The Years of My Birth by Louise Erdrich

“The Years Of My Birth” (2011) is a short story by Louise Erdrich.

Tommy Orange joined Deborah Treisman to read and discuss “The Years of My Birth,” by Louise Erdrich, which appeared in a 2011 issue of the New Yorker magazine.

The author has said that her novels come from her short stories. “The Years Of My Birth” led to the novel The Round House. Despite the connection and clear evolution, the two are best considered separate works. However, in the New Yorker discussion it’s clear Treisman and Orange have read both. They know a few things which can’t be learned from the story itself, for instance the real name of Tuffy (Linda) which is hinted at but not explicit in the short story. If you’ve read the book, your reading of the short story will be influenced by what you learned in that.

Continue reading “The Years of My Birth by Louise Erdrich”

A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

many crabs climbing on rock at seashore

“A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” by Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez is sometimes subtitled “A tale for children”. This short story reminded me of middle grade novel Skellig by British author David Almond. Sure enough, Almond has said in interview that he was influenced by the 1960 Colombian short story, and others have already looked into the relationship between the two.

  • What does it mean for a short story to be ‘for children’?
  • How is the story structured?
  • What do I get out of this story and how are its themes relevant today?

NARRATION OF “A VERY OLD MAN WITH ENORMOUS WINGS”

Perhaps this is the thing which seems tailored for children. The narrative voice has a fairytale/folktale vibe.

SETTING OF “A VERY OLD MAN WITH ENORMOUS WINGS”

The setting is a fairytale world, but not the forests and castles of landlocked fairytale Europe — this is a fishing village beside the sea and the sea is the magical place. Weird things come out of the sea. First crabs, then, well, an old man with wings.

But why else is the sea setting important? Well, the sea and shore is often said to be a ‘liminal’ space — a space that exists on the borders, in the ‘in between’. But the word liminal is useful because it refers to metaphorical borders as well as geographical, actual ones.

liminal space is the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ It is a place of transition, waiting, and not knowing. Liminal space is where all transformation takes place, if we learn to wait and let it form us.

Liminal Space

Apart from the sea itself, the story arena is very small for this one — we never follow the ‘camera’ into the ocean depths. Rather, the entire story takes place around a chicken coop and shack.

The setting is ‘fallen’ — the inverse of utopian. Also known as postlapsarian. A type of hell before actually getting to hell. ‘Sea and sky were a single ash-gray thing’, we are told. Hell on Earth, in other words. This is a story about an unfortunate convergence. The angel is both miraculous and ordinary — the world is both worldly and heavenly, with no division between the celestial and earthly.

When people come from all around to see the caged angel, broken and pathetic, this is not part of the fantasy world. Garcia Marquez is saying nothing about human relationships that hasn’t actually happened. In this way he is like Margaret Atwood, who wrote a ‘fantasy’ world for The Handmaid’s Tale, but invented nothing — every terrible thing in Atwood’s book had happened somewhere at some point in history.

Until the 20th century, it was socially acceptable to enjoy cruelty as entertainment.

Australia is having this debate, most recently with The Melbourne Cup — a culturally significant annual horse race. Many horses die as a result of this race, and their treatment too often involves torture. Australians are currently bifurcated into those who happily accept the Melbourne Cup and those who are morally appalled by it. Using history as our guide, the Melbourne Cup’s days are numbered.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “A VERY OLD MAN WITH ENORMOUS WINGS”

SHORTCOMING

“A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” is a story about a community rather than an individual, though the story focuses on a husband and wife, which makes sense because the angel arrives at their house.

The symbolism of names is important here. Pelayo is the Spanish form of Pelagius, which if you trace back far enough means “the sea”. This character is inextricably linked to his home by the sea. Elisenda is from Catalan — originally a Visigothic name meaning Temple and Path.

DESIRE

Pelayo and Elisenda do not want a scraggy old guy with wings in their yard. That is about the last thing they need, in the wake of all those crabs. They want their baby to get well. They want to live their simple lives in peace, without calamity, without crowds turning up to their chicken coop all the livelong day.

OPPONENT

The Opposition in this story is an excellent reminder that ‘Opponent‘ does not equal ‘Villain’. The opponent in a story is the character who stands in the way of the main characters’ Desire. In this case the Opponent is very much the victim of the main (viewpoint) characters (the villagers).

The angel is guised as a ragpicker — a person who collects and sells rags. In stories, characters tend to underestimate those dressed in rags. The Pied Piper is a classic example – pied meaning he was wearing clothes stitched together by lots of different rags, meaning that he was too poor to afford proper clothes. Yet the Pied Piper had the last laugh.

Perhaps because of this history, in which a dishevelled appearance so often belies intelligence, conniving and trickery, I expected this story to end differently. I expected the fallen angel to ‘win’, to take revenge upon the people who abused him rather than helped.

The angel is presented as a classic horror genre opponent. In horror, you can’t kill the baddie. It keeps coming back, even if it’s only one arm clawing its way along the floor.

PLAN

Pelayo and Elisenda ask the woman who knows things for advice. This woman is completely full of supernatural crap, but she’s established herself as Someone Wise, and people listen to her.

We can find contemporary analogues in anti-vaxxers, astrologists, conspiracy theorists and similar. There will always be people like this in every society, who position themselves as helpers and mentors as soon as science fails to explain new and disturbing phenomena.

BIG STRUGGLE

Which part of this story is the Battle? The scenes of abuse, with the angel trapped in the cage, are of course a big struggle of sorts. For storytelling purposes, the Battle scene is the part which leads to the Anagnorisis.

This is an interesting technique: The writer spends most of the story with characters engaged in a big struggle, but the death scene is very short. The Battle which kills the angel is presented to us as succinct narrative summary rather than as a dramatised sequence.

In fact, his death is presented to us as if in passing, underscoring how little respect was garnered by this celestial creature:

Those consolation miracles, which were more like mocking fun, had already ruined the angel’s reputation when the woman who had been changed into a spider finally crushed him completely.

Why? Why not dramatise that scene for us? Wouldn’t it be spectacular, to see how a tarantula woman spiritually murders (‘crushes’) an angel? Well no, it would be grotesque.

  • The story is about the relationship between the humans and the angel — the tarantula is mainly brought in as a plot device
  • What I can imagine this scene looked like is probably far more fearsome than how anyone could’ve described a blow-by-blow account on the page
  • Unless writing for the action and thriller genres (and adjacent), an audience probably doesn’t even want a blow-by-blow description of a crushing.

ANAGNORISIS

When even the tarantula can’t get rid of the groteque angel completely, Elisenda realises she’ll just have to live with him.

Pelayo and Elisenda very soon overcame their surprise and in the end found him familiar.

I sometimes wonder what would happen if astro-biologists discovered life on another planet. Unless it was intelligent life who was coming for us all, I suspect we’d all be surprised for a while, but that the wonder would very soon wear off and we’d return to our regular infighting here on Earth, giving extraterrestrial lifeforms very little thought on a day-to-day basis, outside a small group of enthusiasts. We’d just take it for granted that it’s there, much like we take deep sea life for granted. I rarely give a thought to the alien-like creatures living deep in the Mariana Trench. If similar lifeforms were found beneath the surface of Jupiter’s moon, Europa, I’d probably watch a documentary on it, be fascinated for a while, then go back to my day-to-day life.

Because we can’t remain in awe forever, right? Awe is not an enduring emotion. If we felt it every day, it wouldn’t be ‘awe’.

NEW SITUATION

Having made money off him, Elisenda and Pelayo will live a nice life in their nice big mansion, having put the poor creature right out of their mind.

This is an active non-noticing. I believe we in the West are pretty good at active non-noticing. Our sports shoes are made by children living in slave conditions, but we choose not think of that when we walk out of the store wearing comfy new kicks. Almost everything we buy is unethical; but to not buy it is unrealistic. It’s impossible to buy an ethical mobile phone; it’s also impossible to log in to certain Australian government websites without one.

SEE ALSO

MAGICAL REALISM

Magical realism is a phrase that crops up a lot when discussing stories concerned with the manifestation of the supernatural in the context of everyday life. Our standout example of a magical realist writer is this very guy — Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

What’s the difference between ‘fantasy’ and ‘magical realism’? A writer at The Millions puts it this way:

in magical realism the narrative is primarily interested in the village, while in fantasy the author would focus primarily on the old man, his wings, how he got them, and what his home world is like.

Worth knowing: magical realism is a contentious label to apply to work which is not Latin American. You’ll find various opinions about whether we may call non-Latin American fiction magical realism, or whether we should instead stick to, say, ‘fabulism’ to describe other work with the same attributes but set elsewhere. There’s quite a lot to this debate.

An invasion of creatures is used in another ‘magical realist’ story — one by Keri Hulme — “King Bait”. That New Zealand story is also about the base, nasty nature of humankind, in that case greed, in this case selfishness, and our ability to dehumanise what is clearly human, or equivalently sentient.

KIDS CAN SEE THINGS ADULTS CAN’T

The idea that we are surrounded by the extraordinary yet remain blind to it is a pretty common theme in picture books, in which the archetype of The (Jungian) Child is useful as a character who hasn’t lost their wonder yet, after being subjected to the monotony of life with adult responsibilities. “Children who notice things adults don’t” could be a subcategory of children’s literature in its own right. Think of all those fantasy portals, never discovered by adults, and all those fantasy creatures. Are they fantasy or real? Are they only real if we see them? What does it even mean to be ‘real’?

A well-known Australian picture book example of “children who notice things adults don’t” is The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan. A boy sees all sorts of weird machines everywhere. He even takes one home and his parents still don’t bat an eye. Commuters dressed in suits are wholly oblivious to the wonder all around them. The boy grows up and loses his ability to see these wondrous things, most of the time. But now and then he gets a glimpse of his former childish wonder.

What about in stories with no adults? Often in that case, when the author has dispatched with the adults, there’ll be a dog who can sense things the kids cannot. The kids will take the dog’s lead. The standout example from my own childhood is Timmy the dog from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series.

Basically, the closer a character to its animalistic, unadulterated nature, the more useful they are in picking up on vibes more cerebral characters cannot. This is why, traditionally, girls have been used for this role more frequently than boys. Women give birth and menstruate and until very recently were consistently either giving birth or preparing to, across their entire adult lives. So women were more clearly ‘animal’ than men, who traditionally positioned themselves, and only themselves, closer to God. For 1000 odd pages on that idea see Women, Men and Morals by Marilyn French.

Slap Happy Larry Stories

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

Lemon Girl: A movie-length novella by Slap Happy Larry. Everyone is someone else's little psycho.

Header photo by Raphael Bick

King Bait by Keri Hulme Short Story Study

king bait keri hulme

“King Bait” is a short story by Keri Hulme, author of The Bone People, which won the Booker Prize. The setting is a magical realist New Zealand. “King Bait” is a good mentor text:

  • If writing in the oral tradition, inspired by the tall tale
  • If writing a story with supernatural elements in which the characters never understand the whys and wherefores of the phenomenon. (There’s an unwritten rule about telling such stories — read on for more.)
  • A good example of a short story which links opening sentence to final sentence, creating circularity and a sense of a conclusion.

In “King Bait” we see a number of features common to Keri Hulme’s narrative style:

  • New Zealand qualities: Content – whitebaiting, Friday night at the pub; Language – Maori words e.g. kai (food)
  • Mixes colloquial language with poetic prose. She makes use of colloquialisms in dialogue to convey characters and their lifestyles. When rising to the thematic climax she is inclined to make use of poetic techniques.
  • Very graphic description – sex, violence, disgusting descriptions of blood e.g. ‘moise warm groove’
  • Dense use of symbolism e.g. hooks are symbolic of many things. Lots of symbolism is left mysterious and ambiguous, like the cones and goblets of Hooks and Feelers.
  • Magic realism
  • Uses first person narration but with irony and precision. She as the reader and we as the readers are aware of things the main character is not. The first person is often androgynous.
  • Use of ellipsis. She often leaps forward and leaves the readers to form our own connections. Ellipsis serves to economise space, add mystery and encourage alertness. Absence can be more powerful than presence because the imagination can take over.
  • Paralinguistic features such as unconventional capitalisation, running words together, separating words (parataxis)
  • Varied main characters. Hulme is able to transcend gender.
  • Like Katherine Mansfield, Hulme uses idiomatic expressions of her time to build character. e.g. Katherine Mansfield says ‘diddums’. Hulme says ‘bloody oath’.
  • Stories are multi-layered. Both Katherine Mansfield and Hulme are interested in subconscious drives and motivations.
  • Unlike Katherine Mansfield, Hulme is inclined to avoid describing beautiful things such as flowers, dwelling instead on the macabre. She shares this in common with American writer Annie Proulx.
  • Mansfield is often omnipresent, writing from an omniscient point of view. Hulme takes one viewpoint.

SETTING OF “KING BAIT”

WHITEBAITING IN NEW ZEALAND

Every country has its weird delicacy. For this white girl, who grew up in the South Island of New Zealand, that weird delicacy was whitebait. Ask me to describe them? They taste of squish and air. It’s not about the flavour, you see. They look like strips of grated potato, which is what our mother used to bulk out the patties when there wasn’t enough whitebait to go around — which there never was — because you rarely catch a family sized amount. If you want to buy whitebait from the fish shop, it costs a fortune. There’s one difference though, between grated spud patties and proper whitebait patties: the crunch. As kids we were glad not to have to endure those eyes, which crack between your teeth. We preferred the hash brown version. Whitebait enthusiasts LIKE the eyes. Indeed, that’s the entire reason for eating them. When creating the cheapo version, some people have been known to sprinkle poppy seeds into their grated potato just to recreate the sensation of crunchy little black eyes. In the West, we rarely consume animals in their entirety. Not in modern life. But certain water creatures are one exception. (Mussels are another, but let’s not get into those.)

This eye-eating culinary fetish is creepy, and Keri Hulme must have thought so too, because in 1984 she published a story about white bait, with focus on the eyes. “King Bait” is published in her first short story collection, Te Kaihau (The Windeater). This was one of our high school set texts. Our English teacher introduced us to the concept of magical realism with this particular story. (The following year he introduced us to The Bone People, Keri Hulme’s masterwork, which I had to read again in English 101 at university, which is when I read it properly, and even looked up the meaning of ‘pederast’.)

Our retired neighbours took me whitebaiting once. I was six. By coincidence, Te Kaihau (and this story) was published that same year. Our neighbour Don wore very long white gumboots which came up to his thigh. He could wade far enough into the river to set nets without getting his feet wet. Meanwhile, Noelene and I set about making a cup of tea. We caught one whitebait, singular. It contained less meat than your average garden worm. I don’t remember making it into a patty. We probably threw it back.

THE WEST COAST

In New Zealand, the West Coast is a place where rain is measured in metres. The West Coast catches most of the torrential downpours coming off the ocean — across the island, the main city of Christchurch is dry by comparison. I grew up in Christchurch. I had an uncle from the West Coast — he was drawn back there at every opportunity, to reflect quietly, to fish, to drink. Once a West Coaster, always a West Coaster. There’s a separate West Coast wave which only Coasters use. They’re seen as different and feel that they’re different. It’s a good place to start a cult.

A small town on the West Coast is a good retreat if you are — as Keri Hulme describes herself and her community — “intellectually-different”.

Of anywhere in New Zealand, you can almost believe magical things do happen over that side, over the mountain, exposed to the Tasman Sea.

The story is set in a specific, real place — under The Cobden Bridge. To be honest, I get a bit homesick just looking at the streetview. It’s such an archetypically New Zealand scene.

The river is an important geological feature of Greymouth. Rivers in storytelling can symbolise many things, and here the river symbolises plenitude. It also symbolises the Power of Nature.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “KING BAIT”

NARRATION

“King Bait” is written in the tradition of a tall story — heavily associated with hunting, fishing and camping. The tone is conversational, opening with:

I think this season’ll be the last, you know.

The rest of the story explains why the narrator thinks that. The oral feel is achieved with questions, as if there’s a narratee present in the room:

How did your mother cook them when she got them from the shop?

The modern legend “King Bait” is told via a first person narrator but this is a story of a town event, and a story about human nature. The viewpoint character has the character arc — a new belief that the world wasn’t quite as she saw it before.

SHORTCOMING

We are told in the opening paragraph that the storyteller doesn’t know what to make of the tale she’s about to tell:

Here I am, wound round in a welt of words, with a mystery on my hands, and very uncertain what to say about it. But this is the core of the matter, the heart of the nut: King Bait.

This is a clear connection to the Anagnorisis part of the story. (The psychological shortcoming always is.)

DESIRE

Surface desire: A successful fishing trip with a feed worth of whitebait, like everyone else in the town.

This year I’m all enthusiasm. Buy myself the regulation round Grey net, and a bloody great pole to go with it. Equip myself with gumboots, get out old fishing clothes, and head down to the river at odd hours, waiting on changing tides. […] hopeful of a nice little pudding at the bottom of the nylon bag. Or a very large one, for the season’s started out a boomer. Tons of bait about. Happy faces all around, reflecting my smug grin. Full stomachs abounding, appetite satisfied, bankbook replete, and yet expecting much, much more.

This hooks into a main idea of the story: Greed. The narrator started off with low expectations of a good feed, but when she saw it was a good season, her expectations rose accordingly. Even on the night before, the narrator has been enjoying herself at the pub, and has a belly full of whitebait. She doesn’t want for anything more at that point.

Deep desire: To believe in something bigger than human life itself. I believe the narrator is hoping for some external force to put a lid on her untamed desires, which get bigger and bigger according to circumstance.

OPPONENT

This is a tough one. The massive whitebait (named “King Bait”) that comes down the river doesn’t pose any overt threat to the whitebaiting community. But Keri Hulme injects much needed opposition with the character of the ‘thigh-booted, dungareed individual, made distant and inhuman by his action. For he is swinging his net like an automaton, scooping the bait, flinging it silver and anywhere onto the shore. There is saliva hanging in a shining string from the corner of his mouth, and I am not so far away that I can’t see the money-glaze on his eyes.’

By the way, the description of this man accords with descriptions of whitebait in a close up shot — the ‘shining string’ of saliva most of all. The technique of linking humans to animals is something I notice especially often in short stories compared to in longer works. Alice Munro does it in “Runaway“, linking a human character to a goat. In modern illustrations of The Pied Piper, the piper is often depicted as ratlike. Caleb by Gary Crew is another illustrated short story example, this time comparing a person to an insect. Angela Carter uses the technique in “Lizzie’s Tiger”, comparing Lizzie Borden to a circus tiger.

PLAN

Everyone catches the fish and cooks them up and eats them. This is conveyed succinctly, and also creepily:

All over the Coast the hiss of hot fat and the crunching of little eyes…

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle scene is better described as a Climax in this particular story. On the other hand, there is a big struggle, but not between fish and people — the fish themselves are unlike normal whitebait — once caught they just lie there, as sacrifice.

The story next zooms in on the man who is possessed with greed. The narrator herself is knowingly possessed, pushing her way through ‘small fry and lame old ladies’. This is a big struggle between people with themselves and their own need for more and more and more. This was a recurring theme in work throughout the 1980s, and probably since the Mad Men era actually. Until the business of advertising kicked off, people could live in relative peace without constantly being told they needed the next latest thing. A picture book example with the same message is More and Better by Margaret Neve, published in 1980.

ANAGNORISIS

The narrator describes herself in a knowing way. She knows full well that on the night of King Bait, she was as crazed with greed as anyone else. She has not gone easy on herself, admitting to her audience how she pushed through weaker characters to get to the great feed. The anagnorisis concerns her own psychology.

As for where the river of bait came from and where they’re going, the narrator remains perplexed. In this regard, “King Bait” by Keri Hulme is the inverse of “In The Pit” by Annie Proulx.

“King Bait”: psychological revelation without our character understanding aspects of the plot.

“In The Pit”: our character comes to understand what happens regarding the plot, but there’s no anagnorisis regarding his own psychology, shortcoming and need.

And that’s the key to writing a supernatural story in which the supernatural phenomenon is never explained. Readers will accept supernatural stories with no setting explanation, but the writer is absolutely obliged to include another kind of personal anagnorisis, emphasis on SELF. Otherwise the story will feel pointless and you’ll get complaints that it’s unbelievable.

NEW SITUATION

The final snippets of dialogue “I hope they get there” and “God love us all, but are they ever coming back?” stuck in my mind, even though I read this story years ago.

For story crafting purposes it doesn’t matter that these questions remain unanswered, because the Anagnorisis was so robust: People are greedy and in times of plenty keep wanting more. We all have that tendency within is, and we must fight it at all costs.

We’ve had enough to expect this event will never happen again, signalled in the opening sentence. The final sentence therefore answers the question posed in the first, creating a circular ending.

Slap Happy Larry Stories

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

Lemon Girl: A movie-length novella by Slap Happy Larry. Everyone is someone else's little psycho.

Things To Know About Miyazaki Films

Hayao Miyzaki Howl's Moving Castle

1. MIYAZAKI’S FILMS FEATURE A TECHNIQUE CALLED ‘PILLOW SHOTS’

A “pillow shot” is a cutaway, for no obvious narrative reason, to a visual element, often a landscape or an empty room, that is held for a significant time (five or six seconds). It can be at the start of a scene or during a scene.

Dangerous Minds

It comes from the famous director Yasujiro Ozu and is common in Japanese cinema. Why are they called pillow shots? It’s the cinematic equivalent of ‘pillow words’ used in Japanese poetry. A pillow word represents a sort of musical beat between what went before and what comes after. It functions as a kind of punctuation, signalling the end of something and a transition to something else.

Similarly, silence plays an important part in Japanese films, and Hayao Miyazaki doesn’t subscribe to the Dreamworks school of thought, in which kids need action from the get-go.

Although it looks as if nothing is happening in some of Miyzaki’s pillow shots, Japanese animators are more likely to use dynamic backgrounds and Western animators to use static ones. For instance, something in the Japanese background will be in motion and change. Even when there’s action going on in the foreground, Miyazaki will quite likely have something going on in the background.

2. THE ENGLISH DUBS AREN’T ALL THAT GREAT

The English translations of Miyazaki movies are often quite different. For example, the agency of Sophie is taken away somewhat in the English dub of Howl’s Moving Castle. Regional dialects are lost when they are dubbed into standard American English. Voices are quite different, also. Miyazaki’s children’s voices tend to be authentic child voice actors whereas sometimes Hollywood uses an adult to mimic a child.

Also, the English dubs tend to put words in where there were none, under the assumption that a young Western audience needs them. In Kiki’s Delivery Service, several additional words and sounds occur at moments of silence in the original.

3. MIYAZAKI’S FILMS TEND TO STAR GIRLS BUT THEY ARE ONLY ‘FEMINIST’ IN THEIR OWN, OLD-FASHIONED KINDA WAY

The Feminism Of Hayao Miyazaki from Bitch Media

4. BUT WHEN DISNEY’S MARKETING DEPARTMENT GETS A HOLD OF MIYAZAKI FILMS THEY MAKE THEM LESS FEMINIST THAN THEY WERE IN THE FIRST PLACE.

Miyazaki at the A.V. Club

Miyazaki at Bitch Flicks

6. HAYAO MIYAZAKI USES A WIDE RANGE OF CLASSIC LITERATURE AND BUILDS ON IT.

The name ‘Laputa’ (from ‘Castle In The Sky’) is derived from Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels, wherein Swift’s Laputa is also a flying island controlled by its citizens. Anthony Lioi feels that Miyazaki’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky is similar to Swift’s Laputa, where the technological superiority of the castle in the sky is used for political ends.

7. THERE’S THIS JAPANESE CONCEPT CALLED ‘MA’

ma hayao miyazaki concept

When Roger Ebert asked Miyazaki about the “gratuitous motion” in his films—the bits of realist texture, like sighs and gestures—Miyazaki told Ebert that he was invoking the Japanese concept of “ma.” Miyazaki clapped three times, and then said, “The time in between my clapping is ma.” This calls to mind the concept of temps morts, or dead time, in the European art cinema of the 1960s. Temps morts is a pause, a beat, a breath, a moment that doesn’t advance the plot. But far from being dead, Miyazaki’s moments of “ma” are full of life—there is a simple joy in watching his worlds move. In “animating”—breathing life into—a world that looks like our own, Miyazaki carries forward a spirit from the very beginning of film history.

Bright Wall Dark Room

8. THE FILMS ARE COMMONLY REFERRED TO AS ‘MAGICAL REALISM’

For more on magical realism see the blog posts by Michelle Witte.

However, there is a case to be made for reserving the word for specifically Latin American literature using magic to explore ideas of colonisation. To avoid this appropriation there is another word we can use: fabulism.

9. HAYAO MIYAZAKI IS A WORLDWIDE INFLUENCE ON OTHER STORYTELLERS

Take 2017 Netflix series Okja as an example.

Kong: Skull Island is another: “Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts took a page from Miyazaki’s playbook and decided to focus on the unique spirit of all living creatures.”

Lilo and Stitch, too, was apparently influenced by Hayao Miyazaki. “Kiki’s Coffee House” was inserted into the movie as a tribute.

[Miyazaki’s] stories are everything but cliché. There’s never a cliché I’ve ever detected in his stories; the storylines are completely original and the way the characters interact is very believable. I think that’s one of the things that inspired us to rewrite the book in the way our characters interact. You referenced that when we were talking about the scene with the sisters yelling at each other. It’s so natural and cathartic to see that going on. When characters interact believably, you believe in them and it makes it seem much more real to you. One of the big reasons we didn’t have this film as a musical in the traditional sense is that the minute a character begins to sing, it places that film in a certain realm, a musical realm, which is great but it’s not really happening the way we wanted this film to feel like it’s happening.

Chris Sanders

Specifically, if you reference a film like Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro, that film shares a lot of similarities with ours. We were inspired by the way Miyazaki created realistic relationships between the human characters, the sister-sister relationship, and wove in a realm of fantasy and whimsy very subtly. It’s done in such a believable way… You’ve got these fantastic elements and yet you feel like you watched a story that really existed between a family.

Dean DuBlois

Ubisoft’s Child Of Light was also influenced by Miyazaki, particularly the hand-drawn look of the art.

10. HAYAO MIYAZAKI LOVED BOTH JAPANESE AND IMPORTED CHILDREN’S BOOKS

Like a disproportionate number of adult story creators, Hayao Miyazaki was a ‘physically weak’ child and the time not spent on running about was spent reading. Open Culture published a list of Miyazaki’s favourite children’s books showing that (of course) he didn’t just enjoy stories for and about boys, but loved stories about girls equally. Miyazaki didn’t stop reading children’s books just because he stopped being a child, either.

11. HAYAO MIYAZAKI IS THE ULTIMATE PANTSER

A plotter describes a storyteller who works out the plot outline before fleshing it out. They know the ending before even starting to type. A pantser is the opposite of this, working out the plot as they go along. Miyazaki is the ultimate pantser because he has an entire studio working for him, under his direction, and none of these people knows how the story is going to progress. Hollywood doesn’t work like that. Scripts undergo numerous revisions and workshopping before filming begins. For this reason, the Studio Ghibli plots feel quite different from Hollywood blockbusters, and even more meandering than most indie films. For Miyazaki, the main thing is emotion. Emotion is first and foremost; plot is secondary.

Miyazaki also never studied screenwriting.

12. VILLAINS ALSO DEVELOP AS CHARACTERS

Miyazaki’s baddies are rounded characters in their own right. There’s no clear line between good and evil. An example of a character who is ostensibly a villain but who has a soft side is No Face from Spirited Away. He begins as greedy but becomes an ally.

There’s no binary of good and evil. These two things coexist in the same characters. The protagonist doesn’t win, but grows and adapts to a world that isn’t built to their needs.

Characters begin flawed and end flawed. There’s not the same sort of character arc as we are accustomed to in the West, though writers such as Matt Weiner have embraced this realism. Don Draper never really evolves, either. The goal in a Miyazaki movie is to develop emotionally. Any external goal is secondary. Western stories tend to use an external goal as a metaphor for internal change.

Whereas the humans in Miyazaki films have complex emotions, the fantasy characters do not. We are never let in on what they are thinking. They remain mysterious to us. Mysterious creatures hold our attention in a way that an empathetic human character does not.

13. FLIGHT IS VERY IMPORTANT

Miyazaki’s father owned a plane company and Hayao is fascinated with flight. Every single one of his movies contains a flight scene, or a scene in which a character sees something from a long distance. More on the symbolism of flight.

14. MIYAZAKI DESCRIBES HIMSELF AS A PESSIMIST

But doesn’t want that to come through in his movies. He wants to offer young viewers a sense of hope. This reality versus aspiration is evident in each of Miyazaki’s films — the themes demonstrate that the mind of the creator is focused on issues such as corporate greed and environmental destruction, but the endings of the stories are still hopeful.

15. MIYAZAKI DOES NOT LIKE HIS STUDIO DESCRIBED AS ‘THE JAPANESE DISNEY’

Far more accurate to call him ‘The Japanese Yuri Norstein’. Norstein (or Norshteyn) is a Russian animator born the same year as Miyazaki (1941). These men have lived through the same world events.  Take a look at a few of his productions and you’ll see the similarities. Hedgehog in the Fog is his best-known work in the West:

16. THE AUDIENCE FOR GHIBLI MOVIES AREN’T JUST CHILDREN

Certain films such as Totoro and Ponyo are written with young children in mind. But when stories are written to appeal to human emotion, there is no upper age limit. Miyazaki works under the principle that children don’t necessarily have to understand what they see right away — they can see something now and understand it later. That’s just fine with him.

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17. GEKIGA, NOT MANGA

Miyazaki began his career as a manga artist and is influenced by a type of manga called ‘gekiga’. This literally means ‘dramatic pictures’. It was a term coined by manga artists who wished to separate their own work from ‘less serious’ cartoonists. Creators of gekiga tend to depict more realistic humans and backgrounds. Miyazaki has no love for the manga industry in general, and its cheap tricks to get an audience reaction. He avoids large, flashy moments in favour of small, subtle ones.

18. ANIMISM

Animism is the belief that objects, places and creatures all  have a distinct spiritual presence. Even rocks, weather systems and certain words are considered animated and therefore alive.

Miyazaki believes people to be part of nature — this is the traditional Japanese way of thinking, unlike in other major world religions, in which humans (specifically male humans) are thought to be at the top of some tree of life, with animals placed her for our own use.

19. HILLS, VALLEYS, COVES AND CLIFFS

Miyazaki’s films rarely take place on flat landscapes. Japan, too, outside the megacities, is hilly. In stories, these features of land elevation are symbolic.

20. WEATHER AND EMOTION

Human sensibility is also conveyed via the weather. Rain, wind, sunshine — these mirror the emotions of the characters. This is called pathetic fallacy.

RELATED

How the Films of Hayao Miyazaki Work Their Animated Magic, Explained in 4 Video Essays

Fabulism In Children’s Literature

FABULISM: WHAT IS IT?

In fabulism, fantastical elements are placed in an everyday setting.

It’s called ‘fabulism’ because authors are playing with realism by making use of elements of fable.

For the definition of a fable, see here.

COMMON FEATURES OF FABULIST FICTION

  • ornate
  • Gothic
  • subjective
  • dream-like
  • surreal
  • emphasis on idea or theme
  • settings in other times, places, but not necessarily “historical”
  • exoticism: the extraordinary over the ordinary, the unusual over the usual.
  • doesn’t care about walls, and it doesn’t have constraints, whereas reality has rules, norms and codes of conduct.

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter is a collection of fabulist stories.

COMMON FEATURES OF CHILDREN’S FABULIST FICTION

Looking at the marketing copy and reader descriptions of these books a few tropes are common to this category of books often called ‘magical realism’ or ‘fabulist’:

  • The protagonist often has a super power, which as often as not is the flipside of a shortcoming. Sometimes it’s an original kind of superpower which hasn’t been used by Marvel and you haven’t seen it in fairytales. For example the ability to see words shining above people’s heads.
  • It’s often the sort of magic that lives next door. Or in the kitchen. Or in the shed at the bottom of the garden (Skellig).
  • Moving house is a common introduction to this kind of story. The child used to live in the ordinary world but now the parents have moved them to this island, this rickety house, this dilapidated mansion. In Skellig, Michael’s journey from the security of his early life on Random Road to the precarious and confusing removal to Falconer Road is essentially a maturation from a state of childhood innocence to pre-adolescent experience of self and other, bound together in the greater world of humankind. Random Road was a place of physical security for Michael. He was born there and took its existence for granted. He was the only child and so was the focus of his parents’ love. They provided for his needs, and he had no reason to discover that life could ever be different. It is a kind of Garden of Eden prior to the knowledge of good and evil. In the newly discovered Falconer Road Michael must increase his knowledge of the world. Significantly, this new house has to be remodelled before it becomes comfortable, mirroring Michael’s interior relationship with his environs.
  • Witches/trolls/mermaids etc. exist alongside humans, perhaps living secretly. Their secret lives can be an allegory for some kind of exclusion which happens to groups of people in the real world.
  • Fortune-telling is often a thing.
  • Luck can be a reliable, real thing, influenced by charms and whatnot.
  • Fate is also a thing, but can be thrown off-course by a savvy young protagonist. Related to fate, the moon features large in many fabulist stories.
  • Some stories have an atavistic fable/folklore/legend quality to them, taking modern people back to a time when humans really did believe the world was made of magic. There might be some direct link to the ancient past emphasised in the story e.g. finding something ancient or learning something about history in school or perhaps it’s simply working out some family history. In Skellig we have Archaeopteryx and evoltuion as a way to make Skellig credible. We don’t know what he is or where he came from. But we are reminded that there once was a dinosaur that flew, and evolution can produce many different forms of strange beings. It just may be that Skellig is the last of an ancient species, something akin to an angel. It is also a way to connect his story to the much older story of the evolution of humans and the personal evolution of understanding the ephemeral nature of being.
  • Wish fulfilment in these stories is often about getting a bully back using magical powers. Hence, the school or neighbourhood bully is often the villain of the story (rather than say, dragons, in a work of high fantasy). This is also the wish-fulfilment of a typical superhero story.
  • There is sometimes time travel which affects individuals at the personal (friendship/family) level. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is an example of that. These kids aren’t out to save the world — they’re trying to subvert personal tragedies and relationship breakups.
  • Serious issues such as drug-use and bullying can be made heartwarming by an injection of fabulism.
  • Hence, there’s quite a bit of sickness. Recently dead parents, cancer, rashes, and other horrible life journeys which is made a little easier with magic.
  • They’re quite often set in a real-world big city such as L.A., London or New York City, but can also be set in a realistic little town which mimics a real place. Or they might be set in a deliberately magical sounding place with a poetic name.
  • A character may need to keep their magical powers secret, or magic might be a widely accepted part of the natural setting. Sometimes only the children know about the magic because the adults are too busy to notice it, or wouldn’t believe it even if they were told. Sometimes this can feel contrived. David Almond avoids any sense of contrivance by having Michael engage adults when he recognises his own ignorance. For example, he asks a doctor about arthritis and quizzes a teacher about evolution and shoulder blades, though significantly, he doesn’t talk to them about Skellig. He has Mina — another child — for that.
  • The fabulism in children’s books often creates an atmosphere which feels cosy and snug and whimsical.
  • There is often a ‘wise woman’ or a ‘wise man’ or sometimes a child character is wise beyond their years (e.g. Mina in Skellig, who might also be interpreted as simply mimicking her mother). Other fairytale archetypes can be mapped onto contemporary characters.
  • Fabulism can be a part of any genre — sometimes it’s a mystery, sometimes it’s used to solve a crime, sometimes it’s a story about human relationships.
  • Flying is pretty common.
  • Fog is popular, too. You never know what lies inside the fog. Could  be anything.
  • Orphans are common too, though orphans are common right throughout children’s literature.
  • In a small-town setting, fabulist stories are probably full of eccentric characters with strange powers, habits and hobbies. In a children’s book, these adults are probably quite childlike themselves, whereas ‘regular’ adults have forgotten how to be playful and observant.
  • Perhaps the setting used to be far more magical than it is now, but something happened and now it’s up to the child character to break the curse or to bring full magic back.
  • See this 2006 issue of Through The Looking Glass journal for an entire issue on magical realism.
fabulism shaun tan

A SHORT LIST OF FABULIST CHILDREN’S BOOKS

This isn’t a list that I’ve personally read. I’m just not this well-read. It’s a collection from various places across the web — books which have been designated ‘magical realism’ by others. I’m going with the word fabulism because it’s probably best if we leave the word ‘magical realism’ to work by Latin American authors writing about colonisation.

AKATA WITCH by Nnedi Okorafor —  Born in New York, but living in Aba, Nigeria, twelve-year old Sunny is understandably a little lost. She is albino and thus, incredibly sensitive to the sun. All Sunny wants to do is be able to play football and get through another day of school without being bullied. But once she befriends Orlu and Chichi, Sunny is plunged in to the world of the Leopard People, where your worst defect becomes your greatest asset. At some point she sees the future in some flames. She has to work hard to avoid this future. Together, Sunny, Orlu, Chichi and Sasha form the youngest ever Oha Coven. Their mission is to track down Black Hat Otokoto, the man responsible for kidnapping and maiming children. Sunny has to overcome the killer with powers stronger than her own.

ANIMAL FARM by George Orwell — This allegory of a downtrodden society of overworked, mistreated animals, and their quest to create a paradise of progress, justice, and equality is one of the most scathing satires ever published. As we witness the rise and bloody fall of the revolutionary animals, we begin to recognize the seeds of totalitarianism in the most idealistic organisation; and in our most charismatic leaders, the souls of our cruelest oppressors.

BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE by Kate DiCamillo — The summer Opal and her father, the preacher, move to Naomi, Florida, Opal goes into the Winn-Dixie supermarket—and comes out with a dog. A big, ugly, suffering dog with a sterling sense of humour. A dog she dubs Winn-Dixie. Because of Winn-Dixie, the preacher tells Opal ten things about her absent mother, one for each year Opal has been alive. Winn-Dixie is better at making friends than anyone Opal has ever known, and together they meet the local librarian, Miss Franny Block, who once fought off a bear with a copy of WAR AND PEACE. They meet Gloria Dump, who is nearly blind but sees with her heart, and Otis, an ex-con who sets the animals in his pet shop loose after hours, then lulls them with his guitar. Opal spends all that sweet summer collecting stories about her new friends and thinking about her mother. But because of Winn-Dixie or perhaps because she has grown, Opal learns to let go, just a little, and that friendship—and forgiveness—can sneak up on you like a sudden summer storm.

THE BFG by Roald Dahl — Captured by a giant! The BFG is no ordinary bone-crunching giant. He is far too nice and jumbly. It’s lucky for Sophie that he is. Had she been carried off in the middle of the night by the Bloodbottler, the Fleshlumpeater, the Bonecruncher, or any of the other giants – rather than the BFG – she would have soon become breakfast. When Sophie hears that they are flush-bunking off in England to swollomp a few nice little chiddlers, she decides she must stop them once and for all. And the BFG is going to help her!

BIGGER THAN A BREAD BOX by Laurel Snyder — Perhaps a descendent of Five Children and It,  A magical breadbox that delivers whatever you wish for—as long as it fits inside? It’s too good to be true! Twelve-year-old Rebecca is struggling with her parents’ separation, as well as a sudden move to her Gran’s house in another state. For a while, the magic bread box, discovered in the attic, makes life away from home a little easier. Then suddenly it starts to make things much, much more difficult, and Rebecca is forced to decide not just where, but who she really wants to be.

BOUNTY HUNTER by S.J. Hollis — What do you do when your magic makes you a target? Run. Fight. Die. 14-year-old Kai Koson had nothing to do with the apocalypse, thank you very much. He was just a baby the day a coven of blood witches ripped a hole in the universe and the demons fell screaming from the sky. Earth and its magic perished. Witchkind was hunted and annihilated.  Now, because he was born a witch, Kai must spend his life running and fighting for survival. Even his own uncle seems determined to abandon him. With nothing left to lose, Kai runs away and joins a team of galactic bounty hunters. But instead of providing an escape, it sets Kai on a path that will destroy everything he believes about himself and the apocalypse, transforming him into the most wanted teenager in the galaxy.

BREADCRUMBS by Anne Ursu — Once upon a time, Hazel and Jack were best friends. They had been best friends since they were six, spending hot Minneapolis summers and cold Minneapolis winters together, dreaming of Hogwarts and Oz, superheroes and baseball. Now that they were eleven, it was weird for a boy and a girl to be best friends. But they couldn’t help it – Hazel and Jack fit, in that way you only read about in books. And they didn’t fit anywhere else. And then, one day, it was over. Jack just stopped talking to Hazel. And while her mom tried to tell her that this sometimes happens to boys and girls at this age, Hazel had read enough stories to know that it’s never that simple. And it turns out, she was right. Jack’s heart had been frozen, and he was taken into the woods by a woman dressed in white to live in a palace made of ice. Now, it’s up to Hazel to venture into the woods after him. Hazel finds, however, that these woods are nothing like what she’s read about, and the Jack that Hazel went in to save isn’t the same Jack that will emerge. Or even the same Hazel. Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” Breadcrumbs is a story of the struggle to hold on, and the things we leave behind.

THE BOY WHO CLIMBED INTO THE MOON by David Almond — There are some strange ideas floating around in Paul’s apartment block. There’s Mabel, who now calls herself Molly and whose brother hides under a paper bag. Then there’s Clarence, the poodle who thinks he can fly. But the strangest notion of all is Paul’s. You see, Paul believes that the moon is not the moon but a great hole in the sky. And he knows that sausages are better than war. How on earth (or not) will he find out if he is bonkers or a genius? With a few equally bonkers (or genius) helpers and a very long ladder, that’s how! From a master of magical realism and a celebrated artist comes another delightfully outrageous expedition.

CAVE OF JOURNEYS by Penny Ross — Join fourteen-year-old Sarah and her eleven-year-old brother Mattie as they journey one hundred years back in time. As they enter a magical cave Sarah, Mattie and their grandfather are mysteriously transported from Iceland in 2011. They arrive in New Iceland, near Gimli, Manitoba. The year is 1911. While exploring, they meet a fourteen-year-old Cree boy named Willow Walker and his First Nations family. The three adventurers stumble upon the CAVE OF JOURNEYS. This magical place records the chapters of humankind through picture writing. Sarah, Mattie and Willow Walker meet an ancient oak tree who recruits them to retrieve original stories of Canadian history. Their whirlwind adventure in a flying canoe takes them to four locations. The youth rush to visit Elders entrusted to guard rock paintings at sites throughout the Canadian Shield. They have four days to accomplish their goal in a race against time. CAVE OF JOURNEYS, a juvenile fiction novel, combines legend with fantasy. Similar to Alice in ALICE IN WONDERLAND the youth face real issues in a world that combines enchantment and fantasy with reality. Is this world, with oversized creatures, wise Elders and a talking tree real? Is Willow Walker real? Or is it all part of a world where legends abound? Join Sarah, Mattie and Willow Walker on their journey as they discover stories rich in the culture and traditions of Cree, Icelandic and Ojibwe people.

CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY by Roald Dahl — Magic is uncovered in the real world after a reclusive chocolatier allows five lucky children into his factory in a sorting contest to find out who should inherit his wealth.

CULLOO by Murielle Cyr — Tough and resourceful Tala will be 13 soon, and no one will tell her what to do. On one fateful day in the forest, however, she has to find her endangered father and protect her young brother from a trio of murderous poachers. All the while, she and her brother may have to face the forest’s legendary keepers—the deceptively playful characters known as the Stone People, and a giant, black bird known and feared as Culloo.

FIVE CHILDREN AND IT by E. Nesbit — The five children find a cantankerous sand fairy, a psammead, in a gravel pit. Every day ‘It’ will grant each of them a wish that lasts until sunset, often with disastrous consequences.

THE GIVER by Lois Lowry —  Perhaps the grandmother of A Tangle Of Knots (2013), this haunting story centers on Jonas, who lives in a seemingly ideal, if colorless, world of conformity and contentment. Not until he’s given his life assignment as the Receiver of Memory does he begin to understand the dark, complex secrets behind his fragile community.

THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman — After the grisly murder of his entire family, a toddler wanders into a graveyard where the ghosts and other supernatural residents agree to raise him as one of their own. Nobody Owens, known to his friends as Bod, is a normal boy. He would be completely normal if he didn’t live in a sprawling graveyard, being raised and educated by ghosts, with a solitary guardian who belongs to neither the world of the living nor of the dead. There are dangers and adventures in the graveyard for a boy. But if Bod leaves the graveyard, then he will come under attack from the man Jack—who has already killed Bod’s family…

THE GREAT UNEXPECTED by Sharon Creech — This is a story of pairs-of young Naomi and Lizzie, both orphans in present-day Blackbird Tree, USA, and of Sybil and Nula, grown-up sisters from faraway Rooks Orchard, Ireland, who have become estranged. Young Naomi Deane is brimming with curiosity and her best friend, Lizzie Scatterding, could talk the ears off a cornfield. Naomi has a knack for being around when trouble happens. She knows all the peculiar people in town – like Crazy Cora and Witch Wiggins. But then, one day, a boy drops out of a tree. Just like that. A strangely charming Finn boy. And then the Dingle Dangle man appears, asking all kinds of questions. Curious surprises are revealed-three locked trunks, a pair of rooks, a crooked bridge, and that boy-and soon Naomi and Lizzie find their lives changed forever.

HILDAFOLK by Luke Pearson — This is Hilda’s ‘folktale‘.Hildafolk presents a terse tale of the precocious, blue-haired child, Hilda — and essentially just follows her around for a couple of days as she plays and explores and draws. Hilda lives in a mountainous hills-are-alive-with kind of setting and, as she is a child, has few responsibilities beyond staying out of Deep Trouble. Her current interests include reading about the different varieties of local trolls and scribbling in her sketchbook. Her companion is a blue-coated fox with adorable little antlers and her house is visited frequently and to her annoyance by a small man made of wood. Hildafolk‘s story, while slight, exhibits a sense of humour that keeps even the book’s darker moments from infringing too deeply on its sense of place.

HOLES by Louis Sachar — Stanley Yelnats is under a curse. A curse that began with his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather and has since followed generations of Yelnatses. Now Stanley has been unjustly sent to a boys’ detention center, Camp Green Lake, where the boys build character by spending all day, every day digging holes exactly five feet wide and five feet deep. There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. But there are an awful lot of holes. It doesn’t take long for Stanley to realize there’s more than character improvement going on at Camp Green Lake. The boys are digging holes because the warden is looking for something. But what could be buried under a dried-up lake? Stanley tries to dig up the truth in this inventive and darkly humorous tale of crime and punishment—and redemption.

HOUR OF THE BEES by Lindsay Eager — While her friends are spending their summers having pool parties and sleepovers, twelve-year-old Carolina — Carol — is spending hers in the middle of the New Mexico desert, helping her parents move the grandfather she’s never met into a home for people with dementia. At first, Carol avoids prickly Grandpa Serge. But as the summer wears on and the heat bears down, Carol finds herself drawn to him, fascinated by the crazy stories he tells her about a healing tree, a green-glass lake, and the bees that will bring back the rain and end a hundred years of drought. As the thin line between magic and reality starts to blur, Carol must decide for herself what is possible — and what it means to be true to her roots. Readers who dream that there’s something more out there will be enchanted by this captivating novel of family, renewal, and discovering the wonder of the world.

THE INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD by Lynne Reid-Banks — At first, Omri is unimpressed with the plastic Indian toy he is given for his birthday. But when he puts it in his old cupboard and turns the key, something extraordinary happens that will change Omri’s life for ever.  For Little Bull, the Iroquois Indian brave, comes to life

JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH by Roald Dahl — When James accidentally drops some magic crystals by the old peach tree, strange things start to happen. The peach at the top of the tree begins to grow, and before long it’s as big as a house. When James discovers a secret entranceway into the fruit and crawls inside, he meets wonderful new friends—the Old-Green-Grasshopper, the dainty Ladybug, and the Centipede of the multiple boots. After years of feeling like an outsider in his aunts’ house, James finally found a place where he belongs. With a snip of the stem, the peach household starts rolling away—and the adventure begins!

JOPLIN, WISHING by Diane Stanley — Fifth grader Joplin Danforth discovers the broken pieces of a beautiful platter in her grandfather’s house and decides to fix it. Once repaired, the surface of the platter reveals the image of a young girl beside a lake. Joplin, who is quite lonely, wishes that she could be friends with the girl in the picture or at least have a friend at school. And to her surprise, her wishes come true. Joplin befriends a boy named Barrett and Sofie, the girl from the platter. Sofie reveals that she’s been trapped for hundreds of years, forced to grant wishes to whoever owns the magical platter. Joplin and Barrett agree to help Sofie escape her curse, and the three set off to find a way to take Sofie 400 years into the past back to her Dutch village.

KARLSSON-ON-THE ROOF by Astrid Lindgren — Imagine Smidge’s delight when, one day, a little man with a propeller on his back appears hovering at the window! It’s Karlson and he lives in a house on the roof. Soon Smidge and Karlson are sharing all sorts of adventures, from tackling thieves and playing tricks to looping the loop and running across the rooftops. Fun and chaos burst from these charming, classic stories.

KEEPER by Kathi Appelt — To ten-year-old Keeper the moon is her chance to fix all that has gone wrong … and so much has gone wrong. But she knows who can make things right again: Maggie Marie, her mermaid mother, who swam away when Keeper was just three. A blue moon calls the mermaids to gather at the sandbar, and that’s exactly where Keeper is headed – in a small boat. In the middle of the night, with only her dog, BD (Best Dog), and seagull named Captain. When the riptide pulls at the boat, tugging her away from the shore and deep into the rough waters of the Gulf of Mexico, panic sets in and the fairy tales that lured her out there go tumbling into the waves. Maybe the blue moon won’t sparkle with mermaids and maybe – Oh, no … “Maybe” is just too difficult to bear. Maggie has a porte-bonheur hanging around her neck (a lucky charm). 

THE LITTLE PRINCE by Antoine de Saint-Exupery — Moral allegory and spiritual autobiography, The Little Prince tells the story of a little boy who leaves the safety of his own tiny planet to travel the universe, learning the vagaries of adult behaviour through a series of extraordinary encounters. His personal odyssey culminates in a voyage to Earth and further adventures.

THE LOST THING by Shaun Tan — a boy finds a lost machine walking around and escorts it home.

MATILDA by Roald Dahl — A child prodigy finds she has telekinetic powers. She uses these to overcome a monstrous teacher and escape from her horrible parents.

MIRROR MIRROR by Gregory Maguire — The year is 1502, and seven-year-old Bianca de Nevada lives perched high above the rolling hills and valleys of Tuscany and Umbria at Montefiore, the farm of her beloved father, Don Vicente. There she spends her days cosseted by Primavera Vecchia, the earthy cook, and Fra Ludovico, a priest who tends to their souls between bites of ham and sips of wine. But one day a noble entourage makes its way up the winding slopes to the farm – and the world comes to Montefiore. In the presence of Cesare Borgia and his sister, the lovely and vain Lucrezia – decadent children of a wicked pope – no one can claim innocence for very long. When Borgia sends Don Vicente on a years-long quest to reclaim a relic of the original Tree of Knowledge, he leaves Bianca under the care – so to speak – of Lucrezia. She plots a dire fate for the young girl in the woods below the farm, but in the dark forest there can be found salvation as well.

MY DAD’S A BIRDMAN by David Almond — Lizzie and Dad live in a rainy town in the north of England. Jackie Crow is Lizzie’s father, who sees himself as a ‘Birdman’, someone who can fly with man-made wings just like a bird. He eats bugs, makes wings, and doesn’t do normal adult things at all. Lizzie is a young girl who takes on the mother figure in the household, looking after her father (who is perhaps dealing with depression after the loss of his wife). It is an endearing story of unconditional love, juxtaposed with the humorous and larger than life characters of Mr Poop and Auntie Doreen. The novel follows their journey as things start to change while preparing their wings for ‘The Human Bird competition’ to be held at the River Tyne near where they live. This book is marketed to appeal to Roald Dahl fans but is nothing like the same kind of disturbed that Dahl’s books are.

NIGHTINGALE’S NEST by Nikki Loftin

NINTH WARD by Jewell Parker Rhodes — Twelve-year-old Lanesha lives in a tight-knit community in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. She doesn’t have a fancy house like her uptown family or lots of friends like the other kids on her street. But what she does have is Mama Ya-Ya, her fiercely loving caretaker, wise in the ways of the world and able to predict the future. So when Mama Ya-Ya’s visions show a powerful hurricane—Katrina—fast approaching, it’s up to Lanesha to call upon the hope and strength Mama Ya-Ya has given her to help them both survive the storm.

THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE by Neil Gaiman — Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy. Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.

THE SECRET GARDEN by Frances Hodgson Burnett — When orphaned Mary Lennox comes to live at her uncle’s great house on the Yorkshire Moors, she finds it full of secrets. The mansion has nearly one hundred rooms, and her uncle keeps himself locked up. And at night, she hears the sound of crying down one of the long corridors. The gardens surrounding the large property are Mary’s only escape. Then, Mary discovers a secret garden, surrounded by walls and locked with a missing key. One day, with the help of two unexpected companions, she discovers a way in. Is everything in the garden dead, or can Mary bring it back to life?

A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS by Lemony Snicket — “I’m sorry to say that the book you are holding in your hands is extremely unpleasant. It tells an unhappy tale about three very unlucky children. Even though they are charming and clever, the Baudelaire siblings lead lives filled with misery and woe. From the very first page of this book when the children are at the beach and receive terrible news, continuing on through the entire story, disaster lurks at their heels. One might say they are magnets for misfortune. In this short book alone, the three youngsters encounter a greedy and repulsive villain, itchy clothing, a disastrous fire, a plot to steal their fortune, and cold porridge for breakfast. It is my sad duty to write down these unpleasant tales, but there is nothing stopping you from putting this book down at once and reading something happy, if you prefer that sort of thing.” Fate follows these children like a real creature. That’s part of what makes it seem magical.

SKELLIG by David Almond — Unhappy about his baby sister’s illness and the chaos of moving into a dilapidated old house, Michael retreats to the garage and finds a mysterious stranger who is something like a bird and something like an angel.

A SNICKER OF MAGIC by Natalie Lloyd — Midnight Gulch used to be a magical place, a town where people could sing up thunderstorms and dance up sunflowers. But that was long ago, before a curse drove the magic away. Twelve-year-old Felicity knows all about things like that; her nomadic mother is cursed with a wandering heart. But when she arrives in Midnight Gulch, Felicity thinks her luck’s about to change. A “word collector,” Felicity sees words everywhere—-shining above strangers, tucked into church eves, and tangled up her dog’s floppy ears—-but Midnight Gulch is the first place she’s ever seen the word “home.” And then there’s Jonah, a mysterious, spiky-haired do-gooder who shimmers with words Felicity’s never seen before, words that make Felicity’s heart beat a little faster. Felicity wants to stay in Midnight Gulch more than anything, but first, she’ll need to figure out how to bring back the magic, breaking the spell that’s been cast over the town . . . and her mother’s broken heart.

SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES by Ray Bradbury

THE STRANGE AND BEAUTIFUL SORROWS OF AVA LAVENDER by Leslye Walton —

SUMMER OF THE MARIPOSAS by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

TANGLE OF KNOTS by Lisa Graff — In a slightly magical world where everyone has a Talent, eleven-year-old Cady is an orphan with a phenomenal Talent for cake baking. But little does she know that fate has set her on a journey from the moment she was born. And her destiny leads her to a mysterious address that houses a lost luggage emporium, an old recipe, a family of children searching for their own Talents, and a Talent Thief who will alter her life forever. However, these encounters hold the key to Cady’s past and how she became an orphan. If she’s lucky, fate may reunite her with her long-lost parent.

Lisa Graff adds a pinch of magic to a sharply crafted plot to create a novel that will have readers wondering about fate and the way we’re all connected.

TEETH by Hannah Moskowitz — Be careful what you believe in. In this allegorical, kafkaesque story, Rudy’s life is flipped upside-down when his family moves to a remote island in a last attempt to save his sick younger brother (cystic fibrosis). With nothing to do but worry, Rudy sinks deeper and deeper into loneliness and lies awake at night listening to the screams of the ocean beneath his family’s rickety house. Then he meets Diana, who makes him wonder what he even knows about love, and Teeth, who makes him question what he knows about anything. Rudy can’t remember the last time he felt so connected to someone, but being friends with Teeth is more than a little bit complicated. Teeth is a merman. He soon learns that Teeth has terrible secrets. Violent secrets (including sexual abuse). Secrets that will force Rudy to choose between his own happiness and his brother’s life. There are many parallels between this book and “The Metamorphosis”.

THROUGH THE WOODS by Emily Carroll — a graphic novel of short stories similar to Neil Gaiman and Grimms’ Fairytales. There are old stories with coaches, horses and corsets as well as more modern tales. Something is wrong in each of the stories and you can’t finish until you figure out exactly what it is. The effect is haunting.

THE TIGER RISING by Kate DiCamillo — Walking through the misty Florida woods one morning in that un-nameable book-time of before now and after World War II, twelve-year-old Rob Horton is stunned to encounter a tiger – a real-life, very large tiger – pacing back and forth in a cage. What’s more, on the same extraordinary day, he meets Sistine Bailey, a girl who shows her feelings as readily as Rob hides his. As they learn to trust each other, and ultimately, to be friends, Rob and Sistine prove that some things – like memories, and heartaches, and tigers – can’t be locked up forever.The Tiger Rising follows Rob, a sixth grade boy, whose mother has recently died of cancer, now living in a motel with his father, quietly paralysed by grief. Rob is an outcast at school, bullied by thugs, overlooked by adults, and teased for a skin condition that has resulted from his own suppressed grief. His misunderstood rash, however irritating, proves to be his saviour as he’s sent home from school indefinitely, for fear of spreading it to his fellow classmates, who are oh-so-deserving of something virulent.  And then, inexplicably, there is a Tiger. In the woods behind the motel Rob finds the cage, the great orange beauty stalking back and forth in its tiny enclosure, alone and breathtakingly out of place. Rob is enthralled, a sense of wonderment and elation brought back to his life that was stuffed down into his “suitcase of not-thoughts” with the loss of his mother. Rob’s only friend, Sistine, a new girl in town, full of outrage and her own personal loss, is brought in on the secret of the Tiger. Sistine wants to set it free but Rob can’t bear to see it go.

TRUE BLUE SCOUTS OF SUGARMAN SWAMP by Kathi Appelt — Raccoon brothers Bingo and J’miah are the newest recruits of the Official Sugar Man Swamp Scouts. The opportunity to serve the Sugar Man—the massive creature who delights in delicious sugar cane and magnanimously rules over the swamp—is an honor, and also a big responsibility, since the rest of the swamp critters rely heavily on the intel of these hardworking Scouts. Twelve-year-old Chap Brayburn is not a member of any such organisation. But he loves the swamp something fierce, and he’ll do anything to help protect it. And help is surely needed, because world-class alligator wrestler Jaeger Stitch wants to turn Sugar Man swamp into an Alligator World Wrestling Arena and Theme Park, and the troubles don’t end there. There is also a gang of wild feral hogs on the march, headed straight toward them all. The Scouts are ready. All they have to do is wake up the Sugar Man. Problem is, no one’s been able to wake that fellow up in a decade or four…

TUCK EVERLASTING by Natalie Babbitt — Doomed to – or blessed with – eternal life after drinking from a magic spring, the Tuck family wanders about trying to live as inconspicuously and comfortably as they can. When ten-year-old Winnie Foster stumbles on their secret, the Tucks take her home and explain why living forever at one age is less a blessing that it might seem. Complications arise when Winnie is followed by a stranger who wants to market the spring water for a fortune.

TUMBLE & BLUE by Cassie Beasley — There’s a legend about a golden alligator named Munch who appears every 100 years during the red moon and grants good luck to anyone brave enough to ask. One night in 1817, he’s found by two people at the same time and the luck splits down the middle. Good fortune seems to skip a generation for the descendants of the two: Some live out wonderful lives, while others are cursed. Tumble Wilson and Blue Montgomery, the youngest descendants of the original two, decide to take fate into their own hands and undo the terrible mistake their ancestors made.

UGLIES by Scott Westerfeld — Tally is about to turn sixteen, and she can’t wait. In just a few weeks she’ll have the operation that will turn her from a repellent ugly into a stunning pretty. And as a pretty, she’ll be catapulted into a high-tech paradise where her only job is to have fun. But Tally’s new friend Shay isn’t sure she wants to become a pretty. When Shay runs away, Tally learns about a whole new side of the pretty world— and it isn’t very pretty. The authorities offer Tally a choice: find her friend and turn her in, or never turn pretty at all.

THE WITCHES by Roald Dahl — This is not a fairy-tale. This is about REAL WITCHES. Real witches don’t ride around on broomsticks. They don’t even wear black cloaks and hats. They are vile, cunning, detestable creatures who disguise themselves as nice, ordinary ladies. So how can you tell when you’re face to face with one? Well, if you don’t know yet you’d better find out quickly-because there’s nothing a witch loathes quite as much as children and she’ll wield all kinds of terrifying powers to get rid of them.

WEETZIE BAT by Francesca Lia Block — Set in L.A.,  Weetzie Bat, her best friend Dirk and their search across L.A. for the most dangerous angel of all …true love. There are sporadic tears in the gauze curtain through which we can glimpse the darker and seedier side: there are hints that a friend of a friend found out they had AIDS, someone’s close relative dies from a drug overdose. in Weetzie’s world, everyone finds their ideal matches, ready-made with the same cutesy nicknames that she and her best friend came up with when they were even younger and sillier, everyone lives together on their own without any trouble or financial worry, and even an impulsive and ill-devised baby-making scheme involving a threesome with a best friend and his significant other can turn out hunky-dory. Weetzie is quirky without depth. There’s no road map here for dealing with any of the problems she does encounter because she never deals with them. She denies her problems or ignores them until a convenient magical solution manifests itself or else she runs away from them, and the other characters aren’t really much more than pretty shiny accessories.

WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead — By sixth grade, Miranda and her best friend, Sal, know how to navigate their New York City neighborhood. They know where it’s safe to go, like the local grocery store, and they know whom to avoid, like the crazy guy on the corner. But things start to unravel. Sal gets punched by a new kid for what seems like no reason, and he shuts Miranda out of his life. The apartment key that Miranda’s mom keeps hidden for emergencies is stolen. And then Miranda finds a mysterious note scrawled on a tiny slip of paper. The notes keep coming, and Miranda slowly realizes that whoever is leaving them knows all about her, including things that have not even happened yet. Each message brings her closer to believing that only she can prevent a tragic death. Until the final note makes her think she’s too late.

WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON by Grace Lin — A wondrous story of happiness, family, and friendship. A fantasy crossed with Chinese folklore, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a timeless adventure story in the classic tradition of The Wizard of Oz. In the Valley of Fruitless Mountain, a young girl named Minli spends her days working hard in the fields and her nights listening to her father spin fantastic tales about the Jade Dragon and the Old Man of the Moon. Minli’s mother, tired of their poor life, chides him for filling her head with nonsense. But Minli believes these enchanting stories and embarks on an extraordinary journey to find the Old Man of the Moon and ask him how her family can change their fortune. She encounters an assorted cast of characters and magical creatures along the way, including a dragon who accompanies her on her quest.

A YEAR WITHOUT AUTUMN by Liz Kessler — On her way to visit her best friend, Autumn, Jenni Green suddenly finds she’s been transported exactly one year forward in time. Now she discovers that in the year that’s gone by, tragedy has struck and her friendship with Autumn will never be the same again. But what caused the tragedy?

YOU CAN’T SHATTER ME by Tahlia Newland — Sixteen-year-old, Carly, is set to become top of her art class until bully-boy, Justin, gives her a vicious payback for standing up for one of his victims. Her boyfriend, karate-trained nerd, Dylan, wants to smash the guys face in, but a fight at school means suspension, losing his chance at school honors and facing a furious father. Carly is determined to find a more creative solution to her problem, but will she sort it out before Dylan’s inner cave man hijacks him and all hell breaks lose? Justin might be a pain, but his harassment leads to a deepening of Dylan and Carly’s romance, and Carly finds an inner strength she didn’t know she had. The magical realism style provides a touch of fantasy in an otherwise very real story that offers heart-warming solutions to bullying. You Can’t Shatter Me is food for the soul.

ZERO by Christina Collins — about a girl who believes the answer to her problems lies in speaking zero words a day

Annie Proulx’s “Pair A Spurs”

“Pair a Spurs” is a short story by American author Annie Proulx, published in the collection Brokeback Mountain and Other Stories.

SETTING

A Pair A Spurs by Annie Proulx is set on a couple of Wyoming Ranches in the late 1990s
“Pair A Spurs” by Annie Proulx is set on a couple of Wyoming Ranches in the late 1990s
SURROUNDING CULTURE

Rather than open with landscape, sky-scape and weather, this time Annie Proulx opens with a political era. I remember it well, with lots about mad cow disease on the news in the late 1990s:

The coffeepot southeast of Signal had been an o.k. little ranch but it passed down to Car Scrope in bad times — the present time and its near past. The beef-buying states, crying brucellosis which they fancied cattle contracted from Yellowstone bison and elk on the roam, had worked up a fear of Wyoming animals that punched the bottom out of the market. It showed a difference of philosophies, the outsiders ignorant that the state’s unwritten motto, take care a your own damn slef, extended to fauna and livestock and to them. There was a deeper malaise: all over the country men who once ate blood-rare prime, women who once cooked pot roast for Sunday dinner turned to soy curd and greens, warding off hardened arteries, E. coli-tainted hamburger, and cold shakes of undulant fever. They shied from overseas reports of “mad cow” disease. And who would display evidence of gross carnivorous appetite in times of heightened vegetarian sensibility?

This time seems so bleak to people living in this farming area that it is possible to think the end of the world is nigh.

Landmarks, like people, are allegorically named.

Bad Girl Creek watered the ranch, in low ground twisted into a slough improved by beaver to three small ponds. A dusty driveway, intersected by a line of power poles slung with a single wire, wandered in from the main road, numerous side-branches cutting toward the far parts of the ranch.

THE SYMBOLISM OF DIRECTION

Annie Proulx is quite specific about cardinal direction in “Pair A Spurs”. The Box Hammerhandle (the Muddymans’ dude ranch) lies ‘directly south’ of The Coffeepot. Mrs Freeze lives in a trailer to the west. To the south-east we have ‘high bony ground populated by wild animals’, and at one stage a runaway.

Is Proulx simply painting a picture for us, giving the impression of a narrator who knows the landscape intimately, or does this directionality mean something? In American literature direction has heavy meaning. East means civilisation, West means ‘Wild’ and the South, well that’s where you get all that southern gothic fiction from, with the grotesques and the dark endings. When we’re told Mrs Freeze lives to the west, she is a genuine wild woman, not like the actor who comes in after a lifetime acting, renaming the Muddymans’ ranch. The south-eastern part of the property is the wild, expansive part and since it’s already been described I imagine it’s where the three dude women get lost. (Dude culture coming from the east.)

THE SYMBOLISM OF ALTITUDE

Annie Proulx also makes use of altitude to perhaps say something about character priority: At the highest point of the ranch stands the calving barn. (Cows are the most important beings as far as Car is concerned.)

DUDE RANCH

Dude is a word that comes up a lot in “Pair A Spurs”. Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast spent a whole episode on this word.

  • ‘Dude’ first shows up about 130 years ago, coming from ‘nowhere’.
  • In the 19th C it meant one specific thing, went underground, then re-emerged meaning a different thing, went underground, re-emerged meaning a different thing again.
  • Now it is ubiquitous. The word alone can be used to express all sorts of emotions, depending on the inflection you give it and tone of voice.
  • In March 1883, a Dude is a young man around the age of 25 who may be seen on Fifth Avenue between the hours of 3-6, dressed in clothes which are fashionable without being ostentatious. Tight trousers, a shirt collar clerical in cut, a tall black hat, pointed shoes and a cane. Fops and Swells are different because they aim for extravagance. The Fop and Swell are more high-spirited and given to laughter. There’s no evidence that the Dude enjoys life at all. He seems to have a mission and turns away from frivolity. A proto-metrosexual. The word Dude was not common at that time but took off. The word may have derived from ‘Duds’, a Scottish word for clothes. It denoted someone who was unfamiliar with life outside a city.
  • How did it come to refer to people working on farms? Well, a lot of the people who ran cattle ranches were from the city, and seemed like city slickers to long-time farmers. In this way it came to describe a job — someone who works on a ranch. The three lawyers are described as ‘three dude women’, meaning, I guess, from the city. Their clothing is described to suggest a fashionable emulation of genuine ranching clothes, contrasting with the ensemble worn by Inez Muddyman — not fashionable in the least.
  • In this story it refers to a cattle ranch converted to a holiday centre for tourists. It was used most commonly in the Western US.
  • In the 1960s it became an informal word for man, similar to ‘guy’, appropriated by surfer culture.
  • In the 1980s and 1990s it meant a ‘cool’ guy.

FABULISM AND MAGIC

The spurs in this story rely on a well-known trope about objects ‘meaning’ something. A lot of people live their lives based on the belief that certain objects carry good or bad fortune. The placebo effect is no doubt at work in many of these cases. Anyhow, Annie Proulx’s spurs are magical in this way. The characters are completely unaware of any possible bad fortune associated with the spurs.

comic by Poorly Drawn Lines

“PAIR A SPURS” STORY STRUCTURE

The short story “A Pair A Spurs” almost counts as a novella, broken into chapters headed up thusly:

THE COFFEEPOT — Car Scrope  lives on a ranch called Coffeepot which is now struggling to make money due to the threat of mad cow disease and people eating less meat for health reasons. Scrope puts 10 dollars towards a sign telling people to eat meat but hardly anyone drives past it. The weather is bad for cattle and he’s having to feed hay. This is followed by more harsh and unexpected weather. He commiserates with his neighbour, Sutton Muddyman. They’re still worried about the ice that hasn’t melted yet, coming down from the mountain. The foreman of this ranch is Mrs Freeze, who lives in a caravan 80 yards away from the ranch house. She is non gender conforming, presented asexually.

THE BOX HAMMERHANDLE — A description of the neighbours who live directly south of the Coffeepot, Sutton and Inez Muddyman. They have a daughter, Kerri, a pastry chef in Oregon. The Muddymans are introverts who don’t open all their Christmas cards. Inez (formerly Inez Bibby) grew up with horses in the mountains. Before marriage she was a barrel racer and roper. (Barrel racing is a rodeo event in which a horse and rider attempt to complete a cloverleaf pattern around preset barrels in the fastest time — basically it’s rodeo for women.) We hear how that marriage ended, with infidelity and violence. The character of Wrench is introduced — the man who slept with his wife. He is referred to as ‘that curly wolf’. They’d been as close as brothers growing up.

THE SPURMAKER — Harold Batts is an old guy with a pony-tail from California. He was laid off as an engineer but these days is into prophecies and whatnot. He has a wife called Sonia who was in car sales until sexually harassed out of that. The sect he’s involved with is called Final Daze. He’s retrained as a blacksmith. He makes stuff out of found metal and in spring makes a pair of spurs with half-drop shanks in steel. This scene is almost magical, portraying him as a wizard. He talks to the cat, saying, “Someone’s going to Connect.” On the way home he counts the dead animals on the side of the road.

NO SURPRISE — This is a section where what’s been mentioned before is explained in full. It’s the story of his wife’s infidelity and the car accident. One day Scrope and Mrs Freeze were out with their two farmhands shifting cattle to some land he leases. Jeri was expected to meet them at Pass Water Creek with sandwiches but didn’t. A few other things went wrong. Some guy called Kyle Johnson turns up and Scrope is going to have to leave his animals on his property til morning. Scrope doesn’t want to be indebted. He rides back home to Coffeepot and finds his wife’s underwear stuck on a barb wire fence. John Wrench’s truck is in the yard. He catches his friend and his wife in flagrante delicto. They go for a drive, argue, keep coming back to divorce and then they find themselves under the highway bridge. While Scrope is convalescing his wife moves to Signal.

PAIR A SPURS — This section is back to Sutton Muddyman, the neighbour to the South.  He goes to town and sees those spurs made by Batts in his shop window. Batts tells Muddyman that the spurs are the Hale-Bopp comet and that the end of the world is arriving with the end of the millennium. Muddyman spends money he doesn’t have buying them for his wife as a birthday present instead of the keyring he went in for.

Inez Muddyman rides by horse over to Scrope’s hoping to continue the tradition of a fake roundup and plate of beans. Mrs Freeze passes her in a tractor pulling a flatbed with Cody Joe Bibby. That’s her cousin who suffered brain damage from an incident some years ago and is now only good for the most basic tasks. Mrs Freeze notices the spurs. Inez goes in for coffee and is shocked at the state of the kitchen, but little does she know a clean kitchen makes Scrope terribly sad. Inez is reminded of an elderly man she knew as a child who used to soil himself. When Mrs Freeze leaves the kitchen Scrope sexually assaults Inez. She does get away from him but he yells that he won’t be giving up. Inez seems to have ‘caught’ some of the fear of the millennium harboured by the maker of her spurs, evidence when she makes a comment about the bugs in Scrope’s disgusting hovel of a kitchen, “They must think it’s the end of the world or something.”

THE WOLF — Scrope continues an intense campaign of sexual harassment against Inez. Inez tells her husband about it but Sutton Muddyman doesn’t want to know. He refuses to listen. Three women lawyers arrive to try and sort out who’s getting the Muddymans’ sheep but on their search for evidence get lost on their property. They call Sutton on the mobile phone. One describes the landscape, asks Sutton to find her. Inez makes a comment about maybe her husband stopping off at Scrope’s in the hope he’ll latch on to one of them and not her, showing that Scrope continues to bother her and that she’s still trying to bring it up with her husband, hoping he’ll step in. Inez is out looking for them, sees a wolf, tries to rope it and is killed instantly after being smashed into the windshield. No one believes that there was any wolf, seen by the lawyers. An intertextual reference to “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”. Scrope very soon packs up and moves to Oregon to be near his daughter. Inez was wearing the comet spurs at the time of the accident so he doesn’t want them. They’re bad luck.

TEXAS BOYS — The Muddyman ranch is purchased by former actor Frank Fane who renames it Galaxy Ranch, because science fiction is his thing, though he has a similar fascination for Westerns. He hires Texans and a foreman by the name of Haul Smith. These guys are good with horses but even better at snooker. He likes to play Cowboy pool. This starts a new culture of serious play at the pub. Locals are annoyed that Frank Fane didn’t employ Wyoming locals on Galaxy Ranch. It is revealed that Mrs Freeze, watching the game, has ended up with the comet spurs. One of the guys wants to buy them off her. Wrench has made up with Scrope after the incident with Scrope’s wife. Correspondence from Sutton shows he’s very happy in Oregon where life is much easier.

MRS. FREEZE MOVES FIVE MILES OFF — There’s a tender moment between Scrope and Mrs Freeze, in which Scrope expresses his gratitude. Later that day they’re working on a fence together when Scrope comes onto Mrs Freeze, who is clearly not interested. Mrs Freeze asks Haul Smith next door for a job. He’s reluctant to give her one because she’s an old woman, but she sweetens the deal by saying because of that he doesn’t need to pay her as much. He’ll hire her to work with the buffalo but only in exchange for her spurs which he has previously admired at the pub. She agrees immediately. Scrope is devastated and offers up something akin to an apology. She ends up whacking him in the shoulder with a shovel after Scrope raises his shotgun to her. By now it’s clear that Scrope seems to be magnetically attracted to whoever’s wearing those ‘magical’ spurs. He can’t seem to help himself.

DEEP WATERS — The snowpack starts melting now that is’ June. Creeks swell to rivers, metaphorically mirroring Scrope turning to the drink. Scrope’s stream bursts for lack of maintenance. Next door, a bison expert from the university is talking to Mrs Freeze about how bison can’t actually be run on the property because they need a lot of land. Haul Smith is found drowned, ‘hauled’ away by twisted roots in the deluge. One of the three remaining Texans look for his boots which have come off in the current, saying that the spurs would be a nice thing for one of his kids to have. By this point in the story the reader has been roped in on the belief that these spurs really do mean bad luck. We are worried for the kid.

THERE’S STILL WHISKEY — Fane gets out of the ranch game. The Texan farmhands leave. The Muddymans’ ranch is now owned by a man who made lots of money from breakfast cereal. (I’m thinking Annie Proulx doesn’t think much of breakfast cereal — I’d guess she’s a bacon and eggs kind of woman.) He wants to let the ranch revert to a state of nature. Mrs Freeze is therefore out of a job. She takes to drinking down at the pub. One of Scrope’s former farmhands who’s done a stint in jail for thieving cigarettes is now Scrope’s foreman. He says Scrope spends all day sat in a chair eating potato chips. In the end it’s Mrs Freeze who’s turning to the whiskey — all Scrope has is potato chips. She feels grateful she has that. Note that Annie Proulx set up reader expectations but subverted them in the spirit of realism — we’re almost expecting Mrs Freeze to die when she inherits the spurs. Instead she suffers another kind of death. There are many ways of being dead.

SHORTCOMING

Car Scrope, forty years old, had lived on the Coffeepot all his life and suffered homesickness when he went to the feed store in Signal. He’d acquired a morbid passion for the ranch as a child when he believed he could hear its grass mocking him.

His ghost: He had an older brother called Train who suicided in the bathroom and his parents, though comforting each other, never allowed him to say one word about it. They kept on telling him lies, big and small. He had a car accident once on the highway near his ranch which almost killed his former wife. It’s left him with pins and leg screws.

As you can see, these characters are comically named — perhaps even more so than in other short stories.

He carries no small amount of sexual desperation. He has an ex-wife called Jeri — the marriage ‘fell apart in half an hour.’ He is a violent man who won’t let his wife leave him without shooting out her car windows with a shotgun. He also shot the truck windows of the man who his wife had taken up with, John Wrench.

Despite this early warning of who he is underneath, Proulx is sure to engender a bit of reader sympathy. His treatment of the runaway — the provision of food, the offer of a job — tells us that he is capable of compassion. We get snippets of what drives his lack-of-coping at life: His kitchen is an utter disgrace but that’s because a tidy kitchen makes him unbearably nostalgic and sad.

As we get to know Scrope, however, Proulx makes sure to depict him as increasingly grotesque. Our empathy for him is tested.

DESIRE

Scrope wants people to start buying beef again.

He is desperately lonely and wants female company.

OPPONENT

His best friend slept with his wife. Until they homoromantically reunite, Scrope blames the friend for this but they end up mutually blaming the woman.

The women peripherally in his love do not return any affections. These are his ‘romantic opponents’.

PLAN

Scrope puts in ten dollars for a sign telling people to eat beef — a comically underwhelming gesture to combat an unstoppable cultural trend.

His plans to find a woman span between sexual harassment and rape. The women are too strong for him, emotionally and then physically.

BIG STRUGGLE

Mrs Freeze is Scrope’s long-term partner in the cowboy fashion. Think Call and Gus from Lonesome Dove. Theirs is like a marriage in many ways. Scrope’s big struggle with Mrs Freeze come when he points a gun at her. She turns it back on him and leaves, as planned. He now officially has no one.

ANAGNORISIS

When Scrope realises he has nobody he spirals down into a depressive state.

NEW SITUATION

Scrope brings his old jailbird farmhand back and another fellow to run the place. He does nothing, living in a vegetative state.

Meanwhile, Mrs Freeze loses the job she loves, working with animals on the land and is going to have to go back to working in the kitchen which she hates, but she’ll get through it so long as she has liquor. We’re not told that’s what she’s going to do, but we know that’s her only choice, and the phrase ‘even in an apron’ in the last sentence gives us more than enough clue.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

Car, one of the tragic heroes from “Pair A Spurs” thinks he can hear the grass mocking him. This reminds me of the previous story in the Close Range collection, “The Bunchgrass Edge Of The World“, in which Ottaline hears a tractor talking to her and views her environs in an almost magical realist way.

In Larry McMurtry’s Horseman, Pass By, we have a tragic hero similar to Scrope. Like Scrope, Hud has no boundaries with women and drives his best worker away. In both McMurtry’s novel and in “Pair A Spurs” our heroes end up alone.

The Half-Skinned Steer by Annie Proulx

“The Half-Skinned Steer” by Annie Proulx is, as said by Mary Lee Settle “as real as a pickup truck, as ominous as a fairy tale.”

Animals make an appearance in a lot of the story submissions we receive. Bunnies are maimed and killed. Dogs behave mischievously. Alligators threaten to attack. The truth is, many short story writers include animals in their tales, for different reasons. Many times, in our contests for emerging writers, an author will use a mangled or dead animal as a (seemingly) direct symbol for the loss of innocence, a dysfunctional family dynamic, or the end of a relationship. In other cases, the animal is not a direct symbol but merely a story element that interacts in a pleasing way with the rest of the narrative structure. Animals can add a level of tension or mystery to a story, they can drive the plot, or they can simply add texture. Though they can (often) be cute, animals are powerful presences in a story, and it’s interesting to consider the many different ways that they add to tales by contemporary writers.

The Masters Review

Contains spoilers, as usual.

Actually this is a bull near our house in Australia.

“The Half-Skinned Steer” is the first short story in Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain collection published 1999. This particular story was published in The Atlantic in 1997 and the full text can be found in the archives.

Proulx understands story structure inside out and back to front, and approaches with an intent to parody, satirise, subvert or up-end. This story is a parody of your classic home-away-home story which I’ve written about elsewhere, due to my strong interest in children’s literature. (It’s particularly common in picturebooks). In this structure, a character typically a man  leaves home, has an adventure, meets a bunch of opponents along the way, overcomes them, changes internally and either comes home or finds a new one. But in this story, our hero tries to come back home but gets killed just as he’s almost there. The events leading to this death are incremental and each quite minor, but like the film Fargo, in which William H. Macy’s character gets himself into deeper and deeper trouble, Mero’s demise manages to feel inevitable, surprising, tragic and funny all at once. Black comedy at its finest. Though I’d say there’s more black than there is comedy.

Words used to describe Proulx’s short stories

  • truculent aggressively defiant
  • vernacular “some of the horror in the stories is at times mitigated by the pregnancy and playfulness of the vernacular language of the characters and even sometimes of the omniscient narrative voices.” (I can’t remember where I got that quote from, sorry.)
  • elliptic here it is the adjectival form of ‘ellipsis’, this refers specifically to Proulx’s way of rendering dialogue and constructing sentences, by leaving bits out. (Nothing to do with being shaped like an ellipse.)
  • understated
  • deconstructionist a way of constructing story which exposes contradictions and internal oppositions. A story can never be a complete thing in itself it’s made up of parts which cannot be reconciled. There can’t be any neat, tidy ending. Also, there will be no single interpretation takeaway points will depend on the reader.
  • subversive Proulx sets us up to expect one type of ending but we get another entirely, causing us to examine our own view of the world
  • heteroglossic (the coexistence of distinct varieties within a single “language”)
  • sharp-eyed attention to gritty detail
  • stories take an irreverent stance
  • minimalist — Americans use the term ‘minimalism’ whereas English scholars more often use the phrase ‘dirty realism‘ to describe the same thing. Dirty realism is on the realism spectrum (which also includes naturalism, social realism, magical realism, surrealism and metaphysical realism). If you don’t think Annie Proulx’s stories quite fit the term ‘magical realism’, you might use the word ‘minimalism’ or ‘dirty realism’ instead. Dirty realism is a term coined by the Granta magazine guy.
  • lapidary (relating to the engraving, cutting, or polishing of stones and gems here meaning ‘very carefully crafted’)
  • wry in tone
  • caustic, bitter
  • ironic
  • nouvelle-fabliau a phrase coined by René Godenne to describe the defining traits of the early European short story. Proulx’s stories contain real-life anecdotes (she has said as much herself) which makes the stories feel very real.
  • sinister
  • grim, morbid, tragic
  • post-modern
  • neo-regionalist (a late 20th century trend)
  • Gothic backdrop
  • blurred antinomy (between real life and the impossible antinomy refers to ‘a real or apparent mutual incompatibility of two laws.’)
  • plenty of parody, satire (sometimes ‘burlesque‘ is used to mean these things, though most people think of strip shows these days)
  • metafictive (the author makes the reader consciously aware that they are reading a story)

SETTING

The realistic aspect of Proulx’s stories partly comes from extensive details giving a clear picture of the landscape, the climate, the ranches, houses and trailers, the clothes and food of her Wyoming characters. Their ranching, farming, rodeoing and other daily activities are also accounted for with much detail. Moreover, many of her stories are explicitly anchored in the history of the United States, and abound with references to background historical events and to real places.

[…]

Proulx’s overall somber universe abounds in predators, child abuse, rape, incest, zoophilia, and all sorts of imaginable forms of cruelty and deviance, but the monstrosities are sometimes held at a distance in at least some of the stories by their metafictional quality and the dry humor which brings a partial sense of comic relief.

Journal of the Short Story In English

When Close Range was published (the original title of the Brokeback Mountain collection), Proulx explained that the focus of both collections was on rural landscape, low population density and people who feel remote and isolated, cut off from the rest of the world, where accident and suicide rates are high and aggressive behaviour not uncommon.

In Proulx’s short stories, setting is so much a part of the story, the story couldn’t happen anywhere else. “The Half-skinned Steer” spans one man’s lifetime, with fluid time, jumping between the present as an old man and the past as a young one. Proulx even manages to imbue this story with the aura of timelessness by linking current, story events to an earlier era:

The anthropologist moved back and forth scrutinizing the stone gallery of red and black drawings: bison skulls, a line of mountain sheep, warriors carrying lances, a turkey stepping into a snare, a stick man upside-down dead and falling, red-ocher hands, violent figures with rakes on their heads that he said were feather headdresses, a great red bear dancing forward on its hind legs, concentric circles and crosses and latticework. He copied the drawings in his notebook, saying Rubba-dubba a few times.

This is a rural setting in the foothills of the Big Horns (The Bighorn Mountains, Wyoming). The ‘south hinge’, to be more precise. I’m not entirely sure what is meant by ‘hinge’ when it comes to geology but it seems to refer to a bit of land which has been lifted and twisted via earthquake. (If you’re interested in the exact definition of a hinge when it comes to mountains, here’s a diagram and explanation.)

"The Half-Skinned Steer" is set in this general area of Wyoming. Image is from Google Earth.
“The Half-Skinned Steer” is set in this general area of Wyoming. Image is from Google Earth.
Satellite view of the Bighorn Mountains, where "The Half-Skinned Steer" is set.
Satellite view of the Bighorn Mountains, where “The Half-Skinned Steer” is set.

When you think Bighorn, think:

  • High altitude and snowy
  • Mule deer, elk, moose, black bears and mountain lions, pronghorn, herds of bison
  • Roadless areas
  • Little-known regions
  • Steep canyons
  • Hunters, fishermen and not many other people. But these days you’ll also find hikers, snowmobilers, backpackers and ultra-marathon runners.
  • Semidesert prairie
  • Douglas-fir
  • Colorful rock formations
  • Sacred areas belonging to the Crow Indian Reservation
  • Three main highways going across it, designated as Scenic By-ways
  • Rivers are called the Little Bighorn, Tongue and Powder
  • A big national recreation area in the canyon, including Bighorn Lake (a reservoir dam)
  • After Labor Day (4 September) you can encounter a high country snow storm at any time.

The place isn’t all that far from Yellowstone National Park, if you’ve ever seen a documentary set there.

Proulx describes the Bighorn region like this:

  • “the old man said cows couldn’t be run in such tough country, where they fell off cliffs, disappeared into sinkholes, gave up large numbers of calves to marauding lions; where hay couldn’t grow but leafy spurge and Canada thistle throve, and the wind packed enough sand to scour windshields opaque.”
  • A girl scout was killed by a lion.
  • The ranch was bought by some rich businessman from Australia, who renamed it “Wyoming Down Under” funny because this is such an American story. (I write this from Australia.)
  • The scale of the mountains are described like this: “The country poured open on each side, reduced the Cadillac to a finger snap. Nothing had changed, not a Goddamn thing, the empty pale place and its roaring wind, the distant antelope as tiny as mice, landforms shaped true to the past.”
  • Even the wind is brought to life as some sort of beast: “there was muscle in the wind rocking the heavy car, a great pulsing artery of the jet stream swooping down from the sky to touch the earth. Plumes of smoke rose hundreds of feet into the air, elegant fountains and twisting snow devils, shapes of veiled Arab women and ghost riders dissolving in white fume. The snow snakes writhing across the asphalt straightened into rods.”
  • As Mero’s situation grows more dire, so do descriptions of the landscape: “The cliffs bulged into the sky, lions snarled, the river corkscrewed through a stone hole at a tremendous rate, and boulders cascaded from the heights.”

This story is kind of like an anti-Western (also called neo-Western) in that it’s about disenchantment with the Pioneer Spirit and the American Dream.

Annie Proulx’s sky is as geologically interesting as the ground:

The sky to the west hulked sullen; behind him were smears of tinselly orange shot through with blinding streaks. The thick rim of sun bulged against the horizon.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE HALF-SKINNED STEER”

Mythic Structure

This is basically a road trip, and road trip fiction is generally based upon the Odyssean mythic structure. You’ll also hear this kind of story referred to as a ‘(mythic) quest’. The reader is meant to look at both the outer journey and inner journey in order to garner meaning. Both threads are equally important. Mark Asquith makes note of the significance of Proulx’s point-of-view, which is mostly close third-person:

Mero’s journey is not simply geographical, it is also a psychological exploration of his reasons for leaving his father’s ranch some 60 years earlier. Indeed, for Fratz it is his move East that has allowed him to embrace the introspection and self-awareness that are alien to the anti-psychological stance of the mythic cowboy. Consequently, this is the most introspective of Proulx’s stories. Apart from Louise’s brief telephone call, we hear no other voice but that of Mero, who remains the focalizing agent throughout. This includes the powerful voice of the girlfriend, which is mediated through Mero.

The Lost Frontier: Reading Annie Proulx’s Wyoming Stories

The Half-Skinned Steer is also sometimes described as a ‘mock-epic’. What even is an epic? These days ‘epic’ seems to refer to anything massive, or in stories, a film which goes on and on and on (it probably has a massive budget). But ‘epic’ properly refers to a story in which the hero is the king and he is the founder of the city. Examples of epics run throughout history. Homer and Virgil in The Aeneid mark the beginnings of Greek nationalism. Then there’s the King Arthur legend where Arthur is the founder of the city of Camelot and the Round Table. That’s an epic. Mero can be considered a king returning to his kingdom, perhaps.

Intertextuality With The Myth Of Oedipus

Speaking of ancient stories:

It is suggested that Mero, sensing his and his brother’s desire for their father’s girlfriend, associates with the steer’s cruel treatment and develops castration anxiety–it is probably no coincidence that the bull from the original Icelandic tale has, in Proulx’s story, been traded for a steer, that is a castrated ox.

JSSE

I’m no fan of Freud or much of his psychoanalysis but the Urstory of Oedipus can be seen in lots of stories if you’re on the look-out for it.

Folk Tale Origins

A lot of Proulx’s Wyoming stories borrow from tall tales, local legends, folktales, fairy tales and myths, not just this one. The stories include grotesque freaks, monsters, hybrid creatures, devils and demons. Here we have the horror trope of the villain who you just can’t kill, except the steer isn’t a villain. In which case, isn’t it the human who is the villain?

“The Half-Skinned Steer,” which was first published in The Atlantic Monthly, is based on an old Icelandic folktale, “Porgeir’s Bull.”

Annie Proulx, acknowledgements

If you look for that tale on the Internet (in English) you’ll find that most of the top entries are in reference to Proulx’s story rather than the original. Proulx has brought it to our consciousness.

Supernatural bulls have a long tradition though, not just in that Icelandic tale. You’ll even find one in The Epic of Gilgamesh.

In the Icelandic tale, from what I can gather, this wizard called Porgeir skins a calf in such a way that the hide remains attached only at the tail. Ghosts ride the monster’s bloody sled from one end of a river to the other. (I’m not sure what happens after that, or what the point is.)

Story Within A Story

“The Half-Skinned Steer” is a beautifully integrated example of a ‘framing story’. The fancy word for this is mise-en-abîme.

…the embedded narrative structure serves as a way to cast light on the tall-tale aspect of the story which is told by Mero’s father’s girlfriend, allegedly a true story which has happened to one of the locals: certain that he has killed a steer intended for food, the grotesque character named Tin Head.

JSSE

The story-within-the-story starts with:

The girlfriend started a story, Yeah, there was this guy named Tin Head down around Dubois when my dad was a kid.

Then there is a flash forward, back to the present and we get more of the story starting with:

Well, well, she said, tossing her braids back, every year Tin Head butchers one of his steers, and that’s what they’d eat all winter long, boiled, fried, smoked, fricasseed, burned, and raw.

Except the thing is, we’re not told the story. We’re told Mero’s reaction to it:

Mero had thrashed all that ancient night, dreamed of horse breeding or hoarse breathing, whether the act of sex or bloody, cutthroat gasps he didn’t know. The next morning he woke up drenched in stinking sweat, looked at the ceiling, and said aloud, It could go on like this for some time.

Part three comes at the point we rest assured Mero is going to make it back to the ranch:

Winking at Rollo, the girlfriend had said, Yes, she had said, Yes, sir, Tin Head eats half his dinner and then he has to take a little nap.

Part four after he gets lodged on the rocks:

My Lord, she continued, Tin Head is just startled to pieces when he don’t see that steer. He thinks somebody, some neighbor, don’t like him, plenty of them, come and stole it.

This has the effect of bringing the steer into the present landscape. We imagine Mero looking through the snow and actually seeing the steer.

Note that the story-within-the-story is not a complete story. When Rollo responds with, “That’s it?” in a ‘greedy, hot way’, he’s noticed that there has been no big struggle between the steer and Tin Head, no indication of a new situation. That’s what the ‘wrapper’ story is for the main story, of Mero’s demise, will give us the conclusion the father’s girl-friend’s story doesn’t.

Shaggy Dog Tales

There’s a category of tall stories which have abrupt endings. The teller takes delight in building up, building up, then leaving the listener (reader) hanging. They’re known as ‘Shaggy Dog Stories’. While the girlfriend’s story isn’t exactly that, she seems to take great delight in grossing Mero out, and this is the entire point of the story.

I’ve seen it in children’s stories, too. Here’s an example from Polish-German storyteller Janosch:

by 20th C Polish-German author illustrator Janosch A shaggy dog tale by 20th C Polish-German author illustrator Janosch. Annie Proulx's story-within-a-story "The Half-Skinned Steer" has a few things in common with the shaggy dog tale as a form.
A shaggy dog tale by 20th C Polish-German author illustrator Janosch. Annie Proulx’s story-within-a-story “The Half-Skinned Steer” has a few things in common with the shaggy dog tale as a form.

In traditional (Australian) tall stories, the fun comes from getting the listener to believe in ridiculous stories. In these stories with the abrupt endings the ‘fun’ comes from leading someone to believe that one outcome is coming up but defying expectations at the last minute.

Anything can end abruptly, whether it’s a scene or a sentence, but the ending of a story is the most significant ‘outcome’ and so has the most impact when it’s cut off.

the-fox-and-the-hare-janosch_1000x1666
the-fox-and-the-hare-janosch-illustration_1000x708

SHORTCOMING

Mero wound up sixty years later as an octogenarian vegetarian widower pumping an Exercycle in the living room of a colonial house in Woolfoot, Massachusetts.

83-year-old Mero Corn is a reluctant, tragic hero. He thinks his life is about over when he gets a call from Wyoming, where he grew up, to say come back and maybe run the emu farm also your younger brother has died. He’s scared of flying so drives his Cadillac from Massachussets. (I don’t think Woolfoot is a real place but the name of it suggests another rural setting, somehow.)

We can see from the description of Mero that he is careful about his health. He is the prepared type. That’s what makes this story all the more tragic and ironic. How does a man get stuck in his situation?

Note that the elderly Mero is vegetarian. I didn’t notice the significance of this first mention the first time I read it, but as soon as you go back you realise the exact moment he stopped eating meat, and it wasn’t anything as melodramatic as hearing the story about the half-skinned steer and then swearing off it for life. That moment happened later, recalled in this memory:

He crossed the state line, hit Cheyenne for the second time in sixty years. He saw neon, traffic, and concrete, but he knew the place, a railroad town that had been up and down. That other time he had been painfully hungry, had gone into the restaurant in the Union Pacific station although he was not used to restaurants, and had ordered a steak. When the woman brought it and he cut into the meat, the blood spread across the white plate and he couldn’t help it, he saw the beast, mouth agape in mute bawling, saw the comic aspects of his revulsion as well, a cattleman gone wrong.

Mark Asquith describes Mero’s psychological shortcomings in more words than Annie Proulx ever uses, which is testament to the compression that can be achieved by a masterful short story writer:

Mero Corn is a victim of his own delusions. When we meet him at the beginning of the story he is a confident easterner: a vegetarian who keeps fit on an Exercycle and makes his money from boilers, air duct cleaning and smart investments. When he gets the call summoning him to his brother’s funeral, he resolves to drive; despite his age, the distance, and the winter season, he believes that Wyoming holds no surprises for a man brought up in the West but grown successful in the East. His Cadillac, which e replaces at whim (‘he could do that if he liked, by cars like packs of cigarettes’ is a symbol of his success, but it is, as he will find to his cost, useless in Wyoming’s harsh landscape. His confidence is also signalled by his belief that the map of Wyoming that he carries in his head still matches the actual geography. As he crosses the state line he exultantly observes: ‘Nothing had changed, not a goddamn thing, the empty pale place and its roaring wind, the distant antelope as tiny as mice, landforms shaped true to the past.’ It is a landscape of the imagination rather than reality: the wildlife seems to have emerged from a child’s toy box while the ‘landforms shaped true to the past’ evoke a nostalgic link to glacial carving and careful agricultural husbandry rather than mineral extraction. Because everything has changed: ranches that were once flourishing like the deserted Farrier place have fallen apart, and the ranch to which he is returning has become an Australian themed ranch “Down Under Wyoming.”

The Lost Frontier: Reading Annie Proulx’s Wyoming Stories

But the entire story is from Mero’s point of view, we are encouraged to identify with Mero, and so if this story is saying anything at all about humankind that means Annie Proulx is saying something about people in general. What is she saying?

Through the introduction of this comical ranch, Proulx is making a serious point concerning the degree to which all landscapes are a product of cultural expectation. Just as Mero’s construction of the landscape is predicated on a combination of boy hood memory and the myth of the West, our own conception of the authentic West is built on a belief in the ‘naturalness’ of the cattle ranch. Through her introduction of an exotic species, Proulx is remind us, as Milane Duncan Frantz has observed, that cattle are just as artificial as emus in the West; the absurdity of the latter simply fits outside our imaginative geography. Furthermore, Proulx is also using the emu to interrogate the nation of ‘wild’ and ‘domesticated’ when attached to certain animal breeds, and by extension the whole landscape. This confusion proves fatal to Rollo, who is clawed to death by an emu because he fails to recognize the wild creature beneath the absurd animal of his own advertising. His gory death not only summons his brother, but foreshadows Mero’s own tragedy. This comes when his carefully constructed memory of the West (a domesticated vision transformed into postcard kitsch) comes into contact with the storm-ridden reality.

The Lost Frontier: Reading Annie Proulx’s Wyoming Stories

Then there is Mero’s problem with women:

Although he congratulations himself on his sexual prowess…his departure was hastened by sexual confusion heightened by the girlfriend’s story. It is a bewilderment that can be traced back to his early childhood where it emerges from a confused understanding of his landscape. When a visiting anthropologist shows him some Native American stone carvings of female genitalia, he mistakes them for horseshoes. As a result of his embarrassment, not only does Mero subsequently confuse the homophones ‘cymbal’ and ‘symbol’ (leading to some strange connection between sex and marching bands), but also from this point on ‘no fleshy examples ever conquered his belief in the subterranean stony structure of female genitalia.’ Thus, from his earliest age, sex is associated with both horses and the cold, dark and mysterious.

Later, taking his cue from the ranch around him, this confused belief develops into the idea that the sexualised woman is animalistic, exemplified by his father’s girlfriend, who he continually associates with a horse: ‘If you admired horses you’d go with her for her arched neck and horsey buttocks, so high and haunch you’d want to clap her on the rear’. She exists only in Mero’s memory, and remains anonymous because she only gains significance in relation to the father and is only understood by patriarchal definitions of what is wild and erotic. After she tells the story of ‘The Half-Skinned Steer’ he dreams ‘of horse breeding or hoarse breathing, whether the act of sex or bloody, cut-throat gasps he didn’t know’. Sex, horses and cattle slaughter now become inextricably intertwined in his imagination and as he begins to suspect a growing relationship between her and Rollo, he increasingly identifies himself with the steer. The full significance of Proulx’s transformation of the bull of the original Icelandic tale to a steer (a castrated bull) becomes a symbol of Mero’s castration complex.

The Lost Frontier: Reading Annie Proulx’s Wyoming Stories

In short, this man was really mucked up when that anthropologist took him into the cave and showed him the etchings of the vulvas.

DESIRE

Mero is happy enough on his treadmill in Massachussets but after the phone call (The Call To Adventure) he wants to travel back to the ranch where he grew up, attend his brother’s funeral and perhaps find something to do with the rest of his years.

Maybe, he thought, things hadn’t finished turning out.

Proulx has an innovative way of describing this Call To Adventure:

He would see his brother dropped in a red Wyoming hole. That event could jerk him back; the dazzled rope of lightning against the cloud is not the downward bolt but the compelled upstroke through the heated ether.

OPPONENT

Natural opponent: The hostile weather the snow, the bush which blocked the entrance, the rocky terrain which demobilised his Cadillac.

The Circumstances: Daniel Handler makes overt use of this in A Series of Unfortunate Events, which could describe many stories of this type. When the original Cadillac breaks down this is fatal, since all the survival equipment has been left inside it.

Self as opponent: The memory of the steer, or maybe the steer itself depending on your reading of the story. The memory of the half-skinned steer plagues him the closer he gets to his home ranch and when calamity befalls him, Mero almost feels he’s paying penance by succumbing to the cold.

Human opponent: The old man’s girlfriend is both the love opponent (he can’t have her, doesn’t really want her), and also managed to really disturb him by telling him the story in the first place. She is portrayed as a bit of a witch, though the truth is she’s just a very good storyteller:

It was her voice that drew you in, that low, twangy voice, wouldn’t matter if she was saying the alphabet, what you heard was the rustle of hay. She could make you smell the smoke from an imagined fire.

Louise, Tick’s wife isn’t exactly helpful (though Tick is even less so, refusing to make the call his own damn self). She tries to be helpful by offering to pick him up from the airport but when it comes to guiding him to the ranch by vehicle she’s set him up for failure. Louise is a completely unwitting opponent.

PLAN

Things go wrong and plans change. We’re on Mero’s side because he is cool-headed. He’s a good travel companion in that respect.

When he meets with a car accident he simply buys a new Cadillac.

When he can’t find the entrance to the ranch he simply drives slowly until he finds an entrance.

When he gets lodged upon rocks he simply uses the last half-tank of petrol to keep warm.

He will knock on the door of an old neighbour in the morning. This plan has a strong emotional impact on me, reminding me of the sadness of getting very old, realising that most people you’ve known are dead:

I’ll be cold but I won’t freeze to death. It played like a joke the way he imagined it, with Bob Banner opening the door and saying, Why, it’s Mero, come on in and have some java and a hot biscuit, before he remembered that Bob Banner would have to be 120 years old to fill that role.

BIG STRUGGLE

And so on, until he’s got nothing left.

ANAGNORISIS

In a short story it’s often the reader who has the revelation, about the character and ultimately about ourselves or about the human condition. If Mero has a revelation it’s that he’s not worthy of living after failing to kill that steer mercifully way back when.

Mero, the seer rather than the steer, eventually becomes aware, “in the howling, wintry light,” of the everlasting power the symbol of the half-skinned steer has held upon him, and what it stands for, despite his vain attempt to run away from his buried, unconscious psyche.

JSSE

The reader is reminded that nature will win out in the end.

NEW SITUATION

When the point-of-view pans out we know to approach the scene as detectives who have arrived after the scene of a tragedy:

On the main road his tire tracks showed as a faint pattern in the pearly apricot light from the risen moon, winking behind roiling clouds of snow.

He’s not dead yet, though. The tangles of willow are described as ‘bunched like dead hair’ rather than telling us Mero has died, she gives us all the hints in the world via death imagery in the landscape.

We may extrapolate that Tick and his partner won’t stay at the ranch either, and the land will return to its natural state, having shrugged off its human inhabitants.

Or perhaps you didn’t read it like this at all? Perhaps Mero gets to the funeral after all. As Nancy Kress points out, short stories don’t have to show us any new situation. (She calls this a denouement):

In a short story there may or may not be a denouement. In some stories—especially those that are very short—the climactic moment, in which the protagonist undergoes a change, may also be the last moment of the story. What happens to her after that is left to the reader’s imagination. In other stories, the denouement may consist of a sentence, a paragraph, or a brief scene clarifying what happens to the character after she changes.

Nancy Kress, from Beginnings, Middles and Ends

TECHNIQUES OF NOTE IN “THE HALF-SKINNED STEER”

This paragraph demonstrates two notable techniques:

He said he would be at the funeral. No point talking about flights and meeting him at the airport. He intended to drive. Of course he knew how far it was. He had a damn fine car, never had an accident in his life, knock on wood

First we have the one-sided conversation. There’s no need to write out the whole thing we know what the other party has said: “Are you sure you’re going to drive? We can meet you at the airport. Do you know how far it is?”

We also have foreshadowing of bad stuff to come with the ‘knock on wood’. Readers familiar with the author will already be expecting something terrible, but no writer can rely on just that. In real life jinxes aren’t a thing, but that isn’t true in fiction. ‘Never had an accident in his life’ means he’s going to have an accident, probably.

Even the Cadillac is described as if it’s an animal dripping blood:

he watched his crumpled car, pouring dark fluids onto the highway

The next night he personifies the old ranch house in his dream:

Below the disintegrating floors he saw galvanized tubs filled with dark, coagulated fluid.

Adjectives In “The Half-Skinned Steer”

…figuring he must be dotting around on a cane, too, drooling the tiny days away she was probably touching her own faded hair. He flexed his muscular arms, bent his knees, thought he could dodge an emu. He would see his brother dropped in a red Wyoming hole.

Plenty of people in writing groups will try and persuade you that adjectives are evil and should be slashed left, right and centre, but I am pro-adjective and I like it when excellent writers back me up on this point by using them well. First point: You can only get away with adjectives when the verbs are also strong. Second point: At least some of your adjectives have to be surprising and just plain ‘apt’. ‘Tiny days’ describes perfectly the way the old man’s life had shrunk in old age, but in a wonderfully succinct way. ‘Muscular’ arms isn’t clever as such just descriptive, and that’s fine too. A ‘red Wyoming hole’ describes the colour of the dirt, I guess. For Americans I bet the colour red is reminiscent of other things too, like conservative politics. (It’s opposite here, Down Under blue is conservative, red is more liberal.)

Later in the story, after his car accident, Mero drinks ‘a cup of yellow coffee’. Although it’s such a simple adjective, it made me stop and wonder how on earth coffee could be yellow. (Paleo-recipes with turmeric aside.) I figure it must be how he’s seeing the world now increasingly as an old man. Because of the Kodak corporation and their defective film, we as readers have been associating the colour yellow with age since the 1970s. (Though I’m sure it’s not just down to Kodak white linens and papers also yellow with age.)

Magical Realism in “The Half-Skinned Steer”

Most people studying the work of Annie Proulx focus on the following areas:

  1. naturalism (extreme realism which emphasises the role of family background, social conditions and environment in shaping human character)
  2. postmodernism (characterized by reliance on narrative techniques such as fragmentation, paradox, and the unreliable narrator)
  3. neo-regionalism (regionalism sets up a conflict between city and rural areas; neo-regionalism expands right out and is a response to globalisation.)

But I believe this story is a very good example of magical realism.

Here’s one definition of the technique:

Magical realism is a technique in which a plausible narrative enters the realm of fantasy without establishing a clearly defined line between the possible and impossible.

I think of magical realism as like (very) low fantasy but without a portal. Plain old fantasy not only makes use of some sort of portal, but generally lingers in that space for a while to allow the reader sufficient time to mentally leap from reality to unreality.

But is that what this story is? You might read the vengeful steer as purely hallucinatory, in which case is it magical realism at all? When trying to work out if it’s an hallucination, take a close look at the degree of ‘internal focalisation’. How far back does the point-of-view ‘camera’ pull away? The more omniscient the narrator, the less we should regard something in the text as if it’s an hallucination. Another possibility: We’re already had hints of dementia. Mero couldn’t remember where he was going when the pimply cop pulled him over. Could it be that?

If you look up ‘magical realism’ you won’t find Annie Proulx listed as one of the big shakers in this area, but like New Zealand’s Keri Hulme, she probably actually is.

Annie Proulx certainly makes use of some other magical symbols in her hyper-realist stories. Here we have reference to a full-moon, commonly used to indicate some sort of magic:

He was half an hour past Kearney, Nebraska, when the full moon rose, an absurd visage balanced in his rearview mirror

So that’s one argument in favour of the magical reading. On the other hand, Mero is cold, thirsty and disorientated to the point where he breaks into his car which isn’t even locked.

Allegorical Names In “The Half-Skinned Steer”

It has been pointed out that Mero might be an anagram for “more.”

In addition, Mero stands as a near-palindrome for Homer, and, finally as a truncated version of Oedipus’ adoptive mother’s name, Merope. (And if you’re into Freudian psychoanalysis, Sophocles offers the Urtext when it comes to sons and their displaced erotic feelings for their mothers.)

Make of that what you will, but Annie Proulx does not choose run-of-the-mill names for her characters.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST “THE RED-SKINNED STEER”

James Agee’s “A Mother’s Tale” set on a ranch, a cow narrator

Flannery O’Connor’s “Greenleaf” another tragic tale including a bull. (Many of Proulx’s anti-heroes read as grotesque figures reminiscent of the Southern freak tradition inherited from Flannery O’Connor.)

Work by Sherwood Anderson. O. Alan Weltzien has called Proulx’s Wyoming grotesques “weathered, Western descendants of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg Ohio gallery.”

Slap Happy Larry Stories

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

Lemon Girl: A movie-length novella by Slap Happy Larry. Everyone is someone else's little psycho.

Carrie Storytelling Techniques

carrie film poster

This is a remake of a 1976 movie based on Stephen King’s 1974 (breakout) novel, Carrie. Critics don’t like this new one much. The criticism is mostly that the remake was unnecessary because the first adaptation was so good. The original has a slower, more sinister pace and the main thing the reboot did was to add the social media dimension and some modern SFX. However, Carrie is — unfortunately — a timeless story of high school exclusion and bullying.

PREMISE OF CARRIE

A shy girl, outcasted by her peers and sheltered by her religious mother, unleashes telekinetic terror on her small town after being pushed too far at her senior prom. (In the book it’s called the Spring Ball — a lot of the slang/words have been updated.)

SENTENCE BEHIND THE STORY OF CARRIE

Your own powers can be the end of you.

I don’t believe the designing principle of this film is its main strength. Instead it makes an emotional promise: Watch this film and you will be thrilled and entertained. It possibly aims to sadden. (I don’t feel saddened by this remake.)

It also makes an intellectual promise to a modern audience: Watch this and you’ll learn of a different, slightly off-kilter world than this.

Horror films require us to face the unknown — they allow us to face our fears and put them into context. They shape our belief system, and provide a safe space to explore. Carrie was notable for being one of the few to broach the topic of menstruation which, 40 years later, is still somewhat taboo. There is nowhere near as much menstruation in children’s literature as there are girls dealing with it in real life, outside a few standout books from authors such as Judy Blume.

GENRE BLEND OF CARRIE

drama, horror

The horror genre is one of the most highly symbolic forms (along with Westerns and science fiction). The origin of the horror in this story comes from demonic forces. Another example of this kind of horror is The Exorcist. Other horrors might come from whatever lies beyond death (Dracula) or from humans daring to fool around with nature (Frankenstein). Those are the big three.

Interestingly, the genre of the 1976 adaptation is simply ‘horror’ according to IMDb. This remake must have been aiming for a bit more character development with the addition of ‘drama’.

The horror film is a genre aimed largely at pubescent and adolescent youth — the same people who love to scream on roller coasters and look for out-of-control sensations elsewhere in their lives. Attracting people who are not part of this constituency is often difficult. The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby did so by dealing with families in a serious way — something the mostly young audience for horror films isn’t especially interested in seeing.

— Howard Suber

I don’t think Carrie manages to deal with family matters in any serious way. The mother is not a rounded character. This feels all horror, not much drama.

The Female Gothic

Stephen King’s Carrie is a descendent of the Female Gothic, invented by writers such as Anne Radcliffe, Mary Shelley and Charlotte Bronte.

Features of the Female Gothic Novel:

  • Gothic texts are based upon Medieval society.
  • Following a Gothic Bildungsroman-esque plot, the Female Gothic allowed its readers to graduate from adolescence to maturity along with its heroine. 
  • The readers of these novels didn’t lead very thrilling lives — many restrictions — this was their outlet
  • The Female Gothic is about the suppression of female sexuality, or challenges the gender hierarchy and values of a male-dominated culture.
  • The natural cause of terror is not the supernatural, but rather female disability and societal horrors: rape, incest and the threatening control of the male antagonist.
  • The female protagonists pursued in these texts are often caught in an unfamiliar and terrifying landscape, delivering higher degrees of horror.
  • The end result, however, is the explained supernatural, rather than terrors familiar to women such as rape or incest, or the expected ghosts or haunted castles.(For example, the female protagonist will think there’s a ghost in the dungeon but when she gets down there it’s actually a real man wanting to rape her.)

In Stephen King’s variety of the Female Gothic, we have an out-and-out evil boy pulling strings behind the scenes, but female characters feature as all shades of good/bad.

STORYWORLD OF CARRIE

Symbolism

Many horror films could correctly be called “supernatural films” but this might reveal more than we care to acknowledge about the religious origins of so much horror.

— Howard Suber

She was alone with Momma’s angry God.

The blue light glared on a picture of a huge and bearded Yahweh who was casting screaming multitudes of humans down through cloudy depths into an abyss of fire. Below them, black horrid figures struggled through the flames of perdition while the Black Man wat on a huge flame-colored throne with a trident in one hand. His body was that of a man, but he had a spiked tail and the head of a jackal.

— Stephen King, Carrie

The setting of Carrie is very recognisable as our own but King includes supernatural elements.

Night journeys are a common element seen throughout Gothic literature. They can occur in almost any setting, but in American literature are more commonly seen in the wilderness, forest or any other area that is devoid of people. A prom, always held after dark, provides the perfect reason for a night journey.

Fantasy Elements

Stephen King writes what some have called ‘supernatural realism’. We might call it ‘magical realism‘ but I think ‘supernatural realism’ is a better descriptor. Carrie is set in the real world but there are supernatural elements. Carrie has the power of telekinesis and might be an ancestor of Roald Dahl’s Matilda in a sense. This is a world in which anything could happen.

There is a bit of a gothic vibe going on in this story, with the blue, cottage-like house looking peachy from the outside but once we get inside we’re shown cupboards used as prison, a dark and stifling atmosphere and a ‘mad woman in the attic’.

Era

The film is set in the USA in a mainly white suburban town in Maine called Chamberlain but the film is shot in Ontario. Here’s the house. Note that the creators of the remake decided to keep a general 1970s vibe in the setting — it’s also fitting that Carrie’s mother would have little money and therefore have to drive a car from that era. The original novel starts in 1966 and the main events happen 1979.

She continued to walk down the street toward the small white house with the blue shutters. The familiar hate-love-dread feeling was churning inside her. Ivy had crawled up the wests side of the bungalow (they always called it the bungalow because the White house sounded like a political joke and Momma said all politicians were crooks and sinners who would eventually give the country over to the Godless Reds who would put all the believers of Jesus—even the Catholics—up against the wall), and the ivy was picturesque, she knew it was, but sometimes she hated it. Sometimes, like now, the ivy looked like a grotesque giant hand ridged with great veins which had sprung up out of the ground to grip the building. She approached it with dragging feet.

Deaths In Schools

By the 1970s there had already been enough mass executions in American schools due to gun violence for the fear of a blood bath at a prom to be based upon a real, deep-seated fear. There have been many more school shootings since then. Unfortunately the terror of Carrie’s loner rampage still feels all too real.

STORY STRUCTURE

King wrote the novel as epistolary, using a combination of letters, news clippings, magazine articles, and passages from books. Sometimes when an epistolary story is adapted for screen some of that form is maintained, often with use of a storyteller narrator (the person who wrote the letters). But because I hadn’t read the book before watching the movie it was a bit of a surprise to find it was an epistolary novel. There’s nothing left of that. The reason for the epistolary form must have been to create a sense of realism for the reader.

SHORTCOMING

The desire to be known, to be seen, and to be powerful in your own sphere is a common desire in both real people and in the fictional realm. This particular desire seems to be having a moment in the West. The promotional material for the Carrie reboot reminds me very much of the posters which came out for Breaking Bad around the same time. Carrie and Walter White have the same psychological need.

Carrie’s problem is that she is an out-and-out social outcast. High schools are a great arena to show social exclusion — Vince Vaughn even sent Walter White back to school and made him the butt of some teenagers’ jokes in the pilot episode as they mock him washing cars — there’s something about mockery you get at school that stays with you your whole life, even when you engage your logical adult brain and realise your high school opponents had their own issues which had nothing to do with you.

The epistolary form of King’s novel allows for a variety of opinions on Carrie, leaving the reader with no ‘true’ impression of what she really looked like (and consequently, who she really was.) Described by the narrator as ugly, fat and blemished, she is described later as ‘pretty’. Carrie herself considers herself repulsive, especially her face, covered in blackheads and clusters of pimples. These various accounts of Carrie add to the gossipy, unreliable nature of the retelling:

Narrator’s description of Carrie, close-third-person viewpoint through the eyes of the girls in the changing room
Opinion of a minor character Stella Horan
From Tommy’s point of view Carrie is ‘far from repulsive’.

Carrie’s psychological shortcoming is that she needs to belong somewhere. She is totally alone in the world. Like any teenager (or adult), she wants to fit in.

Found written repeatedly on one page of a Ewen Consolidated High School notebook owned by Carrie White:

Everybody’s guessed/that baby can’t be blessed/’til she finally sees that she’s like all the rest….

— Stephen King, Carrie

In this movie adaptation she has been homeschooled until very recently, which is how the screenwriters get around the weird fact that Carrie doesn’t know what periods are. It’s hard for a modern audience to believe a 16 year old girl could not know anything about that. Stephen King had to lampshade that one quite heavily in his 1976 novel, especially since in the novel Carrie has been attending school all along.

At Ewan High School Carrie is shown hiding behind a pile of books, sneaking around as if hoping to become invisible.

Psychological overlay is an element connected to how characters within an American Gothic novel are affected by things like the night and their surroundings. In Carrie’s case, Carrie’s menstruation is connected to everyone’s general fear of blood. Blood symbolism can be seen throughout the film, culminating famously in the big struggle scene. 

Does Carrie have a moral shortcoming? Is she treating others badly? A fairytale victim character like this doesn’t need to show us that she is a fully rounded human being with flaws — Carrie is not a normal human being anyhow. She’s kind of the second coming, perhaps from the devil. In the films, at least, Carrie does not demonstrate any moral shortcomings. She is a Gothic Good Girl. (The virginal character in a Female Gothic.)

DESIRE

Carrie wants to go to the ball. This is intimately connected to her psychological shortcoming of course — her need to be part of something.

OPPONENT

King has used a number of character archetypes from the gothic novel to create his setting:

  • Virginal maiden – young, beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. Usually starts out with a mysterious past and it is later revealed that she is the daughter of an aristocratic or noble family. (Carrie)
  • Older, foolish woman (Mrs White)
  • Hero (Sue)
  • Tyrant/villain (Chris and her boyfriend)
  • Bandits/ruffians (the cast of school girls who mock Carrie rather than standing up for her)
  • Clergy – always weak, usually evil (not present in the film adaptation — the clergy is the invisible force behind the uber-Christian Mrs White). In the novel we do have a modified ‘clergy’ stand-in in the form of Mr P. P. Bliss:

Mr. P.P. Bliss, who had written this hymn and others seemingly without number, was one of Momma’s shining examples of God at work upon the face of the earth. He had been a sailor and a sinner (two terms that were synonymous in Momma’s lexicon), a great blasphemer, a laugher in the face of the Almighty. Then a great storm had come up at sea, the boat had threatened to capsize, and Mr. P. P. Bliss had gotten down on his sin-sickly knees with a vision of Hell yawning beneath the ocean floor to receive him, and he had prayed to God. M. P.P. Bliss promised God that if He saved him, he would dedicate the rest of his life to Him. The storm, of course, cleared immediately.

Brightly beams our Father’s mercy
From his lighthouse evermore
But to us he gives the keeping
Of the lights along the shore

All of Mr. P. P. Bliss’s hymns had a seagoing flavour to them.

Stephen King, Carrie

The watchful eye of the clergy is symbolised by the picture The Unseen Guest:

She walked up the hall and put her coat in the closet. A luminous picture above the coat hooks limned a ghostly Jesus hovering grimly over a family seated at the kitchen table. Beneath was the caption (also luminous): The Unseen Guest

— Stephen King, Carrie

On the other hand, the teachers at the school might be seen as the modern equivalent of the Gothic clergy, in charge of the virgin’s life, seeking counsel.

Carrie’s mother might as well be a mythical monster or a fairytale witch. The (semi) realistic setting allows us to read her as a woman with mental health challenges but her archetype predates such knowledge. American Gothic novels in particular tend to deal with a “madness” in one or more of the characters and carry that theme throughout the novel. In his novel Edgar Huntly or Memoirs of a Sleepwalker, Charles Brockden Brown writes about two characters who slowly become more and more deranged as the novel progresses. King’s novel The Shining is also about Descent Into Madness. Non-King examples include Sunset Boulevard, Black Swan, Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and Apocalypse Now.

What Carrie lacks in complexity, Stephen King makes up for in his web of her opponents. In Carrie’s classmates we see all shades of bullying, from the out-and-out evil, dark-haired girl (Chris Hargensen) to the blonde* girl who wants to do the right thing but ends up making Carrie’s life worse (Sue Snell). Even the teacher (Miss Desjardin) has excellent intentions but inadvertently makes Carrie’s life worse by setting in action the suspension of Chris Hargensen, who because of this plots the blood in a bucket incident.

*In the novel Sue has dark hair.

King apparently wrote this book inspired by catty bitches he knew from school and from teaching high school. So I don’t kid myself that King is particularly sympathetic to the teenage girl at this point in his writing career. But in contrast to the ‘women are catty bitches’ reading, King turns Chris into a bullied victim herself. Her boyfriend is truly bad; if she hadn’t had sex with him he planned to rape her; later, he does in fact rape her.

but it had all begun to slip out of her hands, and it made her uneasy. If she had not given in willingly on Monday, he would have taken her by force.

Chris is punished, partly for her willingness to have sex, partly for her short skirt and also, partly, for being really mean to people.

There are lots of people—mostly men—who aren’t surprised that I asked Tommy to take Carrie to the Spring Ball. They are surprised that he did it, though, which shows you that the male mind expects very little in the way of altruism from its fellows.

Here King is kinder on men.

Carrying the pails back to the trunk, his mind made a dim, symbolic connection. Pig blood. That was good. Chris was right. It was really good. It made everything solidify.

Pig blood for a pig.

The bad boys are playing a different, more basic game. The menstruation connection is from the girls; the boys think they’re simply insulting Carrie by comparing her to an animal.

MYSTERY

As we get to know the opponents and what they are capable of, we are also introduced to a mystery: What is the exact nature of Carrie’s newfound superpower? 

Revelation is important in any story containing a mystery. (TV writers call them ‘reveals’.) But a story doesn’t have to be ‘mystery’ or ‘detective’ genre to contain a mystery element. Part of this story’s dynamic is to have Carrie find out/realise something that’s been true (latent) for some time: That she is a witch, and has inherited her powers from her grandmother. The story’s momentum comes from the finding out, and during the big struggle sequence we will see the full extent of Carrie’s superpowers. 

Much Gothic literature also includes a mystery of some kind. For instance, Jane Eyre has his first wife in the attic. Rebecca’s new husband Maxim went and killed his first wife in a re-telling of Bluebeard. Notice that these Gothic mystery novels are also named after the female leads.

King’s novel tells us near the beginning that Carrie has the powers of telekinesis, so the mystery there is in waiting to see how she’s going to use it.

PLAN

“Wait. Just wait. Let me talk. You want me to ask Carrie White to the Spring Ball. Okay, I got that. But there’s a couple of things I don’t understand.”
“Name them.” She leaned forward.
“First, what good would it do?” And second, what makes you think she’d say yes if I asked her?”
“Not say yes! Why–” She floundred. “You’re… everybody likes you and–“
“We both know Carrie’s got no reason to care much for people that everybody likes.”
“She’d go with you.”
“Why?”
Pressed, she looked defiant and proud at the same time. “I’ve seen the way she looks at you. She’s got a crush. Like half the girls at Ewen.”
He rolled his eyes.
“Well, I’m just telling you,” Sue said defensively. “She won’t be able to say no.”
“Suppose I believe you,” he said. “What about the other thing?”
“You mean what good will it do? Why… it’ll bring her out of her shell, of course. Make her…” She trailed off.”
“A part of things? Come on, Suze. You don’t believe that bullshit.”
“All right,” she said. “Maybe I don’t. But maybe I still think I’ve got something to make up for.”

In King’s story it’s not Carrie who has the plan. In fact, Carrie is a co-star at best. Despite the character of Carrie carrying the title of the work, and huge images of the actress emblazoned across the posters, the person who undergoes the character arc is Sue Snell who, like the majority of empathetic readers following along, wants to do something to help the outcast underdog. However, we don’t see quite enough of Sue in this film adaptation to rightly call her the main character. Both these girls are the stars — mirror images of each other in many ways:

  • Carrie is an outcast/Sue is popular
  • Carrie is lacking in confidence/Sue is full of confidence
  • Sue has Tommy for a boyfriend/Carrie goes to the ball with him but knows he is very much not her boyfriend
  • Carrie starts the book with blood between her thighs/the book ends with blood between Sue’s

It is Sue who comes up with The Plan that sets the plot in motion. She will offer her popular boyfriend to Carrie as a companion to the ball. This is of course a condescending gesture and Carrie can see right through it — the only way any girl would offer her boyfriend to another girl for an important life event like this is because she knows she’s no competition whatsoever. However, the plan works. It is undermined by Chris and her pig-killing guy friends.

BIG STRUGGLE

In the book, Stephen King puts the entire big struggle sequence into a section called ‘Part Two’. It comprises almost half of the book.

Carrie and Tommy at the ball in a brief moment of bliss. As in many high school stories, the outcast female character undergoes a makeover.

The sequence beginning with the bucket of blood on Carrie’s head. The blood in the bucket sequence is of course the set piece of this film and even if you forget every other scene, this is the bit which eventually enters pop culture. In fact, you probably know this scene even without ever watching the film or reading the book. Part of what makes this so successful is the build up, in which we see Chris as a puppeteer, literally pulling the strings (but of the bucket) from above, as a symbol of omniscient evil against good. (Her own abusive boyfriend is using Chris as his puppet, and also as his non-consenting sex doll.)

Structurally speaking, I’m guessing this is the part which could have posed the biggest hurdle for the writer(s). Miraculous survivals are elements within American Gothic literature in which a character or characters will somehow manage to survive some feat that should have led to their demise. The problem is, with Carrie’s anger-fuelled telekinesis, Carrie is all powerful. She can stop an oncoming car and murder people without even touching them. This superpower means the opponent is fully at her mercy. Sure, the revenge is sweet to watch, but when a character is so much more powerful than their opponent this makes for a boring blood bath.

To create a satisfying big struggle sequence, King gave Carrie two separate big struggles, one after the other with a quiet moment in the middle:

  1. The big struggle on stage against everyone at school
  2. The big struggle against her mother, who has been proven to be a formidable monster and who stabs her quietly in the back.

Sue watches as the house is destroyed. The house can be considered a character in the story, or at least an extension of the women who live there. (In Gothic novels the setting is always a character in itself.)

The cold, heartless house turns to rubble. The difference between this shot and the blue weatherboard house is important. The setting is greatly influential in Gothic novels. It not only evokes the atmosphere of horror and dread, but also portrays the deterioration of its world. The decaying, ruined scenery implies that at one time there was a thriving world. At one time the abbey, castle, or landscape was something treasured and appreciated. Now, all that lasts is the decaying shell of a once thriving dwelling.
Sue watches the house being destroyed, and Mrs White with it, in the basement.

ANAGNORISIS

In the book, this marks the beginning of Part Three. I’m guessing King thinks (or thought) in terms of three act structure as a writer.

We see Sue Snell see her gazing at Carrie’s headstone. Her voiceover says, “You can only push someone so far before they break.” This is her revelation. It’s an anti-bullying message at its heart.

NEW SITUATION

Interestingly, we are shown the new situation before we’re shown Sue’s anagnorisis. Usually it’s not that way around. We know that she is pregnant with a girl and from the court scene we know that most of her friends are dead. We can extrapolate that Sue will give birth to a girl, and we might even wonder if Carrie has done something to that girl to imbue her with witchy superpowers, in the style of Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

This isn’t how the book ends. Somewhere else, a woman called Amelia Jenks is pregnant with a baby who turns out to have witch powers. It is implied that Tommy gets Sue pregnant, but the final scene is bookended with blood — Sue gets her period (which may actually be a miscarriage).

What Is Magical Realism? Is It Fabulism?

This is the most succinct explanation of magical realism that I have seen lately:

Magical realism is when the world is about 95% normal, but 5% magical/mystical and that magic is a totally natural part of the world.

@MadmoiselleClel (Clelia Gore on Twitter)

This is from Abrams:

Magic realism, a literary genre strongly associated with contemporary Latin American writers, “interweaves, in an ever-shifting pattern, a sharply etched realism in representing ordinary events and descriptive details together with fantastic and dreamlike elements”

If you’re looking for a literary agent on Twitter you will find many agents and editors asking for magical realism in children’s books at the moment. They are also complaining that they’re not getting enough of it. When an author says, “Hey I’ve got some for you!” it’s not magical realism at all.

This is a painting by Paul Bond. I’ve seen Bond’s work described as magical realism.

The characteristics as listed by Wendy B. Faris are sometimes used by academics:

Wendy Faris’s Five Characteristics of Magical Realism

  • An irreducible element of magic;
  • A grounding in the phenomenal world, i.e., the realistic world;
  • The production of unsettling doubts in the reader because of this mixture of the real and the fantastic;
  • The near merging of two realms or worlds; and
  • Disruptions of traditional ideas about time, space, and identity

Agent Michelle Witte has a much more detailed series of blog posts defining exactly what magical realism is and is not.

Here is part one.

Essentially, magical realism is:

Real-world setting + fantastical elements = magical realism

In visual terms, think of it as a photo that’s blurred around the edges to give it an ethereal, almost otherworldly quality. It has the feel of magic—that anything is possible.

Magical realism focuses on ordinary people going about the humdrum activities of daily life. Everything is normal—except for one or two elements that go beyond the realm of possibility, whether it be magic or fate or a physical connection with the earth and the creatures that inhabit it, but always in a way that celebrates the mundane.

FABULISM OR MAGICAL REALISM?

Bear in mind that the definition of magical realism varies, depending on who you ask. Here is another point of view:

fabulism does not equal magical realism

Michelle Witte argues that in fact magical realism did not originate in South America:

Despite the common misconception, magical realism didn’t originate in South America. Instead, German art critic Franz Roch coined the term “magical realism” in 1925 to describe the New Objectivity style of painting. A few years later, the concept of magical realism crossed the ocean to South America, where it was adopted and popularized by Latin American authors throughout the twentieth century as lo real maravilloso, the marvelous real. Notable writers include Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Isabel Allende, among numerous others.

While Hispanic writers were—and still are—a major influence in modern magical realistic literature, the style is not limited to a specific time or place. In fact, writers from across the world have adopted and adapted magical realism to fit their own cultures and within their own frame of reference.

new objectivity painting magical realism
Agosta, the Pigeon-Chested Man, and Rasha, the Black Dove 1929 Christian Schad 1894-1982. An example of New Objectivity in painting

ENCHANTED REALISM

Sheila Egoff writes of ‘enchanted realism’, which avoids the problem nicely. Enchanted realism is a genre of children’s literature that

gradually penetrates the imagination blending fantasy and reality through a distortion of time and space

As examples she offers

  • The Children of the Green Knowe (1954) by Lucy Boston
  • Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958) by Philippa Pearce
  • Tuck Everlasting (1975) by Natalie Babbitt

What’s the difference between these stories and plain old fantasy? The worlds are integrated into the real world, unlike, for instance, the world of Narnia, which is entirely separated from our real world via the portal of a wardrobe. Instead, the real world becomes enchanted within a confined arena such as:

  • an ancient house
  • a small village
  • a garden
  • a nearby wood

These enchanted places are liminal spaces. The child character isn’t sure where the real world ends and the enchanted world begins. This arena provides a place for the child to explore and transform (have a character arc).

Egoff writes than in earlier works of enchanted realism:

childhood is seen as a state separate from adulthood and the adventures the children encounter are a product of their own devising, their own serious play and imaginings

SEE ALSO

Fifty years on, One Hundred Years of Solitude is still providing profound insights into our evolving human tale where horrors co-exist with wonders, where absurdities don’t provoke a blink.

One Hundred Years of Solitude is 50. Its magic realism is immortal, from Scroll.in.

This Vox article does a great job of summarising the debates around the term magical realism, and who may use it.

Here’s a list of magical realist children’s books, which I am calling ‘fabulism’ to be safe: Fabulism In Children’s Literature

And here’s a discussion which begins with the question: The genre magical realism came to be in the German language. Yet, Latin American has had a home for the genre. Why is this?

The Swimmer by John Cheever

“The Swimmer”(1964) is considered one of Cheever’s best short stories. Anne Enright feels that this would never have worked as the novel Cheever had originally planned and adds that it would work even better as a short story had he lost one or two pools. (The naturist communists are amusing but we don’t want any more than that.)

Anne Enright reads John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” at The New Yorker Fiction podcast.

PLOT OF THE SWIMMER

Neddy Merrill, half-cocked on gin and tonics during a restorative summer brunch at the house of some friends, decides to return home through several miles of Connecticut exurb by swimming the lengths of contiguous pools.  Thus begins a minor odyssey during which we watch as Neddy makes his way, first in drunken delight, but then through rainstorms, colder weather, and the hostility of former friends, gradually growing old and infirm, finally arriving home to find it deserted.

THE MILLIONS

In more detail:

The story begins with Neddy Merrill lounging at a friend’s pool on a mid-summer’s day. On a whim, Neddy decides to get home by swimming across all the pools in the county, which he names “The Lucinda River” in honor of his wife, and starts off enthusiastically and full of youthful energy. In the early stops on his journey, he is enthusiastically greeted by friends, who welcome him with drinks. It is readily apparent that he is well-regarded and from an upper-class or upper-middle-class social standing.

Midway through his journey, things gradually take on a darker and ultimately surreal tone. Despite everything taking place during just one afternoon, it becomes unclear how much time has passed. At the beginning of the story; it was clearly mid-summer, but by the end all natural signs point to the season’s being autumn. Different people Neddy encounters mention misfortune and money troubles he doesn’t remember, and he is outright unwelcome at several houses which should have been beneath him. His earlier, youthful energy leaves him, and it becomes increasingly painful and difficult for him to swim on. Finally, he staggers back home, only to find his house decrepit, empty, and abandoned.

Wikipedia

Is Neddy dead at the end of this story? That’s one interpretation, but is too literal for Anne Enright. There is a long tradition of stories with stings in the tail. This is another such story. It stings but we don’t know why, exactly. We don’t know how many years have elapsed between the beginning and the end of the story. In the end, the mood is the important thing about this story rather than the plot, which is simply a wrapper for the mood.


SETTING OF THE SWIMMER

Place

Cheever himself moved from New York to the suburbs of Westchester County, New York to bring up his family. Many of his stories are set in this kind of suburb, and he has been called ‘the Chekhov of the suburbs’. (He has also been called Dante of the cocktail hour.) He wrote a series of stories set in the fictional ‘Shady Hill’. This is a well-off suburb, where everyone seems to have a pool and house staff. They throw big parties and employ bartenders. No two pools are alike quite a feat of description.

Westchester County NY where The Swimmer is set

Time

The story is set on ‘one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, “I drank too much last night.” This is explained in the very first sentence. We don’t know exactly what year it is set, though the story was written in the 1960s. In fact, the lack of specific time is part of the story itself. By the end, we don’t know how many years have metaphorically passed between Neddy’s first and last swim. But we do know that this is the Cold-War era, when America is in International expansion mode.


CHARACTERS IN THE SWIMMER

Neddy has a kid’s name. A grown-man would more often be called ‘Ned’. His quest is childlike in its enthusiasm. He has the narcissism of youth, thinking of himself as a legendary figure, as little boys often imagine they’re superheroes. His ego depletes as he swims forth.

Cheever’s mastery lies in the handling of Neddy’s gradual, devastating progress from boundless optimism to bottomless despair, from summer to fall, from swimming pool to swimming pool….as we read the story we feel time passing, before our eyes; feel Neddy losing heart, growing weary, getting old.

Michael Chabon

The story opens with everybody’s hangovers, but Neddy is not complaining about his hangover. Probably because he’s still drunk from the previous night. By the end of the story he may have sobered up, and sees the reality of his life.


THEME IN THE SWIMMER

Neddy Merrill literally ‘floats’ over the reality of his life, which is that he’s drowning in his suburban life, and in his alcohol problem. Of course, this is the natural reading after knowing about the life of the author, but how would the story be interpreted if we knew nothing of Cheever’s alcoholism? This is a story about the denial of knowledge. Neddy is able to continue while his life crumbles beneath him.

Theme: People can remain brittle and tenacious even as things fade and dissolve under them. Yet there’s no morality in Cheever. He doesn’t wag a finger, telling us we must face up to reality.

Cheever himself said this story is about ‘the irreversibility of human conduct’. It’s about grandiosity of any description. You don’t have to be rich with lots of swimming pools in order to understand this story. This story is about drinking, but ‘we’re all drinkers’ (in some fashion or other).

“The Swimmer” is also an allegory for getting older. Everything withers and crumbles in the end. We just keep on trucking. There’s no turning back. The birds he mentions at the highway scene are a type of heron that get netted while trying to swim upstream.

The story has mythic echoes — the passage of a divine swimmer across the calendar toward his doom — and yet is always only the story of one bewildered man, approaching the end of his life, journeying homeward, in a pair of bathing trunks, across the countryside where he lost everything that ever meant something to him.

Michael Chabon

TECHNIQUES OF NOTE IN THE SWIMMER

This story is an example of how well Cheever is able to bring the reader into the story. The first paragraph offers a wonderful description of setting. He makes use of the second person, moving from the universal to the specific social group, ending/beginning with the priest. Drinking too much is juxtaposed against the church. Slate use the word ‘litany’ to describe the feeling evoked by the first paragraph. A litany is a ritual repetition of prayers when applied to the church, but is also used outside church settings to describe something which feels repetitious in a tedious sort of way.

At one point Cheever wanted to parallel the tale of Narcissus, a character in Greek mythology who died while staring at his own reflection in a pool of water, which Cheever dismissed as too restrictive. As published, the story is highly praised for its blend of realism and surrealism, the thematic exploration of suburban America, especially the relationship between wealth and happiness, as well as his use of myth and symbolism.

Wikipedia

The turning point is marked by the onset of the storm. Ned sees the first red and yellow leaves and starts to get signs that things are not all right. Yet Netty loves the storm. It’s a big drinker’s story. Along with the idea that nothing ever changes is another idea of ‘let it all come down’. Invite destruction. In the opening paragraph everything is lovely. The cloud is like a city, but this is no ordinary cloud.

Cheever has written an intensely dark story, there are comic elements, such as when the drivers on the highway throw things at him. Even the epic journey itself is fake and therefore laughable. But there is both pleasure and misery in this story. It’s a very slow apocalypse. The beautiful people are moving on, no longer beautiful; Ned has lost everything he ever held dear. The comic elements make this darkness even darker.

Cheever has chosen the names of his characters with care. Neddy’s wife Lucinda, for example, is named after ‘light’, which is associated with time.

Cheever uses sound to create extraordinary atmospheres.

Metaphysical moments are scattered throughout: The constellations of the sky, for example. (Another story like this is “Rabbit”.) Metaphysics is a traditional branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world that encompasses it.

Not Quite Magical Realism

In fiction, when unreal elements appear, usually one of two things is happening.  In the first case, the unreal actually is real.  This describes much of genre fiction, in which the reader expects vampires and aliens to appear — would, in fact, be disappointed if they didn’t.  In literary fiction, too, the unreal may be introduced with a straight face, for effect.  Magical realism depends on the introduction of a fantastic element into otherwise grim reality, for instance in Gabriel García Márquez’sA Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.”  The appearance of an angel in a poor Colombian village creates a host of consequences, though a crucial difference between magical realism and, say, fantasy, is that in magical realism the narrative is primarily interested in the village, while in fantasy the author would focus primarily on the old man, his wings, how he got them, and what his home world is like.

More typically, in literary fiction, the fantastic occurs as a manifestation of the main character’s disordered psychology.  In close third person, the narrative is so intimately linked to a protagonist’s point of view that the world appears in subjective terms, and if the main character is sufficiently disoriented — drunk, delusional, or simply experiencing very heightened emotion — aspects of their immediate surroundings may become distorted in a way that reveals their mental state.  In William Kennedy’s Ironweed, Francis Phelan, an itinerant, guilt-wracked alcoholic sees the ghosts of dead people he’s known, some of whom he killed.  Although the narrative never states that they are apparitions deriving from his fear and shame, it doesn’t need to:  we are able to read them as having a kind of immediate corporeality, at least to Francis, while still being utterly unreal, figments.

So which of the two is happening in “The Swimmer?”  Well, neither, really.  On the one hand, it is impossible to read “The Swimmer” and think that the main events of the story are happening as described — that, in the course of a single afternoon, a man ages 30 years while becoming increasing destitute and reviled — unless we believe Neddy Merrill has entered some horrific parallel universe.  On the other hand, it is equally impossible to read the events of the story as merely a manifestation of Neddy’s mental state.  He’s been drinking as the story starts, but not that much.  He is happy, overwhelmingly content in his life, really.  Even if we were to read the story as a projection of Neddy’s subsumed life anxieties, it is impossible to imagine him projecting a vision of the world this entirely altered.

It is not magical realism because the strangeness is not intended to be taken literally — strangeness in magical realism is almost always encountered and acknowledged by multiple characters, and is, in fact, a device meant to comment on the interlaced relationships that form a society.  Strangeness in Cheever performs the opposite function:  it is personal, particular, atomizing.

THE MILLIONS

STORY SPECS OF THE SWIMMER

The Swimmer” a short story by American author John Cheever, was originally published in The New Yorker on July 18, 1964, and then in the 1964 short story collection, The Brigadier and the Golf Widow. Originally conceived as a novel and pared down from over 150 pages of notes, it is probably Cheever’s most famous and frequently anthologized story.

Wikipedia
The Swimmer 1968 movie poster

COMPARE THE SWIMMER WITH

New Zealand writer Keri Hulme writes stories with a blend of realism and surrealism. (Sometimes called ‘magic realism’.) See her collection Te Kaihau.

The surrealism is also a bit like the surrealism of The Graduate.

The Enormous Radio, also by Cheever, has the same sort of surrealism.


WRITE YOUR OWN

Where to start, if your intention is to practice writing a story of magic realism? I suppose we might first start with a theme and build a magical/surreal setting which makes the theme clear to the reader. In this type of story we write in a realistic way but we’re not obligated to write ‘the truth’. How does Neddy get into the public swimming pool? Does he carry spare change in his swimming trunks? I asked myself this question as I read, yet in this type of story it’s not important. When the details are specific and familiar enough, the reader will be drawn along for the ride.

If we’re to be inspired by “The Swimmer”:

  • Start with a character embarking on a slightly absurd quest
  • Decide what the quest stands for, thematically
  • Include comic details
  • Use the weather to help build atmosphere
  • End with a sting in the tail

RELATED LINKS

Slap Happy Larry Stories

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

Lemon Girl: A movie-length novella by Slap Happy Larry. Everyone is someone else's little psycho.