What are the common features of popular works commonly described as ‘whimsical’? A long while ago I swapped a middle grade critique with someone who had used ‘whimsical’ in the title of their work, yet the story itself did not feel whimsical. I started to wonder about the unspoken rules of ‘whimsical’. But could I be wrong about ‘whimsical’? What what does whimsy mean? Is it possible to list the attributes of this aesthetic?
Here are some examples of how ‘whimsical’ is often used in the marketing copy of books:
Suki’s favorite possession is her blue cotton kimono. A gift from her obachan, it holds special memories of her grandmother’s visit last summer. And Suki is going to wear it on her first day back to school — no matter what anyone says.
When it’s Suki’s turn to share with her classmates what she did during the summer, she tells them about the street festival she attended with her obachan and the circle dance that they took part in. In fact, she gets so carried away reminiscing that she’s soon humming the music and dancing away, much to the delight of her entire class!
Filled with gentle enthusiasm and a touch of whimsy, Suki’s Kimono is the joyful story of a little girl whose spirit leads her to march — and dance — to her own drumbeat.
Magic and whimsy meet in this Howl’s Moving Castle for a new generation from the critically adored Sophie Anderson, author of The House with Chicken Legs.
Twelve-year-old Olia knows a thing or two about secrets. Her parents are the caretakers of Castle Mila, a soaring palace with golden domes, lush gardens, and countless room. Literally countless rooms. There are rooms that appear and disappear, and rooms that have been hiding themselves for centuries. The only person who can access them is Olia. She has a special bond with the castle, and it seems to trust her with its secrets.
But then a violent storm rolls in . . . a storm that skips over the village and surrounds the castle, threatening to tear it apart. While taking cover in a rarely-used room, Olia stumbles down a secret passage that leads to a part of Castle Mila she’s never seen before. A strange network of rooms that hide the secret to the castle’s past . . . and the truth about who’s trying to destroy it.
A heartfelt middle-grade novel from New York Times bestselling author Barbara O’Connor about a boy whose life is upended after the loss of his older brother–timeless, classic, and whimsical.
Walter Tipple is looking for adventure. He keeps having a dream that his big brother, Tank, appears before him and says, “Let’s you and me go see my world, little man.” But Tank went to the army and never came home, and Walter doesn’t know how to see the world without him.
Then he meets Posey, the brash new girl from next door, and an eccentric man named Banjo, who’s off on a bodacious adventure of his own. What follows is a summer of taking chances, becoming braver, and making friends–and maybe Walter can learn who he wants to be without the brother he always wanted to be like.
Halfway to Harmony is an utterly charming story about change and growing up.
This French book by Camille Jourdy is part of a series described as ‘whimsical’ in French about a girl who goes into the forest and encounters fantastic creatures called Les Vermeilles.
‘Discourse’ is a conveniently loose term, and can refer to:
1. Linguistic Discourse — generally refers to specific discourse types such as the discourse of parent-child conversations, boss-employee conversations, dinner table conversations versus schoolyard conversations…
2. Narratological Discourse — the means by which a story and its significance are communicated. Aspects such as temporal sequencing, focalization, narrator’s relation to the story and audience come up when talking about this kind of discourse.
The Difference Between Story and Discourse
Focusing now on ‘narratological’ discourse (related to storytelling), I’ll offer explanations from several sources. See which one best makes sense.
Whereas ‘story’ comprises what we might roughly think of as ‘what certain characters do in a certain place at a certain time,’ the word ‘discourse’ comprises the complex process of encoding that story which involves:
choices of vocabulary
order of presentation
how the narrating voice is to be orientated towards what is narrated and towards the implied audience
Story = the ‘what’ of the narrative.
Discourse = the ‘way’.
The theory of narrative requires a distinction between what I shall call ‘story’ — a sequence of actions or events, conceived as independent of their manifestation in discourse — and what I shall call ‘discourse’, the discursive presentation or narration of events
CHORIC FIGURE: Any character in any type of narrative literature that serves the same purpose as a chorus in drama by remaining detached from the main action and commenting upon or explaining this action to the audience. I’ve also seen ‘choral commentator’ and guess it means the same thing.
It may be useful to think of choric figures in terms of a continuum rather than ‘choric commentators’ and all the other characters. That said, a ‘normal’ character can morph into a choric commentator. See below for an example from Charlotte’s Web.
At the ‘very choric’ end of that continuum we’ve got Statler and Waldorf from The Muppets, who literally sit in the audience. Whenever we see them, they are spatially removed from the ‘show’, and they remind the real audience that we are watching a show. Their commentary is therefore meta.
DESIGNATED NORMAL CHARACTERS IN COMEDIES
Then there’s Stevie Budd from Schitt’s Creek, the designated ‘normal’ character in a cast full of oddballs. In the final episode of one season of Schitt’s Creek, Stevie says that she feels like crying. She says this to ‘no one’ in particular; she says it to us, and Stevie’s emotion successfully evokes pathos in the audience. Importantly, Stevie Budd very much has a personality of her own, but if anyone’s going to be offering sarcastic commentary, it’ll be Stevie (and also David).
Jerry Seinfeld is the designated normal character of Seinfeld, and what he says, what he observes (as part of his stand-up routine) is a choric commentary on the absurdity of life, embodied by his friends and their disastrous dating escapades.
Jim and Pam of the The Office are not-exactly-subtle choric characters because the structure of the comedy allows characters to break the fourth wall and address the audience directly.
The Designated Normal character of This Country is the Vicar.
Basically, these choric characters say whatever the writers expect the audience might be thinking, or giving the sensible advice the audience would likely give, if this were a real life situation. The designated normal character is inherently relatable and very useful. Oddball characters can be alienating, and when an audience sees there’s a ‘normal’ person who loves them, this helps us to love them, too.
The Designated Normal character is also useful for various types of lampshading. “Now WHAT are you planning? Isn’t that utterly ridiculous?” The Designated Normal thereby functions to highlight the warped logic of the screwball characters, who must nevertheless run according to their own internal logic. Their internal logic must somehow be made apparent to an audience.
The Designed Normal character is also used as a Straight Man, of course. But we all understand the importance of the straight man.
THE SUBTLE END OF THE CHORIC CONTINUUM
Now for some much more subtle examples of choric characters.
I consider the ‘new kid in town’ (or the ‘new dead kid’ an example of a choric character in the sense that they are new to the situation and as baffled as the audience. There’s a good narrative reason why stories often begin with a character moving to a new house or to a new school. The narrator can realistically observe and comment upon the things they are seeing all around them, things which would be normal and non-noteworthy if they were already acclimatised to this particular setting.
Sometimes with a story on screen, it’s not so much in the writing as in the acting. Chloë Grace Moretz is known among critics for an acting style which often makes her seem alien in her fictional environment, as perplexed as we are. Her performance in If I Stay, based on the young adult novel by Gayle Forman, is a good example of that. She looks bewildered at events playing out before her. (She’s the perfect choice; she’s newly dead.) Like her audience, she is trying to work out what’s going on.
Now for a completely different kind of subtle chorus. In Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White there are not Statler and Waldorf commentators but in his Annoted Guide, Peter Neumeyer points out two choral commentators.
The first is Dr. Dorian, who tells Fern’s mother (and also the reader) that we should believe in magic such as animals talking in a barn. Wise owls are often used in this way by children’s book writers, though sometimes their wisdom is subverted (e.g. in Winnie-the-Pooh).
Next Charlotte takes his place by morphing into a choric commentator, though it’s very subtle.
“What’s inside it?” asked Wilbur. “Eggs?” “Five hundred and fourteen of them,” she replied.
E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web
Perhaps the shift in Charlotte’s narrative use is because she’s approaching death.
There’s this idea that people approaching death have achieved some kind of greater insight into life matters in general. Whether this is true in reality is debatable, but in storytelling writers milk this idea. Hence, as Charlotte sees her impending death, she achieves The Overview Effect and is able to see ‘the circle of life’ and be content with it, guiding Wilbur through his Being-toward-death enlightenment in the process. (Her egg sac will let her achieve immortality.)
Characters approaching death are perhaps more often used by storytellers as choral commentators, even when previously they didn’t seem to have any advantageous insight into life matters.
Katherine Mansfield utilised a choric figure in her short story “Marriage a la Mode“. One of her characters creates witty titles for yet-to-be-made works of art. It’s unclear whether this character is being earnest or ironic, but that doesn’t matter. The effect on the reader is the same: Pointing out the ridiculousness of these artists for the reader.
Reaction shot. From the movies, a cutaway shift inside a bundle of narrative action which shows us the emotional or other responses of a character, usually a reader surrogate.
There are many ways of thinking about narration. Another continuum, oft talked about: the psychic distance continuum. In this post I’ve been talking about the distance between a particular, designated ‘audience/cast member’ character. This describes how that character emotionally aligns with the audience. (The relationship between character and audience.)
Psychic distance instead describes how fully a third-person, unseen narrator is inside a character’s head. (The relationship between narrator and character.) Psycho narration happens when a narrator is right inside a character’s head.
Commentators have used the words ‘dissonant’ and ‘consonant’ to describe the degree to which a narrator is inside a character’s head at any given moment, noting that it shifts as a story progresses. We might use those same words to describe the choric figure. Sometimes they seem like another ordinary member of the cast (dissonant), but the writer can jerk them partly off stage and use them as a proxy audience member if needs be (consonant).
I’m sure narratologists have talked about this but, heigh ho, this is how I think of it.
Psycho-narration describes how writers make use of omniscient narrators to reflect their characters’ consciousness. Sometimes, authors use an unseen narrator, but use the language of the character they describe.
In other words, psycho narration is an ‘outside’ commentary of a character’s consciousness, but in the character’s own ‘words’. Because there’s no actual talking going on, some people say in the character’s own ‘mental language’. (This is an interesting concept in itself, because apparently some people think in words and others think in pictures, though it’s not as binary as that.)
Though subtle, in psycho narration there is no attempt to hide the narrator. We’re still dealing with an ‘overt’ narrator.
Imagine a narrator showing us a character in action by describing what they do and what they say. They then step back and talk to the audience about that character behind the character’s back.
Sometimes psycho narration goes from being ‘overt’ (not hidden) to ‘intrusive’ (in the way). Done well, psycho narration is subtle. Unless on the lookout for narrative techniques, the reader shouldn’t notice the difference between the character’s interior monologue and the narrator’s commentary.
A Brief History Of Psycho Narration
The term was invented by Dorrit Cohn in her book Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1978). Cohn was a scholar of German and Comparative Literature.
This mode of narration dominated fiction well into the 19th century but has been surpassed by close third person, and first person in young adult literature.
In classic children’s literature, the psycho narration has tended to be overtly didactic. The unseen narrator impresses the ‘correct reading’ upon the audience. This is no longer accepted in contemporary fiction for children, unless it is a parody of the overt, didactic voice e.g. A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Examples of Classic Literature With Psycho Narration
Death In Venice
What Maisie Knew
Dissonant and Consonant Narration
From a technical point of view there are two essential things to solve or create when writing a novel. The first is the invention of the narrator. I think the narrator is the most important character in a novel. In some cases this importance is obvious because the narrator is also a central figure, a central character in the novel. In other cases, the narrator is not a character, not a visible figure, but an invisible person whose creation is even more complicated and difficult than the creation of one of the characters.
Mario Vargas Llosa
These are also Dorrit Cohn’s terms. She divides psycho narration into two main types.
DISSONANT: The narrator remains distanced from the consciousness they narrate. Dissonant narrators have a distinct personality. They make their opinions known.
Jane Austen’s narrators draw the narratee in, then we laugh at the characters together. These are known by writers as ‘intrusive narrators’, though that suggests it has not been well done.
Some contemporary authors have used dissonant narrators masterfully, e.g. Daniel Handler in his Unfortunate Eventsseries. These books tend to feel like parodies of an older type of literature, even though those older works (I.e. Pride and Prejudice) weren’t taking their narrators seriously, either.
When narration is at its most dissonant you may notice the following features:
The use of ‘distancing appellations’ like ‘poor Catherine’ or ‘our heroes’
Use of an abstract analytical vocabulary to describe an inner world, which feels removed from the psychic experience itself (you can’t experience a strong emotion and be articulate about it at the same time)
Speculative and explanatory commentary (maybe this will happen… this happened because…)
Yielding to figurative thoughts and feelings even as they are being reported to the reader
CONSONANT: The narrator remains close to the consciousness they narrate. Also known as figural (figurative) narration. The narrator is effaced (basically invisible). The reader can’t easily tell the difference between the narrator’s voice and the consciousness of the character being described. We learn nothing about the consonant narrator’s position/opinions because they’re barely visible. We get no impression of them as a separate character.
Consonant narrators concentrate on showing rather than telling, like the cinema verite documentary makers who avoid showing their own faces on screen, or making use of voiceover. “I’ve shown you what’s happening — now make up your own mind.” Of course, a consonant narrator is nonetheless guiding everyone’s opinion by choosing which scenes to show and which to leave out. So a consonant narrator cannot be described as impartial.
(Other commentators use ‘overt’ and ‘covert’ to describe the same scale.)
When Might You Choose To Write With Psycho Narration?
YOU HAVE A LARGE CAST OF CHARACTERS
Maybe you have a large cast of characters because you’re writing a story about a community rather than the trials and tribulations of a single main character. Psycho narration allows the narrator to deal with a multitude of characters and situations. For this reason, psycho narration is commonly seen in social novels (aka problem novels), in which a social problem is made manifest through its effect on individuals. In these stories, the inner life of individual characters expresses general truths about human nature.
In short, psycho narration allows for ‘head-hopping’, except it’s not really head-hopping if the narrator is distant from the characters, because the narrator is never truly inside the characters’ heads.
In the old days you’d have chosen to write with a plain old omniscient point of view, and you still might. Except the modern reader is unused to reading true omniscient narration, so your work will have an old-fashioned feel. This may not be what you’re going for.
YOUR MAIN CHARACTER IS NOT A REFLECTIVE SORT
Some fictional characters simply aren’t that reflective, as people. We’re never going to learn much of value from these types, who blunder and bluster and continue on their way haphazardly. They don’t understand themselves, let alone the people around them. As main characters they can be very interesting, but as narrators? Not so much. They’ll be unreliable in a non-useful kind of way.
In this case it’s useful to have a narrator commenting ‘backstage’, or gossiping to us, the reader, behind their back, giving us the true low down.
you don’t want to poke fun at your characters
To use ten dollar words, Cohn calls this advantage ‘verbal independence from self-articulation’. Consonant psycho narration is especially useful when writing from a child’s point of view, because children have a limited view of the world, and limited ability to understand their own emotions, let alone the vocabulary to describe them. If you use consonant psycho narration, you avoid double address.
(The problem with double address is that it seems the author is condescending to their more naive subject.)
The narrator in consonant psychonarration remains effaced and readily fuses with the consciousness they narrate. Consonance does not seem to leave the narrator a voice or contribution of his/her own. The character’s thoughts and reflections are rendered without any trace of criticism or rejection. The narrator’s consciousness almost seems to coincide with the characters, making it impossible for the reader to separate the two clearly.
This means that there’s little privilege on the narrator’s part. The narrator doesn’t know much that the child protagonist doesn’t either. In children’s literature, one author well-known for doing this well is Katherine Paterson, who wrote The Bridge To Terabithia.
Mark Haddon also does consonant psychonarration very well by making use of an autistic narrator. In The Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, the reader gets an insight into what it’s like to feel (this particular kind of) autistic, because readers are not given any clues about about the outside world, and therefore cannot use neurotypical advantages to interpret the wider situation.
The narration of Forrest Gump works similarly, but because it’s a film the reader does get visual cues about how to interpret the ‘veridical’ situation of the story.
YOU DO WANT TO POKE FUN AT YOUR CHARACTERS
In this case, an external narrator describes the character’s mental state. The narrator is prominent and focuses intently on an individual psyche, remaining emphatically distanced from the consciousness he/she is narrating. In this case, the narration moves back from a character’s perspective to allow for a sharper degree of commentary and analysis. From this position of distance, the narrator also functions as the vocaliser in relation to a character who appears only as a focalised.
Pride and Prejudice: “If Elizabeth, when Mr Darcy gave her the letter, did not expect it to contain a renewal of his offers, she had formed no expectation at all of its contents.”
Basically, this is the narrator winking at the reader. Double address has its political pitfalls — see this post on satire.
YOUR PLOT JUMPS AROUND IN TIME
Psycho narrators have almost unlimited temporal flexibility. The psycho narrator can jump around in time.
Header painting: Haynes King – Jealousy and Flirtation 1874
In statu nascendi is a Latin phrase and means “in a state of being born”.
When a story begins in medias res (in the middle of things) and the character is given no backstory, we may say the character is presented to us in statu nascendi.
Modernist writers started this trend. You’ll see it in Katherine Mansfield’s short stories. A character’s backstory is kept right off the page. To the reader, it seems as if they have just been born.
Even more significantly, it seems this way to the narrator, as well. All our impressions of this character come from these particular events in the limited time scale of this particular story, with no flash backs, no flash forwards, and with no commentary about how they got here, or how everything turned out 20 years later.
In statu nascendi characterisation is the preferred mode for the contemporary short story reader, who expects brevity and conciseness. This zero-backstory mode of characterisation is best explained if we look at what stories typically came before.
A good example is the fairy tale “Rapunzel”, as the Grimm brothers wrote it. Before the story gets to the story of Rapunzel herself, the reader is given numerous paragraphs of back story. Before we can understand Rapunzel as a character, storytellers of the 1700s and 1800s believed narratees would need to know all about the girl’s parents and how they met.
There’s a not-so-hidden ideology in stories that begin with a character’s ancestry: The importance of bloodline. Modern storytellers don’t necessarily believe a character’s bloodline says anything useful about them. A modern view: people are products of our environment. Paint the environment and you’ve painted a person.
There are other advantages to this form of characterisation.
ADVANTAGES TO WRITING WITHOUT BACKSTORY
A mood of spontaneity
If a character has little backstory, they become more universal. The character could be almost anyone, including you, the reader.
Backstory always slows down narrative drive. Leaving it out avoids that pitfall, opening an aperture for more imagery and symbolism.
Parallax describes a type of movement. The position or direction of an object seems to differ when viewed from different positions.
Parallax is an optical illusion. Extend one arm and hold up your thumb. Close first one eye, then the other. The thumb appears to have changed positions, but hasn’t. Your perspective is simply different depending on which eye you’re using.
In astronomy, the angular amount of parallax changes depending on what point in the earth’s orbit you’re seeing it from. Early 1800s astronomers worked out that they could measure distance to stars outside the solar system by viewing the same star from different positions.
PARALLAX ON SCREEN
Many games make use of parallax to create a more ‘alive’ setting. A good example can be found at this website. The plants in the foreground are created on a separate layer from the main background.
PARALLAX IN PHILOSOPHY
Actually, philosophers use the phrase ‘response dependence‘ to describe how individuals’ ideas differ depending on our perspective and input.
PARALLAX IN LITERATURE
But scholars of literature often use the word parallax. Like viewing a star from various places on Earth, a writer can also let readers see a situation from different positions, or perspectives. It’s called parallactic narration, or narrational parallax and refers to the device or rendering of a story from more than one point of view in variable parallactic focalisation. One writer who made much use of parallax is Katherine Mansfield, who largely used it to create irony.
Readers also achieve a parallactic experience when reading fractured fairytales, such as a retelling of “Cinderella” but this time from the viewpoint of the prince, or the ugly step-sister. I recently experienced a parallactic shift of Pride and Prejudice after reading two modern retellings, one called The Other Bennett Sister (about Mary), the other about Charlotte Lucas.
I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.
August Pullman was born with a facial difference that, up until now, has prevented him from going to a mainstream school. Starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep, he wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid—but his new classmates can’t get past Auggie’s extraordinary face. Wonder begins from Auggie’s point of view, but soon switches to include his classmates, his sister, her boyfriend, and others.
WHY MAKE USE OF PARALLAX IN STORYTELLING?
Unlike linear perspective, psychological perspective is as much a factor of time as of distance. Though psychological perspective also affects and is affected by the angle of perception, and though the cubists and other artists discovered bold new ways to incorporate time into visual art, psychological perspective is mainly the domain of writers, who call it point of view. Like perspective, it changes how we see the world and ourselves in it.
When a scene is narrated from contrasting perspectives this will reveal not only a greater complexity of reality for the reader, but reveal contrasting views, values and thoughts of the perceiver as well. Certain themes are especially well suited to parallactic narration:
stories about the isolation of individual human beings
the lack of consequence in the universal flux of life
our diminutive significance as seen from a superior vantage point
stories about solipsism: people’s defiant private inflation of the significance of their own lives and the events that surround themselves, compared to everything else
HOW TO CREATE A PARALLACTIC EFFECT IN A STORY
The writer describes the same temporal event from multiple viewpoints. These will be characters who exist within the world of the story, also known as homodiegetic.
How does an author create a parallax effect in words? In a nutshell, the author creates texts which overlap and intersect. Parallax is about the apparent displacement of an object. This apparent displacement can be created by shifting the reader’s ‘line of sight’, or by using techniques of reorientation. To create a parallax effect:
Foreground your subject
Offer various views of it
Show the reader that all perspectives are partial and reversible
And how to do that, specifically?
It’s important that none of these narrators is omniscient — none of them will have seen or understood the entire ‘story’. If they had, we’d just believe that character, right? Modern literature has very few examples of truly omniscient viewpoints anyhow. The limited third person voice reigns surpreme, alongside first person narrative.
You might make use of ‘narrative qualification’. Katherine Mansfield does this when using phrases such as ‘it seems’. Characters in Mansfield stories often continue believing things in the face of direct experience. Writers are often advised when starting out to cut out these ‘superfluous’ ‘hedge phrases’ but like all advice dished out to writers, as a blanket rule it doesn’t work.
Another technique utilised by Katherine Mansfield: The narrator presents erroneous interpretations without narrative judgement. This creates narrative irony, because the audience will realise the judgement in the text is wrong. Perhaps it only gradually dawns on the reader — by means of reveal — that what is presented is not in fact what’s going on. Irony is generated by the reader’s progressive awareness that the views in the text are subjective and unreliable.
Parallax is a word that tends to be used by academics and scholars of literature. A word used by writers: side-shadowing. The technique of side-shadowing can induce a feeling of parallax in the audience.
THE TWO MAIN TYPES OF NARRATIVE PARALLAX
the juxtaposition of two or more restricted perspectives, and the contrasting of a restricted perspective with that of an extradiegetic or omnipresent narrator.
Parallactic narration is especially handy when writing an Impressionist story because parallactic narration is one way of achieving the movement’s main aims: Indirectness, lack of objectivity, and an ideology that there’s no such thing as ‘truth’. Truth always depends on who you ask, or whose shoes you walk in. The relativistic philosophy of Impressionism: Reality is a function of perspective.
The ‘no such thing as truth’ idea is best conveyed by limiting characters’ knowledge of events in a story. Multiple viewpoints, with the distortion that comes by way of parallax, is perfect for achieving such limitation. Sometimes the multiple viewpoints of the characters contrast with the viewpoint of some unseen narrator, creating an uncomfortable juxtaposition for the reader. Who to believe? In these stories, the audience is required to contribute to the experience.
Duplicating temporal events goes hand-in-hand with parallactic narration. Not all parallactic narratives double back in time but many do.
In the duplicative time technique, a story reaches backward to cover previous scenes over again. The plot shape of these stories might be described as ‘repeating’ or ‘vortex’. The classic film example is Rashomon, known for its duplicative time. The bandit, the samurai, the wife, the woodcutter and so on each provide subjective, alternative, self-serving, and contradictory versions of the same incident.
The duplicative time device allows experience to be seen from another vantage point. The reader gets two or more perceptions of the same temporal event.
WHY MAKE USE OF THE DUPLICATIVE TIME TECHNIQUE?
It’s especially useful in stories with a mystery at the heart, in which a detective is trying to get to the ‘truth’. (When writing about Impressionism, I guess ‘truth’ always has to appear in inverted commas.)
The duplicative time technique is also useful if a story includes, say, a child character and a parental figure. The writer might first describe what’s going on using the child as focaliser. Then the reader gets the story with the adult as focaliser. Since adults have more knowledge about the world, gaps can be puttied in, resulting in plot reveals. Or, the writer can subvert this expectation of childhood naïveté and create a story in which the child knows what’s going on but the adult characters don’t.
EXAMPLE OF DUPLICATIVE TIME ON TV
The Affair is a TV series which uses duplicative time to wonderful effect. The viewer is told a story about a man (Noah) who falls in love with a waitress on a family holiday to his in-laws’ house. The viewer doesn’t realise at first, but we are seeing events not through the objective lens of the camera, but filtered through Noah’s eyes. According to this view, the waitress is a seductive femme fatale. She wants him bad, so the guy thinks.
But then the viewer gets another perspective of the same temporal events, this time through the perspective of the young waitress. This time, according to her, the man is predatory. She’s not the least bit flirtatious — he is targeting her in a stalker-y kind of way. By the way, In her book Meander, Spiral Explode, Jane Alison observed that vortex plot shapes tend to feature obsessive characters.
The narrative choice is masterful because as well as questioning the nature of truth, it also conveys the idea that villains never see themselves as the villain.
An on-screen version of duplicative time can make use of many cool tools. The outtake music of the final episode of The Affair has two versions of the same song (The Whole of the Moon)
Film makers can also change the lighting.
[The Affair’s] central conceit, showing events from overlapping and often contradictory perspectives, forced not only the writers but also the actors to present multiple takes on each of those issues. The hero of one segment could be the heel just a few minutes of screen time later.
None of the characters are lying to themselves, so they’re thereby not lying to you in the audience. There’s no subterfuge from the internal perspective.
Joshua Jackson, who plays Cole Lockhart on The Affair
EXAMPLES OF PARALLACTIC NARRATION FROM LITERATURE
“Prelude” by Katherine Mansfield is a short story divided into sections, each section with a different focaliser. Each of these focalising characters has a different experience of the world showing that there is no single true experience.
“How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” — Mansfield uses parallax by restricting the reader’s knowledge through the prism of a young child character, Pearl. This perspective contrasts with the wider perspective of the narrator, which broadens over the course of the story. This narrator isn’t detached but capable of viewing the scene from a greater distance.
“Miss Brill” is a similar example from the same author — The character of Miss Brill is a ‘Sunday Wanderer’ archetype whose preoccupied view of the world contrasts seamlessly (and subtly) with that of the detached narrator.
The best example from Katherine Mansfield is thought to be “The Little Governess“.
“The Blood of the Conquistadors” is another standout short story example of parallactic narration. Events are seen from the vantage point of eight different characters.
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, a Southern Gothic novel from 1930. Faulkner presents 15 different points of view, each chapter narrated by one character, including Addie, who expresses her thoughts after she has already died.
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich — Erdrich’s first novel, published 1984. Thought to be influenced by As I Lay Dying. It was subsequently revised and expanded. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character, using first-person and third-person limited narration. The story is non-linear. A non-linear story is standard in this technique. Throw away a sequential timeline — it won’t be much good to you.
Parallactic narratives are at odds with likeable because no one in the story stands out as the ‘main’ one, and everyone is shown to be unreliable. We prefer reliable people as friends.
Parallax is often used to show the reader that we are all ultimately alone. We are alone in our perspectives, which means no one is completely on your side.
This 80s song includes some pretty Impressionist lyrics: No one in your life is with you constantly. No one is completely on your side. … still the gap between us is too wide. It’s interesting how often these messages are accompanied by dual storytellers, in this case singers, looking in opposite directions.
The other big, related message in an Impressionistic story making use of parallax is that we are inconsequential. Compared to some greater perspective, our own perspective is insignificant.
The idea that humans have evolved to see the truth of a situation may not be quite right. Listen to a newer, alternative theory: That humans have evolved to see an ‘interface’ of the truth rather than the real truth. We are wholly bound by our senses, and none of us sees any objective reality — nor can we even imagine what that might be. Even more terrifying, perception of reality goes extinct.
Fitness means the ability to reconstruct a useful reality, or part of reality. More importantly, brains and neurons, according to this theory, are a species specific set of symbols, a hack. Reality is nothing like a brain or neurons, so that reality, whatever it is, is the real source of cause and effect in the world — not brains, not neurons.
The header painting is a Landscape with Clerks Studying Astronomy and Geometry from the early 15th century but no one knows who painted it. This was before astronomers discovered the usefulness of parallax.
At her blog, Gretchen Rubin describes the following sensation:
I was reading a description of someone, and it said, “He lives with his wife and children on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.” As I read this line, I had a fleeting yet complete vision of what that life would be like–the life of a person living with his family on the Upper East Side.
But in the next moment, I realized, “Wait, that’s my life, I live in that neighborhood myself, with my family!” Yet the reality of my experience doesn’t at all match my vision of what that “life” would be like. And oddly, my imaginary version seems richer and more real, in a way, than my actual experience.
I realized I can provoke this feeling, just by putting my own experience into words. If I think, “She went to an all-girl school in the Midwest,” I have an idea of what that was like–but I did go to an all-girl school in the Midwest, and it was very different from what my imagination kicks up.
“You know, it’s strange, you live in a place half your life and yet the sight of it from an unfamiliar angle can still surprise you, it was as though I had never before seen that building, so small and hollowed out against the treeless land.”
Michael Dorris has crafted a fierce saga of three generations of Indian women, beset by hardships and torn by angry secrets, yet inextricably joined by the bonds of kinship. Starting in the present day and moving backward, the novel is told in the voices of the three women: fifteen-year-old part-black Rayona; her American Indian mother, Christine, consumed by tenderness and resentment toward those she loves; and the fierce and mysterious Ida, mother and grandmother whose haunting secrets, betrayals, and dreams echo through the years, braiding together the strands of the shared past.
There are many, many words and phrases used by different commentators to catalogue the many ways of narrating fiction. The terms overlap.
Some have called the writing style of modernists such as Mansfield, Lawrence and Woolf ‘narrated monologue’. What is that, exactly? And what does it look like on the page?
Narrated monologue presents the character’s mental discourse in the guise of narrator’s discourse.
Typically, the work will be written in third person preterite. (This looks like the simple past tense in English.)
The preterite is a tense/verb form denoting events that took place or were completed in the past.
The preterite also implies that the action had a definite beginning and a definite end.
Germans invented a phrase for this style of narration: erlebte Rede. Basically, erlebte Rede refers to a rendering of a character’s thoughts in their own idiom while maintaining the third-person form of narration. You may notice right away, narrated monologue looks very similar to several other popular modes of narration.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN NARRATED MONOLOGUE AND FREE INDIRECT SPEECH
Free indirect discourse is one of the most powerful tools in an author’s trick-bag. It lets our narrators dip freely in and out of a character’s stream-of-consciousness, accessing their thoughts, feelings, opinions, even their vocabularies and other attributes of their speech patterns, without having to say (for instance) “Barry thought” or “Barry felt.” That Barry’s thoughts and feelings (as opposed to the third-person narrator’s objective thoughts) are what we are being made privy to, is implied by the language and syntax by which they are conveyed.
Narrated monologue is very similar to free indirect speech. But free indirect speech omits tags like ‘she thought’. Technically, a single work can flow naturally between narrated monologue and free indirect speech as the unseen narrator gets deeper and deeper into the focalising character’s mind.
I feel like ‘narrated monologue’ is ‘free indirect speech’,but at an earlier stage of development. These days, if you’re a writer seeking feedback from a critique group or editor, you’ll probably be urged to do away with tags like ‘she thought’. Contemporary readers don’t need them. Paragraphing is key. (New person, new paragraph. Ergo, same person, same paragraph.)
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN NARRATED MONOLOGUE AND INTERIOR MONOLOGUE
Narrated monologue is different again from interior monologue because it maintains the person and tense of authorial narration. In other words, narrated monologue looks like third person but it’s actually not. It’s sort-of-but-not-exactly coming out of the character’s head.
Interior monologue is definitely coming straight out of the character’s head. (Or so the reader is to believe.)
ADVANTAGES OF NARRATED MONOLOGUE
Along with free indirect speech, and even a little more so, narrated monologue gives the writer a double voice: The voice of the character and the voice of the narrator. The narrator’s commentary comes across as quite subtle.
The reader won’t be consciously aware of the distinction between the character’s voice and the narrator’s voice. This is a pretty sneaky (and effective) way of coaxing readers to feel a certain way about characters and situations.
The reader is able to observe the thoughts and feelings of a character even if those thoughts aren’t explicit in the character’s mind. This is perfect for writing very young or somehow naive characters.
But is there any advantage in ‘narrated monologue’ over ‘free indirect speech’ in contemporary work? That’s a good question. I suspect there is a case for keeping dialogue tags in some cases, and perhaps writers do want something that is not quite interior monologue and not quite free indirect speech. Perhaps there are reasons for wanting the ‘hand of the unseen narrator’ to remain in the work without full on third person or omniscience.
For example, the writer may be aiming for a style which sounds like it came out of the early 1900s, whether satire or written straight.
Good luck getting that rationalisation past your critique group.
Header painting: Leonard Campbell Taylor – Patience, in which I imagine the man is the narrator. He sees the focaliser’s ‘cards’ and narrates subtly to the reader.
Of course, no one but Alice Munro can write like Alice Munro. That is my disclaimer on each of my sporadic series of ‘How To Write Like…’ posts.
GENERAL NOTES ON ALICE MUNRO’S SHORT FICTION
Munro’s stories have grown more complex as she has grown older. Later stories are sometimes a more complex take on an earlier one.
Munro’s stories don’t cohere in the same way as chapters in a novel but together they form a unified work of art. Short stories may do a better job of highlighting certain aspects of her work than novels would have.
Something from page three will come and hit you on page thirty, but you had not registered the matter when you first read page three.
New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman
Munro reveals essential truths about ourselves in an unsentimental, yet deeply humane way.
Missed opportunities and lies are two themes that Munro approaches from many angles.
Consider Munro’s beginnings and endings as of a piece — the beginning will foreordain the ending.
Munro has said she sees stories architecturally, as a house whose various rooms one can roam in and out of, forgoing any prescribed order.
Munro has said that she admires writers of the American South, such as Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers.
Munro writes with black humour.
Julian Barnes states that Munro’s short stories ‘have the density and reach of other people’s novels’.
Some of her stories are unusually longer than typical short stories.
Munro stories show an interest in love and the often hidden intricacies of marriage.
A theme is often love, or perhaps romantic notions masquerading as love.
The complications and cruelties of age and time are other themes that Munro re-visits.
She reminds us that love and marriage never become unimportant as stories—that they remain the very shapers of life, rightly or wrongly. She does not overtly judge—especially human cruelty—but allows human encounters to speak for themselves. She honors mysteriousness and is a neutral beholder before the unpredictable. Her genius is in the strange detail that resurfaces, but it is also in the largeness of vision being brought to bear (and press on) a smaller genre or form that has few such wide-seeing practitioners. She is a short-story writer who is looking over and past every ostensible boundary, and has thus reshaped an idea of narrative brevity and reimagined what a story can do.
There is plenty of multivalent detail throughout Munro’s fiction, meaning a particular detail can be read at a literal as well as symbolic level. This is perhaps why Munro’s details seem, at first glance, ‘strange’.
Even when you are surprised by a shift in a character’s thoughts, it seems completely organic. We all make those kinds of transitions in our thinking processes, even though they don’t point to an end the way a story does.
The ‘real worlds’ of Munro’s stories have settings dotted around Canada, focusing on Southwestern Ontario, where Munro has spent the majority of her life. During her first married she lived in West Vancouver and Victoria, so she knows the other side of Canada as well.
Munro’s sense of irony is invariably directed at herself more than at her characters. She has always regarded herself as an anachronism: an old-style writer, writing about a rural world she once knew, which has been transformed. Except that, although society has changed, human nature hasn’t, and this is why Munro’s understanding of life is so compelling.
The landscape of a Munro short story has been described as a consanguinity between the fictional and the real. (Meaning they both come from a common ancestor.)
The setting of the real is portrayed as affectively meaningless to us. (The fictional is as important, on a psychological level, as the imagined, or the hoped for.)
There’s been a lot of critical interest around the realism of her work, with some people making reference to magical realism.
Munro often creates a world that has all the illusion of external reality, but she pulls the reader deeper and deeper into what becomes a hallucinatory inner world which may include mystery, secrecy, and deception.
In many of Munro’s stories the willing of a destiny is overtaken by a fatality that is unnervingly spectacular. Characters are driven by something they cannot resist because they are certain they are a part of it. Munro explores fatality in many different ways across many of her stories. https://youtu.be/nvUeo5sagkA
A common Munro device is to begin in the now and hurtle back to the then.
Much has been said about how Alice Munro can write a novel in the space of a short story.
Alice Munro can move characters through time in a way that no other writer can. You are not aware that time is passing, only that it has passed—in this, the reader resembles the characters, who also find that time has passed and that their lives have been changed, without their quite understanding how, when, and why. This rare ability partly explains why her short stories have the density and reach of other people’s novels. I have sometimes tried to work out how she does it but never succeeded, and I am happy in this failure, because no one else can—or should be allowed to—write like the great Alice Munro.
Alice Munro writes many stories about women in mid-life, caught between memory and reality. Throughout the narrative they reassess and reflect.
But occasionally she writes a child character, e.g. “Trespasses”, in which Lauren is a ten-year-old girl.
For Munro’s characters, to imagine something is to understand it.
Munro’s work is interested in men with menacing water, especially hoses. (Is this sexual?)
Munro’s women are perceptive guessers, quiet visionaries, fortuitous survivors.
Families are usually complicated in Alice Munro stories. Families aren’t nuclear; marriages aren’t lifelong/faithful. In later stories, the wider network is populated with LGBT characters. This is, of course, like life.
Alice Munro’s mothers have been likened to clowns: Mothers and Other Clowns: The Stories of Alice Munro by Magdalene Redekop (a feminist work).
Is Alice Munro feminist?
Like Chekhov, Alice Munro never sets out to make a political point. She isn’t sexist, she has no axe to grind. She’s simply bearing witness to the human experience, reporting from the front lines. Yet she is making a political point, one that’s radical because it’s so enormous and so unsettling. The point is that girls and women, even those who lead narrow and constricted lives, those who wield no influence, who have a limited experience in the world, are just as significant and important as boys and men, those who take drugs, ride across the border, drift down the river, or hunt whales. Women’s lives, too, are driven by the great forces that drive all important experience. As it turns out, all those forces are internal: rage, love, jealousy, spite, grief. These are the things that make our lives so wild and dramatic, whether the backdrops are harpoons or swing sets. The great experiences can be set anywhere: a dentist’s office, a neighbor’s living room, a country road at night. It’s those propulsive, breathtaking, suffocating forces inside us that make those moments so vivid and shocking, it’s what’s inside us that cracks the landscape open, shocking and illuminating like a streak of lightning. She showed us that, Alice Munro.
Characters are lacking in sentimentality. Alice Munro has said in an interview regarding the death of her own daughter, soon after giving birth, that she went home and barely talked about it with her first husband because they were not a sentimental couple. This reminds me of my grandparents, who were probably the same after their own stillbirth experience in the late 1950s.
FANTASIES BUT NOT FANTASISTS
It is reality that awakens possibilities, and nothing would be more perverse than to deny it.
The difficulty of authentic and complete reconstructions of events in Munro’s fiction is not, on the whole, a problem of history, and much less of an exuberant postmodern sensibility, but of a general conviction that life is comprised of “disconnected realities. […]
Though Munro’s characters are grounded in reality, characters have fallible memories. When Munro takes the reader along on remembrances of the past, at no point are we encouraged to believe every single word. (Wrong) memory can influence someone’s present as much as the past reality.
Memory, however, is fallible. It is incomplete. Munro does an excellent job of recreating how memory really works. Perhaps only older readers will appreciate this particular aspect of her stories; instead of remembering the ‘plots’ of past events, even big events, we tend to be left with resonant imagery. We forget people’s names, even if they were important to us. Minor characters become larger in hindsight. Significant characters can seem almost fictional in hindsight.
In creating a sense of imperfect memory, Alice Munro makes much use of a technique I’ve seen described as ‘side shadowing‘. It’s especially useful to the short story writer because the story seems so much more expansive. Side-shadowing is used in various ways, and Munro has numerous reasons for using it.
Here’s how Ulrica Skagert puts it:
The phenomenon of possibility permeates Munro’s stories. An investigation of this phenomenon shows a curious paradox between possibility and necessity.
Munro’s fiction most often suggests that a determinate set of events lies behind the text, but that the conflicting self-justifications of her characters undermine narrative certainty. Familiar motives and shortcomings—the everyday dishonesty fostered by self-interest; the inclination to suppress what is ugly and disturbing; and the failure to exhibit a systematic sense of responsibility in our dealings with others—animate the accounts of Munro’s characters.
The Anagnorisis at the end of Munro’s stories tends to feature an event which offers a moment of release and an ‘epistemic certainty to the characters’ (Ulrica Skagert). Epistemic means ‘relating to knowledge’. Skagert argues that via this release and certainty the characters obtain a radical, audacious sense of freedom and intensity of life. So, more of an ‘epiphany’ than uninflected ‘anagnorisis’. Characters tend to move from entrapment to freedom.
Great stories are created by a nuanced sentence, a sudden realisation, a life-changing wrong choice; they are made in the description of a knowing glance, the angle of a character’s shoulders as they walk away, in the slow anger that destroys a love and shapes memory. Character, not plot, drives her art, which explores life as lived.
And here’s the difference between a good short story and an excellent one: In a great story, the reader also experiences a Anagnorisis. However, this is not spelled out for us. The reader must generally work for it. How does Munro lead us to our Anagnorisiss? Well, the trickery starts at the beginning:
As Munro brings conflicting interests and accounts to the fore, the desideratum of [desire for] factual accuracy loses authority as the reader focuses on ethical concerns and shapes a value- rather than event-based narrative account from the discrepancies. Not surprisingly, then, Munro’s preoccupation with accurate accounts is not merely thematic, but informs the structure of many of her stories, whose meandering beginnings challenge the reader’s basic efforts at orientation.
Munro includes details which prevent her stories from slipping into melodrama. The Irish Times describes her as a ‘coolly astute observer of the ordinary’. Alice Munro writes the opposite of melodrama. Instead, terrible and life-changing events happen alongside the mundane events, mostly. Instead, terrible and life-changing events happen alongside the mundane events, mostly. For instance, a husband dies suddenly while at the hardware store (in “Free Radicals”). Instead of the wife at home, wondering what’s happened to him, “She hadn’t had time to wonder about his being late.”
VOCATIONS OF CHARACTERS
Characters are often: teachers (especially music teachers), university lecturers (philandering), carpenters and doctors (often scoundrels, despite their social standing), pharmacists — not many people have really obscure sounding jobs, but maybe no one did last century?
Piano teachers, divorced professors, country doctors, solitary widows in the country—all those small and insignificant people lead lives of enormous drama. Women lead lives of enormous drama. She has made that into fact.
The women are shown performing emotional labour in a way you don’t tend to find in stories written by men, even when men are creating female characters. Most men simply don’t seem to get the extent to which women are acculturated in this area. The opening paragraph of “Free Radicals” is a perfect example of this:
At first, people kept phoning, to make sure that Nita was not too depressed, not too lonely, not eating too little or drinking too much. (She had been such a diligent wine drinker that many forgot that she was now forbidden to drink at all.) She held them off, without sounding nobly grief-stricken or unnaturally cheerful or absent-minded or confused. She said that she didn’t need groceries; she was working through what she had on hand. She had enough of her prescription pills and enough stamps for her thank-you notes.
If there’s drug use in her stories, it’ll be alcohol. When asked if she took drugs during the hippie era, Alice Munro replied maybe a little marijuana, but alcohol is the drug of her generation.
Munro has also talked about how women of her generation never developed their own personal desires until the hippie era hit them, and then it hit them with a force. Even at the age of 30, Alice Munro felt 18 again. Likewise, the younger versions of the women in her stories often seem quite passive. By the time these women are old ladies they’ve perhaps become a little more self-actuated, but young women are often propelled along by others, mostly men, who really did run that world. Women of Munro’s generation were expected to get married and have children. Any other kind of desire was considered unfeminine. Munro herself had exactly those desires. (Munro published her first book age 37, before her awakening. If she’d published earlier, we would’ve seen quite different work.)
YOUNG AND OLD TOGETHER
The cast of characters will most likely contain both young and old, and that’s aside from the narrator’s young and old self. For instance, a young woman will meet an old woman. This reminds her of her own mortality, perhaps, or the older lady from the past connects the main character’s older and younger self in a way that may not have been evident to the character herself. We are constantly reminded as readers that our age is not our identity; at some point we are young and, if we are lucky, at some point we are old.
CHARACTERS ARE SHAPED BY THEIR CIRCUMSTANCE
In this postI explain the difference between folk psychology and studied psychology: People do not have much in the way of enduring character — how we behave in any given situation depends largely on the situation.
A difference between genre fiction and good literary fiction — in literary fiction characters behave according to their circumstance, as people in real life would. Below, a reader explains this in a review of Munro’s collection, The Love Of A Good Woman:
Loving Munro is … easy because her ethics of care and compassion for others [is] embodied by these stories, for example by Enid, the protagonist of [“The Love Of A Good Woman”]. Yet Munro refuses to paint an icon for worship: Enid can live as she does only because of her enabling circumstances, she experiences poisoned fantasies, and her goodwill is not unconditional. The same is true for other characters: each person in the book is carefully drawn as an individual shaped by histories, enmeshed in social structures that influence, constrain, oppress, enable, direct, oppose and support them in interconnected ways. They are at least partly responsible for their fortunes and failings, but Munro never victim-blames or hero-worships.
Here’s the problem with thumbnail character descriptions and why I shy away from writing them myself: By simply describing someone, we are actively encouraging the reader to fall back on stereotypes. Without existing prejudice, character sketches can’t do their job and are useless. Why does a writer give us a character’s BMI? Is it simply to paint a picture in our mind? Or are we meant to map society’s view onto characters?
Yet if writers avoid describing characters altogether, readers may fail to paint a picture. Moreover, they’ll come up with their own picture. I once wrote a short story, put it through critique. Halfway through the story I mentioned the main character’s beard. A critique partner said that I’d ‘sprung the beard’ on them. I found the imagery of that funny, but the reason they felt that way? I hadn’t started with any thumbnail sketch.
How to write character sketches without the inevitable downsides?
Well, Munro doesn’t shy away from telling us someone’s BMI and we can easily deduce where they would fall on the beauty spectrum. (Should we avoid talking about fatness and thinness at all? That’s a whole different issue with arguments both ways.)
Such information is offset by the fact that many of Munro’s character descriptions include a line about how the person we see is not the real person at all.
Mr. Travers never told stories and had little to say at dinner, but if he came upon you looking, for instance, at the fieldstone fireplace he might say, “Are you interested in rocks?” and tell you how he had searched and searched for that particular pink granite, because Mrs. Travers had once exclaimed over a rock like that, glimpsed in a road cut. Or he might show you the not really unusual features that he personally had added to the house—the corner cupboard shelves swinging outward in the kitchen, the storage space under the window seats. He was a tall, stooped man with a soft voice and thin hair slicked over his scalp. He wore bathing shoes when he went into the water and, though he did not look fat in his clothes, a pancake fold of white flesh slopped over the top of his bathing trunks.
How he is different underneath (under his clothes)
Grace was wearing a dark-blue ballerina skirt, a white blouse, through whose eyelet frills the upper curve of her breasts was visible, and a wide rose-colored elasticized belt. There was a discrepancy, no doubt, between the way she presented herself and the way she wanted to be judged. But nothing about her was dainty or pert or polished, in the style of the time. A bit ragged around the edges, in fact. Giving herself Gypsy airs, with the very cheapest silver-painted bangles, and the long, wild-looking, curly dark hair that she had to put into a snood when she waited on tables.
How she is different underneath (she doesn’t feel as sexual as she dresses)
A description of her ‘falseness’, as viewed from a character’s POV rather than an objective narrator’s. (In the wider context, this would be how same-age men tend to see her.)
A detail of her clothing (the snood) which marks the earlier era
Mrs. Travers, however, was barely five feet tall, and under her bright muumuus seemed not fat but sturdily plump, like a child who hasn’t stretched up yet. And the shine, the intentness, of her eyes, the gaiety that was always ready to break out in them, had not been inherited. Nor had the rough red, almost a rash, on her cheeks, which was probably a result of going out in any weather without thinking about her complexion, and which, like her figure, like her muumuus, showed her independence.
There was a change in his voice—a crack in it, a rising pitch that made her think of a television comedian doing a rural whine. Under the kitchen skylight, she saw that he wasn’t as young as she’d thought. When she’d opened the door, she had been aware only of a skinny body, the face dark against the morning glare. The body, as she saw it now, was certainly skinny but more wasted than boyish, affecting a genial slouch. His face was long and rubbery, with prominent light-blue eyes. A jokey look, but a persistence, too, as if he generally got his way.
The way in which her appearance has been affected by her actions
She was a slim, suntanned woman in a purple dress, with a matching wide purple band holding back her dark hair. Handsome, but with little pouches of boredom or disapproval hiding the corners of her mouth. She left most of her dinner untouched on her plate, explaining that she had an allergy to curry.
Her allergy to curry, which the reader is encouraged not to take seriously
His hands didn’t feel drunk, and his eyes didn’t look it. Nor did he look like the jolly uncle he had impersonated when he talked to the children, or the purveyor of reassuring patter he had chosen to be with Grace. He had a high pale forehead, a crest of tight curly gray-black hair, bright gray but slightly sunken eyes, high cheekbones, and rather hollowed cheeks. If his face relaxed, he would look sombre and hungry.
How he is now different from how he presented at first
His duplicitous way of talking, which is simply a matter of changing register — we all do it, but here we are encouraged to suspect him of something sinister
The dimensions of his face
The colour of his hair (indicating middle age)
How the main character imagines his face might look different. She’s really observing him closely.
She is a lean eager-looking woman with a mop of pewter colored hair and a slight stoop which may come from coddling her large instrument, or simply from the habit of being an obliging listener and a ready talker.
two lifestyle possibilities about why she may have adopted that pose, together telling us all we need to know about this character
Munro writes third person narratives, usually focusing on a woman, moving in and out of her head from close third person to omniscient.
TIME AND SPATIAL ORGANISATION
Time often spans a lifetime, from the point of view of a woman near the end of her life. She looks back on long-ago events as an extradiegetic character. Her younger self seems like a different person to her. After a lifetime of reflection, she is often more forgiving of her younger trespasses, understands why things happened the way they did. The younger woman is often without any particular desire of her own in the story, propelled along by men and expectations.
In these narratives which can span a lifetime, Munro moves seamlessly from the present to the recent past to the long distant past. This requires knowing when to make use of three verb tenses in the English language:
Simple past tense: At first, people kept phoning, to make sure that Nita was not too depressed
Past perfect tense: Rich had told her that he was going to the village, to the hardware store.
Present tense: Rich died in June. Now here it is midsummer.
The reader doesn’t notice she’s even doing this. She does it so well. Native English speakers create these tenses naturally, yet when writing a story you do have to make a decision when to use which tense, at least at some point, perhaps as part of the revision process.
At first we might think, okay, the distant past would obviously be simple past. The recent past would obviously be the past perfect. And the switch from iterative to the singulative would obviously cue a switch to the present. But look closer; it’s a bit more tricky than that.
I find it helpful to think of Munro writing a series of vignettes, each with their own entire timeline filling out the space. So, a flashback might start with the simple past, then within that same flashback it’ll switch to past perfect, so the reader feels we’re not reading a flashback at all. This is important because a constant stream of flashbacks can otherwise frustrate the reader, who is naturally more interested in the present. (Reading a flashback can feel like reading something enclosed in parentheses — we tend to skip through it, keen to get back to the ‘real’ text. See what I’m doing here?)
There’s another important reason why Munro encourages us to feel the past is inextricably tied to the present. In an Alice Munro story, the present never exists in isolation. Every life event is connected to what came before — the end of life often mirrors the beginning of life — and memories of the past absolutely influence a character’s experience of the here and now, influencing decisions which might, to outsiders, seem wacky or illogical. Once we know the backstory that is affecting her, the reader understands why she behaves the way she does.
Stories unfold as if someone is speaking to us. If you’ve ever studied speech-making, you’ll know that an audience far prefers naturalistic speaking over a memorised script. Although you might falter, you might start a sentence then switch it for another, you add fillers… This is in fact easier for people to understand than a perfect stream of words. This is why conversations with friends are easier to follow than a literary audiobook. Munro absolutely has a sense of how humans grasp story, and she tells her stories as an oral storyteller might.
What is she actually doing, though? What does this mean and how do we replicate the technique?
We might say she’s making use of reveals and reversals. Going back to “Free Radicals”, the story opens with a woman in mourning. The reader naturally wonders: Why is she in mourning? Okay, we soon learn she’s lost her husband. The reader naturally wonders: How did he die? (I think we always wonder this, even if we have the courtesy not to ask, which we should not.) Munro then tells us how the husband dies.
Note that Munro could have completely inverted this in her storytelling. She could open with a man dying outside a hardware store. But she doesn’t, because she knows how reveals work. This is a term used by screenwriters, but it applies to everyday storytelling, as well, in a smaller way.
In the same story, we are told that Nita has buried her husband in a cardboard box. The reader wonders if the relationship was terrible. We are told that in fact they planned this together in advance. Reversal: Okay, so she didn’t bury him in a box because he was terrible. They are simply unsentimental. Further reveal: Nita had expected to die first because she has a cancer diagnosis. If she’s mad at her dead husband, it’s for ‘stealing her thunder’. See the minor reveals and reversals in there? It’s masterful. We think we know this character — we’re doing our best to understand her motivations. But small, unexpected pieces of information have us constantly on our toes, reevaluating our understanding of this character.
Alice Munro makes regular use of the writing technique of describing what is not as a way in to what is. The following is a description of recent bereavement:
She thought carefully, every morning when she first took her seat, of the places where Rich was not. He was not in the smaller bathroom, where his shaving things still were, along with the prescription pills for various troublesome but not serious ailments which he’d refused to throw out. Nor was he in the bedroom, which she had just tidied and left. Not in the larger bathroom, which he had entered only to take tub baths. Or in the kitchen, which had become mostly his domain in the last year. He was of course not out on the half-scraped deck, ready to peer jokingly in the window—through which she might, in earlier days, have pretended to be alarmed at the sight of a peeping tom.
lightness — When we see women depicted in gloomy circumstances caused by patriarchal systems of repression, there is still a recurring moment of a peculiar feeling of lightness or newness that does not fit directly or simply into the condition of their social realities.
sameness — Alice Munro’s fiction recognizes life as possibility in a moment when it shows itself in its own remarkable sameness.
absence — a focus not what is there but what is absent or delayed
possibility and fatality — Munro is fascinated by the surface reality of how things are.
liberation vs restraint
contingency and fatality
There are many trains — characters inside trains, train tracks going past a house, incidents on train tracks. This makes sense, as trains are a wonderful metaphor for the inevitable passing of time. Once you’re on a train there’s no stopping it — you’ll end up where you end up, and life often seems like this in hindsight.
Munro writes ‘character’ descriptions of houses, which depicts houses as characters in their own right, inextricably linked to their inhabitants. Houses remain even after the inhabitants have long since gone. A visit to a former house brings back many memories.
Like Annie Proulx, Alice Munro’s narratives are often about outsiders coming in to invade small towns. With Munro, an older character returns to former haunts to learn that everything has regrettably changed. Highways have been built, young people have moved in, often with their tacky play sets in the yards. There is regret on the part of the characters — why couldn’t things just stay the same? On the other hand, they don’t wish for that at all. Rather, their memories are rose-tinted. In a Munro story, reality and memory do not line up.
The house had a row of cedars on one side and a railway embankment on the other. The railway traffic had never amounted to much, and by now there were only a couple of trains a month. Weeds were lavish between the tracks. One time, when she was on the verge of menopause, Nita had teased Rich into making love up there—not on the ties, of course, but on the narrow grass verge beside them—and they had climbed down inordinately pleased with themselves.
Later, in the same story, the train tracks give the impression that once a terrible situation is set in motion, there’s no getting out of it. An intruder has tricked his way into her house. Not, Nita must wait for fate to play out: Train tracks as fate.
“I was only going to get the keys.” “You wait till I say. I walked the railway track. Never seen a train. I walked all the way to here and never seen a train.” “There’s hardly ever a train.”
An affinity between the inevitable and the possible is central to Munro’s writing.
As shown in ‘Train’, Munro expertly analyses those sudden, irreparable choices in life that lead us away from our original track. The metaphor of train is repeated in ‘To Reach Japan’, where Greta’s sudden impetuous sexual liaison with another traveller leads to the disappearance of her young daughter. She is travelling to Toronto to house-sit for a friend and is due to return to the comfortable tedium of her marriage. Yet, another impulsive gesture – the sending of a letter to a man she barely knows – may take Greta away from the familiar tracks of her life.
In many stories, a character has gone missing. Perhaps they’ve dropped off the face of the planet, or another character thinks they have (e.g. “Jakarta“). A child grows up and cuts their parents off. Another form of absence is when two or more characters knew each other when young, fall mostly out of contact for decades, then reconnect when they’re old.
Munro uses the full range of narrative pace in her stories. The pacing itself maps onto the emotions she evokes in the reader. She can skip over decades, then slow the pace down to a pause (freeze frame). She is an expert at summary. Here she summarises a long journey home:
Sally gets lost, then finds her way. The bank building again, the same or possibly a whole new regiment of loiterers. The subway ride, the car park, the keys, the highway, the traffic. Then the lesser highway, the early sunset, no snow yet, the bare trees, and the darkening fields.
“Trespasses” is a short story by Canadian author Alice Munro, included in the collection Runaway, published 2006.
This piece might challenge everything you’ve learned about how to structure a story. All the parts are there, but not as you’d expect. If Alice Munro had anonymously joined one of my writing critique groups over the years, she may well have been offered the following notes:
This is superbly written and achieves astounding psychological insight, but who is your main character here?
Perhaps you’ve started in the wrong place with two sections of throat clearing? The real story is that of Lauren, so why not maintain focalisation of Lauren throughout the entire piece?
What’s the point of the restaurant scene? We never see the old married couple again. All the more reason to nix the first few sections?
I find it hard to believe a ten-year-old is allowed that much freedom.
Okay, honestly, if someone in one of my writing groups had uploaded “Trespasses”, they may have even received those notes from me. And this is why it’s so hard to offer critique on literary short stories — the form is deliberately experimental. Is anything ever wrong? Well, yes, of course. Except these ‘wrong’ things are so very specific to any single story we can’t fall back on guidelines. This is why some writers have learned to hate guidelines (or ‘rules’) altogether. (I’m not in that camp.)
That’s because in “Trespasses”, as in all of Munro’s work, there is an explainable reason for all narrative choices. It’s just, putting these reasons into words is so hard. If we can articulate what Munro’s doing here, we can bring more nuance to the ‘writing guidelines’ we have learned.
Why would any writer want to do that? Let’s investigate.
THE OLD AND NEW MEANINGS OF TRESPASS
Despite attending a Presbyterian church, I was required to memorise the version of the Lord’s Prayer with ‘trespasses’ rather than ‘debts’.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…
I didn’t understand the archaic meaning of ‘trespass’. I’d only ever seen the word on signs. I grew up in semi-rural New Zealand — these signs were always affixed to farm gates and I knew I hadn’t been walking around on farms, so as far as I was concerned, I was sweet. I also couldn’t fathom what was so very wrong about setting foot on private property — surely there were worse sins? Maybe someone’s just taking a quiet short cut…
I now have a handle on the wider meaning of ‘trespass’, but the word is so closely linked to Christianity that as I delve into Munro’s short story the words of the Lord’s prayer are forefront in my mind. Signage aside, I rarely hear the word ‘trespass’ in everyday English.
“Trespasses” by Alice Munro will likely be a story about ‘sin’. (What story isn’t, though?) This is also a story about ‘overstepping boundaries’, making it more in line with the modern definition of ‘trespassing’ we see on signage.
The story “Trespasses” encouraged me to consider the following:
How might one kind of trespass (within a family) make a person vulnerable to a trespass from an outsider?
What is the difference between loving someone and trespassing upon them? Might love commonly co-exist with trespassing?
Can the truth be more damaging than fiction? What if the fiction is later found out? Is the damage then simply postponed?
Can too much information make a child vulnerable? Surely too little information is also bad. Where’s that line?
Eileen and Harry and their daughter Lauren [EVENTUAL MAIN CHARACTER] have recently moved to a small town where Harry has bought the town’s newspaper. While unpacking, Lauren asks about the contents of a box that seems particularly light [MYSTERY], and her father gives her the first version of some past events. [STORY WITHIN A STORY] Eleven years before, he and Eileen had a baby, soon after which Eileen learned that she was pregnant. After a fight, Eileen drove off with the infant and had an accident in which the baby was killed. The box contains the baby’s ashes. This is just the beginning of Munro’s story, however. [MANY SHORT STORY WRITERS WOULD END THE STORY HERE, AT LAUREN’S DISCOVERY.] Another woman, Delphine [MINOTAUR OPPONENT], who believes she is the biological mother of the first (presumably illegally adopted) baby, has tracked them down [ OPPONENT’S PLAN]; she also assumes that the living girl Lauren (both babies were named Lauren) is her daughter and pursues a relationship with the girl. As Lauren gradually begins to suspect, based on Delphine’s hints and indirect revelations, that she might be adopted, Harry and Eileen learn of the friendship that has emerged between the two. The result [BIG STRUGGLE] is the late-night attempt to provide the canonical narrative of the past events and the hasty, long-delayed ceremony to scatter the ashes of the baby who died a decade before.
Eileen’s husband and Lauren’s father. Used to work at a news magazine but quit his job after burning out. Has come to this new town having bought the local paper. He remembers this town from his childhood. For Harry, this is a home-away-home children’s story, underscoring his boyish nature. (Though he is revealed to be far more dangerous than any little boy.) “A broad-faced, boyish-looking man with a tanned skin and shining light-brown hair. His glow of well-being and general appreciation spread around the table…’
Harry’s wife and Lauren’s mother. Much thinner than the local women in this small country town, marking her out as a sophisticate from the city. (Munro tends to describe characters’ BMI as something meaningful.) Eileen makes coffee each morning, takes it back to bed and drinks it slowly. Eileen works in her husband’s newspaper office (so she can never really get away from him). She wears ‘casually provocative outfits’. She is beautiful. ‘Her manner in the newspaper office was crisp and her expression remote, but this was broken by strategic, vivid smiles’. Eileen is a capable woman who prefers to do things like sanding and wallpapering on her own, without help from family. She is an isolated, self-contained person. Emotional isolation is perhaps a protective thing.
We meet Delphine early in the story but are encouraged to mostly forget about her. At first I thought she might be the family dog, or some smaller animal sitting in a cage on the front seat. The story opens with someone (or something) called Delphine sitting in the front of the car with Harry. It takes a while before Alice Munro lets us know who Delphine is. This is part of Munro’s deliberate disorientation. Eventually we learn Delphine is the name of the woman who works in the restaurant. Interestingly, the name ‘Delphine’ and ‘the woman who works in the restaurant’ are only subsequently connected. Not many writers would hold off connecting the woman and the name. Munro also uses this trick in “Save The Reaper“, in which it takes the reader a while to realise two women are mother and daughter. This is so the reader can experience these two women as friends, which is the kind of relationship the mother in that story wants; in contrast, the daughter wants a mother who behaves like a mother. Using this trick, Munro lets the reader know how it feels to have a mother who behaves as a friend by tricking us into thinking the two women are simply friends.
When we do properly meet Delphine in “Trespasses”, Munro introduces her to us via Lauren’s eyes:
She had long fine hair that might be whitish blond or might be really white, because she was not young. She must often have to shake that hair back out of her face, as she did now. Her eyes, behind dark-rimmed glasses, were hooded by purple lids. Her face was broad, like her body, pale and smooth. But there was nothing indolent about her. Her eyes, now lifted, were a light flat blue, and she looked from one girl to another as if no contemptible behaviour of theirs would surprise her.
It’s a dump. Delphine said things like that. She spoke vehemently — she did not discuss but stated, and her judgments were severe and capricious. She spoke about herself — her tastes, her physical workings — as about a monumental mystery, something unique and final.
She had an allergy to beets. [UNEXPECTED DETAIL IN FICTION] If even a drop of beet juice made its way down her throat, her tissues would swell up and she would have to go to the hospital, she would need an emergency operation so that she could breathe.
She believed a woman should keep her hands nice, no matter what kind of work she had to do. She liked to wear inky-blue or plum fingernail polish. And she liked to wear earrings, big and clattery ones, even at her work. She had no use for the little button kind.
She was not afraid of snakes, but she had a weird feeling about cats. She thought that a cat must have come and lain on top of her when she was a baby, being attracted to the smell of milk.
Why does Alice Munro choose these details to describe Delphine? First, they are being filtered via a ten-year-old, and kids pick up on oddities. What have cats and snakes got to do with anything? We might also go the symbolic route — Delphine is the ‘snake in the grass’, sneaking up on this family, meaning to set up an unwanted relationship. But more importantly, I feel, Delphine is established as a woman whose mind goes to strange places. It is a fantasy that she doesn’t like cats because of an incident she couldn’t possibly remember, and almost certainly didn’t happen. This is the moment I don’t quite trust Delphine. This must also be the moment Lauren doesn’t trust her, either.
Lauren is ten years old, her exact age calculated only after her father explains the past. Until that point I thought Lauren was a few years older than that. She is given a lot more freedom than typical contemporary ten-year-olds (though this story is at least 15 years old). Lauren’s love of sugary foods marks her out as a child, though. Lauren makes her own breakfast, usually cereal with maple syrup instead of milk. Lauren is lonely at school. This much is explained by the narrator. It’s a complex situation, so the narrator steps in to describe the nuance:
Her isolation at school was based on knowledge and experience, which, as she half knew, could look like innocence and priggishness. The things that were wicked mysteries to others were not so to her and she did not know how to pretend about them. And that was what separated her, just as much as knowing her to pronounce L’Anse aux meadows and having read The Lord of the Rings. She had drunk half a bottle of beer when she was five and puffed on a joint when she was six, though she had not liked either one. She sometimes had a little wine at dinner, and she liked that all right. She knew about oral sex and all methods of birth control an what homosexuals did. She had regularly seen Harry and Eileen naked, also a party of their friends naked around a campfire in the woods. On that same holiday she had sneaked out with other children to watch fathers slipping by sly agreement into the tents of mothers who were not their wives. One of the boys had suggested sex to her and she had agreed, but he could not make any progress and they became cross with each other and later she hated the sight of him.
Lauren is thereby established as dangerously ‘precocious’ (not a word I like), and at this point I expect the worst for her. Fortunately, Lauren is still young enough to blurt everything out to her mother when things feel really bad, and I figure this is why Munro made Lauren ten and not, say, thirteen. (In stories, perhaps as in real life, a thirteen year old’s trouble is more likely to be discovered by a caring adult rather than the child breaking down and telling all.)
The Dead Lauren
The deceased baby forms the ‘ghost‘ (a.k.a. psychic wound) of Harry and Eileen and of Lauren, too. This baby was killed in a car accident due to not being strapped in properly. Eileen was pregnant with a new baby at the time (Lauren the Second).
How would it feel to find out your parents had a baby before they had you, and this baby was called the same name? I might start imagining a completely other life for myself — one in which the other Lauren had lived and I had died. Munro’s plot is an interesting, slightly complicated set up but I’ve seen similar in real life — parents have years of difficulty in conceiving a baby, go through the lengthy faff of the adoption process, adopt a baby, then immediately find themselves pregnant. Something about being around a baby seems to influence fertility rates, at least anecdotally:
One theory floating around is that women who are around babies somehow experience improved fertility. […]
“There is zero evidence of this, other than anecdotes,” Dr. Paula Amato, Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine associate professor of obstetrics and gynaecology, told Healthline.
The framing story, in which a family disposes of ashes, begins a few weeks before Christmas, which in Canada is winter. Something is coming to an end.
‘The sky was clear and the snow had slid off the trees but had not melted underneath them or on the rocks that jutted out beside the road.’
‘black lacy cedars’ (putting me in mind of a Tim Burton movie)
‘There was a slight crackle to the snow, though the ground underneath was soft and mucky’ (suggesting an snail under the leaf setting). This sort of sentence can be described as ‘multivalent’, meaning it can be interpreted as both literal and metaphorical. Multivalent = having many applications, interpretations, meanings, or values. There is plenty of multivalent detail throughout Munro’s fiction.
Harry’s family used to have a summer place on one of the lakes around here. There is a hotel on the main street. This hotel no longer has a liquor licence.
A Victorian mansion, now a nursing home (Gothic overtones)
He pointed out things in the dining room that were just the same — the high ceiling, the slowly rotating fan, even a murky oil painting showing a hunting dog with a rusty-feathered bird in its mouth.
The hotel serves canned green beans even though it is fresh bean season. This is another example of a unexpected detail — perhaps it is noticed for its irony. Where else in this story is irony at work?
The unwelcoming Mr Palagian and his hotel are inextricably linked — juxtaposed against each other by the unwelcoming owner versus his sign which reads ‘WELCOME’. More irony.
There is also an ironic gap between the narrator’s delightful chatter and the grim story of the dead Lauren underneath. What makes the narrator seem delightful and chatty? That’d be the ‘incidental nature’ of the discourse, cue those strange details — like your best friend chatting to you over coffee, each new recollection prompting a related, delightful and interesting one.
I’m reminded of the following meme, which is not at all how a writer plots. Instead, Munro’s narrator achieves the illusion of a ‘chatty’ storyteller, because that’s what ‘chatty’ means, right? Someone who is never short of the next thing to say, because one thing segues effortlessly into another thing:
The word ‘liminal‘ seems apt here. The ‘vacationland wilderness’ is, functionally, a heterotopia:
They had rented a house at the edge of town. Just beyond their backyard began a vacationland wilderness of rocky knobs and granite slopes, cedar bogs, small lakes, and a transitional forest of poplars, soft maples, tamarack, and spruce. Harry loved it. He said they might wake up one morning and look out at a moose in the backyard. Lauren came home after school when the sun was already getting low in the sky and the middling warmth of the autumn day was turning out to be a fraud [SHE KNOWS IT’S A SNAIL UNDER THE LEAF SETTING]. The house was chilly and smelled of last night’s dinner, of stale coffee grounds and the garbage, which it was her job to take out.
Harry’s view of the forest is utopian, but as any reader knows, a story featuring a house situated on the edge of the woods is imperilled. At best, the forest is the family’s dark subconscious. They’re about to go there — right into the deepest, darkest Jungian parts of it. When it comes to houses, the basement is the psychological equivalent of the forest. Notice how Eileen wants to send Harry down to the basement of their rented house, along with all his possessions, including their box of ashes.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “TRESPASSES”
The thirty-seven-page story is told in seventeen sections that vary in length from under a page to about six pages. It starts with a section covering the first part of the final scene [FRAMING TECHNIQUE], the four characters finding a site on a riverbank to scatter the ashes, and ends with the rest of the scene, the scattering of ashes and the beginning of the ride back into town. On one level, then, the present event of dispersing the ashes functions conventionally as a narrative frame. However, Munro develops this overt structural circularity on more subtle chronological and psychological levels, since the town is a place of childhood vacations for Harry, and since each adult character, through unacknowledged feelings of guilt, responsibility, and desire deviates from but ultimately returns to his or her version of the past events. The story thus enacts a debased version of the myth of eternal return, wherein the structural return to the oozy riverbank reflects the return of each of the adult characters to his or her muddy version of the baby’s adoption and death.
What is ‘the myth of eternal return’? Children’s stories in particular tend to contain the soothing message that no matter what happens out in the world, you can always return home to safety. Harry himself has returned to a childhood utopian setting of his — he genuinely believes this ideology.
I put it to you that this is why Alice Munro has chosen a ten-year-old as main character — books for Lauren’s age group are all about the safe return home, or finding a new and safer home.
But reality differs from children’s books. For so many people — children included, Lauren as one example — home is not safe at all. Unlike the storybooks tell her, Lauren’s home is not homely.
As well as structurally, Munro’s chosen style of narration underscores the theme, of ‘what is really true’?
One theme of “Trespasses,” as of much of Munro’s longer fiction, is the difficulty of establishing authoritative narrative accounts.
Alice Munro has chosen a roving camera for this story, which opens with an unseen narrator. Who is this person? It feels like Alice Munro herself, but that’d be a mistake. (Narrators are not authors.)
Munro orchestrates this process of deception at the level of narrative technique, employing an ostensibly reliable narrator who, beguiling readers with her intelligence and charm, surveys the narrative world and delivers a comic, apparently loosely connected, and superficial account of events. In this manner, Munro compels readers to stand quite outside the narrative world for the first five pages, in alliance with the narrator and without any hint that there will be an orienting perspective among the characters.
At first “Trespasses” looks like it’s going to be about the character of Mr Palagian, told by a storyteller narrator, much like The Great Gatsby. But this is not about Mr Palagian at all.
Why does Munro do this?? Alice, are you messing with us?
In “Trespasses,” Munro’s circuitous delineation of the ambiguity surrounding events and the evasions that sustain those ambiguities are a product of her delayed introduction of the main character (and thus the orienting consciousness), a delay that confounds the reader’s ability to prioritise and evaluate incidents and information, and so to determine narrative relevance. Typically, readers approach literature under the assumption that the author will provide a speaker, a narrator, or a character to serve as a central point of reference, focusing emotional-cognitive effort in the literary environment and, in consequence, motivating and guiding reasoning processes in the direction of constructing and sustaining narrative order. This is, in some respects, a matter of convention… the reader’s commitment to character functions is the imaginative equivalent of a real-world self, and its absence can deprive the reader of a vantage point for seeing, cognising, and acting. Thus, when Munro intentionally withholds her main character’s identity for the first six pages of “Trespasses,” she deprives her readers of the point of orientation (the character function) that will prompt for and facilitate narrative construction. Munro’s goal in thus disabling event- and fact-based narrativity is to fully reveal the psychologically disabling conditions of that main character’s life and the ethically troubling domain of her upbringing.
‘Who Was It If It Wasn’t Me?’: The Problem of Orientation in Alice Munro’s ‘Trespasses’: A Cognitive Ecological Analysis
Here’s what I get out of that: Munro is making the reader disoriented about who the important people are because that’s how Lauren feels, too, not about a story, but about her actual life.
Munro’s delayed revelation of the story’s main character in combination with conventional features of narrative presents readers with a territory devoid of its true and necessary focalizing perspective, that of the ten-year-old Lauren. Meanwhile, Munro effectively provides the narrator as an alternative (though ultimately false) other “self” with whom readers identify. Thus standing on the perimeter of the setting rather than entering actively into it, readers are deprived of crucial information by orientational disadvantage and immobility.
Back to Mr Palagian for a minute. Here’s the description of Mr Palagian, as filtered to the reader via Harry. I mean, Harry is a writer, so he’s a natural fit as the character chosen to (indirectly) narrate someone else’s life:
Someone like Mr Palagian—or even that fat tough-talking waitress, he said—could be harboring a contemporary tragedy or adventure which would make a best seller.
The thing about life, Harry had told Lauren, was to live in the world with interest. To keep your eyes open and see the possibilities—see the humanity—in everybody you met. To be aware. If he had anything at all to teach her it was that. Be aware.
But this description of Mr Palagian is not even about Mr Palagian. ‘What Sally says about Susie says more about Sally.’ This description is about Harry. We learn that Harry’s shortcoming is as follows:
Harry is so interested in people as possible fictional inspiration that he’s not going to see what’s going on in the real world, with his very own daughter. His shortcoming is misplaced focus due to literary pretensions. He likes to tell Lauren things as her father and mentor. It is ironic that as he instructs Lauren to ‘be aware’, he fails to achieve genuine awareness himself. Something in this story is going to surprise him. Of that we can be sure. Later it bears out:
Harry was not as angry as Eileen [about Delphine].
“She seemed a perfectly okay person anytime I talked to her,” he said. “She never said anything like this to me.”
Eileen is equally preoccupied with superficial appearances. We see this in her observation of the family in the hotel dining room — she wonders how they could get so fat. She has no comment about the misogynistic joke that comes out of the old man. What’s the point of the anniversary celebration? At first it seems disconnected from the rest. First, it has allowed us to know more about Eileen and Harry and their superficial, middle-class shock (at the green beans and the fatness). Second, it introduces the theme of violence within marriage. Eileen and Harry cannot hear the old man’s joke as a joke; we learn later that violence between husband and wife is far too close to home.
I don’t find Harry an empathetic character. I find him quietly dangerous. Harry describes Eileen as ‘hysterical’, and talks to their daughter about her dead older sister without Eileen’s knowledge and consent. A father tells his daughter something in confidence, encouraging secrets within the family. Emotional incest. Some people feel the phrase ’emotional’ incest devalues the word ‘incest’ but whatever we call it, this relationship within a family a real and icky phenomenon:
Emotional incest is not sexual. Instead, this type of unhealthy emotional interaction blurs the boundaries between adult and child in a way that is psychologically inappropriate. When a parent looks to their child for emotional support or treats them more like a partner than a child, it is considered emotional or “covert” incest. The outcome of this family structure often produces similar results — on a lesser scale — as sexual incest.
Ironically, Harry and Eileen have brought Lauren up thinking that if she is exposed to all the worldly knowledge, the knowledge itself will protect her. Unfortunately, it’s this knowledge, and the experience of living with hipster, free-loving parents, which marks her out as more mature (faux-mature?) than her peers, and serves to isolate her from them.
“Trespasses” is one of several Munro stories in which the central character is an adolescent girl whose parents and their associates live by a lingering set of counter-cultural attitudes, which include a mild anti-establishment posture and a belief that children should be treated as adults. While the parents are deluded in their sense of superior honesty and freedom from conventional mores (they seem as repressive, viciously passive aggressive, and jealous as any of the usual human lot), these attitudes help them evade the moral and ethical consequences of their actions.
‘Who Was It If It Wasn’t Me?’: The Problem of Orientation in Alice Munro’s ‘Trespasses’: A Cognitive Ecological Analysis
And isolation is itself supremely dangerous. In her early teenage years Lauren is the lonely new girl in town, seeking friendship outside the home as well as emotional distance from her own parents. As the story opens, Lauren is presented as dangerously vulnerable to the advances of a sexual predator.
Harry is clearly after a new start in a new town, where he can rebuild his social capital by being important at the newspaper and perhaps find time on the side to write a novel, using local personalities as inspirational fodder. Harry is recovering from some mental health issues himself, having faced ‘burn out’ at his previous job. (We don’t know exactly what this means — ‘burn out’ is a conversational term and could be major or code for something else.)
Lauren is finding her place in the world as a young teenager and craves genuine connection with equals. This is more of a psychological need which leads directly to her Desire. (Shortcoming and Desire are very much interconnected.)
Here’s why Alice Munro’s stories are famous for being psychologically complex. Sentences like the following:
It wasn’t possible to tell the whole truth because she couldn’t get it straight herself. She couldn’t explain what she had wanted, right up to the point of not wanting it at all.
Alice Munro sets up a family in opposition to each other. It’s more about what she doesn’t show than what she does: We don’t see Lauren and Eileen interacting much at all until Lauren’s confession that she’s been seeing Delphine. It’s as if Lauren Number Two is a ghost to Eileen. Eileen is mostly emotional unavailable. Perhaps she has withdrawn from her daughter, opening up the gap for the father to come in and overfill it. However, this changes towards the end.
The other opposition comes from outside the family. Who is standing in the way of Lauren finding genuine friendship? The woman who isolates Lauren from her peers, pretends to be her friend, then reveals herself to be a kind of predator.
Alice Munro at first led me to think Delphine might be a sexual predator. She seems to keep that as a reveal at about midpoint. This is what I’m thinking as Lauren learns it, up in Delphine’s attic bedroom. Perhaps this is why Munro’s narration first lets us into Harry’s head; along with Harry, we become wary of Mr Palagian instead — that old magician’s trick of misplaced focus. Or, ‘disorientation’.
There are story-external factors encouraging the reader along this line of thought — namely, the real world statistics on gender and sexual predators. A sex offender is simply more likely to be gendered male. When we think ‘sex offender’ we think of a man: a man like Mr Palagian, perhaps — uncannily foreign (intersecting with xenophobia), gruff, lacking in social graces.
Unfortunately, the most dangerous predators have very good social skills. Poor social skills make one an equally poor predator.
Delphine knows exactly how to win Lauren over. But again, I have been fooled. Delphine is not a sexual predator but with completely different intentions — she wants a connection with the girl she believes to be her adopted daughter.
Delphine’s plan, at first appears as following: to coax an attractive, vulnerable underage girl to her bedroom where she will see what she can get away with.
But my focus was (deliberately?) misplaced. Delphine is not a pedophile. She is a troubled woman and grieving mother. Her plan is to move to Harry and Eileen’s town and strike up a connection with her daughter.
Without a plan of her own, Lauren goes along with Delphine’s pla.. Lauren is only ten, so she is reactive rather than proactive. Except in fantasy and in children’s literature, ten-year-olds don’t tend to rescue themselves from adult opposition.
People respond in unexpected ways to trauma. Lauren is scared by Delphine, a trauma which follows her all the way home. Once home, she decides to eat — not because she is hungry but because she is trying to expunge something horrible. The symbolism of the whiteness outside feels like a type of cleansing:
The felling in her stomach was of both a swelling and a hollow. It seemed as if she might get rid of that just by eating the right sort of food, so when she got into the house she went straight to the kitchen cupboard and poured herself a bowl of the familiar breakfast cereal. There was no maple syrup left, but she found some corn syrup. She stood in the cold kitchen, eating without even having taken her boots and her outdoor clothing off, and looking out at the freshly whitened backyard. Snow made things visible, even with the kitchen light on. She saw herself refelcted against the background of snowy yard and dark rocks capped with white, and evergreen branches drooping already under their white load.
This paragraph reminds me of the ancient tradition of ‘sin eating’ in which the sins of the recently dead were transferred to a village person who, for a fee, consumed food & drink handed to them over the coffin. This sin-eater would be shunned by their village, much like lepers were. Mourners would pay the designated sin-eater to rid their departed loved ones from all their sins. The sin-eater would then perform a ritual. This would allow the dead person to enter Heaven without sin-free. I wonder if the sin-eaters really did believe they would be forever damned in hell after they themselves died. Apart from societal shunning, it doesn’t sound like a bad gig in a starvation economy — sin-eaters received both food and payment.
One well-known account of sin-eating goes like this:
The corpse being taken out of the house, and laid on a bier, a loaf of bread was given to the sin-eater over the corpse, also a maga-bowl of maple, full of beer. These consumed, a fee of sixpence was given for…taking upon himself the sins of the deceased.
(Does anyone know what a maga-bowl is? If so, I’m interested.)
I wonder if Alice Munro encountered this account. I’m aware that in Canada maple syrup is a pantry staple, in which case Lauren’s penchant for maple syrup could be symbolically unloaded, but might the maple syrup be doing double (‘multivalent’) duty — an intertextual reference to the ‘maga-bowl of maple’ described above?
In any case, Lauren’s attempt at sin-eating don’t work. She throws the food back up.
Sure enough, The Lord’s Prayer has been the thematic backbone of this short story. I have this confirmed when Eileen says “Our Father which art in Heaven—”
Eileen seems to have had a Anagnorisis about her family — she knows that she can’t create a homely environment for Lauren so she’ll be better off at boarding school. Harry never realises that. He will continue in his delusion that he has found the perfect home in this little town where he owns the newspaper and they live in an idyllic little house on the edge of a vacationland wilderness.
But still, um, is this story really finished? For real?
Munro not only strains readers’ desire for narrative closure by providing information that seems incidental (apparently useless) at the outset but forestalls readers’ ability to begin sorting information and thus shaping the narrative by refusing to establish an orienting perspective within the setting. In rendering problematical the truth that readers are cognitively predisposed to pursue—initially, a factual account of past events and their connection to the present—Munro redirects attention to the self-justifications of her characters and the implications of their stories for the submerged main character, Lauren, and her potentially focalizing perspective. The story of her life, in fact, is one of a faltering, or long-deferred, orientation—in other words, of an unrealized because unrecognized self.
She was so sick of these burrs that she wanted to beat her hands and yell out loud, but she knew that the only thing she could do was just sit and wait.
Surely the burrs, too, are multivalent. We have burrs in our yard and the dog collects them. Here’s the thing about burrs: If you don’t get rid of them they bury their way right into your skin and cause a lot of pain. They can even get infected. Symbolically, a burr could stand for anything that works like that. Perhaps in this story the burrs symbolise the little bits of information Lauren gathers as she grows up.
Ultimately, since a ten-year-old doesn’t have much agency, what else can Lauren do but sit and wait out her childhood, until she can be free of these parents?
We don’t see this happen on the page, but we extrapolate that Lauren will be sent away to a boarding school. I imagine a Sally Draper future for Lauren, followed by a clean break from her ageing parents.
Paul Jennings has been an influential children’s author in Australia and New Zealand since the 1980s.
A PUBLISHING SUCCESS STORY
The Un-series took off internationally, became a TV series, the rest is history. Many people my age grew up with Paul Jennings. Schools across Australia and New Zealand all have (or had) multiple copies, sometimes class sets for study in class. I have taught Paul Jennings stories myself. These are considered texts to draw the reluctant reader in.
After revisiting the tales this year, I realised something else. Jennings’ stories serve to uphold a system of misogyny and sexism typical of the 1980s. Paul Jennings stories served a specific purpose in a specific era, but it’s now time to retire these books from the classroom. Childhood is very short, in comparison to the sheer volume of reading material available. We desperately need contemporary, woke, diverse, feminist hi-lo readers with fun, twisty endings to fill the Paul Jennings space.
Jennings has recently written a memoir. He has this to say about his own work:
[T]he themes of his own childhood have crept into his work, even against his own will at times.
Bullies often get their comeuppance, for example.
Grifters, narcissists and conmen also cop it.
Perhaps more tellingly, parenting crops up a lot.
“There’s a theme which comes up all the time, which is the separation of the parent and the child,” Jennings says.
“And it’s an incredibly powerful thing, because the loss of a child is enormous to a parent. And the loss of a parent is enormous to a child.
“That theme, I realised after a couple of years, it was poking its nose up quite a bit. And I kept saying to myself, ‘I’m never doing that theme again’.”
There is also a story Jennings wishes he hadn’t written. “No Is Yes”.
The fact is, culture changes, authors change. This is not the only story I personally wish Jennings hadn’t written.
All that said, Paul Jennings is a master storyteller who cracked the difficult knack of genuinely writing for children, not for a dual audience, nor for advanced middle grade readers only. There’s a lot to learn from Paul Jennings in that regard.
FEATURES OF PAUL JENNINGS SHORT STORIES
STORY STRUCTURE AND NARRATION
Titles often have a pun element, not obvious until after the twist.
Opening sentences often introduce intriguing high concepts.
Or, the story will open with a character in a scary/impossible situation e.g. perched high on a ladder (“Eyes Knows”). In other words, Jennings is making use of in medias res. We continue reading to find out how they got there.
Or, there will be a weird scenario (a character has a huge nose) and the backstory that follows will explain how this happened.
Or, the story will begin with a boy having just got himself into trouble with an authority figure (“UFD”).
Many of these stories are tall tales, and use the techniques of that genre.
Some are retellings of classic stories or a new spin on an old yarn. “Ice Maiden” = the Greek myth of Pygmalion. “Greensleeves” is a spin on “Jonah and the Whale”. “Know All” is a new spin on Pandora’s Box.
A lot of Jennings’ stories are bookended. He loves the story-within-a-story structure. To use the terms of narratology, Jennings makes use of two diegetic levels —diegetic and metadiegetic. This conjures the ambience of a ‘storyteller around a campfire‘. Either an interesting adult tells a tall story to a child viewpoint character, or the child viewpoint character themselves launches into some wild backstory to explain the situation at hand. The stand-out example is the standalone story illustrated by Terry Denton, called Sucked In. The story’s title comes from the fact that a group of kids have been taken in by a tall tale… or have they?
The bookend story has a story structure all of its own. (Its own opponent, plan, big struggle etc.) Because we have two of everything, this packs a lot into a short story and creates a fast-paced reading experience.
The Battle sequences are especially fun for the audience of these stories, with massive high-octane, ridiculous hilarity and plenty of revenge against authority and outright villainy.
Stories are written in first person, unless there’s some reason to write in third. For instance, the story will be written in third person if the first person viewpoint character isn’t going to be sticking around for the entire story. (“One-shot Toothpaste”) Stories are also written in third person if there are two main characters instead of one (e.g. “Birdscrap”), or perhaps if the story is about an adult rather than a child (“The Velvet Throne”).
Jennings doesn’t care that his Chekhov’s Guns are wholly unsubtle. If a character mentions a valuable painting, you can be sure that valuable painting will be found at the end of the story (“Skeleton On The Dunny”). A young reader is in the moment. Unlike a more sophisticated audience, they are not picking up the Chekhov’s Guns and making predictions.
It’s interesting to see which dots are joined for the young reader. Paul Jennings likes the reader to piece together their own endings. But everything else is handed to them on a plate. For instance, if there is a ghost, the reader is told there is a ghost. (Jennings avoids what some writers call Mystery Boxing.) There’s no doubt about it (to my mind) because Jennings is using all the ghost tropes. But Jennings never forgets: He’s writing for eight year olds. Eight year olds haven’t got a long history of hearing ghost stories. Eight year olds don’t have a long history of anything. They’re eight. This is why, in a story like “Lighthouse Blues” we have sentences like ‘It had to be ghosts. The ghosts of Captain Rickard and Alan Rickard’. Any adult reader has already worked this out by section five. And so have the young readers, probably. But young readers like this confirmed. They were right! They feel smart. In a story for older readers, this sort of explanation might be considered ‘overexplanation’, and edited out.
Don’t play it too cool. Don’t trust us to figure it out if you can’t trust us to figure it out. Always try to think of any other interpretation that your reader may have. When in doubt, spell it out.
Paul Jennings doesn’t lampshade coincidence. He makes the most of it. That is a feature of the tall tale. Almost all of his stories contain an element of unbelievable coincidence. Or, to be kind, we could call it ‘non-mimetic’ coincidence. (Events in a story don’t even try to emulate how the real world works.) The events of “Greensleeves” rely heavily on comical levels of coincidence, reminiscent of a fairytale.
Jennings is using “fairytale logic” and also fairytale archetypes. Mothers are often dead. The boy main character is most often reminiscent of the underdog third son. Virtue is richly rewarded by some unseen force.
Oftentimes the Battle sequence is a prearranged competition (“Birdman”, “Wunderpants”, “Little Squirt”) in which boys big struggle for prestige and dominance. The underdog will win after previously stumbling upon some magic. It might be a speech in front of the class rather than a competition (“Without A Shirt”), but the story structure is the same.
Ticking clocks come in various forms, but Jennings likes to make use of a magical piece of equipment which only lasts for a certain number of times or a certain length of time. (Super glue which only sticks for two hours; a lie detector that only works seven times.) This, too, is from fairytales. A genie grants three wishes, etc.
If a ghost is going to appear, often there’s a character who appears first to explain the backstory of the ghost. (The police officer in “A Good Tip For Ghosts”, the annoying girl classmate in “Cracking Up”.) This utilises the trick of having characters talk about an intriguing character before that character appears on the scene.
In a Paul Jennings story the planning step isn’t necessarily an obvious step in the direction of fulfilling the main character’s desire. For instance, a boy wants to prove a flying dog exists. Instead of making a plan to that effect, he goes along with his father to buy ice-cream. A boy wants to get out of trouble for ruining his mother’s precious notebook. The grandfather just happens to turn up so he goes along on a frog-finding mission with him. This goes against how most writers cover the plan phase of a story. But in a way, it’s more mimetic for a child audience. A low mimetic child hero doesn’t have great executive functioning, and neither does the typical reader. Kids like this aren’t up to making plans. Instead, everything fits together as if by fate. The boys in these stories fulfil their desires, but often it’s through no good planning of their own. These white boys get what they want through sheer ‘dumb luck’, as Professor McGonnagal might say. (And I do say ‘white boy’ for a reason. We accept that kind of privilege in white boy characters.)
SETTING OF PAUL JENNINGS SHORT STORIES
Magical items appear without explanation. Magic simply is. In common with fairytales, we are given the very basics, then left to imagine the rest. In “Birdscrap”, Jennings doesn’t bother going into backstory of why a pair of rubies are significant. They just are. We know they are special precisely because the main characters are looking for them. The item with magic attached is common in fairytale and children’s stories but we sometimes see it in stories for adults, such as Annie Proux’s “A Pair of Spurs”.
A magical item will help the main character achieve their goal, but first they need to learn how to use it. The magical item will lead them through a series (probably two) humiliating gag scenes before helping with the goal. (“Birdman”, “The Mouth Organ”, “Spaghetti Pig-out”). This avoids the trap of magical items all writers need to skirt around — the character needs to save the day, not the magic. This magical item might be a machine typical of 1980s technology, like the VCR of “Spaghetti Pig-out”. A modern audience may not have seen the rewind function in action. More to the point, many modern remote controls (e.g. PS4) don’t need to be pointed directly at the machine.
Fantasy creatures appear, special rubies exist, and mundane objects have a fantastical backstory. In this respect, Paul Jennings is the kiddie equivalent of Stephen King. For instance, both Jennings and King made use of a monster inside a drain, around the same time. The everyday world is simply a veneer masking terror below. They both make use of the snail under the leaf setting.
Jennings tends to give a ‘standout detail’ rather than creating a rounded picture. One of the more lengthy examples is the description of the annoying little helper called Snookle, who turns up inside a milk bottle. ‘All I could see was a large pair of gloomy eyes. He must have had a body but it was nowhere to be seen. The eyes simply floated in the air about fifteen centimetres above the bottom of the bottle.’
Overall, there’s a distinctly Australian feel to the settings (of course). This mapped equally well onto my New Zealand childhood, with its strong beach culture and houses which tend to be near the sea. Beaches hide buried treasure. Where the land meets the sea is often used in stories to evoke that liminal sense of where fantasy meets reality.
A form of magic beloved of Paul Jennings is the magic which takes over control of a boy’s body. (“Without A Shirt”, “Birdman”)
A similar form of magic is when a boy feels compelled to do as a magic item tells him. (“On The Bottom”, “Eyes Knows”)
The typical reader is an 8-10 year old, and the typical age of a main character is 14-16. This affords the characters more freedom. Some characters are younger than that. It seems to depend on whether there’s a romantic element. If Jennings needs a romance plot, he’ll age the main character up.
Wish fulfilment in Paul Jennings stories cover a large repeating territory: the wish to be respected (especially by girls), the wish to have money or treasure, to fly, to solve a mystery by your very own detective work, to have super powers, to find a magic item which solves a large problem.
Main characters are overwhelmingly boys. These boys are low-mimetic heroes according to the scale proposed by Northrop Frye. These boys are slightly more hapless, stupid, unobservant than the reader. This creates empathy, and we also laugh at them. We feel smarter than they are for working things out before they do.
Paul Jennings gets the parents out of the way and he doesn’t care how he does it. (The parents in Come Back Gizmo have gone out and haven’t even told their son where they’ve gone.) Jennings can get rid of adults suddenly with a one-sentence explanation. Or, we simply accept that parents aren’t there. In fairytale tradition, parents might have died in a car crash.
Adult opponents are often authority figures (principals, teachers, mean nurses, cranky neighbours). The meanest will receive punishment at the end, with vengeful plot ‘twists’.
Nasty opponents are both nasty and illogical. For instance, a nasty teacher has a precious plant, yet entrusts the care of it to his students each night so it doesn’t get covered in dust while the cleaners are doing their jobs (“Cracking Up”).
Jennings likes the archetype of the “little man” (described thus) who appears out of nowhere to serve whatever purpose Jennings sees fit. The “little man” in Come Back Gizmo appears to say the main character’s dog has been found. The “little man” in “Box Strap Flyer” appears as a trickster to outwit another trickster. Why does Jennings describe these men as “little”? Because they are meant to work mostly invisibly, behind the scenes, popping in occasionally to interfere with the machinations of a mystery.
When girls appear, they are most often girl archetypes (beautiful bitches, blonde sexual objects, wimpy, annoying sisters). They are therefore most often an opponent, romantic or potentially romantic, despite lack of interest on their part. When there are no girls at all in the story (“The Paw Thing”) Jennings doesn’t have the opportunity to muck it up.
Even adult women are a continuation of the female maturity principle, in which men and boys embark on these wacky, dangerous plans while the women tut-tut, oblivious to the fantasy world around them. In “Birdman” the mother is in a strop with the father because she thinks the flying competition is too dangerous. In “Spaghetti Pig-out” the mother gets into a strop because the father has bought a dodgy video down at the pub, but the father is always vindicated, because these machines and tricks always turn out to fix a big problem. Crazy dads are rewarded. Sensible mums are proven wrong to be sensible, every time.
Because this is the 1980s, the mothers are the ones calling their kids in for tea. The dads are the ones going out to work. This is believable for the 1980s, but my own mother went out to work in the 1980s, and so did the mothers of most of my friends. So Jennings was still behind in his parental gender roles.
Characters are often symbolically named e.g. a dog called Ripper who rips holes in your pants, or Chomper, a ghost who (it is revealed) searches the tip each night in search of his false teeth. The big, bad opponent in a story is most likely to be symbolically named in this way. The Every Boy gets more of a classic white boy name.
The son or daughter of the mayor is likely to be corrupt.
Inversions are utilised as gags. For instance, a boy and dog switch bodies (Gizmo Come Back) or a father and dog switch bodies (“Birdman”). (See also: Inversion does not equal subversion.)
Typical of men of his era, Jennings fails to subvert some troubling, misogynistic tropes. Instead, his stories serve to keep girl characters subdued and under control. Yet he is able to subvert other kinds of authority by making the most of the carnivalesque. (“Lucky Lips” is perhaps the worst of the lot, with a carnivalesque, gross-out and also rapey set of scenarios leading to a disturbing climax, not dissimilar to the controversial pilot episode of Black Mirror.)
Paul Jennings uses fat kids as the bully character. This was very common in the 1980s. Fat boys were either enemies or pathetic. In modern stories, the fat boy is still sidekick to the main character Every Boy, though he’s often a nicer person than everyone else. This isn’t really an inversion until fat boys get to be the stars of their own stories, which aren’t about the experience of being fat. In The Cabbage Patch Wars, two dads with beer bellies engage in a weight loss competition, in an era before Biggest Loser was a thing.
There’s a disproportionate number of redheaded kids in Paul Jennings stories. Like most children’s writers, he tends to use red hair as a ‘stand out’ attribute — by giving a kid red hair he is saying ‘keep an eye on this character’. Jennings uses a red headed kid for the bully in “A Good Tip For Ghosts” but the red headed kid is a main character in “Ice Maiden”, and despite hating red hair himself, he ends up falling in love with a red headed girl. Also, his red hair saves his life. So Jennings is trying to tell us that red hair isn’t so bad in one story, yet uses red hair however he sees fit in other stories.
If an evil person is introduced, and that evil person is mistreating others you can bet Paul Jennings will exact punishment on that character, even if it requires a final section of the story to do just that. In other words, he ties off every other strand in the story, and it might end there, but then he goes back in for the punishment. These stories are famous for being about anarchy and fun, but they are conservative in their values.
Look closely at these stories and you’ll find they are basically very conservative, and sometimes clearly didactic. “The Busker” is about how you can’t buy friendship. Yet in “Spaghetti Pig-out”, the main character buys friends with a magical device. So stories contradict each other in their moralism.
The idea that bad people do bad things and also get away with it is not part of the Paul Jennings setting, although it is part of real life.
Stories which revolve around a reordering of hierarchy are so common, not just in the Paul Jennings oeuvre, that we rarely stop to think about how to completely subvert the hierarchy itself. As Matt Bird says about Battle sequences in general, at first the main character is socially challenged (usually via humiliation). This is absolutely true of Paul Jennings stories. We are lately starting to see a pushback on this fundamental idea. Australian feminist philosopher Kate Manne says it best in her critique of Jordan Peterson’s viral “12 Rules For Life”:
Critiquing these hierarchical structures and finding, when possible, a way to live outside of them in more co-operative ways are obvious alternatives for human beings about which Peterson says little.
I have exactly the same thing to say about Paul Jennings, who has nothing to say about how to live outside hierarchies, or about dismantling the hierarchies altogether. Instead, story after story fulfils the wish to move from underdog to king pin, often by dumb luck and with magical help rather than by achieving any special insight.
The writing style is conversational rather than literary.
A strong 1980s, 1990s Australian voice comes through, in emulation of the ‘True, blue Aussie’ which certain politicians like to emulate, even today. This voice is in itself a kind of fictional caricature, which isn’t to say that certain people don’t make full use of it as a character gag. Mick Gould who stars in Australia’s 2019 Married At First Sight also uses this distinctly Australian larrikin persona for enduring comic value and audience empathy, so it hasn’t gone away. This voice is full of idiomatic expressions, mixed metaphors for comic effect, telling it like it is, positioning oneself as hapless and unpretentious, and making use of borderline inappropriate language (insofar as a children’s book will allow, hence “Birdscrap”, which can be explained away as “Bird Scrap” rather than its real meaning of “Birds’ Crap”).
Emotions are described matter-of-factly in a single sentence e.g. ‘I felt embarrassed,’ ‘I felt silly‘.
Physiological reactions are comical — they could easily happen in a Cartoon Network show. Knees knocking, obvious blushing, teeth chattering.
Titles such as “Birdscrap” are word play and also taboo.
Readers take delight in upending authority. This kind of carnivalesque humouris utilised across many picture books, which makes these hi-lo readers a natural progression for young readers. This type of humour is still very popular here in Australian children’s publishing, with the Treehouse creators saying that children crave ‘irreverent’ humour. Irreverent is another way of saying the same thing. Terry Denton and Andy Griffiths also talk about the importance of ‘anarchy‘, and this applies equally to Paul Jennings, who has surely been influential on their work.
Humour has been classified into ‘positive’ and ‘negative’. Men and boys are more likely to use ‘negative’ humour— to belittle, to humiliate etc. Paul Jennings stories are far more likely to belittle and humiliate, with a few exceptions e.g. “The Mouth Organ” (in which, no coincidence, he chooses a girl for his narrator).
Jennings makes use of gross-out elements. (A sea of bird poo, a creature picking a boy’s nose for him, being stuck in a skip full of rubbish, a dug up skeleton etc.)
In tall story tradition Jennings plays around with scale and size. (This is also a feature of myths e.g. Greek myth.) For example, a shack is surrounded by a sea of seagull poo, a tooth grows bigger than the man to whom it belongs. Jennings understands that by playing around with scale, he creates resonant imagery for the reader. Other examples: ‘A pumpkin so big it took four men to lift it’, ‘peas as big as golf balls’, ‘beans were as long as your arm’, so many flies they black out the sun. Extreme stench is utilised in several different stories. In the humour taxonomy, this is gross-out overlaid with hyperbole.
Related to big things as small, small things as big, creatures and things operate in the way we don’t expect. Oftentimes, it’s a simple inversion. For instance, in Sucked In, we are led to expect that a cat is about to eat the escaped appendix. The illustration shows a massive cat (so massive the cat is partly off the page) with the much smaller appendix in a vulnerable position beneath the cat. But turn the page and the appendix eats the cat. This is ‘man bites dog’ humour, funny because it subverts expectations.
Bad smells are a common feature of Paul Jennings stories, especially if they overwhelm an entire town. (“Greensleeves” is one example)
Humiliation of the main character is often a large component of the humour. We empathise with the main character because he is in an underdog embarrassing situation. He comes up trumps at the end, not because of his own superpowers coming to the fore, but because the gods are smiling upon him. He remains a low-mimetic hero (Northrop Frye’s classification).
Disembodied body parts are commonly utilised throughout Paul Jennings stories. False teeth are the star of several different narratives (“A Good Tip For Ghosts, The Cabbage Patch War). In Sucked In, an appendix in a jar is the star. We have a dismembered finger in “On The Bottom”.
Nudity is both funny and humiliating (cringe humour). Bums especially so (“On The Bottom”). Mention of exposed genitalia would be considered inappropriate for this age group, but we do have an entire story about a pissing contest.
HOW DOES JENNINGS TWIST HIS TALES?
The big selling point of a Paul Jennings collection is the twist-in-the-tale. You’ll find this promise on the advertising copy. This seems to be what impresses readers the most.
Some of the stories contain two twists: One in the Level 0 story, another in the Level 1, meta story.
Some of the ‘twists’ only work on a child audience. The sophisticated adult reader sees them a mile out. Paul Jennings does not attempt a dual audience, and that largely explains his success: His stories for kids are really for kids. On the other hand, sometimes the reward is in knowing exactly what’s coming. There’s a visceral delight in that.
Christopher Vogler has pointed out that ‘twist endings’ are most often sardonic, bitter, wry and I would add ‘vengeful’. It is much more difficult to write a twist ending that does not invoke these negative (but satisfying) emotions in us. A rare exception is the famous short story by O. Henry, “The Gift of the Magi”. Paul Jennings doesn’t do ‘kind’ twist endings. (Twist endings which say something lovely about humankind are very hard to pull off.)
Another twist Paul Jennings does NOT do: The scary supernatural creature turns out to be no such thing. Once Jennings creates his scary opposition, that opposition is real within the setting. The ‘and it wasn’t really real’ twist is not satisfying. It’s a close cousin of ‘And then I woke up and it was all a dream‘.
Jennings reveals that an authority figure has the same desires as the kids, proving himself not so high and mighty after all. (“Pink Bow Tie”). This is a carnivalesque trick because it upends the adult-child hierarchy.
A storyteller spins a yarn which the young viewpoint character fully believes. The twist is that the storyteller is full of yarns, and the existence of the second yarn disproves the veracity of the main yarn. (“One Shot Toothpaste”.) This is a tall tale trick.
A character with a certain strong character trait (e.g. fearlessness) goes through an experience which serves to invert that trait (e.g. he is now scared of not scary things) (“Inside Out”). This draws on the mechanism of irony. The reader expects a character arc to be: Child learns to conquer his fears.
A mysterious storyteller who tells his tale in third person is revealed to have been telling the story about himself all along. (“The Busker”)
A fantastic tale is not fantasy at all, then leaves off with a detail or explanation that suggests the fantastic tale might be fantastic, or it might not. (“Souperman”)
A situation is resolved, seemingly forever, but then it is revealed in the final paragraph that this is a repeating story and is likely to happen again. Paul Jennings gets a lot of mileage out of this one. (“One Shot Toothpaste”, “The Gum Leaf War”, “Come Back Gizmo”, Sucked In) Often, the first and main story happens to a boy, then the next (untold) story is about to happen to a girl. DreamWorks did the same in its movie adaptation of Boss Baby. (They probably think this counts as gender diversity.)
A Holy Grail object of desire is revealed to have been right there, staring them in the face all along. (“Birdscrap”)
A villain opponent is revealed to be more of an ally, and ends up helping the young character get with they want. Sometimes this is a ghost, who seems scary at first but is revealed to be kind. (“Birdscrap”, “Skeleton On The Dunny”)
An opponent with a formidable reputation turns out to be much less scary once met face to face (“A Good Tip For Ghosts”).
An opponent for the child viewpoint character turns out to be an ally for another character, because everyone’s needs are different. (“Snookle”)
A weird situation is revealed to be supernatural in origin, and has a classic horror story resolution (“Without a shirt”)
A smart trickster outwits an evil trickster (“Box Strap Flyer”, The Paw Thing)
The reader thinks the worst that could happen has already happened, but then something outrageous and unimaginable is about to happen next. This scene may be so risqué it is left entirely for the reader to imagine. (“Lucky Lips”). This is a popular type of humour shared by many comedians, e.g. by Oliver Jeffers in his picture book Stuck.
An object which is terrible turns out to have a silver lining for the main character. (“Cow Dung Custard”)
A character accomplishes something using a certain trick which is not revealed to the reader until the final sentence. (“Wunderpants”) This is how heist stories work. The character makes plans behind the scenes. The character has a realisation midway through the story and this is not related to the audience.
Rather than a twist, Jennings sometimes uses the inverse: Everything in the story leads to an expected and satisfying payoff… or rather, payback. In “Birdscrap”, the story ends at the point where the highly unempathetic opponent is about to land headfirst in manure. In “Spaghetti Pig-out” we wait for the magic remote to work against the bullies.
After a psychological horror sequence, a character realises what they need to do to get themselves out of a horrible situation, so they do it and it works via off-the-page magic. (“The Velvet Throne”)
To emphasise his twist, Jennings sometimes gives us the ‘twist’, swiftly followed by the answer to a mystery he has set up. This feels extra satisfying, and can make up for a less-than-stellar twist. He does this in The Cabbage Patch War. We learn in quick succession that the person accused of stealing the cabbage is not the real thief. Then we learn that one character won a weightloss competition by removing his false teeth.
A character is killed, then brought back to life with hitherto unseen magic (“Frozen Stiff”).
Sometimes a main character works something out before the reader does, then sets about to fix a situation. (Russell works out his mean teacher’s smile has been stolen before we do in “Cracking Up”, “Know All”.)