Deep Holes by Alice Munro

“Deep Holes” is a short story by Alice Munro. You can find it in the June 30 2008  edition of The New Yorker. I’m very much reminded of Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer and the real life of Christopher McCandless.

But “Deep Holes” is not the story of the son — it’s the story of the mother, left behind to deal with the loss of a child in this way. How does a mother cope with that?



It follows that this is also a story centred around the emotional labour and mental load of mothers, and how children can grow to resent mothers for it, reserving respect for fathers who do far less.

I’ve heard it said that older people are happier, and this is partly because they have learned to be happy. The rise and fall of happiness over the course of a lifetime is known as the U-bend.

Enjoyment and happiness dip in middle age, then pick up; stress rises during the early 20s, then falls sharply; worry peaks in middle age, and falls sharply thereafter; anger declines throughout life; sadness rises slightly in middle age, and falls thereafter.

The Economist on Medium

CAST OF CHARACTERS IN “DEEP HOLES”

  • Sally — Mother, who at beginning of story has two boys as well as a six month old baby. Her three children have been spaced out. (Similar to Alice Munro’s own children.)
  • Alex — Sally’s husband, an inconsiderate geologist. Retires but continues his work, using Sally as his assistant. The pair become close during this time as Sally catches his geological curiosity. Later in life he goes into hospital for an operation but never comes home again. (Alice Munro was married to a geographer — a sort of similar line of work, I suppose. This was her second husband. They married in 1976. He died in 2013. Alice Munro’s first husband, James, died in 2016. So although Alice Munro has now lost both great loves of her life, she hadn’t, at time of writing, lost either of them yet.)
  • Kent — son of about 10-12 with a lot of reckless confidence.  In his teen years he decides he’ll become an important scientist. Studies the hard sciences. Very smart kid. Later becomes a monk and changes his name to Jonah. Upon reunion, Kent asks Sally if his self-consciously pretentious language is a kind of ‘cant’. Cant = hypocritical and sanctimonious talk, typically of a moral, religious, or political nature. I wonder if Alice Munro chose the name Kent for the near rhyme of it.
  • Peter — six year old son. When grown, goes into medicine. A minor character in the story.
  • Savannah — six month old daughter, named after a geological feature. When grown, goes into law. Smart, knowing, close to her mother.

STORY WORLD OF “DEEP HOLES”

The story opens with a deeply foreboding tone. This is how a horror movie starts. The fear of falling into a hole is very visceral.

As a toddler, my brother’s friend’s father fell into a long drop. This is a story very much peripheral to my own life, and though my brothers joked about it frequently, it is terrifying. I think of Colin any time I have to make use of a long drop.

I guess most people can recall some childhood landscape redolent with threat. For me, growing up in New Zealand, our family went on weekend tramps (or what every other English speaking country calls ‘hikes’). We’d walk through forests, cross little streams, and sometimes walk one at a time over those swing bridges suspended over deep, blue rivers. Inevitably we’d end up navigating some dangerous winding track shallow-carved into the side of a bluff, with a deadly sheer drop  should we stumble and fall in the wrong direction. I rarely stumbled normally. But that’s what really scared me.

When it comes to dangerous holes in the ground I’m reminded of South Australia’s Coober Pedy, a mining town out in the desert. Drive through on the state highway and you’ll see these signs. They’re almost comical (didn’t the third guy notice the first two had come to grief?), but you just know people have died in this way.

Warning Sign, Coober Pedy, Outback, South Australia, Australia

CREATING A THREATENING AMBIANCE

There are many ways to do this.

Word usage and imagery:

  • deviled eggs
  • a sign saying ‘caution’
  • deep chambers… some the size of a coffin
  • not enough greenery to make any sort of a cushion over the rubble below

Telling the reader that this place is not threatening at all, which invokes reverse psychology:

The entrance to the woods looked quite ordinary and non-threatening.

Narrative insertions which are obviously the result of hindsight:

  • They said O.K., and he proceeded, carrying the picnic basket and apparently believing that no further fatherly warning was necessary.

Munro even uses the horror trick of scaring us then revealing that nothing has happened, yet:

He gave a cry of arrival and display, and the boys hooted with true astonishment.

(The husband is simply marveling at the view.)

THE SYMBOLISM OF ALTITUDE

Munro is using the full space when painting the arena of “Deep Holes”. She uses the height of the bluff juxtaposed against the depth of the holes.

The entrance to the woods looked quite ordinary and unthreatening. Sally understood, of course, that these woods were on top of a high bluff, and she expected a daunting lookout somewhere. She did not expect the danger that had to be skirted almost immediately in front of them.

Deep chambers, really, some the size of a coffin, some much bigger than that, like rooms cut out of the rocks. Corridors zigzagging between them, and ferns and mosses growing out of the walls. Not enough greenery, however, to make any sort of cushion over the rubble below. The path went meandering between them, over hard earth and shelves of not quite level rock.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “DEEP HOLES”

SHORTCOMING

Alice Munro is an expert at depicting the emotional labour of motherhood. I’m sure most women will relate to it immediately, and men should understand it too, since she depicts Sally’s interiority so well.

Sally’s shortcoming, therefore, is that she exists in service to her husband and family. Her husband is typical of his era — he considers the work of organising a picnic the wife’s job, but that extends far beyond just preparing the picnic. It extends to jobs he isn’t even aware exist: Remembering who likes how much mustard on their sandwich then divvying them up accordingly. The worry of danger nearby and the tug between being an ‘overly anxious mother’ and letting the children run free.

These attitudes are conveyed via details such as who has packed the picnic, who carries the baby, who is worried about the boys, who looks at who in an attempt to keep the marriage alive. (Sally, in every instance.) The husband’s attitude towards breast-feeding is sadly still common today. Except now, unlike then (my mother’s era), women are roundly shamed for ‘choosing’ not to breastfeed. At least in the era after formula became available, switching to formula was considered a viable option. (This is not an argument in favour of formula — breastmilk is clearly the healthier choice when breast-havers are able to offer it.)

Sally’s connection to her family is shown in other, subtle ways. When Sally wonders why ‘deep-holes’ is hyphenated on the carpark sign, I read that as Sally being joined, literally in the case of the baby, to her family. They have not yet bifurcated as people.

DESIRE

Mothers and wives in Munro’s short stories are not permitted world-changing desire lines — theirs are quiet desires which allow these women to continue fulfilling the roles they have been channeled into, without rocking the patriarchal boat. The women are never blamed for the milieu which formed them. They are not expected to be ‘strong female characters’. Finding a way to live happily as a wife and mother is its own kind of strength.

Clearly, however, and Sally would love to reconnect with her estranged son.

OPPONENT

Sally’s son in “Deep Holes” is very much a Chris McCandless archetype — bright, unmotivated by sex (probably asexual — an orientation rarely depicted in fiction). He fancies himself spiritual, is scathing, reckless with his own health and dismissive of the people who have given him the most.

This personality type is fascinating, and I’m not surprised Jon Krakauer wrote an entire book on Chris McCandless. We never really do learn who McCandless is, though. Such men are unknowable, and that’s their aim.

However, Krakauer did see himself in McCandless. As a young man he felt himself invincible, evidenced by his attitude to rock climbing, a sport which shaped and filled his youth. The estranged son in Munro’s story is perhaps an exaggerated version of young men everywhere, who almost always distance themselves from their mothers to a degree.

PLAN

This is an example of a story in which the Opponent drives the Plan.

Kent calls the shots, as the daughter points out. Sally has no choice but to wait for her son to get in touch. When he does, of course she takes up the opportunity to meet him. Even then, she goes along only to see what she can make of the meeting.

BIG STRUGGLE

Alice Munro’s Battle scenes often take place in kitchens, or sitting down in a living room. So it is here. We could parse this scene onto a chase in an action film, but of course it’s nothing like that on the surface. When Sally thinks of running away, and knows she couldn’t jump the fence at the back, and when the son comes back after a full half-hour, surprised to see his own mother still there, this is a more moving kind of chase than in any action film I’ve ever seen. Munro has subverted the chase scene.

ANAGNORISIS

Munro uses a few tricks to lead us to Sally’s Anagnorisis, which is this: She may never patch things up with her son. It will always be a ‘maybe’. He is not the son that she knew. He even has a different name.

Therefore, Sally must learn to live with this distance. She will continue to imagine herself on an island. She will hope that Kent has found his own island of happiness as well.

At the point in a story when a character has a Anagnorisis, there is often the feeling that the main character has become very small, the landscape has become very large, and also that we see them from above, as if in an establishing shot at the beginning of a movie. In other words, the character (as we do) now has the ‘bigger picture’.

SYMBOLISM OF THE MINIATURE

Alice Munro turns Sally into a tiny figure within a vast landscape:

She reminded him that she knew nothing about rocks, and he said never mind that, he could use her for scale, in the photographs.

So she became the small figure in black or bright clothing, contrasting with the ribbons of Silurian or Devonian rock or with the gneiss formed by intense compression, folded and deformed by clashes of the North American and the Pacific plates to make the present continent.

This is a woman who has lived her entire life in service to her family, so there’s the feminist reading, of course. A good writer makes statements like that. But a great writer such as Alice Munro stretches the metaphor further.

She sort of flips it, actually. By the end of the story Sally has regained control by taking the juxtaposed isolation/extreme closeness of motherhood and turning it into a neat psychological trick she can use in service of her own happiness.

By the way, The Overview Effect goes hand-in-hand with the miniature.

THE OVERVIEW EFFECT

Since first noticing it, I keep seeing The Overview Effect utilised in story, especially in short form storytelling, where it is particularly useful in creating the illusion of a vast time and space (within a very short time and space). The Overview Effect is linked to the miniature effect utilised in the same paragraph (above). Here’s the continuation:

Gradually [Sally] learned to use her eyes and apply her knowledge, till she could stand in an empty suburban street and realize that far beneath her shoes was a crater filled with rubble that had never been seen, because there had been no eyes to see it at its creation or through the long history of its being made and filled and hidden and lost.

NEW SITUATION

“Deep Holes” is a tragedy, because Sally does not get what she desires. She does not reconnect with her son. The meeting has driven them further apart.

Now she must live with that.

Like many of Munro’s older woman characters, Sally has developed psychological tricks to help her cope with her inferior, older-woman status and widowed situation — she has a lifelong habit of imagining herself on an island. In narrative, islands are pretty much always heavy with symbolism.

In her imagination, these islands are real, geolocatable places. As we are told earlier in the story, she is careful not to make up any of the details. If she hews her imagination to reality, these islands serve her better. Also, I believe it’s important she never actually visit those islands. They’re better off existing as fernweh.

How is Sally using the imagined islands? As the remainder of this story makes clear, these islands are a psychological trick which help Sally to remain her own person, if only inside her head. This ability to separate herself from members of her family, even after providing the most care anyone can ever give another person — a womb, the breast, remembering whether you like mustard on your sandwich or not — becomes especially necessary when one of her sons shucks her off.

Sally’s ‘separateness’ is symbolised, quite obviously, by the lasagne-for-one she eats after the disappointing, enraging visit:

She heats up a single serving of lasagna. She buys these separated, precooked, and frozen portions now. They are quite good and not too expensive when you think that there’s no waste.

In the same paragraph we see Sally continues with her own life, and her own life is full, because she is now reaping the rewards of a lifetime in service to others: She has friends who call and leave messages. She enjoys small luxuries such as a glass of wine with her meal.

And the final paragraph reveals: Sally looks to people even older than herself, who have learned to live on their own islands, because they have had to.

Header photo by Andrew Gook on Unsplash. It’s actually Scarborough Bluffs Park, but also in Ontario.

The Leader of the People by John Steinbeck

The Leader of the People

The Red Pony (1933) by John Steinbeck is described as an episodic novella, or interconnected short stories. “The Leader of the People” is one of those stories.

I really enjoyed this story from The Golden Argosy collection (as recommended by Stephen King), as it still feels fresh. The viewpoint of the young boy is great, and when the ‘camera’ zooms out, there’s a real sense of place. The descriptions of the boy’s body language beats and play are very well done.

Also, Steinbeck is making wonderful use of a technique all writers can use: The miniature in storytelling. In fact, this is your archetypal example of it.

SETTING OF “THE LEADER OF THE PEOPLE”

Set on a farm.

High in the air small clouds like puffs of cannon smoke were driven eastward by the March wind. The wind could be heard whishing in the brush on the ridge crests, but no breath of it penetrated down into the ranch cup.

White pigeons, a cypress tree, haystacks full of mice, barbed wire fences, surrounded by mountains. Dogs, squirrels, road runners and at night, large moths throw themselves at the windows. In the daytime, the heavy smell of sage. Ants and flies.

There’s a Pied Piper feel about this setting:

Those plump, sleek, arrogant mice were doomed. For eight months the had lived and multiplied in the haystack. they had been immune from cats, from traps, from poison and from Jody.

This is a bifurcated setting — the mountains seem ominous. Billy glances towards them as if there may be trouble. This juxtaposes against the utopian description of the side-hill:

Jody turned back and looked at the side-hill where the road from the outside world came down. the hill was washed with lean March sunshine. Silver thistles, blue lupins and a few poppies bloomed among the sage bushed.

Nearby we have the Horseshoe Club in Pacific Grove, which tells us this is in California. (East of where the father-in-law has settled.) By climbing the little cleft where the road comes through, Jody can see the huge green Salinas Valley.

Inside, the mother prepares beans, they eat steak and beans at a white oilcloth table, the room lit by a lamp with a tin reflector. Mother rings a triangle to alert the farmworkers when their meals are ready. They eat sugared mush for breakfast.

FAMILY DYNAMICS

The parents are harsh on Jody by modern standards. Jody expresses excitement that his father has arrived home carrying a letter, so he runs inside to spread that excitement to his mother. But he is chastised and humiliated for failing to mind his own business. A modern parent would encourage the kid’s enthusiasm — after all, this is his own grandfather coming to stay. This is his business. Are these parents typical of the era, or are these especially harsh characters? In any case, they’re training him into a certain variety of masculinity, in which a boy expresses no emotion apart from anger and disapproval.

This is a time when kids are supposed to be kept busy, or else they’ll turn out lazy or get themselves into trouble. The mother admonishes the father for not giving him enough jobs to do. Today, we consider play the main job of children. And that is shown here — only by trying to engage the grandfather in play does Jody have the Anagnorisis and grow up a little.

THE MINIATURE IN STORYTELLING

It becomes clear that Steinbeck is using a tried and tested writing technique — he’s playing with our perception of scale to encourage us to consider what’s really important in life. First he gave us the mountains juxtaposed against the much smaller (and pleasant) side-hill. The small boy’s enthusiasm juxtaposes against the solemn, grim demeanour of his parents, and when the boy meets his grandfather the mice are coming in  handy, symbolically:

Jody explained, “The dogs eat them, sir. It wouldn’t be much like hunting Indians I guess.”

“No, not much-but then later, when the troops were hunting Indians and shooting children and burning tepees, it wasn’t much different from you mouse hunt.”

Later, when Jody is lying in bed, Steinbeck expands upon the idea that the Wild West, with heroic Cowboys and warring Indians looms large in contemporary (1930s) minds:

Jody lay in his bed and thought of the impossible world of Indians and buffaloes, a world that had ceased to be forever. He wished he could have been living in the heroic time, but he knew he was not of heroic timber. No one living now, save possibly Billy Buck, was worthy to do the things that had been done. A race of giants had lived then, fearless men, men of a staunchness unknown in this day. Jody thought of the wide plains and of the wagons moving across like centipedes. He thought of Grandfather on a huge white horse, marshaling the people. Across his mind marched the great phantoms, and they marched off the earth and they were gone.

Later, after Jody’s father dismisses the grandfather, the old man looks literally smaller in Jody’s young eyes:

Jody turned disconsolately away, and walked down toward the old haystack. He tried to whip up his enthusiasm with thoughts of the fat juicy mice. He beat the ground with his flail. the dogs coaxed and whined about him, but he could not go. Back at the house he could see Grandfather sitting on the porch, looking small and thin and black.

Notice also how Steinbeck has listed the animal life all the way through the story, starting with the large animals (the horses, the dogs, the squirrels) and working his way down to the moths (last night) and now he describes the flies, then the ants. Everything is shrinking in Jody’s eyes as Jody grows more mature, by observing the interaction between the men, especially.

CHARACTERS IN “THE LEADER OF THE PEOPLE”

Billy Buck — The middle-aged ranch-hand. Black hat. His father was called Muletail Buck because he packed mules. Though a ranch hand wouldn’t normally shave mid week, he has shaved to meet the Grandfather, because the Grandfather holds him in high esteem. The Grandfather admires that he’s one of the few men who has not ‘gone soft’. (This feels like an accusation every older generation levels against every younger generation of men.)

Jody Tiflin— A spirited, enthusiastic little boy who finds excitement in small things. He tries to do the right thing.

Carl Tiflin — Jody’s father. At the start of the story he is away riding up the ridge of one of the surrounding mountains. Left after dinner (probably the midday meal).

Mrs. Tiflin — Jody’s mother. Inside shelling or chopping beans into a pan. Steinbeck doesn’t give her a first name. She is important to the story only as the mother, daughter and wife.

Mrs. Tiflin’s father — Steinbeck makes us curious about this old man by showing characters talking about him before he arrives on the scene. We learn that he talks only of Indians, and crossing the plains. He repeats the same stories about how the horses got driven off. Earlier in his life he led a wagon train across the plains to the coast. That was his life’s achievement. He was born for that job. But once he got to the ocean there was no more West left. So he settled by the ocean in Monterey.

Then he does turn up and we get the following description:

The grandfather was dressed in a black broad cloth suit and he wore kid congress gaiters and a black tie on a short, hard collar. He carried his black slouch hat in his hand. His white beard was cropped close and his white eyebrows overhung his eyes like moustaches. the blue eyes were sternly merry. About the whole face and figure there was a granite dignity, so that every motion seemed an impossible thing. Once at rest, it seemed the old man would be stone, would never move again. His steps wee slow and certain. Once made, not step could ever be traced; once headed in a direction, the path would never ben nor the pace increase nor slow.

Double-tree Mutt — the black dog. Likes to dig in squirrel holes. Doesn’t realise that dogs don’t catch squirrels by digging holes. There’s another dog as well. They have fleas.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE LEADER OF THE PEOPLE”

A little boy is excited to learn that his grandfather is coming to say. His father, not so much. The old man goes on and on about the short time in his life when he was in his element — leading a band across the prairie to California.

The old man turns up, and sure enough, tells the same old stories. Only the little boy is interested, though he, too, has heard all these stories before. Steinbeck doesn’t bother telling us much of the stories, on the understanding that everyone coming to this short story in 1933 knows the basics of Western expansion. So he summarises:

Jody knew in advance exactly what words would fall. the story droned on, speeded up for the attack, grew sad over the wounds, struck a dirge at the burials and the great plains.

At breakfast, the old man overhears his son-in-law complaining about him telling the same old stories, so he takes a moment outside to reflect. He talks to the grandson, and explains the reason for telling the stories — to underscore the importance of collective spirit, not to revel in the glory of it.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE LEADER OF THE PEOPLE”

SHORTCOMING

The shifting third-person narration does the rounds, but settles most often on the highly empathetic young Jody. Much of the story is filtered through his point of view. Even when it isn’t, directly, the narrator describes things Jody would notice. In this way, “The Leader of the People” is a bit like “What Maisie Knew”, a novel by Henry James first published 1897. I suspect Steinbeck was influenced by James.

It seems Jody is quite isolated on that farm — there are no other kids to join him in his games, so his best hope is persuading an old man to join him.

Jody isn’t especially empathetic, either. He sees the mice purely as opponents to be conquered. Though is father has a more nuanced and grim view of the wars between the whites and the native peoples, Jody is yet to learn any of it. He’s all about the sticks and the guns. By the end of the story he’ll have a slightly more nuanced view on American history.

DESIRE

Jody wants to listen to his grandfather tell exciting stories about cowboys and Indians. then he wants to engage him in his own farm-sized Battle between himself and the mice, though the mice are only into haystacks that are no longer any use, and hurting no one.

OPPONENT

The mother is positioned as Jody’s opposition because she is not playful and she also sees through his motivations.

The father is an even bigger opposition because, as Steinbeck describes, everything Jody does has to be run by him first.

As far as Jody’s concerned, his play opponents, in his miniature world, are the mice.

PLAN

Jody will encourage his grandfather to tell stories, then coax him into the mouse hunting game.

BIG STRUGGLE

This is an interesting technique I’m noticing a lot—the Battle promised is not the Battle we get. In this story, Jody is all about the big fight between himself, the dogs and the mice in the haystacks. Ostensibly, Steinbeck leads the story towards that. First the cast members turn up, then Jody finds a stick… we see the dogs on a mission for squirrels, so we know the actors involved.

But there is no mouse catching scene. That Battle is purely symbolic. Instead we get the awkward scene at the breakfast table, where the old man overhears his son-in-law. (The exact same plot point is used in “Old Man Minick” by Edna Ferber). We know this is the real, structural Battle because the Anagnorisiss follow swiftly after.

ANAGNORISIS

Both the old man and the little boy have their own Anagnorisis, in keeping with the gigantic/miniatures theme Steinbeck’s got going on.

The old man overhears his son-in-law and realises the time for those stories is gone, or rather, people mistake his reason for telling those stories. He doesn’t mean to turn himself into a hero. He means to convey the idea that ‘It was a whole bunch of people make into one big crawling beast.’

Here’s Jody’s more naive Anagnorisis:

Jody changed his course and moved toward the house. He leaned his fail against the steps. “That’s to drive the mice out,” he said. “I’ll bet they’re fat. I’ll bet they don’t know what’s going to happen to them today.”

No, nor you either,” Billy remarked philosophically, “nor me, nor anyone.”

Jody was staggered by this thought. He knew it was true. His imagination twitched away from the mouse hunt. Then his mother came out on the back porch and struck the triangle and all thoughts fell in a heap.

The Anagnorisis for the reader is that Western expansion was expansion for the sake of expansion. Pretty much every ‘Western’ since WW2 has been ‘anti-Western’ rather than Western — highlighting the fruitlessness and misery of American expansionism rather than the glory. So Steinbeck is slightly ahead of his time in writing a Western story (story within a story) in which an old man looks back on his life as a pioneer and sees it in a deterministic, pessimistic way:

But it wasn’t getting here that mattered, it was movement and westering.

Then, in case we missed it, Steinbeck gives us some dialogue which directly compares the futility of human expansionism to the industry of ants.

We carried life out here and set it down the way those ants carry eggs.

I’ll argue the mother and father have their own minor revelations as well: Carl learns that he’s better off letting the old man speak; the mother learns that her little boy has matured somewhat overnight, asking for a lemon for Grandfather’s lemonade, when previously he used the excuse of Grandfather to get away with doing things he might not ordinarily be allowed to do.

NEW SITUATION

Everyone in this extended family has changed a little, and they’ll probably get along a little better now.

Eric by Shaun Tan Picture Book

Eric book cover

Eric is a miniature, post-modern picture book by Australian author illustrator Shaun Tan. This simple story says big things about cultural difference.

NOTES ON THE COVER OF ERIC

Eric’s cover is inviting; the embossed title and author are both prominently displayed, taking about a third of the already small space. Yet even here there is playfulness and subversion. There is no capitalisation on the page, and the dot of the ‘i’ in ‘eric’ has been displaced, appearing slightly to the left above the ‘r.’ Already, we have the implication that not all the rules will obeyed, and that Eric himself is a little different. This idea is reinforced by the image on the cover. Against the mottled green background suggestive of Eric’s jungle origins, Eric peeps up, dominating the lower half of the spread whilst remaining intriguing and inviting the reader to look further. 

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A similar cover layout is used on the Judy Moody covers by Megan McDonald:  

judy-moody

  Another author whose books often avoid adult-like punctuation such as capitalisation is Lauren Child, whose own name is known for being lower case, like bell hooks:  

that-pesky-rat-lauren-child

  For artists who eschew capitalisation of their names, it’s often because they are making a statement against prescriptivism, and the rules set down by adults. The practice may also symbolise rejection of the ego.  

THE MINIATURE

Only in picture books do you regularly find the size and shape of the book itself has something to do with the content. This green version of Eric is only about as big as your hand.

Notice the peanut: Eric uses a peanut for suitcases. We see the peanut again at the end of the story, with a single peanut on a dinner plate. Surely the family isn’t suddenly eating peanuts for dinner? What is the significance of this?

Since the peanut was used as a suitcase, the peanut now stands in for travel and foreignness. The family’s own dinner may now feel foreign to them, now that they’ve had a glimpse of another culture. The peanut is of course used commonly in the West to symbolise the miniature, further linking the peanut to Eric. When set upon a dinner plate, its small size is emphasised. I don’t believe the family is really eating a peanut for dinner. I believe the peanut is a symbol.

Eric is included in the (full size) Shaun Tan collection: Tales From Outer Suburbia. However, just as an anthology of Beatrix Potter stories doesn’t do justice to the individual tales compared to the individual, child-sized editions, Eric is best experienced in miniature, as I’m sure it was designed to be read. Page breaks and publication size are more important than sometimes given credit.

Hannah Love explains the significance of the page breaks:

The first page has no picture, and indeed Tan never places words and pictures on the same side of the gutter; the spreads may be two images, two paragraphs of narration, or text on one page and image on the other. This separation fully emphasises the two different stories and the division between them, and even creates comic effect in places, such as the account of Eric studying displayed opposite a picture of the tiny Eric having to stand on the book in the middle of his page to read.

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Tales From Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan Cover

Eric is similar to The Lost Thing (written and illustrated by the same author) in that:

  1. The narrator is a first person character, though off stage in this story
  2. It’s set a number years in the past, with the storyteller looking back
  3. The main character is a strange creature who comes from another place/time/dimension, who disappears before the end.
  4. The narrator wonders if this strange creature is happy.
  5. The creature in this story is interested in small things whereas the boy in The Lost Thing is the one who is the noticer. (Noticing this creature is a noticer is itself a form of noticing… mise en abyme.)
  6. Behind the doors, in the darkness, is a world full of interesting artifacts.
  7. The narrator is encouraged at the end to wonder what it all means.

ERIC AS A POSTMODERN PICTUREBOOK

What is a postmodern picturebook?

Eric may not seem like a typical postmodern picture book. It is tiny (15cmx12cm) in comparison to many of its counterparts, lacking the large double spreads that allow for hugely detailed drawings. Yet on closer examination, the book’s inter-relationship of text and image is as complex as its contemporaries; being playful whilst simultaneously breaking boundaries. With the combination of a matter-of-fact narrative and endearing pencil drawings of the diminutive aspects of Eric which are never mentioned in the text, Tan effectively explores issues of identity and cultural difference. Grigg (2003) claims that visual images create bridges between cultures and languages, and Tan plays with this idea, showing how determination to appreciate our own culture can be detrimental to acknowledging the culture of others, a particular danger in a multicultural society. He defines Eric as being about a kind of misunderstanding and cultural miscommunication. According to Tan, the character of Eric is based on a combination of a foreign guest that Tan had to stay, and his own budgerigar. This creates a book that opposes … speculation that modern life undermines childhood as a time of play and engaging with the natural world. Eric and his fascination with the world around him show a childlike innocence compromised by an adult narrator who is baffled by and unable to fully interact with his/her guest.

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STORY STRUCTURE OF ERIC

The main character is the storyteller narrator.

SHORTCOMING

This kid (I assumed it is a boy, but she could just as easily be a girl) is overconfident about her ability to explain her world to a newcomer. She feels she knows her own world very well. But her Shortcoming is that she can’t possibly know her own world until she experiences someone else’s.

Because what is her point of reference?

DESIRE

She is looking forward to teaching an exchange student everything about her local environs. This will make her feel like an expert. She will feel heard. She will feel important and useful.

OPPONENT

Eric, however, is not on the same wavelength at all. He asks her questions that simply can’t be answered. This means she doesn’t get to feel like the expert anymore. She never predicted these questions. She didn’t realise there was anything odd about things which are, to her, banal.

eric-illustration

Eric the exchange student, I believe, is a metonym for ‘foreign culture’.

PLAN

Shaun Tan tends to be very specific about the plan part of his narratives:

I had planned for us to go on a number of weekly excursions together, as I was determined to show our visitor the best places in the city and its surrounds.

Despite the past participle, they did go on these excursions, but while the narrator wanted to show Eric the local landmarks, Eric was only interested in little things. For example, at the zoo, Eric sees only the elephant’s foot. This reminds me of the parable The Blind Men And The Elephant.

“The Blind Men And The Elephant” was published in 1873 as part of a collection of rhymes and poems by John Godfrey Saxe. Saxe (1816-87) baed his moral tale — more of a parable in the guise of a rhyme — upon a story of Indian origin that he called a ‘Hindoo Fable’. It is probably quite ancient in origin, as similar tales are told in other religions, including Buddhism, Sufism, Islam and Jainism. In each, the number of blind men varies and sometimes they are not blind at all, but men in a darkened room with an elephant (clearly the only elephant in a room not to be ignored). The Hindu version of the tale goes something like this:

One day three blind men met, as usual, and sat under their favourite tree, talking about many things. All of a sudden, one of them said, ‘I have heard that an elephant is a strange creature.’ Another replied, ‘Yes, it is too bad we are blind and do not have the good fortune to see this strange beast.’ But the third said, ‘Why do we need to see? Just to feel it would be wonderful.’ At that moment a passing merchant with a group of elephants came conveniently along and overheard their conversation. ‘You fellows,’ he called, ‘if you really want to feel an elephant then come with me.’ The three blind men were surprised but very happy. Taking each other by the hand, they quickly followed the merchant and began to speak excitedly about how the animal would feel and how they would form an image of it in their minds.

When they reached the elephants, the merchant told two of them to sit on the ground and wait while he led the first man to one of the beasts. With an outstretched arm, the man touched one of the elephant’s front legs and then the other, stroking each from top to bottom. ‘So’, he said, ‘the strange animal is just like that.’ Then the second man was led to the elephant. With an outstretched arm, he touched the creature on the trunk, stroking it up and down and from side to side. ‘Ah! So now I know, I truly know!’ he cried. The third man encountered the elephant’s tail and wagged it from side to side. ‘That’s it,’ he said, ‘now I know too.’

The three blind men thanked the merchant and returned to their spot under the tree, each one excited about what he had learned. The first man said, ‘This strange animal is just like two big trees, without any branches.’ Luckily, he was unable to see the expressions on his friends’ faces, for they were horrified. ‘No, no!’ they cried in disbelief at what they had just heard. The second man then said, ‘This animal is like a snake, long, strong and flexible.’ ‘What!’ exclaimed the third man. ‘You are both quite wrong. the elephant resembles a fly whisk, swishing from side to side.’

They argued about this for days, each insisting that he alone was correct, and of course, as Saxe points out in the conclusion to his rhyme — all three of them were partly in the right / and all of them were wrong. The moral is that nobody can claim to fully understand a subject until they have grasped — in this case, quite literally — the whole thing. Even then, it is never possible to know the full truth about something, simply because everyone, however knowledgeable or experienced will view it in a different way. Hence, on a deeper level, the elephant can be seen as reality, and we are all the blind men, each of us able to perceive only a tiny part of a much greater whole.

Pop Goes The Weasel: The secret meaning of nursery rhymes by Albert Jack

In short, I believe Shaun Tan has chosen the detail of the elephant’s foot in reference to this ancient parable, turning Tan’s contemporary story of Eric into a parable as well, though its moral is less clearly spelt out: Our own countries are our own separate pieces of the elephant.

This intertextual detail is followed by ordinary, more relatable ones: At the casino Eric gets onto the table and looks at a chip. At the movies he is taken by a dropped piece of popcorn.

BIG STRUGGLE

I might have found this a little exasperating, but I kept thinking about what Mum had said, about the cultural thing. Then I didn’t mind so much.

The Battle is with herself — between the self that wants to show Eric everything she knows, and the self that’s open to learning from the foreigner.

We see more of this psychological big struggle at the dinner table when ‘There was much speculation over dinner later that evening. Did Eric seem upset?’ and so on.

ANAGNORISIS

In Shaun Tan’s work, Anagnorisiss are often accompanied by images of doors and windows.

In this particular story we see Eric fly out the window on a leaf and flower sail.

It actually took us a while to realise he wasn’t coming back.

The window, however, comes before the Battle scene.

So in this case we have a door: the pantry door functioning as symbolic anagnorisis. Always look at whether a door is open or shut, because the meaning is highly dependent upon that.

NEW SITUATION

Although Eric has gone for good, he has left as a gift a different worldview for his host family. They will never see their own environs in quite the same way, ever again. They’ve seen another piece of the elephant.

This is the reason often cited for hosting exchange students. Other people think they’re doing an exchange student a favour by hosting them, without anticipating the benefits they’ll derive themselves.

Shaun Tan, in this picture book, has conveyed these two views with poignancy.

SEE ALSO

Another story with fetching illustrations of a very small character living in a human-scale world is Little Tom (1922).

Little Tom – 1922 Told by V. Tille Illustration by O. Stafl
Little Tom – 1922 Told by V. Tille Illustration by O. Stafl
Eric is a miniature, post-modern picture book by Australian author illustrator Shaun Tan. This simple story says big things about cultural difference.
Little Tom – 1922 Told by V. Tille Illustration by O. Stafl 03