of the different classes of people herded onto a plane — there’s no better reminder than planes of economic hierarchy — First Class at the top (significantly, in Helen Simpson’s story, it’s made up of men), followed by Club Class, Business Class and Economy.

The climate crisis is likewise mostly a class issue, with those at the top using more than their fair share of the environment, symbolised in this story as an extra eight inches of space which ‘makes all the difference’. Difference between what? Is the freedom to fly the difference between a life vs a life worth living?

Helen Simpson inverts the freedom aspect of flight with the intertextual reference to an iconic scene from North by Northwest, in which a man cannot hide from a horrifying crop duster, swooping him like a very big, very dangerous magpie during breeding season. This is the scene Alan watches on the plane when he doesn’t want to hear anything more about climate change.

Within the story there also exists implicit critique of a life lived through screens — we criticise Alan for wanting to watch his old film instead of hearing about the realities of climate change. Soon it is revealed that everything he knows about dying comes via fictional TV shows such as Casualty. This is a guy living in a fantasy world, borne of mindful denial.

GOOSE BAY

The flight is from Heathrow to Chicago. There is a diversion to Goose Bay. Significantly this is close to Greenland, where some of the most obvious impacts of climate change are currently seen. It’s also in the middle of nowhere, like the North by Northwest scene above. The landscape is huge; people are rendered tiny and helpless and all alone. No one is coming to save us from the climate crisis.

So how do the Climate Change Cassandras persuade the deniers? According to this story, it may in fact be impossible.

1950s, Aer Lingus, Irish Airline, artist- Hayes
1950s, Aer Lingus, Irish Airline, artist- Hayes

STORY STRUCTURE OF “IN-FLIGHT ENTERTAINMENT”

Here is the underlying structure of stories with this sort of theme:

  • A character encounters another character who tells them something they don’t want to hear.
  • Eventually this unwelcome new knowledge becomes too much, so the character hearing the unpleasant thing has some sort of dream/escape sequence.
  • When they wake up, they’ve pretty much forgotten the entire interaction.
  • Except things will never be quite the same, because they haven’t completely forgotten.

Another outstanding example of a story structured in this way is “Her First Ball” by Katherine Mansfield. In Mansfield’s story, an old man reminds young Leila, fresh to the ball scene, that she will be an old lady soon. This is pretty much the last thing you want to hear at your first ball, so Leila mindfully forgets about the interaction.

Popular Aviation woman on plane opens window
Popular Aviation woman on plane opens window

SHORTCOMING

This is the story of a community, so no single character stands out as the main one. “In-flight Entertainment” is designed to expose a general human shortcoming — our ability to see the terrible truth then to ignore it.

The cast of characters requires:

  1. The person who is forced to think deeply about the horrible thing for the first time (for this story it is Alan Barr);
  2. The person who forces the other to think deeply about the horrible thing for the first time (Jeremy Lees).

Also in this story we have the thread of the old man who dies in his seat. Clearly, someone who dies in our presence is confronting. We are forced to acknowledge the inevitability of death, and we’re reminded that we, too, shall die.

Imperial Airways - British Travel Poster - art by Charles C Dickson - c 1928 plane interior
Imperial Airways – British Travel Poster – art by Charles C Dickson – c 1928 plane interior

DESIRE

Alan wants to ignore the facts of the climate crisis. He has come up with a reasonable argument which works to this end:

…the science behind these new reports could be quite shaky. There were two sides to every coin, and anyway Planet Earth has a self-regulating mechanism, rather like the economy, and we should leave it to right itself. Mother Nature knows a thing or two…

In this particular story, Alan wants to enjoy his First Class flight to Chicago to give a presentation. The presentation will be delivered in 13 hours’ time — a ticking clock device which plays on the ‘bad luck’ aspect of the number 13.

OPPONENT

Alan, who wants to go on as usual, is in direct opposition to Jeremy, who would have liked the world to change. The ultimate opponent for a climate crisis denier: a climate scientist.

But Helen Simpson then has to explain what the Jeremy is doing aboard an aircraft. This character has reached a point where he has given up trying to change things.

The other opponent is the dead man. His death means they have to stop over and Alan is now in danger of missing his presentation.

PLAN

Everybody’s plan on this flight is to go on as usual. Even while knowing that our behaviours are wrecking the environment, if anything this makes us do more of that exact thing.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle scene is the part where Alan imagines becoming a Doomsday Prepper, with the gun, the barbed wire, the works.

ANAGNORISIS

The tragedy for Alan is that he has no Anagnorisis. He wakes himself up with a snort.

All that alarmist crap that old creep Jeremy had been coming out with, it just seemed like a fairy story now.

To extend the fairy tale connection, Helen Simpson turns Alan into a childlike figure:

In quite a childish way he liked the tiny brightly wrapped bonbons, he liked yawning to pop his ears. Yes, his spirits usually lifted during the descent [HIGHLY SYMBOLIC, OF COURSE], and he would have expected to feel extra-jubilant towards the close of this particular protracted crossing.

NEW SITUATION

Despite trying his best to suppress the information conveyed by Jeremy, Alan doesn’t fully succeed. He is forever changed.

…he had a weight around his heart, a nasty sinking feeling; which was not like him at all.

FURTHER

Interview with Helen Simpson at BBC4 (at about 8:50) and also Margaret Atwood.

The film Melancholia is about depression, but feels to me like it could be about the division between climate crisis deniers and those who know it is coming.

Header photo by Aaron Barnaby

A View Of Mount Warning by Robert Drewe

“A View Of Mount Warning” is an Australian short story by Robert Drewe, and can be found in his collection The True Colour Of The Sea (2018).

Honestly, I’m pretty much done with reading about middle-aged men who develop crushes on younger women, especially when the point of view centers so firmly on the man, inevitably objectifying the woman and underscoring the idea that men’s sexual desire is paramount.

This is exactly that kind of narrative, so if I’m writing about it here, you can bet it’s well done, at least.

CAST OF CHARACTERS

Russell Garrett — about to turn fifty. A horse vet in Rock Forest near Bathurst. His marriage to Estelle has recently ended. They have two grown children together, Daniel and Lily.

Max Hodder — Russell’s longtime friend since childhood. Dropped out of engineering at the University of New South Wales, entered real estate, made a lot of money during the housing boom. Married twice. Has been married for ten years to Sophie.

Sophie Howson — Max’s second wife, described as ‘striking’ via Russell’s lens. Russell has been in love with Sophie since Max married her. She is significantly younger than them both.

The True Colour Of The Sea cover

STORY WORLD OF “A VIEW OF MOUNT WARNING”

The two friends live 900km apart but meet every New Year at Max’s house at Wategos Beach in Byron Bay.

Robert Drewe is a famously ‘littoral’ writer — meaning his stories take place along the sea shore, in that ‘liminal’ space where land meets sea. (There’s another ten dollar ‘L’ word for you.)

Time wise, this story takes place in the wake of the 2007 Australian equine influenza outbreak. The ‘themes’ of this news story overlap with the themes of this fictional short story: both involve quarantines and breaches. In Drewe’s story there’s the unspoken quarantine around a good friend’s marriage.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “A VIEW OF MOUNT WARNING”

SHORTCOMING

The main character here, for my purposes, is Russell.

His was a melancholy and insurmountable jealousy, compounded by guilt. Of course his feelings for Sophie were unrequited, but even if she’d been aware of them and magically, enthusiastically, reciprocated, she was the wife of his boyhood friend — Max’s second and twelve-years-younger wife — and therefore out of bounds, now and forever.

DESIRE

Whenever [Russell] saw [Sophie] she had him in a flurry of confusion. In her presence, aching for her trailing hostessy fingers, the accidentally brushed knees, the casual touch, he always felt like a teenager. As she passed by his chair he’d clench his stomach muscles and surreptitiously flex his biceps. Willing her, touch me. Then he felt like a fool.

Psychologists call this intense desire for human touch ‘skin hunger‘. It’s a powerful force and it’s driving Russell’s life at the moment.

OPPONENT

Sophie is Russell’s romantic opponent. Max is Russell’s best friend, but an opponent in that he stands in the way (as Russell perceives it) of Russell giving things a go with the object of his affection.

At first the love appears unrequited. Soon it is revealed that Sophie feels similarly. This is in fact more difficult for Russell to bear.

What’s the significance of the mountains in this story? To me they symbolise the enduring nature of the men’s friendship — it would appear, now that the men are both nearing fifty, that nothing can shake their ‘rock solid’ friendship.

PLAN

At first Russell’s Plan of action is Nothing. This is often a character’s first ‘plan’ — rather, the author shows the reader that the character has a pattern of doing nothing, but in this story, of course, that is about to change. First, a paragraph about the pattern of doing nothing:

Such was the nature of his infatuation, however, that even as he tussled with guilt one moment, deliberately avoiding her presence, the next minute he’d be torturing himself with the smallest hints and snatched glances. She’d bustle and bend and flip her hair from her forehead and he’d have to tear his eyes from the thrilling sight of her rinsing dishes at the kitchen sink, arranging flowers, making coffee.

This isn’t limited to short stories, by the way. In Dan Santat’s award winning children’s picture book The Adventures of Beekle: The unimaginary friend, Beekle desperately wants a human friend but first Santat writes of his pattern of waiting around passively.

Then the story switches from the iterative (constant pining for what he can’t have) to the singulative:

Then, quite abruptly, these overlapping quandaries produced some new dilemmas to both confuse him and rekindle his hopes.

Because this is a story told via the lens of a middle-aged man fresh out of divorce, I don’t entirely trust his narration as reliable.

BIG STRUGGLE

For the purposes of the story, the Battle scene occurs the morning after, with Russell witnessing Max and his red eyes — possibly from crying — wondering if his best friend is about to confront him about the previous evening with his wife.

ANAGNORISIS

This short story exemplifies a classic plot closure without the psychological closure — the reader, like Russell, never finds out if Max saw he and his wife kiss.

The Anagnorisis is that he crossed a boundary — penetrated an invisibly quarantined arena. This is how the setting (and political news) of this story interconnects with the character arc.

When Drewe uses the metaphor of the avalanche to describe the way ice tumbles into Max’s drink as he maybe, maybe did not see Russell betray his trust, Max is compared to the mountain. An avalanche is about the only thing that damages a mountain.

Then there’s the colour symbolism of the purple. A purple haze covers the mountains. When Max gets that ice he happens to be wearing purple boxers. Yep, there is a reason for that. The purple connects Max to those mountains. The ice he pours into his glass connects Max to the avalanche. Symbolically, the reader has our psychological closure, though we may not realise it without reflection — the symbolism tells us that Max did indeed witness the intimacy, if not the kiss itself.

NEW SITUATION

But it doesn’t really matter whether Max saw any of that intimacy or not — the result either way is a friendship permanently changed for the worse.

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Slap Happy Larry Stories

I put this analysis into practice when writing my own short stories.

The Adventures Of Beekle by Dan Santat

Adventures of Beekle cover

The Adventures of Beekle is a picture book by Dan Santat and winner of the 2015 Caldecott Medal. Santat’s picture books make excellent close-reading examples for discussion about colour as it relates to emotion.

The New York Times compares Beekle to Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. I see many similarities between Beekle and Australia’s own The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan. In fact, consider The Lost Thing the flipped version — not from the perspective of the imaginary creature but from the perspective of the real child.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE ADVENTURES OF BEEKLE

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

An imaginary friend in the shape of a white blob. He is feeling lonely and without purpose in life. When the story opens he has no name, which is significant. Without a name, he has no identity, purpose or respect. 

Beekle rainbow

Importantly, the creatures begin on an island — longtime symbol of isolation. It’s actually a kind of utopia. Just look at that rainbow, will you? What else could these creatures wish for?

 

WHAT DO THEY WANT?

Well, they want what we all want. Connection and purpose. 

Beekle wants his own real child. Without his own child to acknowledge his existence, he is a nobody.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

Because this is a mythic journey (see below) Beekle will face ‘many scary things’ on his travels to the real world. These are conveyed in the pictures, but the illustrations show the reader that Beekle needn’t be afraid. For example, the whale beneath his boat is massive and therefore scary, but is in fact helping Beekle on his journey. The baby whale swimming alongside her suggests she is being protective of Beekle rather than a threat. 

This image appeals to readers who like to believe there are invisible forces propelling us forward, helping us reach our goals, even if we cannot see them.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

At first Beekle has no active plan. Rather, he waits around, ‘hoping for his turn to be picked by a child and given a special name’.

But this plan, such as it is, doesn’t work. On a double spread with a lot of white space (actually the buttery yellow of sand) Beekle stands by his sandcastle, utterly alone.

But his turn never came.

He realises this isn’t going to work so he sets out on a classic mythic journey. This structure seriously never gets old. When a reviewer at Huffington Post wroteBeekle has an air of inevitability about it’, this is because Santat is making use of a story structure at least 3000 years old. 

The colour palette changes once Beekle reaches the ‘real world’, from rich colours to muted browns and greys. 

But the more Beekle searches, the more joy he finds. Santat gradually brings those rich rainbow colours back onto the page. This could be a story about anyone moving to a new place. 

After checking the playground and failing to find his friend, he climbs a tree and looks out. This is making use of The Symbolism of Altitude. In stories, characters go to high places when they are looking for perspective on their problem.

Usually, when a character goes somewhere high, they will solve a problem or have an epiphany of some kind.

The epiphany is that this girl, who appears at the bottom of the tree, is perfect for him.

Dan Santat does this really cool mirror flip type thing, depicted only via the illustration, in which Beekle hands Alice a piece of paper. The piece of paper is a drawing of himself handing Alice a picture — a naive rendering of the professional illustration by Santat. Look carefully now at the previous two spreads and you’ll notice that piece of paper. It has blown on the wind and lodged itself on a spike of the tree. The illustration has been drawn by Alice. Yet it’s Beekle who hands the paper to Alice, so who really imagined who up?

This is the ‘genius’ part of the book, and I suspect this is what makes Beekle a Caldecott winner.

BIG BIG STRUGGLE

Beekle’s big struggle has been internal (psychological). By the time he meets Alice, it’s clear from the beginning that they are going to be together. The sentence ‘At first, they weren’t sure what to do’, and the comic strip that follows is the Big Battle of this story — the awkwardness of meeting a new friend, and of knowing how to act. Their expressions and body language indicate they are holding back from each other, unwilling to throw themselves immediately into fast friendship.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

When Beekle reaches the real world, at first everything is scary and inexplicable. We don’t quite know what’s going on. This causes unease and anxiety. But after a while, after exploring our new world, we begin to feel comfortable. But this doesn’t just happen on its own: Beekle has searched for the good in his new environs. We have to do that, too, no matter where we go.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

Beekle and his girl will be together now, and both of them look happy about that. 

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Who’s-Dead McCarthy by Kevin Barry

In the short story “Who’s-Dead McCarthy“, Irish short story writer Kevin Barry takes someone’s darkly morbid fascination with death and exaggerates it in a story-length character sketch — a man who talks about death so incessantly that people cross the road to avoid him. It’s wonderful.

I think humour only ever exists in something that sets out to be serious. Anything that sets out to be humorous is doomed.

Common Faults In Short Stories

Do you know anyone who takes a keen interest in death? My mother is a longterm resident of the area where I grew up. She’s worked in various fields and knows a hell of a lot of people. She’s also very good at remembering names and faces. So every morning, first thing she does when reading the paper is open to the funerals page at the back. Every now and then — more and more often more lately — she will say, “Oh no, Such-and-such has died.” Sometimes this is whispered in a mournful tone — sometimes stated matter-of-fact.

As a teenager living at home, I found this aspect of my mother’s morning routine comically morbid. I couldn’t imagine ever taking such an interest in the death pages myself.

Read the full text of “Who’s-Dead McCarthy” at The Irish Times.

STORYWORLD OF “WHO’S-DEAD MCCARTHY”

My second cousin, who is a Northern Irish New Zealander, swore he saw the Grim Reaper jumping over the back fence the evening before his father died. With this as the sum total of evidence, I have a feeling that the story of the Grim Reaper is quite popular in Ireland.

[McCarthy’s] role as our messenger of death along the length of O’Connell Street and back seemed to be of a tradition. Such a figure has perhaps always walked the long plain mile of the street and spoken the necessary words, a grim but vital player in the life of a small city.

Ireland is a Western culture of course, and compared to various non-Western cultures the West is reticent about death, preferring to deal with it mainly via metaphor, folklore and symbolism.

This story is a case in point, and opens with a description of Limerick in winter. Winter is the perfect symbolic season for a story entirely about death. There’s no summery ironic juxtaposition here.

Con McCarthy himself is depicted as a part of the landscape, setting him up as a supernatural figure, at one with nature (nature including death):

The main drag was the daily parade for his morbidity. Limerick, in the bone evil of its winter, and here came Con McCarthy, haunted-looking, in his enormous, suffering overcoat. The way he sidled in, with the long, pale face, and the hot, emotional eyes.

The city of Limerick contains the River Shannon, which plays on an age-old fear of rivers as places of death. They literally were, before modern plumbing. When I traced my own family history I discovered an ancestor had been killed while crossing a river on horseback. You’d probably find the same. The death records in England show that in the early modern period, drownings were quite common with toddlers — they could drown in ditches, in brooks, or in tubs of wort, the liquid extracted from the mashing process during the brewing of beer or whisky. Girls were more likely to die falling into buckets and wells than rivers because they stayed closer to home. Anyway, it’s no surprise that we historically fear water.

The symbolic river running through Limerick in “Who’s-Dead McCarthy” is a proxy for The River Styx in Greek mythology — the body of water which supposedly takes us from the world of the living to whatever lies beyond.

NARRATIVE VOICE OF “WHO’S DEAD MCCARTHY”

I was once in a writing group with an Irish fellow and felt a little envious of his distinctive, comedic voice. He had a way of writing which felt like he only had to transcribe his natural speaking voice onto the page and whatever he said would come out funny.

Of course, that was a vast under-appreciation of what it takes to write funny stories in a strong, distinctive voice. I was forgetting that I, too, come from a country where my regional accent is naturally comedic to outsiders. Flight of the Conchords is testament to this phenomenon, in which Brett and Jemaine ham up the Kiwi for laughs.

This is why I’m somewhat sympathetic to the commenter who had this to say about Kevin Barry’s story at the Irish Times:

How much of this is selling stock country types to city audiences? Also the romantic fallacy that there is wisdom in the primitive and misses the point that our man Con is really a groupie since what he is obsessed with is the star move everyone in the country can make — dying is the one thing that will get you in the paper and on radio, make you star of the show in the big house with the cross on it, in the same-sized box, with the same priest saying the same mass, going to the same limo in the sky where you’ll be the same as everyone else. It’s the small — or dull-man’s — revenge.

The great danger in writing with non-dominant dialects for laughs is that some readers will feel you’re lampooning the underdogs. And that is never a nice feeling. Those who speak with naturally ‘funny’ accents are at an advantage when aiming for comedy, but the flip side is, we also have trouble being taken seriously. Though I am not Irish, I understand this quandary first hand due to living outside New Zealand while speaking (for a while, at least) with a hilarious Kiwi accent.

STORY STRUCTURE OF WHO’S-DEAD MCCARTHY

“Who’s-Dead McCarthy” begins as a comical character sketch of one character (Con McCarthy), as told through the eyes of the ‘straight man’ narrator. We know nothing of this narrator except that he is ‘normal’ whereas Con McCarthy is not normal — unduly obsessed with death.

But then the story shifts — gradually rather than suddenly — and the story is now about the narrator’s response to death. The story morphs into an introspective, reflective meditation about the narrator, and about all of us, and how Con McCarthy has been instrumental in the narrator’s own perspectival shift.

So who is the ‘main’ character of such a story? They both are, equally, but for purposes of analysis, the ‘main character’ is the one who changes the most over the course of the narrative. So in this case it is the narrator. (Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that ‘change in circumstance’ equals ‘change in perspective’. If we were going for ‘change in circumstance’ then Con would win out, since he goes from living to dead.)

SHORTCOMING

The audience is fully encouraged to enjoy Con McCarthy as a figure of fun, alongside the narrator. This is our shared moral shortcoming. We prefer to laugh at people who embrace death rather than accept it head on. The narrator’s moral shortcoming is that he treats Con with contempt, not thinking for a minute that he might learn something from the old man. (Until he does.)

DESIRE

The narrator deals with Con by turning him into a figure of fun, but his deeper psychological shortcoming is that he finds death terrifying. Better not to think about it.

‘Not thinking about it’ is in line with what the surrounding (Western) culture expects in regards to death. Talking about death when the deceased is not directly related to oneself equals ‘revelling in it’. There’s the line between appropriate and inappropriate smalltalk. Con crosses it, failing to heed any negative social cues.

OPPONENT

Since the narrator does not want to think too much about death, and since Con won’t shut up about it, the two are in opposition to each other. Of course, Con McCarthy is the comical real-world equivalent of the supernatural figure of the Grim Reaper. It’s not Con who is the main opposition — the real opponent is death itself.

MYTHOLOGY OF THE GRIM REAPER

Death has long been personified in fairytale and folklore. The Grim Reaper plot was a popular one for the medieval writers of jests and fables:

Death promised a man that he would not take him without first sending messengers. The man’s youth soon passed and he became miserable. One day Death arrived, but the man refused to follow him, because the promised messengers had not yet appeared. Death responded: “Have you not been sick? Have you not experienced dizziness, ringing in your ears, toothache, and blurred vision? These were my messengers.” The man, at last recognizing the truth, quietly yielded and went away.

Retold from Death’s Messengers, Grimm, no. 177, type 335. 

The Grim Reaper is most often a terrifying figure, but Kevin Barry has inverted the terror here and made him into a figure of fun.

The way Kevin Barry depicts this old man as a supernatural figure is masterful. It is achieved partly by painting him as timeless and unknowable:

He did not seem to hold down a job. (It was hard to imagine the workmates who could suffer him.) His occupation, plainly, was with the dead. It was difficult to age him. He was a man out of time somehow. The overcoat was vast and worn at all seasons and made him a figure from a Jack B Yeats painting or an old Russian novel. There was something antique in his bearing.

The rain that he drew down upon himself seemed to be an old, old rain.

THE COMEDY OF “WHO’S-DEAD MCCARTHY”

To that end, what are the exact comedy mechanisms at play?

  • A lot of situational comedy relies upon expected gags which play out in almost exactly the same way time and again. In Keeping Up Appearances it’s Hyacinth being surprised by the dog in the car, and throwing herself against the hedge. It’s funny because we know it is coming. Occasionally it’s subverted. Likewise, Catherine Tate’s sketches rely heavily on audience expectation, as do the sketches in Little Britain. It doesn’t take long to set these up. Twice is enough. In “Who’s-Dead McCarthy” the author sets up a fully expected script with several repetitions of the same conversation. This becomes inverted in the final sentence. This example of common comedic set-up reaches beyond comedy, however — the key is in the flip at the end. The narrator has become the figure of fun, and is now at the mercy of death himself. Moreover, the fact that the reader ‘expects’ what’s coming mirrors how we ‘expect’ death to come to each and every one of us, but we don’t know exactly what ‘the author’ (fate) is going to do with it in our own particular sketch. We know we’re going to die. We don’t know exactly when and how. This is its own kind of comfort and delight.
  • Con McCarthy is turned into a comedic character partly due to melodrama.
     

“Elsie Sheedy?” he’d try. “You must have known poor Elsie. With the skaw leg and the little sparrow’s chin? I suppose she hadn’t been out much this last while. She was a good age now but I mean Jesus, all the same, Elsie? Gone?”

His eyes might turn slowly upwards here, as though in trail of the ascending Elsie.

(Notice how the author repeats the melodrama in the final sentence, with the same image of the eyes slowly moving up: ‘I let my handsome eyes ascend’. Why ‘handsome’? That word pulled me up short the first time I read it. This is the narrator now viewing himself from another plane. His younger self would of course be ‘handsome’. He is also seeing himself as an actor on a stage.

  • The comedy in this short story shares something in common with the comedy in many picture books; ie. the story goes as far as you think it could possibly go, but the author has the skill of taking us that one extra step further. A picture book example is Stuck by Oliver Jeffers. Just when you think nothing more ridiculous could get stuck in a tree, something does. In “Who’s-Dead McCarthy”, the ‘one more miserable thing tacked onto the end of great misery’ transforms the story-within-the-story of the bull attack from a sad story into a hilariously sad story, because it is revealed the family were watching. The added touch ‘They’ll never be right’ is the flourish that actually made me laugh. The epitome of gallows humour.

PLAN

Sometimes ‘plans’ are a matter of avoidance, eventuating in an expression borne of exasperation.

By the time the narrator confronts Con, I’m sure he’s thought of saying all those things to him many times before. Finally it’s out. But for storytelling purposes, this was the narrator’s ‘plan’.

BIG STRUGGLE

Exasperated, the narrator has confronted Con, and delivers what we all assume will be a cutting blow: Nobody wants to hear you talk, Con. We cross the road to avoid you.

Imagine being told that everyone hates you, basically. This is one of the greatest blows a human can suffer.

ANAGNORISIS

But Con does not respond as expected, by getting upset with the narrator, feeling shunned, suffering hurt. It becomes clear to the reader (and to the narrator) that Con’s fixation with death has somehow elevated him above earthly conventions like ‘fitting in by small-talking about frippery’. He has moved to a higher plane, confronted by his own old age and imminent death, where the spectre of finality causes worldly concerns to shrink permanently into insignificance.

“Can I ask you something?”

“What?”

“Why are you so drawn to it? To death? Why are you always the first with the bad news? Do you not realise, Con, that people cross the road when they see you coming? You put the hearts sideways in us. Oh Jesus Christ, here he comes, we think, here comes Who’s-Dead McCarthy. Who has he put in the ground for us today?”

“I can’t help it,” he said. “I find it very … impressive.”

“Impressive?”

“That there’s no gainsaying it. That no one has the answer to it. That we all have to face into the room with it at the end of the day and there’s not one of us can make the report after.”

NEW SITUATION

The narrator now shifts his own way of looking at the world. In a sense he becomes Con, next on the chopping block.

I BECAME MORBIDLY FASCINATED by Con McCarthy.

Whereas Con is obsessed with death, the narrator becomes obsessed with Con’s obsession with death.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

Another short story in which the narrator becomes like another character originally despised is “Sucker” by Carson McCullers, written when she was seventeen. In both cases there is a verbal confrontation as Battle scene, followed by an unexpected reaction, followed by a body-swapping plot, though only in the psychological sense.

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Slap Happy Larry Stories

I put this analysis into practice when writing my own short stories.

Header photo by Yomex Owo

Ernestine and Kit by Kevin Barry

“Ernestine and Kit” is a short story by Kevin Barry, included in Dark Lies The Island (2013). It has been made into a short film by Simon Bird if you can get a hold of it.

This is black humour at its best. I was captivated with this crime story from beginning to end — the suspense is well-paced, and the reveals well-positioned, because we don’t know at first what these two are up to. By the time we see the two women carry out their plan it comes as a bit of a shock.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

“Ernestine and Kit” is sort of like Thelma & Louise meets “The Child” by Ali Smith. In fact, one of the children in “Ernestine and Kit” is called Allie, and I wonder if it’s a nod to Smith’s well-known short story, in which a woman finds a child in her supermarket trolley, takes it home and learns it’s a little bastard.

CHARACTERS OF “ERNESTINE AND KIT”

The fat lady/thin lady duo is pretty common across storytelling, which is useful for Kevin Barry because the reader will quickly form expectations from that.

For instance, we expect something light-hearted:

a fat and a skinny character make up a two-character ensemble. This is usually a comedy trope, usually with the skinny character being the Straight Man, although inversions of this are seen as well.

TV Tropes

Ernestine and Kit remind me of the women in Kate diCamillo’s Mercy series. Eugenia is phonetically similar to Ernestine. Her sister is Baby Lincoln. The cover below summarises their relationship — Baby is (very obviously) the childlike character while the other is a parental disciplinarian.

Typically, one woman of the pair will be motherly; the other needing to be mothered. A two-older-woman due may be religious, or may be quasi-lesbian tropes. Kevin Barry covers this possibility in this story, too, when Eugenia and Kit wonder how they are perceived by others.

How else does Kevin Barry persuade us that these are two law-abiding ladies?

  • Others are waving at them. As readers we take our cue from other others within the world react to them. This way, even non-sympathetic characters can see sympathetic. Here people wave because everyone else is in a good mood and perhaps because they’ve been caught up in a vintage car rally.
  • It seems these old ladies are also going to the vintage car rally at Kilmore, or to other innocuous places (like the castle).

In light of two older women on a day trip, the following sounds innocuous but only on second reading we realise the opposite meaning is intended:

‘children played unguarded in the cool of the woods.’

STORYWORLD OF “ERNESTINE AND KIT”

SEASON

A fine Saturday in June.

‘The world as fat on the blood of summer.’ This not only sets the scene but sets the vibe. (At this point we may assume it’s comedic hyperbole.)

Like “Beer Trip to Llandudno” this is a road trip between friends. Road trip stories are based on the classic mythic structure.

GEOGRAPHY

I can’t quite work out their route, because I can’t work out which places are real and which are made up for the story. (An Irish local may enlighten me.)

Notice how the women drive sedately at first, next it ‘lightly sped’, finally they’re breaking the speed limits terribly.

  • A bungalow in the Midlands
  • Through North County Sligo (Ireland)
  • Lough Gill (a lake to the west)
  • The lakeside to ride the ferry to Innisfree (an island in Lough Gill). I looked at the Google street view and wondered if there is such a thing as the ferry to Innisfree (spelt Innishfree in the story). The answer is no — ‘This pint-sized island lies tantalisingly close to the lough’s southeastern shore, but, alas, can’t be accessed. Still, it’s visible from the shore’. (Lonely Planet)
  • Tully (means a small hill in Irish, but is it a real place? Many Irish place names include the word Tully…)
  • Leckaun, Country Leitrim (where the young mother in stonewash denim is headed. The detail on the denim makes me wonder if this is the 1980s, but these old women are probably noticing what’s now called acid wash denim, themselves stuck in the 80s.)
  • An unspecified castle
  • Cavan
  • Northern Ireland, a separate jurisdiction
  • The outskirts of Enniskillen, where there is another festival
  • The Asda in Enniskillen
  • Belcoo
  • Blacklion
  • Dromahair
  • The midland plain
  • A clump of hawthorn bushes near the side of the road. This is where the women leave the kidnapped child.
HAWTHORN

When I read Hawthorn I wondered why I got a fairytale ping. That’s right — in Sleeping Beauty it’s a Hawthorn hedge that springs up around the castle.

The symbolism in this tale is not opaque. The hedge represents [Beauty’s] hymen, the white blossoms her virginity. The odor of sex emitted by blossoming hawthorns signals that her purity will soon be a thing of the past.

Bill Vaughn

There’s plenty of symbolism around the hawthorn, especially in Ireland:

Besides sex and death, Sleeping Beauty is also informed by contemporary realities and ancient beliefs about the powers of the hawthorn tree. Beginning in the late Middle Ages, dense thorny hedges were increasingly cultivated throughout Europe to keep the peasantry off land that had traditionally been used in common by serfs and nobles alike. In Ireland, at the time the story was published in 1812, these enclosures were particularly reviled, although lone hawthorns on the island were considered the home of faeries, and thus enchanted.

The hawthorn was a potent symbol in pre-Christian Europe—appealed to for good fortune, feared if harmed, and burned on funeral pyres to help waft the soul toward heaven—and later, the Church appropriated boughs of the Mayflower’s delicate white petals as devotional icons displayed during that month’s observances of the Cult of the Virgin. Many of the supernatural appearances of Mary reported by the faithful over the centuries—the so-called Marian Apparitions—place her under a hawthorn tree or perched on one of its branches.

Bill Vaughn

STORY STRUCTURE OF “ERNESTINE AND KIT”

THE RULE OF THREE IN STORYTELLING

This story makes an interesting case study into when (and how) to make use of The Rule of Three. It’s often said that when telling a story three incidents feels right to the audience — set it up, show it’s a pattern, change up the pattern. In this case we have a thwarted kidnapping followed by a successful one, so Kevin Barry has not made use of this Rule of Three at all. That’s two, is it not?

So what has Barry done instead? He’s using more of a step stool.

  1. The women drive past a child in a stroller
  2. They attempt a kidnapping
  3. They succeed at Asda.

If we count like this, it’s a slightly different take on the same basic rule. But it’s children who are counted rather than kidnapping attempts.

PARATEXT

“Ernestine and Kit,” the reader is presented with two chatty, unremarkable middle-aged women on a road-trip. The stage seems set for a warm story of female bonding. Only gradually, with slow dread, do we begin to read the cruel slant of their thoughts: they are predators planning to snatch a child.

The Paris Review

SHORTCOMING

Here’s the log line of the film, which gives a clue to the underlying psychology of the characters:

Two ladies in their seventies drive through north County Sligo in a neat Japanese car. As they pass by village pubs and beaches, they imagine the terrible, immoral lives people are living today. Their one consolation is the innocence of children. This is an absurd and macabre tale about how the petty-minded destroy themselves.

The details about these ladies are marvellous.

  • They’re into phrenology (‘She has a liar’s chin.’)
  • They leave their tea to brew until it’s as strong as ale.
  • They nibble at their scones like hungry mice
  • Ernestine keeps wine gums in her bag to lure children
  • Ernestine likes to leaf through power-tool catalogues, which gives her a genderless air —  much like Kerry of This Country (Kerry likes steam engines.)
  • They drink a lot of New Zealand wine
  • Listen to classical music on the radio
  • Go through copious amounts of paper towels (the reason is not given, or at least I haven’t picked it up.)

DESIRE

We are at first persuaded that these two are on a nice day out. Their wants are minimal. “A Cornetto would go down a treat.”

They are revealed to be judgemental, unpleasant types. Perhaps they simply enjoy judging people as a way to strengthen the bond between them?

The first question I have is, why do these two ladies want to stop in at the pub they just dissed, the one with beer kegs and drugs and a pool table?

The big reveal is their desire to abduct a child.

Ernestine and Kit want to abduct a child to fulfil their deeper desire to take an uncorrupted slice of humanity home for themselves, to keep it pristine forever and make themselves feel good about a corrupt and evil world.

OPPONENT

Their Opponents are the children themselves as well as their parents, who obviously don’t want their children abducted.

PLAN

The story is presented as habitual. Ernestine and Kit are very good at what they do. They drive around until they spot an opportunity for abduction. Then they pounce.

If caught out, they use their cover as older women to crack on they were only rescuing a lost child.

BIG STRUGGLE

In a story like this one, where two women go on a crime spree, there will be a succession of Battles. “The” Battle is the bit that comes right before the Self-Revelation. So, the Battle where these women successfully steal a child is ostensibly the Battle they win.

ANAGNORISIS

But they realise on the way home that this is not the angelic child they thought it was. In fact, it stinks.

A child is not what they really want at all — a child is only what they think they want. The want to steal the children of drug addicts and prostitutes, but when they do get a child, they assume this of it, and for this very reason they don’t want it. They are stuck in a ludicrous, evil loop.

“Ernestine and Kit” is a take on a classic changeling story. Communities have believed in changelings until very recently. In the 1890s a man in Cork set his wife on fire believing she had been switched by fairies. Even now, ideas about changelings can accompany mental illness. When Ernestine and Kit realise the baby is not what they thought, it is — to them — as if the ideal baby has been switched out for an evil one.

NEW SITUATION

What have people done across history when they don’t want a baby anymore? They left it in the woods, or in other out-of-the-way places: privies, roadside, dung-hills. This practice was ignored by society even though it wasn’t okay according to the church, reflecting the difference between church ideals and the realities of looking after another child.

EXTRAPOLATION

They will never get what they want because they don’t want what they think they want, but they will keep on hunting because this is their Saturday pastime.

They do still believe there is such a thing as the angelic child, so we can  be confident they’ll continue on their kidnapping exploits, forever thwarted by lack of perfection.

RESONANCE

Unfortunately, when I see two older ladies out on a drive I sometimes think of Ernestine and Kit. More deeply, this is a story about how the realities of parenthood don’t match the idealised version of it. If we didn’t have these idealised visions of children the species would probably die out.

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Slap Happy Larry Stories

I put this analysis into practice when writing my own short stories.