The Tricksters is a young adult novel by New Zealand author Margaret Mahy, first published in 1986. Mahy wrote many stories for children, but The Tricksters seems to be one frequently talked about in scholarship circles, alongside The Changeover and The Haunting, which both won The Carnegie Medal. The Tricksters is a rare example of the new female mythic form, in which a main character (often femme, sometimes not) thinks and feels their way through a problem rather than leaving home to go on a journey and fight a bunch of opponents.
A large number of stories deal with the concept of ‘many selves’, often by creating some kind of mask (a false way of presenting to the world) and then having it ripped off (happily) at the end. Only once we live our authentic selves can we be happy… That’s the general message in such stories. The tricksters in this book are three corporeal representations of a single person — they all share the same memories, for instance. This is another way of dealing in fiction with the concept of the many selves.
Ovid: head, a master of metamorphoses. (The mind usually believes he is the leader of the group, and he usually isn’t.) Felix: heart, submerged in life but striving toward dominance in the course of the story. Felix and Harry fall in love. Hadfield: gut/instinct—at one point he tries to rape Harry.
American MIT philosopher Irving Singer (1925-2015) divided sex into three separate aspects:
Eros: The aesthetic joy we take in others. ‘The affective glue that binds us to other persons, things or ideals and to ourselves’. Humans are visual creatures but it’s not necessarily about the visual. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes at length about all the different forms of eros. We can be attracted to someone’s intelligence. The eros aspect of sex best equates to the ‘head’. As philosopher Damon Young says in his book Getting Off, “Eros need not be libidinal”. Referring to Shulamith Firestone’s book The Dialectic of Sex, Young writes “we can respond erotically to various and varied others — from lovers to friends. It is not just a genital swelling, but a ‘spark’, as she puts it, which fires over ‘the spectrum of our lives’. Because of this, we can have a broadly erotic response to objects other than human beings.”
Romance: The ‘heart’. Romance is notoriously difficult to describe as it differs across time and across culture.
Libido: ‘a somewhat automatic trigger for generating behavioral and physiological processes related to reproduction’. This is about biological urges (though is rarely about making babies, in fact). Libido is to humans as rutting is to animals. This is all about instinct and equates to ‘gut’.
The Tricksters is a coming-of-age novel about a young woman who is coming to terms with the various aspects of sex. Some aspects are thrilling; other aspects terrifying. When she conjures up three different manifestations of the same lover, she is imaginatively exploring and codifying these conflicting aspects. Unlike many young adult authors of the 1980s, Mahy does not punish her young women for exploring sex. She celebrates it. Though we are used to celebrations of sexuality in contemporary young adult literature, Mahy was ahead of her time.
The Wind In The Willows is an Edwardian (1908) novel by Scottish born British writer Kenneth Grahame. This book is an example of a story from the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Idyllic settings were popular at the time. Idylls remained popular up to and including A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books (written 1924-1928).
“The Night Before Christmas” is an alternative title of the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (controversially) by a guy called Clement Clarke Moore. The poem was first published anonymously in 1823 and only later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, who claimed authorship in 1837, the start of the Victorian era. A Dutch migrant called Henry Livingston might be the true author. We don’t know.
“U.F.O. in Kushiro” is a short story written by popular contemporary Japanese author Haruki Murakami. English readers first had access to the story in 2001, when it appeared in an issue of the New Yorker magazine. It was republished in 2011 after an earthquake and tsunami devastated northern Japan. Safe to say this is considered a Japan-disaster-story.
But “U.F.O. in Kushiro” is not really about the Hanshin earthquake, one of Japan’s most devastating and expensive disasters in history. To convey the magnitude of disaster in a short story is difficult because of the phenomenon of ‘psychic numbing‘. I’m sure we’re all feeling that in the year 2020. It’s impossible to extend equivalent empathy to everyone affected by disaster, but when we hear about someone’s personal tragedies, we can be overcome with empathy for them, personally, because we can more easily imagine the trials of one person, or one small community.
To get around the psychic numbing, Murakami has focused on the story of an individual. Unusually for a ‘disaster story’ though, this individual isn’t near the scene of the disaster, but instead lives in Tokyo, three hours away from Kobe (by train). But in a different way this is a story about psychic numbing. The main character is entirely passive right until the end of the story. He does what he is told to do by others. He is numb because his wife has left him and he did not see it coming. ‘The ground shifts beneath him.’ The symbolism of the earthquake is very clear.
What big ideas is Murakami hoping readers will explore in this story? Which storytelling techniques does he utilised to take us there? Let’s take a look.
Scholars who study holidays and tourism classify holidays into five broad types. Which type(s) do you prefer? And how are holidays commonly depicted across children’s literature?
As usual, I’ve noticed that picture book reality is a couple of generations behind modern childhood reality, and for good reason. Holidays are the perfect opportunity for freedom, and when the author can more legitimately get parental care out of the way.
Paradise holidays feature beaches with fancy hotels and resorts with all the advantages of home plus massages, spa treatments, waiters bringing you cocktails and so on. For Australians, the paradise playground is Bali, and certain Pacific Islands.
These industrial attempts at paradise must strike a careful balance, since no one wants to go somewhere that feels industrial, even if the luxuries themselves require precisely that.
The children’s book version of the holiday in paradise is the carnivalesque story, in which hierarchy is upturned and the child does exactly what they want… before returning safely to their everyday life.
Until recently, children don’t experience a paradise holiday, though many Australian parents are now happy to take their young children on luxury cruises and so on, for a taste of paradise. I’m yet to see that trend echoed in children’s literature, in which case children’s holidays take place in a larger arena with more freedom from supervision and organised activities.
For children, the paradise holiday is often a trip to the seaside. There won’t be waiters bringing coocktails, or people selling massages, but the seaside is a nice blend of ‘paradise’ plus ‘wilderness’. The seaside arena hits that sweetspot, and the seasides that appear in children’s picture books are never very industrialised. You won’t find massive apartment towers casting shadows across these beaches. They will either be quite deserted or comfortably populated, with plenty of room for everyone.
Children’s book authors and illustrators love the wild, and the fun of a camping expedition in the wilderness. In stories as in real life, the wilderness holiday is considered a survival test, and a way of inducing manliness or independence.
Camping for [modern humans] means an excursion from modern life; for our ancestors, living from the land was the only existence. You wake up.. amid your small band of adults and childrne. Realizing that you’re running out of food, you set off togehter. Clouds on the horizon indicate rain in the distance, so that is the direction where the group heads. As the sun rises toward the zenith, you seek relief from the heat in the shade of a gorup of trees. … The sound of thunder far off in the later afternon indicates that the dry season is coming to an end. The group drifts off to sleep, though before dawn some members are awakened by a loud crashing sound — a large animal — not far from the camp. At daybreak, the group sets off again… to begin a new day in a way of life that will last for thousands of generations.
The camping holiday can be utopian, comedic, adventurous or horrific. The camping holiday is a widely utilised plot across children’s literature.
THE PSEUDO-WILD OF CHILDREN’S STORIES
If your holiday involves trips around ancient sites and castles, the pyramids and Jerusalem, this type of holiday is known as ‘ruin-centred’. People who visit such places often have a keen interest in history. Though I think just as many are crossing off sites on their bucket list.
The Living Culture
If you want to experience another culture as authentically as possible, you’re after a holiday in a ‘living culture’.
People who seek these kinds of holidays can be contemptuous of the holidays makers who go for a paradise experience, traveling halfway around the world to sit in a luxury hotel that may as well exist in their own backyard.
Living culture holidays can genuinely expand the mind. Sex tourism is included in the category of ‘living culture holiday’.
The Disneyland trip is your classic playground holiday, but a holiday can be ‘themed’ outside the confines of an actual theme park. Many holiday packages offer a themed holiday which spans a broad geographical arena, but the tourist is made to feel each of these disparate places are part and parcel of the same sort of thing: The Irish experience, the Japanese experience, the African experience.
The playground holiday is a simulation of reality.
The trip to the holiday is often fraught with tension, in children’s stories as in real life. In Western picture books, in which the reader moves through a book from left to right, the characters will be facing right.
Though the view from behind the car is also pretty common.
“The Children Stay” is a short story by Alice Munro, published in the collection The Love Of A Good Woman (1998). It’s very difficult to write empathetically about women who leave their husbands and children for another man, especially when it’s purely lust driven rather than depicted as ‘pure love’. This is because mothers are held to a higher standard. Alice Munro’s monumental task is to get the reader to understand exactly why a woman might do as Pauline did. This involves getting deep into Pauline’s mind. I think she manages it perfectly.
Sometimes horror movies are even more terrifying when read metaphorically. In Dead Calm, the story of a husband and wife at sea with a murderous intruder is bad enough, but what if the murderer doesn’t exist?
Dead Calm is a well-executed but outdated psychological horror, adapted in 1989 for film from a 1963 novel by the same name by America Charles K. Williams (1909 – 1975).
There are a great number of natural landscapes in Australia apart from beaches (rainforests, desert areas, snow-capped mountains) yet the beach has somehow become iconic.
In Australia, there is a cabal of writers who can be described as ‘Australian Coastal Gothic’.
These novels and short stories are often about men who retreat from inland areas to the coast. The setting is dark and brooding. The men have secrets. They are often in mourning over a woman’s death. They meet grotesque characters who almost personify their grief. Beaches are badlands.
What is distinctive about the Australian beach?
The term ‘beach’ in Australia has a wider meaning than its geographical qualities.
Beaches exist all over the world but are an internationally iconic image of Australia. The beach is pervasive in Australian advertising, tourism and popular representation. The beach is presented as idyllic, almost nostalgic and beautiful.
Tourist photos of the Australian beach tend to focus on the natural aspects and remove amenities. The exception to this is The Gold Coast, in which the beach and urban cannot be disentangled. Images will include skyscrapers along the waterfront.
Some beaches are far more hospitable than others. There is great variation. Water temperature varies a lot at any given time. Tasmanian beaches are more suitable for picnicking than swimming because the water is generally cold. Northern beaches near Darwin are unsafe because of crocodiles.
In Australia rural and urban areas tend to stand in opposition to one another (with preference for the rural). The beach falls into both camps — it is ‘natural landscape’ but it is also an extension of suburbia.
The beach is associated with leisure, hedonism pleasure, indolence. The beach is healing, a place of escape, a spiritual place.
When the beach is depicted as healing, there’s a big difference between characters who live at the beach and those who holiday there. Tourists don’t have to fit beach time around the ordinary aspects of their lives. The holiday is itself an escape.
But beach holidays often induce guilt. Characters feel guilty at what they leave behind. Guilt can provide the motivation to make big changes in a character’s ordinary, non-holiday life. The holiday itself triggers a character arc.
In fiction targeted at women, a holiday to the beach can make a female main character reassess who she is looking for as a romantic partner. She might be an uptight sort of character who loses her sexual inhibitions on holiday and is forever changed because of it. Beach holidays can let women reclaim parts of themselves that they’ve lost touch with (apart from sexual aspects). They can forget about societal expectations placed upon women in everyday life, giving them a feminist ideology.
In this way, the beach can act as a type of mirror. The natural beauty of the beach allows a woman to see the natural beauty in herself.
A beautiful setting allows for a binary to exist — beautiful versus non-beautiful. This is why the mythic natural beauty of the beach can symbolise heaven on earth. Horror films subvert this, juxtaposing a beautiful beach against death. The beautiful playground of a beach can become a kind of prison. Characters move from freedom to slavery.
The message of some horror beach films is that characters create their own fate by disturbing a pristine environment. They had no business being there. Nature (or supernature) shrugs them off.
Australia has no legend based on how we live as an urban coastal society, unlike the myth of the bush, which is a strong tradition. Yet for many modern Australians, the beach is a more familiar territory than ‘the bush’.
British people tend to see natural landscape in terms of ‘countryside’ and ‘seaside’. At the ‘seaside’ you get resorts, relaxation and therapeutic results. But The Australian beach is a place for swimming and surfing. Australian beachgoers are not passive. Even when not swimming or surfing, Australians bring their beach furniture with them and decide where to sit. They are holidaymakers rather than beachgoers.
When compared to American beaches, Australian beaches feel ‘transient’. Australian holidaymakers are responsible for bringing everything — you can’t hire umbrellas and lounges like you can in Honolulu. Holiday resorts do exist in Australia (e.g. Byron Bay) but there is not much emphasis on those in literature. Australian beach culture is far more accepting of nature than in trying to impose human order onto it.
Bush mythologies tend to idealise individuality. You’re on your own out there. Survival in the bush is seen as a personal achievement. But the beach is all about pleasures shared with others. ‘Indecent’ pleasures challenge social norms in a community. Competitive sport flourishes.
The naturalness of the beach is part of the myth of the Australian beach. This is the beach of our imagination. In this imagined version of the beach, we’re the only person walking along pristine beaches of untouched sand.
In fact the beach is surveilled: The beach is under the eye of the lifeguard from the tower, and increasingly, the beach is also observed through technological means such as cameras installed to detect erosion.
Many Indigenous texts placemore importance on fresh water than the beach. Yet there are still some important aspects of the beach that feature in the writing of Indigenous authors and in films that feature Indigenous characters.
Iconic Australian beaches: Surfers Paradise (Gold Coast, Queensland) and Bondi Beach (Sydney, New South Wales). These settings are also common in Australian stories.
Normally the word ‘badlands‘ conjures images of extensive tracts of heavily eroded, uncultivable land with little vegetation, for instance the barren plateau region of the western US (North and South Dakota and Nebraska). But the Australian beach can be used as a type of badlands.
In the 1960s the Beaumont children went missing. (Their mother recently died without ever knowing what happened to them.) They disappeared from Glenelg Beach near Adelaide, South Australia on 26 January 1966 (Australia Day)
Harold Holt went swimming in the sea and never returned. He was Australia’s prime minister. The fact that a prime minister can go missing like that is seen as a quintessentially Australian thing. We like to think this could never happen to the American president, whose body is protected, his every move monitored.
In the 1980s and 90s, infamous gay hate murders took place on Bondi beaches.
Bra Boys is a movie about the Cronulla riots of 2005.
Crime, assaults and kidnapped children continue to be plots in fictional texts with beach settings.
The beach is often a horror setting e.g. The Long Weekend (1978) and Lost Things (2003). Sometimes the beauty of the beach juxtaposes against the horror that unfolds e.g. The Long Weekend (1978 movie), Lost Things (2003 movie). Like any good horror story, the setting (in this case the beach) is initially set up as an idyllic, beautiful place. Also true to the horror genre, these beaches are difficult to reach and isolated. The humans are plucked off from the herd. In a Love story, the beach can act as a mirror, showing the (female) main character the beauty in herself. In a horror story the beach can also act as a mirror, but this time it reflects the evil within the main character(s).
In either case, the beach has the power to reveal some sort of truth.
The beauty of the beach is sometimes cast as ‘tempting’ e.g. Two Hands (1999 film). Bondi Beach is depicted as a glittering ocean which entices Jimmy into the water, away from his tasks.
The Australian beach is increasingly urban as the city and its suburbs encroach further onto the sand.
Philip Drew, in his work The Coast Dwellers, believes that the Europeans brought their own understanding of space to Australia when they arrived in the late 19th century. Europeans journeyed here with a “conception of a closed centric world”. But this understanding that did not fit the geographical complexities of the country they found themselves in.
Even natural beach elements can be scary. Nature is unpredictable and we can’t control it (shark attacks, wild weather).
The beach is considereda space of equality. Anyone can go there, whether rich or poor. No one owns the beach. Once at the beach, no one is judged on the norms of the rest of their lives — everyone is now just a person at the beach, perhaps stripped down without clothes as status symbols. Employment and wealth is discarded. However, in practice the classless beach isn’t real, sometimes made clear in fiction as well. In Puberty Blues Kathy Lette describes Green Hills beach as trendy while beaches at the sound end of Cronulla are family friendly (but not trendy).
Some texts objectify women on the sand. Surfing texts are very masculine. Some films objectify other kinds of bodies, including the bodies of men.
Australian beach films are rarely financially or critically successful. (e.g. Newcastle) But still Australians keep trying to make beach movies and TV shows.
The beach is neither marginal nor liminal. It allows the imaginative and the social to exist at once within the same landscape. This is called ‘Beachspace’. Liminal is all about the concepts of transition and shifting ambiguities, categorised by disorientation and a loss of belonging. In contrast, the beach can create a sense of belonging, or multiple belongings.
Like high places, the beach can be used as a place to gain perspective, especially by going surfing. For surfers, waves can be a refuge and like driving, afford a sense of control. The main character of Breath by Tim Winton (2008) uses the surf in this way. He feels he can’t control death around him in his regular life.
Even though characters might try to use the beach as a safe space away from their ordinary lives, the beach isn’t always binary in that way. Floating in the shallows is similar to sitting in a bath, affording characters the space to think. Characters often have anagnorises in the water.
Header painting is a View of Sydney from the West side of the Cover painted in 1806 by a convict artist John Eyre. Some convicts were artists. Some of them were even convicted because of art — for forgery.
“Up At A Villa” is a short story by Helen Simpson, opening her 2011 collection In-flight Entertainment. This is a lyrical short story full of symbolism.
Cover copy tells us to expect work a la Alice Munro. Of all the stories here, the images in “Up At A Villa” are most reminiscent of Munro — young and old are juxtaposed, reminding the reader that we are all young and old at some point, and therefore young and old at once.
This is a story of two groups of people. The first group comprises two heterosexual pairs of young people in their late teens or early twenties. The characters named Nick and Tina are romantic and flirtatious with each other. The other pair, Joe and Charlotte, do not feel that way about each other, or Charlotte does not feel that way about Joe. Helen Simpson paints this picture in extremely succinct fashion and we know it by the end of the third paragraph, observing these young people waking up from the forest after a drunken night of frolicking. We know this about them from the way they behave around the pool and in the water. We’d know it if we were seated nearby. And that’s where Simpson puts the reader. We’ve been given an invisible pool-side seat.
These two young couples juxtapose against another couple — older. This older couple has a new baby. This could of course be either of the young couples in another ten years’ time.
SETTING OF “UP AT A VILLA”
There’s a fairytale vibe to this short story, which is probably set in Southern France. Local food provides this detail —pissaladière — cuisine of Nice. It’s Monday morning and everything is closed down in the village (fermé le lundi). The young couples have snuck onto this holiday villa to use the pool as they’ve run out of money, which reminds me of the opening of Brokedown Palace, the 1999 film about two young American women who eventually find themselves imprisoned for drug trafficking.
It’s mid afternoon and these kids have their morning sleeping in the forest, redolent with fairytale spookiness. Their hair is ‘stuck with pine needles’. They’ve become one with the forest, but could the story be making use of the double English meaning of ‘pine’, much as Robin Black did in her short story “Pine“?
In stories the forest can function as all kinds of things, most notably the subconscious. When they wake up in the forest, have they really woken up? What follows around the pool could easily be part of a dreamscape.
Helen Simpson inverts the general utopian beachspace of our imaginations by describing the Mediterranean this way:
Anyway they had fallen out of love over the last week with the warm soup of the Mediterranean, its filmy surface bobbing with polystyrene shards and other unsavoury orts.
‘Ort’ is an archaic word, linking this contemporary setting to an archaic world and means ‘a scrap or remainder of food from a meal’. Alongside breastmilk, this word choice links something which shouldn’t be eaten with food. (Of course breastmilk is food — the best human food that exists — but that’s not how the young observers see it.)
Three bodies of water are mentioned in this story: first the sea, then the pool, then the baby’s bath when Harvey asks the woman what’s so special about bath-time anyway? This creates a very subtle mise-en-abyme effect, from large down to small — the grievances are likewise becoming more petty, while at the same time carrying the magnitude of a sea for this couple.
‘Space’ and ‘Place’ are not the same thing. Drawing on spatial theory by Lawrence Buell and E. V. Walter, a place is seen, heard, smelled, imagined, loved, hated, feared, revered, enjoyed, or avoided. In contrast, the Space is the subjective dimension of located experience. Because certain Spaces exist in the shared cultural imagination, it’s possible to be familiar with a ‘space’ without having visited a ‘place’. For instance, if you live in Australia or have seen tourist advertising, you’ll be familiar with beachspace even if you haven’t ever visited (the place of) an actual beach. Likewise, we are all familiar with images of the Mediterranean even if we haven’t visited the Mediterranean:
In other words, we know a Space of even if we don’t know the Place. This applies to the tourists in Helen Simpson’s story, whose knowledge of the Space has been replaced by unwelcome knowledge of the Place. Evoking the story of Adam and Eve — these kids were happier before they saw the polystyrene. Now their imaginative Space will be forever tainted.
What about the symbolism of the pool? In a few deft strokes, Simpson evokes a scene of ancient mythology — modernised, of course — but this pool could easily be a lake or a pond in a forest. The naked young people, the youthful bodies… well, they could be sirens, of course.
What do you imagine when you think ‘siren’? Probably of beautiful femme fatales fresh out of Romanticism…
… or perhaps something more like this…
… not the sirens of Ancient Greece, where winged and clawed bird-women lured sailors to destruction through the power of their song.
Audiences didn’t exactly appreciate John William Waterhouse harking back to the earlier era of sirens. I mean, these women are terrifying. And no one wants to go to an art gallery and look at terrifying women, do they? Women are supposed to be warm and sexy and alluring and welcoming.
[A woman’s] value [is] contingent on her giving moral goods to them: life, love, pleasure, nurture, sustenance, and comfort, being someKate Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny
The same thing has happened to witches, female vampires and basically any femme/androgynous mythical creature (including gothic male vampires). We love to sexualise anyone who’s not overtly manly.
Anyway, this story is perhaps Helen Simpson’s reclamation. Because of the varied history of siren mythology, these hybrid creatures are useful to storytellers when weaving an imagistic pattern. (Double-duty symbols always are.)
Though Simpson has left the siren mythology off the page, I think it’s there in her imagery. An important thing to understand about metaphorical chimera (and other metaphorical symbols in general) is that they also represent something within the characters. In common with a siren, these kids (especially Tina) are two things at once — their current youthful selves and the older selves they are forced to imagine.
If we read the young women of Helen Simpson’s short story as contemporary sirens, they are both of these creatures at once — tempting and terrifying.
What else is tempting and terrifying? All of us: tempting when young; terrifying when old.
Age has always terrified the young. When we are young it’s difficult to even imagine ourselves as older. If younger selves imagine older selves at all, we see them as separate identities. When Tina whispers “Oh, gross!” at the sight of the mother breastfeeding, what exactly disgusts her? The narrator describes breasts with ‘huge brown nipples on breasts like wheels of Camembert’. Cheese is nice. But anything that’s not cheese, when compared to cheese, is not nice. Weird how that works, but there we have it. We love cheese despite itself, I guess.
Using free indirect style, Helen Simpson encourages the reader to react with disgust to the spectacle of a woman breastfeeding her newborn. This is a modern reaction. Scroll through classic art from the Victorian era and you’ll find many beautiful breastfeeding images, clearly romanticising the act of breastfeeding as beautiful, natural, life-giving and good. Simpson’s story is an inversion — contemporary life has inverted this aspect of motherhood.
So the Shortcoming of Tina is that she is disgusted by what she herself may one day become.
“She’s hideous,” whispered Tina. “Look at that gross stomach, it’s all in folds.” She glanced down superstitiously at her own body, the high breasts like halved apples, the handspan waist.
Joe and Nick have a different reaction — they are fascinated by it.
At this point Helen Simpson makes an astute feminist observation on why people don’t listen to women:
At some subliminal level each of the eavesdropping quartet recognised their own mother’s voice in hers, and glazed over.
Harvey and the unnamed mother are in marital conflict. It’s difficult to read without sympathy for them, especially the mother, who is in a very vulnerable position.
The complete lack of sympathy from the young people is striking.
The young couples came to France on a shoestring budget, buoyed by new love that didn’t last, because they’ve been let down by their surroundings. France is traditionally the country of love, but even France can’t help them. They’re each too self-absorbed to be in an adult partnership of equals (in common with Harvey, in fact).
Since the young couples want to live in the moment, the sight of older versions of themselves pull them out of that. (All are from England, cementing their more general similarity when in a foreign country.)
The character of Charlotte has been kept silent for most of the story but after introducing her briefly as someone who has it together (aligning her with the mother), she brings her back in at the end.
Charlotte remembers a framed picture, and what follows is an ekphrastic description, cementing for the reader the subverted fairytale nature of this story:
As for Charlotte, she was remembering another unwitting act of voyeurism, a metaphorical framed picture from a childhood camping holiday.
It had been early morning, she’d gone off on her own to the village for their breakfast baguettes, and the village had been on a hills like in a fairy-tale, full of steep little flights of steps which she was climbing for fun. The light was sweet and glittering and as she looked down over the rooftops she saw very clearly one particular open window, so near that she could have lobbed in a ten-franc piece, and through the window she could see a woman dropping kisses onto a man’s face and neck and chest. He was lying naked in bed and she was kissing him lovingly and gracefully, her breasts dipping down over him like silvery peonies. Charlotte had never mentioned this to anyone, keeping the picture to herself, a secret snapshot protected from outside sniggerings.
Once again we have a description of breasts — symbolic, in this particular story, and metonyms for women at various life stages:
The half-apple breasts of youth
The sagging wheels of Camembert of nursing motherhood
The full, womanly, pleasure-giving breasts of sexual womanhood
Charlotte is the character who experiences the Anagnorisis in this story, and it’s interesting that Simpson kept her quiet. She needed to be quiet to be afforded time to reflect. Unlike Tina, Charlotte realises that growing into a woman’s body is not a disgusting, terrifying thing at all. She’s had the benefit of witnessing this other image, which counteracts Tina’s commentary of this scene before them, a few years later.
The Anagnorisis in “Up at a Villa” is a great example of how a character can have an epiphany/understanding after connecting two experiences, even if the previous experience happened some time ago. In this case, the Anagnorisis phase will probably comprise a flashback or dream.
High up on the swimming-pool terrace the little family, frozen together for a photographic instant, watched their flight open-mouthed, like the ghosts of summers past; or, indeed, of summers yet to come.
The final sentence links present time with future time, pulling that whole thread of the story together (the young are simultaneously old — that is why they fear it).
Why does Helen Simpson frame the little family statically, in a ‘photographic instant’? When the young couples run like deer, they’re not only running from the scene of the ‘crime’ — they’re running from the inevitability of youth.
So long as they’re running, by comparison that other, ‘gross’ family looks static, and behind that ‘frame’, completely separate. For this moment of running away, they can pretend they’ll never be older themselves.
“In-flight Entertainment” is a short story by Helen Simpson, published in her 2010 collection of the same name.
Thanks in large part to Greta Thunberg (not pronounced how I thought it was pronounced), 2019 seems to have been a turning point in general attitudes towards climate change. The phrase started off as ‘global warming’ (too benign), became ‘climate change’ and is now ‘climate crisis’. My own country’s online newspaper now has its own ‘climate’ tab, prioritising its importance.
But even in 2019, those of us who think a lot about the climate crisis are still living in a bubble. Helen Simpson said in 2011 that if you suggest we might cut back on unnecessary air travel, reception is cold. While some people have indeed cut back on unnecessary trips, it’s business-as-usual.
With the climate crisis as focus, “In-flight Entertainment” is a short story about difficult conversations in the face of unwelcome yet inevitable change, and our ability to ignore what we don’t want to hear and go on with our lives. In the past, and on an individual level, this is a wonderful adaptation. Sometimes I wish I was a climate crisis denier. I think I’d be more content.
Which cognitive biases are we talking about exactly? Infuriatingly, it’s a raft of the things, all working together:
Hyperbolic discounting: We are very bad at understanding statistical trends and long-term changes, paying attention to immediate threats.
We overestimate threats that are less likely but memorable, such as terrorism. Stories of terrorism are memorable because they are stories of individuals (sometimes en masse, but individuals all the same). The Environment appears to have no face to it, precisely because it involves every face. When too many people are affected we lose compassion. This is known as psychic numbing.
Too much information confuses us, leading to inaction or poor choices.
We remember immediate threats, so that they could be avoided in the future, but we’re constantly on the look out for opportunities (e.g. for pleasure — holidays and air travel).
The sunk-cost fallacy. We are biased towards staying the course even in the face of negative outcomes. When the world is full of aeroplanes and the economy has been built around aeroplanes, well, we already have them so why not use them?
Justification. If we all quit holidaying in tourist destinations, entire communities would collapse. We justify our behaviours by focusing on certain details and avoiding others.
The bystander effect. Most of us are inclined to believe someone else will deal with a crisis. We may expect others to stop traveling on planes, but we ourselves have to. Our travel is necessary; others’ travel is not.
This is infuriating for the relatively few Cassandras out there, trying to persuade others that there is no government conspiracy, and that it is far cheaper to avoid a climate crisis than to try to eke out an existence after ecological collapse.
SETTING OF “IN-FLIGHT ENTERTAINMENT”
“In-flight Entertainment” feels like it’s set in a near future when the world is divided into climate deniers and those who are resigned to it. Alan is accused of having grown up in a gadget-ridden childhood, referring to Gen Z (roughly between the ages of 7 and 22″ in 2019, so younger again at time of publication). Alan is of an age now when he has a wife (Penny) and kids.
Part of me thinks it could easily have been set in 2019, but I don’t think we’re quite at this point yet. Currently the world is divided into four groups:
Climate crisis deniers
Those who haven’t given it much thought
Very worried people e.g. activists
The tired and resigned
At some point surely categories 2 and 3 will disappear as the realities of climate change make everyone aware of it, and as even the most ardent activists realise the big struggle has been lost. This flight comprises climate crisis deniers and the tired and resigned. In this view of the near future, air travel doesn’t abate one iota.
The story veers backwards into Alan’s on-the-ground life — we learn that there have been apocalyptic protests at Heathrow, that Alan drives a luxury vehicle, that his parents oppose his carbon intensive lifestyle. Alan’s mother has a view on recycling that is stuck in the 1990s — that if we all pull together and make small economies then our collective efforts will save us. This worked for England during the war. The attitude carried us through the 90s, and can be seen in children’s literature designed to encourage recycling, e.g. Just A Dream by Chris Van Allsburg.
Flight can symbolise various things but most notably it stands for freedom. Air travel is the ultimate luxury, though many of us living in rich countries would no longer call it that — we consider the freedom of flight a birthright. The plane is therefore a perfect setting for this story.
The story opens with description of the different classes of people herded onto a plane — there’s no better reminder than planes of economic hierarchy — First Class at the top (significantly, in Helen Simpson’s story, it’s made up of men), followed by Club Class, Business Class and Economy.
The climate crisis is likewise mostly a class issue, with those at the top using more than their fair share of the environment, symbolised in this story as an extra eight inches of space which ‘makes all the difference’. Difference between what? Is the freedom to fly the difference between a life vs a life worth living?
Helen Simpson inverts the freedom aspect of flight with the intertextual reference to an iconic scene from North by Northwest, in which a man cannot hide from a horrifying crop duster, swooping him like a very big, very dangerous magpie during breeding season. This is the scene Alan watches on the plane when he doesn’t want to hear anything more about climate change.
Within the story there also exists implicit critique of a life lived through screens — we criticise Alan for wanting to watch his old film instead of hearing about the realities of climate change. Soon it is revealed that everything he knows about dying comes via fictional TV shows such as Casualty. This is a guy living in a fantasy world, borne of mindful denial.
The flight is from Heathrow to Chicago. There is a diversion to Goose Bay. Significantly this is close to Greenland, where some of the most obvious impacts of climate change are currently seen. It’s also in the middle of nowhere, like the North by Northwest scene above. The landscape is huge; people are rendered tiny and helpless and all alone. No one is coming to save us from the climate crisis.
So how do the Climate Change Cassandras persuade the deniers? According to this story, it may in fact be impossible.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “IN-FLIGHT ENTERTAINMENT”
Here is the underlying structure of stories with this sort of theme:
A character encounters another character who tells them something they don’t want to hear.
Eventually this unwelcome new knowledge becomes too much, so the character hearing the unpleasant thing has some sort of dream/escape sequence.
When they wake up, they’ve pretty much forgotten the entire interaction.
Except things will never be quite the same, because they haven’t completely forgotten.
Another outstanding example of a story structured in this way is “Her First Ball” by Katherine Mansfield. In Mansfield’s story, an old man reminds young Leila, fresh to the ball scene, that she will be an old lady soon. This is pretty much the last thing you want to hear at your first ball, so Leila mindfully forgets about the interaction.
This is the story of a community, so no single character stands out as the main one. “In-flight Entertainment” is designed to expose a general human shortcoming — our ability to see the terrible truth then to ignore it.
The cast of characters requires:
The person who is forced to think deeply about the horrible thing for the first time (for this story it is Alan Barr);
The person who forces the other to think deeply about the horrible thing for the first time (Jeremy Lees).
Also in this story we have the thread of the old man who dies in his seat. Clearly, someone who dies in our presence is confronting. We are forced to acknowledge the inevitability of death, and we’re reminded that we, too, shall die.
Alan wants to ignore the facts of the climate crisis. He has come up with a reasonable argument which works to this end:
…the science behind these new reports could be quite shaky. There were two sides to every coin, and anyway Planet Earth has a self-regulating mechanism, rather like the economy, and we should leave it to right itself. Mother Nature knows a thing or two…
In this particular story, Alan wants to enjoy his First Class flight to Chicago to give a presentation. The presentation will be delivered in 13 hours’ time — a ticking clock device which plays on the ‘bad luck’ aspect of the number 13.
The tragedy for Alan is that he has no Anagnorisis. He wakes himself up with a snort.
All that alarmist crap that old creep Jeremy had been coming out with, it just seemed like a fairy story now.
To extend the fairy tale connection, Helen Simpson turns Alan into a childlike figure:
In quite a childish way he liked the tiny brightly wrapped bonbons, he liked yawning to pop his ears. Yes, his spirits usually lifted during the descent [HIGHLY SYMBOLIC, OF COURSE], and he would have expected to feel extra-jubilant towards the close of this particular protracted crossing.