The Adventures Of Beekle by Dan Santat Analysis

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. 

FURTHER READING

Using Beekle to teach philosophy in the classroom (metaphysics)

A classic middle-grade tale of magic and friendship, about a girl who helps an old friend find home, by two New York Times–bestselling authors Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead.

It’s been five years since Livy and her family have visited Livy’s grandmother in Australia. Now that she’s back, Livy has the feeling she’s forgotten something really, really important about Gran’s house.

It turns out she’s right.

Bob, a short, greenish creature dressed in a chicken suit (who may or may not be imaginary), didn’t forget Livy, or her promise. He’s been waiting five years for her to come back, hiding in a closet like she told him to. He can’t remember who—or what—he is, where he came from, or if he even has a family. But five years ago Livy promised she would help him find his way back home. Now it’s time to keep that promise.

Clue by clue, Livy and Bob will unravel the mystery of where Bob comes from, and discover the kind of magic that lasts forever.

Lemon girl young adult novella

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Who’s-Dead McCarthy by Kevin Barry Analysis

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.

Lemon girl young adult novella

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Header photo by Yomex Owo

Ernestine and Kit by Kevin Barry Analysis

“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.

Lemon girl young adult novella

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Beer Trip To Llandudno by Kevin Barry Analysis

“Beer Trip To Llandudno” is the mythic journey of a group of middle-aged men, ostensibly on an ale-tasting expedition, metaphorically on a life journey towards death. This short story is included in Barry’s Dark Lies The Island collection (2012).

Kevin Barry won The Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award 2012 for this particular story and I’m feeling pleased with myself because I immediately spotted the genius in this one, without knowing about the award.

Here’s Kevin Barry interviewed soon after learning he’d won it.

(It’s interesting to hear Barry say that he writes 10-12 short stories a year but only one or two of those will be good enough for publication. Therefore, one collection every five years is about the right pace for a short story writer.)

Like a number of Alice Munro stories, “Beer Trip To Llandudno” involves a plot in which two characters meet after a long absence. It is a surprise to find the other has aged. There’s nothing more confronting as a reminder that you, yourself, have aged equally (or worse).

DEATH AND LITERATURE AND LIFE

A lot of stories are about death when you really drill down. (All of them?) In young adult literature, the arc is often the main character realising (psychically as well as intellectually) that they are going to die one day. Roberta Seelinger Trites has written about that, especially in relation to Heidegger’s concept of Being-toward-death.

When a story’s main characters are in their forties, they often experience a second Being-toward-death realisation. I’m in my forties myself, so I see how it happens. I lost my first friend to health reasons at the age of 40. And I was saying to a same-aged bloke the other day, things start breaking down when you’re 40. He agreed: “I’ve never been to the doctor so much I have in the past two years.” I ran this idea past my own doctor. She said, “Yes, 40 is a defining age.”

And one of the last things my 40-year-old friend posted to Facebook before he died was a meme that went something like, “Welcome to your forties. If you’ve been lucky to make it this far without anything wrong with you, just wait. You’re about to get something.” Matt died a year ago today as I write this.

I’ve so far been lucky in the health stakes — health is always a temporary state of being — but I wasn’t six months forty when I realised I can’t play tennis anymore without proper warm-ups. Learnt that the hard way. This second Being-toward-death moment reminds us that there’s nothing we can do to stave off death — death is coming for us no matter what. Life also seems to speed up around this time. (I’m told it only gets quicker.)

What would Heidegger call the middle-aged equivalent of Being-toward-death? The characters in Kevin Barry’s “Beer Trip To Llandudno” are overweight, heavy drinkers, strangers to exercise. All of that is right there on the page. By the end of the story the narrator realises he’s no longer youthful. Perhaps Heidegger would call this life stage ‘Being-significantly-closer-toward-death’, or the German equivalent thereof.

Psychologists speak of Death Anxiety. This is very different from the young adult realisation that death will come for you (eventually) because life’s possibilities have yet closed off to you. Perhaps this is that.

SETTING OF “BEER TRIP TO LLANDUDNO”

SEASON

It’s summer. The temperature doesn’t seem outlandish compared to where I live here in Australia, but it’s easy to forget that the late 30s with humidity is pretty unbearable, especially when the buildings have been built for warmth rather than for cooling.

Seasons are highly symbolic in storytelling — sometimes ironically so. Summer, in its non-ironic meaning, symbolises youth, health, vitality, the ‘best times’, where fun memories are made. These guys are out together hoping to non-ironically create their own summery excursion, making new memories, behaving like lads.

But the summer symbolism is ironic in this one. The heat is not fun but oppressive now. In contrast to the oiled limbs of the young women they see on their travels, the heat only makes their arses ‘manky’. They take off their shirts and reveal their overweight, middle-aged, beer-swilling bodies — throughout the story they are described as pigs.

On the pig theme, they stop in at some pub to rate some famously good pork scratchings. What became of those particular pigs? Pays not to think about it, but the imagery of death is right there in the (gallows) humour, and in the motif of the pig.

GEOGRAPHY
The route if taken by car
  • Lime Street (Liverpool)
  • Rhyl (mentioned)
  • The Toxteth estates (skirted by the train)
  • Aigburth station — ‘offered a clutch of young girls in their summer skimpies’
  • Birkenhead — ‘shimmered across the water. Which wasn’t like Birkenhead.’
  • Cheshire — ‘We had dark feelings about Cheshire that summer. At the North West Beer Festival, in the spring, the Cheshire crew had come over a shade cocky. Just because they were chocka with half-beam pubs in pretty villages.’
  • The Marston’s
  • Flint Castle — where Bolingbroke was backed into a corner
  • Abergele — the men run out of beer
  • Colwyn Bay
  • Rhos-on-Sea
  • the Penrhyn sands
  • Little Ormes Head
  • Llandudno (North Wales)
  • The Heron Inn — an anticlimax, ‘a nice house, lately refurbished, but mostly keg rubbish on the taps
  • The beach — they walk past it, thronging with youth
  • Prom View Hotel — by now it is ‘dogs-dying-in-parked-cars weather’. This is where Mo meets his old flame.
  • The Mangy Otter — with the good pork scratchings. The carpet has diamonds and crisps ground into it. The men decide to linger here. Big John remembers a beer from when he was sixteen years of age. This pub symbolises middle age — you start to look back on your youth and you’re afraid to go on further, for example to a pub with Crippled in the name…
  • The Crippled Ox on Burton Square — ‘TV news shows sardine beaches and motorway chaos. There was an internet machine on the wall.’ (What era is this? Before smart phones, I take it — early 2000s?) They talk about how Mo has let himself go. The narrator recalls a ‘screaming barney with the missus’. Billy says they won’t be suffering from the heat much longer as there’s a change due. Thinking of hot nights, the narrator says he’s inclined to get up and watch astrophysics documentaries on BBC2 — this is him getting older and being able to take in the larger view. Mo turns up with scratch marks down his cheek.
  • Henderson’s on Old Parade — the men originally plan to head here but change their minds after Mo’s reappearance.
  • The train back home — Mo talks about how they ‘turn around’ and the girl is 43.
  • Flint Station
  • Connah’s Quay — Tom N notices new buildings since last time he passed through here. We learn that Tom N has been put on the sex offender’s register.
  • Out Speke way — terrace rows with cookouts on the patios. ‘Tiny pockets of glassy laughter’ heard ‘through the open windows of the carriage. Families and what-have-you.’
  • Liverpool — ‘you’re not back in the place five minutes and you go sentimental as a famine ship.’
  • The Lion Tavern
  • Rigby’s
  • the Grapes (of Wrath)
By Rail To Wales - British Railways Travel Poster illustration by Frank Wootton
By Rail To Wales – British Railways Travel Poster illustration by Frank Wootton

CHARACTERS IN “BEER TRIP TO LLANDUDNO”

COMEDY

The comedy of “Beer Trip to Llandudno” derives from the futility of the mission juxtaposed with the seriousness of the characters. A similar comedic set-up can be seen in the TV series Detectorists, in which the outsider (the audience) is encouraged to laugh at characters who take metal-detecting so seriously that in-group factions develop. In “Beer Trip To Llandudno” who cares what these men think about the beer and how the rating system is set up? They do, is all.

Stories about in-groups with shared hobbies have a few things in common:

  • The main characters care A LOT about their passion
  • The passions are esoteric. (I’m put in mind of The Dull Men’s Club).
  • These stories tend to star men who will never be alpha males, so they get together to be the alphas of their own, separate worlds.
  • Everyone else in the setting cares not a jot.
  • A few of the opponents are actively dismissive. Often those dismissive characters will be women and girls. (In Detectorists, one of the characters observes that women seem to be immune to obsessions. I disagree, but that does describe the stereotype expressed across the oeuvre of these stories.)
  • The male main characters are often blatantly sexist. They can’t be alpha men, but at least they’re not women. Asexual archetypes are also pretty common.
  • It’s true that most comedies involve an element of ‘niche passion’. The characters in The I.T. Crowd, for instance, have highly specialised knowledge of computers. Joey from Friends has a thing about sandwiches. Kramer from Seinfeld seems to have developed a new obsession every episode (soup, fruit, etc.).
  • The main characters of these stories must know a lot about their subject matter, which means a tonne of research by the writer. These characters often know little about anything else, and lead chaotic lives.
  • On screen the roles will be played by ‘character actors’ (or the literary equivalent). No leading men here. They have little social capital outside their own limited subculture.
  • If they lose their subculture of friends they are left with very little. Remaining part of the gang is everything. Exclusion is a type of death. (That happens in this story.)
  • Within the subculture there will be constant jostling for hierarchy. This serves to show the audience that the human wish for power and social capital is a part of the human condition, and happens at every level. These stories remind us that whatever power big struggle we are involved in, it looks ridiculous to anyone with a wider, birds’ eye view. Such comedies lend themselves well to dark commentary on death, because the audience asks, What am I doing with my life? Are my daily interpersonal big struggles life and death matters?
FAMILIAL RELATIONSHIPS

As mentioned in the interview above, others have pointed out that each of the men fulfils a role within the ‘family’ of friends. ‘We were family to Mo when he was up at the Royal…’

The Members Of Real Ale Club, Merseyside Branch

One thing that connects them is that they don’t approve of lagers, or of anyone who drinks them.

Narrator

Well-prepared and knows what’s what with his Illustrated Guide to Britain’s Coast

Mo

The child, asking questions about the route (rather than looking it up himself); interested in the roller coasters and water skiing. Down a testicle since spring (emasculating him)

Tom Neresford

Stomach troubles. Has never been far.  Has been put on the sex offenders’ register. (I’m inclined to think this was for a good reason, unlike the interpretation of his mates, who prefer to think of it as a miscarriage of justice.)

Everett Bell

‘wasn’t inclined to take the happy view of things’. Knows a lot e.g. about history and Shakespeare. “My brother got the house, my sister got the money, I got the manic depression.” ‘Half mad’

Billy Stroud

‘the ex-Marxist’, ‘involved with his timetables’, has an earpiece in, listening for the news and the weather. He is the organiser, and therefore I take it he’s the ‘mother’ of the group. Cemented when he says that cold stuff makes you hotter overall because it makes the body work harder — he seems to be the one organising the food as well as any logistics. However, he is also described as ‘innocent’. Perhaps he is one of the children?

John Mosely / Big John

‘if there was a dad figure among us it was Big John with his know it all interruptions’. Decides when it’s time for the group to move on. Jobless for the past 18 months.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “BEER TRIP TO LLANDUDNO”

“Beer Trip To Llandudno” is your classic mythic journey. In story, train trips are often symbolic of the one-way ticket through life. Typical of a road trip journey, the characters in “Beer Trip To Llandudno” (chosen family) jockey for position with their own minor conflicts, but meet true opponents along the way. By the end of the story the main character will have come to some realisation, and home will never be the same again. In this case, our ‘main character’ is the first person narrator.

PARATEXT

My wife and I were living in Liverpool at the time and the heating in our flat was really terrible. So we had no option but to go to a pub across the road called The Lion Tavern of an evening—just to keep warm, you understand. It was a real ale pub and the local branch of CAMRA [the Campaign for Real Ale] was often in there. And one night I went up to the bar and there was a newsletter about recent outings by this group of ale enthusiasts and I just thought, “Fucking gift,” you know? A beer club’s outing gives the perfect shape for a story.

Interview with Kevin Barry at The Paris Review

SHORTCOMING

The narrator is on a ‘fun’ trip but doesn’t yet realise he’s too old to really enjoy it. The heat is going to really get to him. He’s going to be maudlin, and not just because of the beer.

DESIRE

He wants to have a good time like a young man out with the lads. He wants to remind himself that he is young and full of life.

OPPONENT

The companions are allies for the main part, but there’s niche in-fighting regarding his dual roles on the committee.

The main opposition comes from the people they meet who remind the men that they are no longer young.

Mo’s old-flame Barbara is the stand-out opposition, therefore, because she has aged. ‘A lively blonde, familiar with her forties but nicely preserved, bounced through from reception.’ Notice how the men notice her age. The narrator says ‘but’ instead of ‘and’ in that sentence. It’s easy to see how a woman has aged; not so easy to turn the mirror back on yourself if you’re a man. (When asked, women tend to say we begin to feel old at age 29; for men it is 58.)

The young women also remind these men that they are old. They admire the girls’ bodies knowing they can’t have them. (Although perhaps one of them hasn’t realised that — which might explain why he’s on the sex offender’s list.)

PLAN

The men have planned a journey through Welsh pubs. Their task is to rate beer and snacks.

BIG STRUGGLE

The running argument (comedic for its triviality) is that the narrator should not be holding two positions in Ale Club, outings and publications. Finally he steps down from writing the newsletter. We know this is the main Battle scene because it directly precedes his Anagnorisis. He has lost the big struggle to keep both roles and ends up getting rid of them both.

ANAGNORISIS

First I want to talk about Kevin Barry’s preferred narration in relation to the Anagnorisiss experienced by his storyteller narrators.

The first person voices in a Kevin Barry story are so realistic I have to remind myself it’s not the author narrating — it’s an invented character. Generally, these narrators are able to step back and view their own intradiegetic selves as comedic characters, along with the rest of the crew. This particular narrator fits that description. How is he able to step outside himself? Because he’s gained enough perspective over the course of this particular story that he is able to see himself as a flawed individual.

Sometimes one of the more difficult decisions when writing our own short stories is choosing the style of narration. First person? Third person (close)? Third person (distant)? If, like Kevin Barry, you want your main character to have stepped back and seen the comedic, human side of themselves by the end of the story, this first person narration works well.

Of course, this particular Anagnorisis is all connected to the realisation that he’s not young anymore, but I went into that up top.

What does the narrator do, which tells us, the reader, he has achieved that particular realisation? Well, he steps down from his role as newsletter writer. He can’t face writing any more obituaries.

In short, the narrator has developed Existential Death Anxiety over the course of one day out with the ‘boys’. In order to reach this point, it is said you need the following three things, and since the brain is still developing until about age 25-30, these milestones generally only come with middle age:

  • a full awareness of the distinction between self and others
  • a full sense of personal identity
  • the ability to anticipate the future

NEW SITUATION

By stepping down as the writer of obituaries, sometimes of very young men (around the same age as these characters), the narrator is turning away from death. And for now, that is how he will cope with it.

This is the difference between the 40s and the 80s — not many octogenarians are able to turn away from their own impending deaths — they’ll have lost too many peers. Their own health has deteriorated and they feel it keenly. A story about 80 year olds would feel quite different from this one.

Lemon girl young adult novella

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Header photo by Louis Hansel

The Love Of A Good Woman by Alice Munro Short Story Analysis

The Love Of A Good Woman” by Alice Munro is the title story in the collection which won the Nobel Prize in Literature, 2013. It’s a long short story — about 70 pages. We might even call it a novella, though let’s just go with this:

The title story of Alice Munro’s collection, The Love of a Good Woman, provides an illustrative “example of the difference between novelistic elaboration and short story mystery and intensity.”

from the introduction to The Art of Brevity edited by Per Winther, quoting Charles May

Here’s my best description of “The Love Of A Good Woman”: a literary Stand By Me, in which we never find out what happens, because the mystery is not the point.

  • Both film and short story are set in the 1950s (Munro’s story in 1951; Stand By Me in 1959).
  • Both feature a plot in which boys out on a day trip adventure aim to gain respect by (or after) finding a dead body.
  • Both are set in a fictional small town where everyone knows everyone.
  • Even in Stand By Me, the story is really about relationships rather than the dead body.
  • Stand By Me is based on a Stephen King short story (called “The Body”). Both short stories feature dream sequences.
Continue reading “The Love Of A Good Woman by Alice Munro Short Story Analysis”

A Country Where You Once Lived by Robin Black Analysis

Thomas J. Banks - A Country House, in an Extensive Landscape

“A Country Where You Once Lived” by Robin Black (2010) is a great example of a short story in which the present story plays out alongside the backstory of a stand-out inflection point (“fulcrum”) which happened 13 years earlier. Two separate time periods merge into one. Whenever this happens in a story we are reminded that no single moment in time stands in isolation — the present is inevitably affected by the past.

The symbolism of trains, and their connection to the irreversible march of time, and the unforgiving nature of bad moral decisions, is fully mined in “A Country Where You Once Lived”.

RE-VISIONED CLASSIC TALE

Robin Black’s short story is also a great mentor text if you’re creating a narrative with very loose links to a classic tale, in this case  the legend of The Pied Piper of Hamelin.

  • The main character is symbolically named Jeremy Piper. When an author does this a decision must be made: To point it out in the text or let it be? Ironically, failing to point it out can make it seem trite. Here, Black is sure to point it out: Jeremy imagines the papers having fun with his name were he wrongly convicted of killing his own daughter: Tried Piper Lured Own Daughter.
  • There are children in the story (foetuses) which disappear mysteriously (a series of miscarriages). Zoe, Piper’s daughter, also disappears mysteriously in the backstory.
  • Jeremy’s subsequent estrangement with his daughter is its own kind of child loss, which juxtaposes nicely with the present loss of unborn, unseen children.
  • Jeremy is a scientist by profession. Though rats are not mentioned — they are referred to as ‘animals’ I deduce he performs his mushroom experiments on rats. (Mushrooms are themselves very ‘fairytale’.)
  • Like the Pied Piper, Jeremy is very good at what he does, well-known (within his field).
  • The man Jeremy imagines has abducted his daughter and done vile things is eventually proven to have not existed. There was certainly no Pied Piper Man if children disappeared from the town of Hamelin in the Middle Ages. The man is the representation of whatever it was — plague, crusade, whatever.
  • When Zoe comes home she has transmogrified, as if ‘she has been drained of some essential human moisture’. (She has turned into a kind of rat.)

So while various disparate elements are taken from The Pied Piper legend, it’s as if they’ve been scattered on the table like pick-up-stix and reordered into something completely new.  However, the palimpsest of the legend is still there, and the two stories are thematically linked — both are about the loss of children (and grandchildren).

THE AUTHOR READS

Below, Robin Black reads about the first third of “A Country Where You Once Lived”. First she explains that the publisher felt strongly that the collection should open with “The Guide”, which happens to be the only story with a man as main character. Robin Black felt strongly that it was strange to open with the story about the man when all her other stories were about women, so to offset this unease she did something a little perplexing to me… she wrote another story about a man! “A Country Where You Once Lived” is the only story written ‘for the book’.  The publishers were happy to wait for it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wt_ig6q-vyY

STORY STRUCTURE OF “A COUNTRY WHERE YOU ONCE LIVED”

SHORTCOMING

Jeremy didn’t cope very well psychologically when his daughter ran away thirteen years ago. (I’m sure the number thirteen would’ve been chosen because of its association with bad luck.) The third person narrator of this story gives no indication that he is reflective to the point where he can see his own part in why she ran away — he has ripped her away from her friends at a time in her life when friends mean everything to her.

His response? To move back to America without his wife and daughter and to start again with a younger woman. His shortcoming is that he still needs some kind of connection with his original wife and daughter.

The reason he finally visits his daughter is to avoid disappointing his new girlfriend, who is probably worried about their fractured relationship for what it might say about him.

DESIRE

Jeremy is in England to meet his daughter’s fiancee. That’s his conscious desire. As part of that, he is hoping to reestablish some intimacy with his daughter. Later, we are told by the narrator that he has come for some forgiveness. The gradual revelation of his desires is designed to match his own gradual realisation regarding what his exact motivation even is.

OPPONENT

Zoe is no longer really an opponent — she has matured to the point where a reconnection looks likely.

Jeremy’s opposition mainly comes in the form of his first wife, Zoe’s mother, who is present in Zoe’s life to the point where there’s not really room for Jeremy — or rather, the degree of her caring and emotional labour makes his absence all the more glaring.

PLAN

Jeremy’s plan is simply to arrive at her house in the country and stay for a while.

Robin Black makes use of a ‘real world fantasy portal’ to signal that Jeremy is now entering a foreign world — not foreign because it’s fantasy but foreign to him because his family is no longer his family:

On either side, anywhere Jeremy looks, vast fields stretch, acres and acres of fields blanketing gentle hills. There are at least three barns in sight and a large half-timbered house right ahead. It is as though they’ve gone through one of those magical gates in children’s stories, into a universe that couldn’t possibly fit into the space concealing it.

BIG STRUGGLE

Unfortunately, his first night coincides with another of Zoe’s miscarriages. She is whisked away.

But the battle scene takes place on the train between Jeremy and his first wife, Cathleen, who is concealing something. She is also unmasked in the very same scene — she is heading back to see Zoe, and the pair of them don’t want Jeremy there, though didn’t want to say.

ANAGNORISIS

This unmasking forms the basis of Jeremy’s self revelation — that he is now peripheral to his first wife and daughter, and this is the way it will remain. He has no choice but to return to America and form a new life with his new partner.

But he isn’t sad about this. Given the sad nature of the story, his (ironic) Anagnorisis is that he’s actually pretty happy to be moving on.

NEW SITUATION

By re-partnering with the much younger woman and living across the Atlantic from Zoe and Cathleen, Jeremy has given away his opportunity to be part of a multi-generational family in later life. Even if he does start a new family with his 32-year-old girlfriend, he’ll not live long enough to see the children of his younger children.

In the same way, the people of Hamelin lost an entire generation of children. For them it was the end of their society, but Jeremy can still eke out a nice life for himself if he can mentally move on.

Lemon girl young adult novella

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Header image Thomas J. Banks – A Country House, in an Extensive Landscape

Pine a Short Story by Robin Black Analysis

“Pine” is a short story from a collection called If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This published 2010, written by Robin Black. This is a wonderful example of a contemporary story loosely based on an old fairytale—this time it’s Bluebeard.

“Pine” is also an excellent example of a story which centres a homophone in which several of its meanings have been extracted for narrative purposes: Pine as in wood and pine as in longing. This serves to unify the story. Importantly, Heidi’s kitchen is NOT made of pine. This would be perhaps too trite and convenient. The narrator thinks the kitchen SHOULD have a pine floor rather than a hard marble one.

Look out for how Robin Black uses the symbol of the beach chair in winter to show that the main character is out of sync with other people’s perception of time.

NARRATION IN “PINE”

“Pine” is written with first person narration. The opening scene describes a kitchen — the kitchen of a woman named Heidi, whose stand-out feature is that she is missing one leg.

THE BLUEBEARD CONNECTION

What is the story function of Heidi? Why does this first section and this character exist?

First, this is the author establishing a pattern: Our main character is an outsider in general, not just with her friend/boyfriend.

Second, the artificial leg is highly symbolic. Our main character feels she has lost a part of herself when she lost her husband. Heidi serves as a contrast character but in a way that’s physically apparent — some people get the emotional equivalent of an artificial limb after bereavement, which means they’re never quite the same but are able to function nonetheless. In contrast, others never manage to get to that point, forever stuck in utter despair because you feel incomplete.

“Did I tell you this is her fourth leg? Her fifth, actually, if you count the first. The original limb.” I reach across and pour us both more wine. “Do you suppose she keeps them all? Do you suppose she has them locked up somewhere? Like Bluebeard’s wives?

Pine, by Robin Black

In the Bluebeard fairytales, a broken man murders a succession of wives. This is a sort of modern, gender-flipped version in which a bereft wife symbolically ‘murders’ her own chance at happiness with (not coincidentally) five people in this story: The three women in the kitchen, who she might otherwise have become friends with, and with Kevin, her friend/boyfriend.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “PINE”

SHORTCOMING

Like the first person narrator, the reader is a visitor in Heidi’s kitchen. Like the narrator we, too, feel left out of the discussion between woman friends who obviously have a long backstory and know each other well. This is a relatable situation — we’ve all been the newcomer at some point. It’s an uncomfortable feeling.

This is the narrator’s initial Shortcoming. Drill one layer deeper — her One Great Shortcoming — the shortcoming that is ruining her life is that she is failing to achieve new and meaningful human connections since her husband died.

Extrapolating from that: The reason she doesn’t want to get close to anyone is because people just up and die on you. Why risk your feelings like that?

The following song was written by an artist whose own mother lost her husband at a young age to an aneurysm in his sleep. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqj8_RdLoJE

(Supposed) Moral Shortcoming: Running hot and cold with the friend/boyfriend while failing to either open herself fully to the idea of a relationship or be clear that it’s never going to happen.

Of course, no one ever owes anyone else a relationship, even if sex has been had. There is another thread to this story which is ripe for discussion. “Pine” is not necessarily a tragedy simply because a woman didn’t get together with a man. Perhaps he just isn’t the right one? Perhaps they were important to each other for a short time, and that time had its upper limit.

This is therefore a story about the Erotics of (Emotional) Abstinence and reminds us that life is short, and that life comprises a series of episodes which have distinct endings, each ending serving to prepare us for our own death.

The following passage reminds me of a technique utilised also by Alice Munro — the inclusion of young women and older women. The reader is encouraged to consider these differently aged characters as one person, only at different stages of her life. An older woman looks at a younger one and sees her younger self gone; alternatively she may look at an older woman and see herself in three decades’ time:

…they call my daughter Ally one day and then Lyssa the next, as though she were their property, to name and claim. As though she no longer belongs to me and only I have not figured that out. Deceptively clothed in bell-bottoms and horizontal stripes, outfits reinvented from my own youth, they are the trumpeters of my daughter’s departure, the harbingers of yet another loss. They are the clock ticking forward with no concern for me.

“Pine” by Robin Black

It’s all to do with creating that sense that time comes for us all and there’s no going back.

Tragically, we never know exactly when those inflection points are going to be, because sometimes, other people end things for us.

DESIRE

Perhaps the narrator wants human connection, but she is sabotaging this wish with her actions. Instead she settles for a mimicry of human connection — visits to the kitchen of a new acquaintance; occasional sex with the friend who wants to become her boyfriend.

OPPONENT

It’s not a level playing field. My foes do not play fair.

“Pine”, Robin Black

Who are the foes? ‘Death and all of its traveling companions’, we are told in the next sentence. However, any given stories needs human opposition who stand in for these existential enemies.

This is an anti-romance, so her main opponent is the man who wants to be her boyfriend. Though they both want the same thing, he’s emotionally able to have it while she is not. So they will remain forever in opposition.

Heidi is also an opponent in this story, and an excellent example of an ‘opponent’ who does nothing whatsoever to deserve that status. Instead, she is the unwitting enemy in the main character’s own psychological struggles. When the narrator says Heidi should have put down a pine floor rather than a hard one, the narrator is really criticising herself for being so emotionally ‘hard and cold’ (like marble). When the narrator says Heidi is in denial, it is the narrator who is actually in denial. This is clear from the second paragraph: “If it were me”. This is the author telling us that Heidi IS ‘me’.

“I almost envy Heidi,” our narrator says, after Heidi’s husband puts her hand on Heidi’s artificial knee, and when it’s clear that Heidi can somehow feel that gesture. In stories about two women, the women often envy each other, craving in another woman what she doesn’t have herself.

PLAN

Keep people at bay. Don’t get too close. Do the bare minimum to ward off utter loneliness.

We have a passive character here, so it’s up to the opponent to create the conflict. This argument they have isn’t exactly planned — rather, the boyfriend seems to snap, and says things he’s been thinking for a while.

BIG STRUGGLE

Sure enough, the boyfriend confronts her at her daughter’s sports match — a symbolic place to have a Battle scene.

ANAGNORISIS

The Opponent is the one who has the Anagnorisis. He realises our main character is not open to a relationship with him, ever. https://youtu.be/rg-3a6Hy-yc

The concept of Main Character is a little problematic in stories like these because normally the very definition of Main Character is ‘the one who changes the most’ ie. the one who has the Anagnorisis. Technically, you could argue the boyfriend is the main character, except we don’t see the setting through his eyes in this particular narrative. Even the title is named after a feeling of Kevin’s:

“I’ll bet he’s secretly pining over you,” [Alyssa] says

NEW SITUATION

This is a rare example of a story in which the main character starts with Slavery, has a chance at Freedom but because of a failure to have any sort of Anagnorisis, returns instead to Slavery.

Another example of this kind of story is The Wrestler, starring Mickey Rourke. Likewise in that story, the love interest is the one who has the Anagnorisis — Randy’s girlfriend moves on without him.

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Comedy Techniques In “This Country”

This Country is a fly-on-the-wall mockumentary sitcom with two series so far (2017-2018). The story centers the misadventures of two cousins marooned in a small village in the Cotswolds. Most of their peers have moved on. Kerry and Kurtan are stuck in adolescence. They behave like typical Year 10s, despite being in their late 20s, early 30s.

Critics have said that the strength of this show is the ‘winning mix of heartfelt moments and punchy belly laughs’.

STYLE OF NARRATION

Mockumentary sitcoms are having a moment. The Office is perhaps what kicked it all off. (Charlie Cooper bears an uncanny resemblance to the character of Gareth Keenan.) Of course mockumentaries wouldn’t work unless TV were full of reality TV shows, which is actually what they’re mocking — not actual documentaries. Another favourite of mine is Wellington Paranormal from New Zealand.

Daisy and Charlie didn’t originally write This Country as a mockumentary — producers saw that it was suited to this format and made it a requirement.

How did the producers know? How were they so sure? I can only guess, but if done well, the mockumentary mocks not only the characters but also the audience. There are many pitfalls for documentary makers, namely:

  • They sometimes forget about the larger world in which their project falls.
  • Documentary filmmaking is often extractive, and offers nothing good back to its subjects.

The mockumentary is also relatively cheap to make, and This Country was made on such a limited budget that the a large proportion of the pilot had to be filmed in a single room with just two people.

THE URBAN/RURAL DIVIDE

The danger of setting a mockumentary in a rural area: Storytellers sometimes position their own commentary as superior.

It helps that This Country is very much an #ownvoices story — real life siblings Daisy May Cooper and Charlie Cooper created it, wrote it and also star in it. They come from the Cotswolds themselves; their friends and family appear as actors. Unlike, say, New Zealand’s comedy character Lyn of Tawa, Daisy and Charlie really do speak with the accents used by their fictional characters, the Mucklowe cousins.

Here is the Lyn of Tawa character speaking in a broad New Zealand accent:

But Ginette McDonald actually speaks like this. (The video requires you watch it on YouTube.)

If you’re a fellow New Zealander those two accents will sound quite distinct, though I’m not sure non-Kiwis will hear the difference. Ginette McDonald was playing the house-o character of Lyn of Tawa back in the 1980s, though I doubt her routine would be so well received now. It carries a whiff of classism.

In contrast, the Coopers grew up in precisely the socio-economic environment they recreated for This Country, and have said as much in interviews. I’m sure it’s part of the humble marketing spiel, but they say their characters are basically themselves. (Jemaine Clement has the same public persona, suggesting that he never acts, simply appears.)

Another way in which This Country avoids patronising small towns: The narration that appears as words on the screen at various points in the show will be obviously distancing e.g., ‘Studies show that young people in rural areas…’

Here is the opening scene:

These ‘facts’ (stereotypes) are all familiar to the audience — we’ve all seen the media reports on crime, lack of opportunity and obesity in rural areas. These authorial intrusions into the story of Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe achieve the effect of poking fun at urban people who think we know all about rural life, but who glean the sum total of information second-hand, filtered by the unreliable media.

Poking fun both ways is quite a feat, given that the creations of Kerry and Kurtan exemplify these stereotypes exactly. Perhaps it depends partly on the audience to know that the lampoon goes both ways. (This is of course the danger of expecting a lot from your audience — an audience is equally capable of taking these stereotypes and running with them.)

CHARACTER WEB OF THIS COUNTRY

THE FECKLESS, NAIVE MAIN CHARACTER

Kerry Mucklowe, late twenties or early thirties. Thicc, loves her food.

She’s different from other female comedy characters – the focus is not on femininity. This is someone who is asexual, tomboyish, and the biggest unrequited love story is her relationship with her dad. She’s got nobody, and her life is a lot sadder than Kurtan’s. […] She’s so lost and is such a plodder, [Kurtan] feels a duty to look after her.

Daisy May Cooper

The main characters of comedies are often feckless as their stand-out attribute. You wouldn’t trust them with anything. They’re victims of their own whims and can’t seem to control their baser instincts. While everyone else can see they exist near the bottom of the local social hierarchy, they will step on the few who exist below them — elderly and disabled people tend to cop their wrath the most. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EcQtilmZeU4

Kerry is very naive and insular. It would seem she’s never left her tiny Cotswold village. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=piXcsnA5cJ0

She is at times very stupid, but this is lovable because she doesn’t take herself seriously. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bISOmcPa0MA

This is in contrast to her cousin Kurtan, who has delusions of grandeur. She does have her own comedic mask, but it’s not about seeming smart — she attempts to seem dangerous. (By the end of the pilot episode this mask has already come off and she is revealed to be hapless and ignored rather than actually dangerous.)

Kerry’s character includes some gross-out comedy, with her mother accusing Kerry on camera of failing to wipe her bum properly.

Other Examples OF FECKLESS COMEDIC CHARACTERS
  • Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean lives outside the social hierarchy — that’s how different he is. But he also has a mean streak.
  • Seinfeld’s George Kostanza is a wonderful example, but also Elaine and Jerry at times. George is the closest match to Kerry — he seems wily, but remember he also lives at home with his parents and is mostly unemployed, except for short-lived duplicitous schemes.

THE PETTY-POWER HUNGRY MAIN CHARACTER

Kurtan Mucklowe, around the same age as Kerry. He is skinny to the point where it’s useful for (he often takes his shirt off in comedic fashion).

While Kerry and Kurtan are similar in many ways, the writers have done a great job of making them distinct nonetheless. Kurtan is obsessive, turns into a megalomaniac when he gets a taste of power, fancies himself a bit of a fashion horse and is pretty scathing about old people and those he considers beneath him. On the other hand, he demonstrates great kindness and empathy at times, especially towards his cousin Kerry, buying her a soda stream on her birthday and saying it’s from her dad.

  • Not an obvious connection perhaps, but Kurtan is similar to Hyacinth Bucket in some ways. Both are very good at physical comedy (Kurtan because of his skinniness, Hyacinth because she is the Fat Athlete Woman trope, similar to Mrs Henscher in ParaNorman and The Trunchbull in Roald Dahl’s Matilda — a woman who takes up ‘too much’ physical space and is stronger than her middle-aged woman status would have us assume. Both Kurtan and Hyacinth are power hungry, fixating in smalltown/suburban events as opportunities to exert their power and influence.

THE NICE CHARACTER WHOSE NICENESS IS TAKEN ADVANTAGE OF AND WHO EVENTUALLY REVEALS VERY HUMAN FRAILTY

Reverend Francis Seaton — the local vicar and erstwhile 80s popstar

When Kerry injures her leg at a sports event set up by the Reverend, the Reverend faces a moral dilemma. He eventually asks Kerry to lie, and say that she did not injure herself while playing sports. He has failed to get insurance.

When he fails to find a parking spot at the medical centre, parks illegally and gets booked, Kerry and Kurtan (by now our own viewpoint characters) watch him lose his shit.

The Mask is a vital component of any comedy (or thriller, in fact). Great comedy comes from that moment when a character’s true self is revealed. In this case, the Overly Nice is revealed to be nothing more than a mask which functions as a means to an end. The inevitable message is this: We are all equally human, though some hide it better. The other message is this: our feckless main characters may be terrible, but at least what you see is what you get.

TV Tropes calls this Beware The Nice Ones.

Feckless main characters with very obvious moral shortcomings do require a nice character to counterbalance their terribleness.

THE SCARY NEIGHBOURHOOD MONSTER

Mandy Harris — aspiring tattoo artist, bodyguard, erstwhile stalker and S Club 7 fan (she stalked one of the members). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFh_IhFNKFM

These scary characters will have over-the-top attributes — even more so than the main characters. But they wear their Shortcomings like Soul Toupees.

In the skit above, Mandy is revealed to be a trickster (of the prankster variety). She is volatile, a bully, and a loner desperate for human connection. She probably thinks Kurtan and Kerry are her best friends, though Kurtan and Kerry are revealed to be scared of her. If anything, Kerry models herself on Mandy — at least, the scary part. Mandy also exists to reveal the strong, take-no-shit mask worn by Kurtan, who crumbles in Mandy’s presence.

It’s important that the scary comedic character share some characteristics with the main characters. Mandy shares certain attributes with Kurtan and Kerry — she is basically childlike. This is revealed when she demonstrates an enthusiasm for collecting fluffy Meercat figurines.

But Mandy also has superpowers like a horror movie monster. This is introduced when we first meet her. She has superhuman levels of hearing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kcoDWApChLA

TV Tropes calls this trope the Brawn Hilda.

THE PEER OUTCAST OPPONENT

Slugs — breathes through his mouth, laconic, vacant.

Sadly, the actor who played Sluggs died earlier this year. Like the fictional character he played, Michael Sleggs had a terminal illness. He was a friend of the Coopers.

The Peer Outcast Opponent is a character who might easily be part of ‘the gang’ but due to some complicated backstory the main characters of the story can’t stand them. As a result, there will be a long-running, petty feud which never resolves. The audience is kept at a distance to allow insight into this fact: There is really no ethical/moral hierarchy between these tribes — they fight precisely because they are so similar.

Here’s the important thing about writing peer outcast opponents: Whether they get there via sheer dumb luck or by hook and crook, these characters often achieve the upper hand over our main characters who despise them.

Other Examples oF OUTCAST OPPONENTS
  • Seinfeld’s Newman. Unlike Sluggs, Newman presents as a wily trickster. Sluggs is a hapless one.
  • In Freaks and Geeks there is a bully who is revealed to secretly wish he was part of their nerdy gang.

THE OFF-SCREEN CHARACTER

Kerry’s mum, Sue, who only ever shouts from her bedroom upstairs. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcnGNez9udw

Sometimes she reveals a little about herself e.g. “You can [come in] but I haven’t got a stitch on”. She is constantly asking Kerry to do things like get rid of the mushrooms growing out of the cups in her bedroom, but we do know she comes down from the bedroom to perform basic parenting tasks because she makes dinners for Kerry and leaves them in the warmer. (We never see this, though.) The comedy comes mainly from Kerry and her mother yelling at each other from different parts of the house and failing to understand each other.

This off-screen character can have any function at all, but they are linked by virtue of the fact that you never see them. You only ever hear them or hear about them.

There is also a logistical reason why we never see Kerry’s mum — she is voiced by Daisy May Cooper, who is playing her own mother.

TV Tropes calls this The Voice.

Another variant is The Faceless. In common with the Mask, The Faceless trope is utilised in horror as much as in comedy, but to completely different effect. What we can’t see is scary. But the unseen can also be anything we like, including an effigy onto which we paste our own shortcomings. The horror version of this is Norman’s mother in Psycho. (It is often a mother, in both comedy and in horror.)

This trope is related to The Ghost. In horror the ghosts are often actual ghosts.

Other Examples OF OFF-SCREEN CHARACTERS
  • In Keeping Up Appearances, Hyacinth Bucket usually gets a call from their son Sheridan, who we learn, from Hyacinth’s one-sided conversations, is completely different from the son she boasts of to acquaintances. Sheridan is a not very smart, always after money and, in typically homophobic 1990s gags, presents as gay to everyone but his own mother. Technically, Sheridan is an example of The Ghost trope because we never hear his voice, either. Sheridan does eventually put in a brief and wordless appearance dressed in full motorcycle kit. His face remains hidden by his helmet.
  • In Home Improvement we never see the full face of Wilson, his sage next door neighbour. Partly this is funny because neighbours are like that in real life — we see parts of their lives without knowing the full person. Partly it works because of Wilson’s Godlike advice to Tim.
    Wilson’s un-shown lower face became a contractual gag. Originally, he just stood behind a fence on stage. As the show progressed, Wilson was shown out of the house more and set designers went to town finding ways to keep the portion of his face hidden with props. In all these cases, he was never shown, being obscured by at least three props in the scene as he moved around the set. When the cast would take their bows at the end of filming, Earl Hindman would hold a miniature section of fence made of tongue depressors in front of the lower part of his face. There was one time Wilson appeared without any props in front of his face…but it was a Halloween episode and his face was covered in skeleton makeup, to the point where Tim didn’t realize it was him until he’d already walked out of the scene. — TV Tropes
  • Sometimes the off-stage character does eventually make an appearance. In the I.T. Crowd that would be the Goth who haunts the adjacent office. The mystery of the Goth lasted only one episode in that case — he hadn’t been introduced as a long-running gag.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THIS COUNTRY

The Desire line of each episode is often instigated by Kurtan, who has a very handy character trait — he develops a new obsession every week. Sometimes it’s Kerry who wants something badly, like seeing the steam engine exhibition. They share the role of being the instigator of an episode’s desire line. Although Kerry is lazy and unmotivated, she nonetheless finds things to do, whether it’s making an imaginary world at the dump or taking it upon herself to educate her younger half-brothers in fighting. Sometimes it’s the vicar who has a task for them, for instance Tea-Time with seniors.

The Opposition comes from all quarters, but a uniting feature of Kerry and Kurtan’s opponents are that they are revealed to actually want the best for Kerry and Kurtan, and for the village. For instance, the Reverend wants Kurtan to go to Swindon college, which stands in opposition to Kurtan’s desire to stay in the village and protect Kerry. Kurtan is fired by his boss at the bowls club, which makes Kurtan carry out a (failed) revenge plan. The big reveal is that the boss turns up to offer him some new hours. He’s not the big, bad opponent Kurtan had turned him into; Kurtan tends to think the worst of people, misunderstanding intentions, overestimating his own importance in their lives. Even Mandy is all elbows and trousers. (We never actually see her punching the blind man.)

Plans are small, and the characters take these plans way more seriously than any sensible viewer would. I have a soft spot for stories about people who do feck all, who don’t have the resources to achieve their dreams, but who nonetheless seem to make the best of their situation. New Zealand’s Bro Town is similar in that regard — young people walking around making their own mischief and fun with the occasional input of adults.

Small plans with small returns emphasise the smallness of the setting. Winning the scarecrow competition is so important to Kurtan that he cheats, lies and thieves for it. And because these characters are low mimetic heroes (stupid ones) their plans don’t work out. But rather than come up with a new plan they tend to freeze, unable to come up with new ideas. When Kurtan discovers his old boss has changed the code to the bowling club he is unable to leave the bag of pig shit. We see him struggle with this, thinking hard, failing to come up with a replacement revenge. Finally, he toddles back home with the pig shit — the joke is on him.

For this reason (among many) I believe Kurtan and Kerry are fictional examples of neurodiversity.

Battle scenes are often a tantrum, with one character smashing an object then immediately calming down. Picture books are often written like this, too. (The Cat In The Hat gets a significant mention in the special episode after season two.)

The Anagnorisis of a straight (non parody) story is often an optimistic, hopeful commentary on the nature of human kind. (Often but not always, of course.) In This Country, the expected Anagnorisis tends to be subverted. For instance, at the beginning of Season Two, we are told a lot has changed since we last saw them. Kerry is on a do-gooder mission. But she is really being generous for the accolades. When she fails to receive the accolades, she decides that being generous is overrated. You just get taken advantage of. She she’s back to being her ungenerous self by the end of the episode.

Because the Anagnorisiss keep Kerry and Kurtan arrested in their development as adult human beings, the New Situation shows us that the pair haven’t changed at all. That is the entire point. Once a comedic character achieves a character arc for the better, there is no longer series potential. And even when a lesson is learned, the character is unable to transfer that learning point to other, very similar situations.

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Pig the Winner by Aaron Blabey Analysis

Pig The Winner eating kibble

Pig The Winner, written and illustrated by Aaron Blabey, is another picture book in the widely-loved Pig The Pug series. I suspect these will become Australian classics in the same way the Hairy Maclary books became New Zealand classics.

I pick and choose when it comes to Aaron Blabey books. Pig The Fibber, which felt rushed out after the success of Pig the Pug, seemed a voracious grab for publishing dollars. Pig The Star, which I flipped through in the shop, contains a running gag similar to the first Bad Guys book, in which a male character dresses in feminine accoutrements for laughs, but with serious ideological issues bubbling under the surface. I’ve written about this issue elsewhere.

Some might argue that Pig in Pig The Star has been guised specifically as Marilyn Monroe rather than as a generic woman. I don’t buy this as defence for several reasons: The target age group won’t get the reference to Monroe, and being ‘an attention whore’ (I’m using that term deliberately) is not in reality a specifically feminine shortcoming even though the dominant culture codes it as such. And when we code attention-seeking behaviours as specifically feminine, this narrative turns back on women when women attempt to step up into their fair share of limelight. Most sinister of all, women are regularly accused of making up stories for attention after reporting genuine crimes.

However, Pig The Winner is an excellent example of a funny, engaging picture book, probably because it contains no femininity to speak of.

ILLUSTRATIONS IN PIG THE WINNER

There’s a great trick used when illustrating stories about characters who chuck tantrums. Here it’s evident from the cover — Pig the Pug has scribbled over the ‘real’ text and replaced it with his own version of truth. This same technique was used to great effect in Z is for Moose.

What is it about pugs? They are inherently funny to look at. Sausage dogs, ditto. Blabey has picked two of the funniest dog breeds for this series.

There’s a lot of white space in these books, which means only the Chekhov’s guns make it onto the page. For instance, pay attention to when the rubbish bin is introduced. At first I wondered what the bin is doing there. Perhaps it is only meant to illustrate that Pig eats a whole lot of stinking rubbish? But turn the page and you’ll realise the plot reason: The bin is a vital part of the Battle sequence.

STORY STRUCTURE OF PIG THE WINNER

SHORTCOMING

Pig’s shortcoming is spelt out clearly on the opening spread. Each book in the series is an exhibit of another of Pig’s terrible qualities, which are a bottomless pit, it seems.

Pig was a cheat

DESIRE

Pig wants to win everything. This points to a deeper desire — we assume he wants to be admired and to wield power. Pig is the archetypal baddie, but he is a fun baddie, so we love his mischief.

OPPONENT

Trevor is Pig’s longtime opponent. Trevor sometimes wins things, which stands in direct opposition to Pig’s wish to win all the things.

PLAN

Blabey explains Pig’s modus operandi, which is a stand-in for a plan: He ‘throws a pink fit’ whenever he doesn’t win.

Apparently this is a British phrase but also used widely in Australia. Apparently you can also have a ‘blue fit’ and it means the same thing.

Pig The Pug having a pink fit

BIG STRUGGLE

stuffing his face

In the lead up to the Battle, the reader is asked to predict the story. Young readers who have read previous Pig the Pug books may even get it right.

But something went wrong.

Do you know?
Can you guess?

Pig’s shortcoming is so bad that the shortcoming is in itself enough to bring him down. In this particular story, Pig is so greedy that he gets his bowl stuck in his mouth and needs help from Trevor to get it out.

Trevor performs something like the Heimlich manoeuvre, which we’re now told not to do, apparently:

[T]he risks of the HM appear to outweigh the benefit- especially when there is a more effective way of dislodging the object with less risk of causing harm in the process. Reported injuries sustained as a direct result of the HM include gastric rupture, lacerated liver, fractured Xiphoid process/sternum, aspiration of stomach contents and other serious complications.

Accredited First Aid, Australia

The reader is highly encouraged to enjoy whatever mischief befalls Pig. We are treated to a number of close up shots of his face: stuffing it with (beautifully rendered) kibble, stuffing it some more, then the bowl:

stuffing his hole

It is funny when he gets the bowl stuck in Pig’s mouth; it would not be funny if he had the bowl stuck in his throat. (One is uncomfortable; the other would kill him dead.)

Blabey knows to take this revenge arc to its extreme end. It’s not enough for Pig to simply get the bowl stuck in his mouth for a few seconds: This despicably comic character deserves despicably comic punishment. For readers in need of mimesis, this may not work:

I’m confused. After the Pig falls in the bin, “These days it’s different . . .” Choking didn’t phase him, but falling in a trash can gave him a change of heart? Did he suffer memory loss from the fall and suddenly “plays to have fun.” Yet, at the end, he is still a cheater. This is one horrible dog.

— a reviewer on Goodreads

Ok, now according to the story, that one action— the bin, not the choking, has now caused Pig to relax and have fun and not have to always be the winner. If that’s not crazy enough, the last page shows Pig the pug cheating.

— from another reviewer on Goodreads

In comedy, an unlikely incident leading to Anagnorisis is a fairly common trope. It is used in Office Space, for instance, which is far more realism than the Pig the Pug books. In this case, Peter goes to see a hypnotist, but while he is under the hypnotist’s control, the hypnotist keels over and dies, which means Peter permanently doesn’t give a crap about anything anymore.

This is honestly where I may have come unstuck if I was trying to write this book, or something like it. If you’re writing a revenge plot with slapstick gags, take every opportunity afforded to you. Here, the bowl bounces into the rubbish bin and hits Pig. He gets hurt a little bit (indicated by the bandage on his head), which leads him to think twice…

ANAGNORISIS

Since this is now an established series, the ‘Anagnorisis’ in this book is different from the genuine lesson learned in the first: Here, Pig ostensibly learns not to be greedy and not to cheat. However, the final illustration shows the reader that he is secretly cheating at a card game against Trevor.

If Pig has had any revelation at all, he has learned that he should be a more sneaky kind of cheat.

TV Tropes has a name for this. It’s called The Ignored Epiphany:

The Ignored Epiphany is a moment where the Villain or morally gray character has a moment of clarity or revelation about themselves and their actions, seeing it in perspective for perhaps the first time and realizing exactly how useless and off base their various self-delusions and justifications were. It’s often a low moment for these characters, and may provoke sympathy from the audience. The character may acknowledge it various ways, with a sigh, a bitter laugh, muttering “What Have I Become?” or possibly saying to someone or themselves “I’ve really messed this one up”.

Then… there’s nothing. No Heel–Face Turn, no last minute redemption or even an attempt to undo the harm they’ve wrought. Nor is there any mental trauma equivalent to a Villainous BSoD or mental breakdown. There’s just… nothing.

NEW SITUATION

We extrapolate: Pig will continue to cheat but he’s a bit more subtle about it now. (Not really true for comedy series — Pig will start the next book just as greedy and self-centred as he began this one.)

Well, that’s my interpretation, anyway. But some readers believe Pig really has learned a lesson:

Aaron Blabey’s books bring a smile to this librarian’s face as well as to the faces of my teachers and students. Pig the pug is learning another lesson in this one and along the way will hopefully teach young readers/listeners to be good winners as well as gracious losers.

consumer review on Goodreads
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If I Loved You by Robin Black Short Story Analysis

book cover of if i loved you i would tell you this by robin black

“If I Loved You” is a short story from a collection called If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This (2010), written by American author Robin Black.

A woman dying of cancer writes an imaginary letter to her new neighbour, who has uncharitably built a fence along their boundary line. This fence prevents her from getting conveniently out of her car in the driveway.

Here’s the subtext: this woman’s garage has obviously been built stupidly close to the boundary line, by someone who would never have predicted a future in which a new neighbour would want to build a fence. This is a comment on how we sometimes do things with great optimism. The optimism comes back to bite us later. Instead of optimism, this narrator now goes for ‘maybes’. (This explains the style of narration.)

That surface level plot about the fence offers a fairly didactic message about how we never know what’s going on in someone else’s life, symbolised by the fence itself. We put fences around ourselves to avoid considering other people’s pain.

But the story avoids didacticism because I happen to identify with the neighbour, somewhat. Significantly, this neighbour hasn’t done anything terribly bad. He has simply built a fence along his boundary line. Would you sacrifice a portion of the land you’ve just bought, and which you continue to pay rates on, because a neighbour either built a garage too close to the boundary line, or bought a house without checking the structures conform to council regulation?

MY OWN SIMILAR FENCE STORY

A few years ago our erstwhile neighbours owned three massive dogs — one of them scary and dangerous, and no doubt kept as a guard dog. In summer, with all the windows open, they barked whenever we chopped vegetables in our own kitchen. We needed a solid fence to replace the bamboo screen on wire, which sometimes failed to keep the dogs contained. We had a toddler. I couldn’t let her play outside.

But because the properties are 40m long, we couldn’t justify paying for the entire structure. The council provides forms to fill out when you want a neighbour to pay half of something. We got a quote for a fence, paid a surveyor in full, filled out a form and put it in the neighbours’ letterbox. I was too intimated by the dogs to enter the property and hand-deliver. (Even a police officer knocked on my door one day to ask if the dogs next door were safe.)

Later, the neighbour and I had a bit of a showdown in our kitchen because the neighbour was incensed at receiving such formal notification and insisted he couldn’t pay for any of the fence anyhow. He said we could pay the entire thing if we wanted it. Then he said he was about to move out further to the country anyway. Unsaid at this point: his marriage was breaking down. He had a variety of myalgia which meant he couldn’t work much. He could have written a story like this, had he been a writer, I guess.

Then, in an attempt to regain some power after admitting he could not help out with the fence, no way would he allow anyone to set foot on his property. He wouldn’t keep his dogs inside, either. So that put an end to the fence discussion.

How many of us have a story like that? It’s a highly relatable scenario. Robin Black goes into the psychology of that particular power dynamic, whereby one neighbour wants a fence, the other neighbour does not, so the neighbour in the low-power position wrests what little control they have to forbid anyone step onto their property to actually build it.

POWER AND RATIONALITY

This dynamic plays out in many different ways, even when there are no fences involved — one person loses power, tries to get it back, and takes unexpected action which sounds petty and completely irrational. But these decisions are completely rational when you look at the emotions behind the actions — regaining a sense of control. The same can be said of almost any ‘irrational’ action outside psychosis: Action is driven by emotion.

SUBJUNCTIVE NARRATION OF “IF I LOVED YOU”

The style of narration in “If I Loved You” is very interesting and I’ll do my best to describe it using words which probably aren’t the academic words.

First, the opening paragraph so you know what I’m talking about:

If I loved you, I would tell you this.

I would tell you that for all you know I have cancer. And that is why you should be kind to me. I would tell you that for all you know I have cancer that has spread into my liver and my bones and that now I understand there is no hope. If I loved you, I would say: you shouldn’t be so hard on me. On me and on Sam.

We don’t yet know who this character is talking to. We don’t know if she really has cancer, or if it has really spread. At this point, for all we know, she is a fantasist, or making a point about lack of empathy.

The best phrase I have to describe this style of narration is ‘subjunctive mood‘. If you’ve ever studied Spanish grammar you’ll know exactly what this means — it’s one of the more difficult aspects to master for English speakers because we don’t make much of a distinction in English, and where I come from, some uses are dying out. One day in the early 2000s, while teaching high school in New Zealand, I wrote a sentence on the whiteboard which included the phrase ‘if I were’. A fourteen-year-old put up her hand to tell me I’d gotten my grammar wrong. It should have been ‘if I was’, according to her, and the subjunctive use of ‘were’ (with its emphasis on the hypothetical, overriding the more frequent plural usage) sounded dead wrong to her. I found this language shift fascinating, but felt we were losing something in English if we completely lost modal verb distinctions between subjunctive and indicative mood. But are we really losing anything?

If the subjunctive mood can describe a sentence, perhaps it can describe an entire passage in a story. “If I Loved You” has a subjunctive title and continues from there.

Why this narrative style? I can think of several reasons.

  1. The story itself achieves some of its narrative drive by presenting information in a ‘is this true or not?’ kind of way, then keeping the ‘yep, it’s all true’ as reveals for the reader. This only works a few times, of course, after which the reader has been trained in the particular narrative style of the piece — though the narrator offers info that sounds like it may or may not be true, it is true. All of it ends up being true, assuming reliable narration. (And yeah, no narrator is 100% reliable.)
  2. But she’s having trouble saying all this. We learn a lot about the narrator’s psychology. She has a tendency to imagine how different things might have been. (I think this is common to most of us.) This is hardly a recipe for happiness, but it is also one way of coping with impending death. Maybe, some days, she can almost persuade herself that she’s not going to die of cancer at all. She is suspending herself in this permanent subjunctive mood. Some might call it ‘living in the moment’.
  3. It’s a more interesting way of presenting backstory. Basically, the first page explains to the reader that the narrator has cancer, the nature of the cancer, the backstory of the son. Normally writers are advised not to ‘infodump’ in the opening of a story because it supposedly bores the reader. But this story is an example of an exception to that rule and provides evidence of my preferred maxim — boring passages bore the reader. This is perhaps slightly boring information but its unusual presentation keeps our mind engaged. (“Is this person telling the truth, or not?”)
  4. The ‘what if’ feeling connects directly to one of the Anagnorisiss. (See below.)

STORY STRUCTURE OF “IF I LOVED YOU”

“If I Loved You” is not a linear story — it’s a circular one which curls back onto itself offering deeper insights each time.

Part One is the story of the neighbour and the fence. There’s no epiphany in this one — just a mulling over of ideas.

Part Two is backstory about the cancer, and we are ready for more of that now, because we’re wondering who these people are. A character epiphany and a reader one.

Part Three is set two months after the fence went up and the narrator is closer to death.

Each part is a complete story in its own right, though I have fudged that a little below.

Jane Alison calls these plots Cumulative. For another story with a cumulative plot, though more exaggerated, see “The Fifth Story” by Clarice Lispector.

I’m also reminded of “Free Radicals” by Alice Munro. Both short stories are about women dying of cancer. Both contain a fantasy sequence and the reader is left to figure out how much of it is ‘real’ within the setting.

SHORTCOMING

The narrator is in a very weak position. She is dying of cancer. She has a son who causes her physical harm.

Her only real strength is the fact she’s in a long-term, good marriage.

Something happens to her psychology as the story progresses and it’s not great. Though the word has been devalued from overuse, she’s starting to develop a bit of an ‘obsession’ with this neighbour. I’m thinking of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film Rear Window in which a man with a broken leg notices things happening to his neighbours because he’s laid up with nothing else to do. (A scenario which probably no longer works in the age of smart phone ubiquity.) Interestingly, Rear Window is based on a short story.

I know that you go to work a little after [Sam] leaves—I hear the car door, the ignition. I know the hours you keep, can predict when you’ll come home…

Rear Window film poster

DESIRE

To be able to get back into her own house after her medical appointments.

Also, it would be nice if people could empathise with others. Perhaps she would like to change the world for the better. The following paragraph says a lot about the wish to be seen.

I want to scold you in the harsh, caressing tones of a mother to a child. I want to help you, make you understand more about the way things should be than you do, make you think more, give you some imagination. I want you to imagine that I have a life. A life that matters. You should care about my life.

There’s a human tendency to look away from old age and death. This was perhaps worse in earlier eras, when life was harder in general and if you didn’t earn your keep you were literally causing your people extra work. Look at German fairytales (the ones seldom found in children’s collections) and you’ll find a lot of old women ‘behind the stove’. They were shoved away and forgotten.

In medieval times, if you wanted to get rid of your elderly person you might open the window for them as they lay in their bed, because that way the soul can easily escape. (More scientifically, they may also catch a cold which leads to pneumonia.)

OPPONENT

There’s a conversation that hasn’t been had, I tell Sam. The conversation human beings have with each other. He isn’t quite treating us like people.

He isn’t quite a person, Sam says. He’s a creature. He’s an animal himself. He’s like a yeti or something.

From this point on, Sam and the narrator privately refer to their neighbour as The Yeti. This is a counterstrike — he seems to have dehumanised them, so they’ll do the same back, by way of coping.

Cancer is also an opponent,  of course. And the son who can’t control his violence. In this story, as in many others, you can plot opposition on a gradient from ‘natural and uncontrollable’ to ‘plotting, scheming, controllable’. (Only the latter kind of opposition is interesting to read about.)

PLAN

In her weakened position the narrator can do nothing. Her husband tries to reason, then they play out the petty fantasy of painting a wet red line and shooting the legs off builders who cross it.

Precisely because there is no plan of action, the act of writing this down is a plan in itself — first person storytellers are often achieving some sort of psychological resolution through the act of writing their frustrations down.

BIG STRUGGLE

Part Two, the cancer, the son, is the main Battle. In some ways, the neighbour and his fence is a proxy.

I heard someone say the other day that their health is failing terribly and now they have to deal with some annoying paperwork to do with electricity and overbilling. They don’t have the strength to deal with it. Someone else commented that exactly that sort of challenge can function as a good diversion when going through a difficult time. In short, people can respond in various ways to problem heaped upon problem.

ANAGNORISIS

The following sums up the author’s feelings towards anagnorises in fiction. She’s talking about an epiphany she had one day about her long-standing relationship with her husband:

I’m a fiction writer by trade, and these days the sort of epiphanies where characters suddenly understand what their problem has been all along are out of style. It seems so contrived, so unlikely. But the bar for plausibility is higher in fiction than in fact. Real life can be, often is, implausible — yet true.

from Robin Black’s description of her AD/HD at the Chicago Tribune

In line with this view of story, which isn’t all that new, by the way — Katherine Mansfield wrote her last stories in this realistic style sans anagnorisis — Robin Black offers us ideas that Sam and the narrator turn over between them with no resolution.

This is a method used by YouTube philosopher Natalie Wynn. She explains all this in her XOXO talk, including her reasons for doing so. In making a point she sets up fictional characters who each argue a different side.

The same is done here, with two characters — a husband and a wife — talking through the nature of ‘bad people’, turning over the etiology of this guy’s decision — is he born bad or did something bad happen to him to make him this way? This (non) epiphany concludes part one of the short story.

In Part Two, though, we do have a genuine Anagnorisis. The narrator has always hoped that her disabled son knows who she is. But now she’s about to die, she hopes the opposite. She wishes her son be more like the uncaring neighbour because life seems easier that way.

The best character epiphanies are accompanied by a separate epiphany for the reader. We realise part of the reason for the subjunctive mood of this story. We realise why this mother thinks in ‘what ifs’:

My son is eighteen years old. His head is covered with thick black curls like my own used to be and his eyes are the same bright blue as Sam’s. He would have been a very handsome man. He would have been something wonderful. I’m convinced. But for the travels of a blood clot to his brain, while he burrowed small and silenced in my womb.

This paragraph is given the powerful position as last in Part Two. We are encouraged to pause on it.

By Part Three, the narrator’s relationship to time has changed.

The clock has lost its meaning. My relationship with time is more personal now.

Since time is rendered irrelevant, perhaps any distinction between reality versus fantasy can be rendered irrelevant, adding yet more weight to the subjunctive mood of this story.

What if? When? Who cares?

NEW SITUATION

“If I Loved You” ends with sideshadowing, although we could say this entire story is a sideshadow — an imaginary version of how things might be different.

I sometimes think that when I’m gone Sam will drive the car right into your well-constructed fence. I can picture it so easily: Sam behind the wheel pulling up into the drive, gunning it; and veering left. If the tables were turned, there’s no doubt it’s what I’d do.

That paragraph forms the Battle scene of Part Three (wholly imagined), and is swiftly followed by the final Anagnorisis:

Because who is there left to be angry at? Except you? We used up all the other obvious candidates long ago.