The Symbolism of Water Wells

Henry John Yeend King - By the Well

In folklore and fairytale, round, enclosed structures — towers and wells — are closely associated with lunar figures which stand in for cyclic time ie. dragons, serpents, werewolves or other related creatures who abduct maidens. And also, by the way, dishevelled hair and shaggy furs worn as garments are the other symbol set which go hand-in-hand with round, enclosed structures. These symbols are associated with moon phases, menstrual cycles and, more broadly, renewal through death.

In a very deep well you can see a star even on the brightest day.

IVAN’S CHILDHOOD | ANDREI TARKOVSKY (1962)
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Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People by Lorrie Moore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Who’s-Dead McCarthy by Kevin Barry

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

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

Common Faults In Short Stories

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

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

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

STORYWORLD OF “WHO’S-DEAD MCCARTHY”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NARRATIVE VOICE OF “WHO’S DEAD MCCARTHY”

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

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

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

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

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

STORY STRUCTURE OF WHO’S-DEAD MCCARTHY

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

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

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

SHORTCOMING

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

DESIRE

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

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

OPPONENT

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

MYTHOLOGY OF THE GRIM REAPER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE COMEDY OF “WHO’S-DEAD MCCARTHY”

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLAN

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

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

BIG STRUGGLE

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

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

ANAGNORISIS

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

“Can I ask you something?”

“What?”

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

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

“Impressive?”

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

NEW SITUATION

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

I BECAME MORBIDLY FASCINATED by Con McCarthy.

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

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

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

Header photo by Yomex Owo

Ernestine and Kit by Kevin Barry

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

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

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

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

CHARACTERS OF “ERNESTINE AND KIT”

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

For instance, we expect something light-hearted:

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

TV Tropes

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

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

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

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

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

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

STORYWORLD OF “ERNESTINE AND KIT”

SEASON

A fine Saturday in June.

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

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

GEOGRAPHY

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Vaughn

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

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

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

Bill Vaughn

STORY STRUCTURE OF “ERNESTINE AND KIT”

THE RULE OF THREE IN STORYTELLING

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

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

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

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

PARATEXT

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

The Paris Review

SHORTCOMING

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

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

The details about these ladies are marvellous.

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

DESIRE

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

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

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

The big reveal is their desire to abduct a child.

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

OPPONENT

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

PLAN

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

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

BIG STRUGGLE

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

ANAGNORISIS

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

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

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

NEW SITUATION

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

EXTRAPOLATION

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

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

RESONANCE

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

Beer Trip To Llandudno by Kevin Barry

“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. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GxPfnMVysb0

(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.

STORYWORLD 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)

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.

Header photo by Louis Hansel

Stuck by Oliver Jeffers (2011)

When Floyd’s kite gets stuck in a tree, he tries to knock it down with increasingly larger and more outrageous things. A perfect picture book by Oliver Jeffers.

STORY STRUCTURE OF STUCK

There’s a long oral tradition of stories which get cumulatively more and more ridiculous until the  most ridiculous idea ends the story. “The Three Lazy Sons” is from one of the earlier Grimm collections and demonstrates the tradition nicely. In this fairytale, a king is trying to choose which of his three sons will be king after his death. For some reason that only makes sense according to fairytale logic, the king decides that his laziest son shall be king. The sons plead their case:

  • The kingdom belongs to me, for I’m so lazy that when I’m lying on my back and want to sleep and a drop of rain falls on my eyes, I won’t even shut them so I can fall asleep.
  • I’m so lazy that when I’m sitting by the fire to warm myself, I’d sooner let my heels be burned than draw back my feet.
  • I’m so lazy that if I were about to be hanged and the noose were already around my neck and someone handed me a sharp knife to cut the rope, I’d rather let myself be hanged than lift my hand to cut the rope.

This reminds of the Yo Mama category of boasting, in which (mostly) young men compete to come up with the most ridiculous insults about someone else’s mother. These, too, are an oral tradition. Picture books, meant to be read aloud, borrow heavily from the oral tradition.

This is a subcategory of cumulative tale in which a character has a problem and tries to fix it by accumulating more problems, only making the matter worse.

The ur-story of this kind might be There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly. There’s also the folktale about the man whose house is too noisy, so he is advised to fill it up with other noises in order to distract from the previous one. A 1967 picture book example of this story is Too Much Noise by Anne McGovern, illustrated by Simms Taback. Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler revived the story a few decades later and called it A Squash and a Squeeze. Clearly, this gag is still going strong. You see it as a gag in other stories, for instance in Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear scene in which Paddington is making a table but can’t get the legs even so he tries to fix the problem by cutting the legs shorter and shorter.

SHORTCOMING

it all began

Floyd is not exactly a pro with the kite. It has got stuck in a tree.

Floyd is not sensible.

Notice how the phrase “It all began…” puts us in mind of some great event from the past, something legendary and unforgettable.

CHARACTER NAME FLOYD

According to the Internet:

The name Floyd is a Welsh baby name. In Welsh the meaning of the name Floyd is

  • Grey.
  • One with grey hair.

In common use as both a surname and first name.

I often look up children’s book character names in case they are somehow meaningful. I don’t think this one is. Little Floyd has bright red hair. (I am sure kids with red hair are way more common in books than in real life!)

DESIRE

He wants to remove the kite from the tree so he can have more fun.

OPPONENT

The tree.

PLAN

The plan stage of this book comprises the bulk of the story and is a great source of humour, because everything Floyd throws into the tree gets stuck. His ideas for retrieval get more and more ridiculous. In common with many comedic characters, Floyd’s behaviour is funny because he just won’t learn. The young reader learns, though, and there is great dramatic irony when we see what he’s about to do, then he does it and… SURE ENOUGH! It doesn’t work.

STUCK LADDER
bucket got stuck
the family car
lighthouse whale
and they all got stuck

BIG STRUGGLE

There’s a particular kind of deus ex machina that is fine to use in humorous picture books (we also see this in Walter The Farting Dog) — a police car or a fire brigade just happens to be passing. The fact that they just happen to be passing at the exact right time is funny in its own right. In general, though, it pays not to have adults in authority stepping in to save the day, and here Jeffers subverts that by showing Floyd with the fireman in his arms as if he’s about to heave the fireman into the tree. (And by now we all know how that will turn out…) Turn the page and sure enough, Floyd has got the firemen AND the truck stuck in the tree.

ANAGNORISIS

In picture books, sometimes the anagnorisis is signposted with a lightbulb above the head. (Oliver Jeffers likes lightbulbs.)

Then he had an idea, and went to find a saw.

But masterfully, even the anagnorisis phase of the story is subverted by this master storyteller. The trick works — the saw indeed gets the kite down — but not in the way we expect.

NEW SITUATION

That night Floyd fell asleep exhausted. Though before he did, he could have sworn there was something he was forgetting.

Through the window, we see everything, including the firemen, are still stuck in the tree.

This picture book is a ‘never-ending story’, because we already know that the firemen are going to go through their own, similar rigmarole trying to get themselves dislodged.

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION

There doesn’t seem to be a reason why the character is named Floyd, but can there be a reason why Floyd’s hair is red, however? Or a reason why the kite is red? The kite is important to Floyd and they are linked by the colour red. When the kite gets stuck in the tree, to Floyd the situation is as dire as if he himself were stuck, irretrievably, in the tree.

I feel that Oliver Jeffers’ picture books, even more than other picture books, have been made to be shared with an adult co-reader.

The big clue? Jeffers’ handwriting is pretty hard to read. In fact, my eight-year-old has trouble reading it. The ability to read individuals’ handwriting comes quite a long time after learning how to read common typefaces and their teacher’s perfect, slanting script. This book is similar to The Day The Crayons Quit, in that regard. (I like this book a lot less than I like this one.)

MOVEMENT FROM LEFT TO RIGHT

In Western picture books, the default movement through a story is from left to right, as the page turns. But illustrators can deliberately invert this convention, causing some sort of obstacle to the progression of story, by depicting the main character facing left, unable to move forward. We see this here, too:

Floyd Fetched Mitch

We see it again when ‘Floyd fetched a ladder,’ and on the following page as well, which is mainly blue (symbolic of Floyd’s general mood). In short, Jeffers has used this trick three time, making use of the rule of three.

Another interesting trick Jeffers uses is to do with colour. Often in a story like this, when an action is established and supposed to continue on and on, long after it has become interesting, you’ll find a double spread in which the actions are compressed into a series of thumbnail actions.

Here, too, we have the double spread which starts with ‘a duck to knock down the bucket of paint…’ Notice Jeffers has switched to a single dominant hue for each half of the page — a greeny-yellow for the left, orange-sepia for the right. Why did he do this?

monocolor stuck

Picturebook art has been influenced by the age of photography, and this may be a recreation of a page of old-fashioned photographs you might find in an album — photos which have been taken on the day of some important event.

Or, it may simply be because the reader is not meant to linger on this page, enjoying the artwork. Jeffers knows that the child is keen to know the outcome — does Floyd get his kite back? The limited palette means these pictures don’t draw attention to themselves.

COLOUR TO SIGNIFY A TALL TALE

But that’s not the only thing Jeffers did with colour — the tree is a different colour in every picture. We understand that it’s the same tree. Why change its colour?

This is a subtle clue that the story is a tall one, not to be taken seriously. Of course the whole thing is made up. It’s one of those stories that has been told over and over many times. Maybe, in Floyd’s (Oliver’s) youth, a kite did get stuck in a tree and maybe it required several shoes before it came down. Over the years, this story gets embellished and built upon until it reaches a ridiculous level. The tree itself changes colour to suit the mood of the storyteller.

The main requirement of a tall tale is exaggeration: There are unbelievable creatures, huge fish, large distances, huge volumes. But hyperbole alone does not mean ‘tallness’. In a tall tale, the listener must both accept and refute. The listener has to know enough of the environment in which the tale is told to realise this can’t be true. The line between fact and fiction is hazy, and the humour derives from pushing that boundary. Which parts of this story are true, and which aren’t?

 STORY SPECIFICATIONS OF STUCK

Everything is about 400-500 words these days. This picture book is no exception, coming in at 493 words.

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