Court In The West Eighties by Carson McCullers

Have you ever lived in close quarters with strangers? Perhaps you went out of your way not to know these people, but in the name of etiquette rather than aloofness. There’s something discomfiting about living in a stranger’s pocket. Like commuters on a packed train, we avoid each other’s gaze.

Failure to know our neighbours is said to be a modern ailment — “In the olden days communities were stronger!” we are told, as evidence of modern societal breakdown. But was that ever true of the cities?

Whenever humans are forced to live in close proximity a tacit rule plays out: we pretend to be less proximal than we really are. Desmond Morris wrote about this in The  Human Zoo (1969). In cities, we think of other people as trees. There’s no way we can stop and say hello to everyone. Yet if we were in the forest and saw another human for the first time in days, we’d stop and have a conversation.

This rule of ‘polite ignoring’ has been in play ever since humans have lived in close proximity. Try walking through a city and saying hello to everyone. People will assume you’re not right in the head.

This rule applies to our neighbours. The closer your neighbours, the more the rule applies. I bet it has always applied. In lieu of evidence from the Stone Age, today I offer evidence from the 1930s — a short story by Carson McCullers, born 1917: “Court in the West Eighties”.

STORYWORLD OF “COURT IN THE WEST EIGHTIES”

  • New York, 1930s, and as the title says — in the West Eighties. This is not a story that could have been told in my home country of New Zealand, say, because 1930s New Zealand didn’t have the population density of New York.
  • The story begins in Spring — a time of new beginnings — and also warm enough to allow windows open. When the narrator says ‘I cannot understand why I was so unconscious of the way in which things began to change’ she is ostensibly talking about the changing of the seasons, but she is also describing her own gradual epiphanies about life and human nature. Epiphany is the wrong word, in fact, because an epiphany is sudden. There is no ‘epiphany’ here — more like a realisation akin to ‘the thing, sooty-gray patches of snow disappearing’. McCullers is using the seasons as a metaphor for the range of character change (not much, and slowly).
  • The narrator is living in cheap housing as a student — ‘Four walls of little rooms’. In 2018 The New York Times made a time capsule which included 1930s New York. But I’m having a bit of trouble visualising exactly how the narrator’s court and rooms are laid out.
  • The Great Depression was the worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialised world (so far), lasting from the stock market crash of 1929 to 1939. Though the depression is not mentioned directly, it is almost certainly the reason why the husband next door is out of work. McCullers makes sure to introduce economic woes early on by mentioning the friend back home who can’t go to university (despite being a natural academic) because his father is out of work. This was a time of mass unemployment. Adults who’d never experienced starvation as children went hungry for the first time — an historically unusual form of hunger, and one which comes on the back of entitlement. Frustrated entitlement leads to anger.
  • The narrator’s eye functions as a floating camera. The ‘camera’ of the viewpoint narrator functions like a fish swimming through water. She can see details such as stockings in close up — enough to see that only the feet have been washed. She also sees her neighbours as long-shots, with full bodies included in the composition.

My spatial imagination thereby fails me. I end up imagining a dwelling like a painting by Cinta Vidal:

I’d like to find a photo which shows how the real apartments of the upper eighties would’ve been laid out. In the meantime, Vidal’s Escher-esque painting is actually pretty good as a metaphorical representation. As interpersonal dynamics play out, the narrator’s viewpoint shifts until she is no longer sure how the world works, or what happiness looks like for a woman.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “COURT IN THE WEST EIGHTIES”

This story is a good example of ‘main character subversion‘. The first paragraph leads us to expect a somewhat eventful story about the red-headed man, but as we eventually find out, there is no real story to this guy:

During all this time I can remember seeing only a few incomplete glimpses of this man living across from me — his red hair through the frosty window glass, his hand reaching out on the sill to bring in his food, a flash of his calm drowsy face as he looked out on the court. I paid no more attention to him than I did to any of the other dozen or so people in that building. I did not see anything unusual about him and had no idea that I would come to think of him as I did.

“Court in the West Eighties” by Carson McCullers

This subversion is helped along by the fact that, in the history of storytelling, red hair marks out a character as somehow special — a person things happen to. They stand out. But this man’s red hair is ironically without significance.

It would be interesting to know how Carson McCullers would identify if she were born 80 or 90 years later. Would she be gender expansive, gender non-binary, bi romantic ace? McCullers was certainly not an uncritical follower of the strict gender binary of her era. This short story serves as a critique of accepted feminine norms, about a narrator who, looking back on herself from a slightly removed distance, sees that she was naive about gender roles when she first came to New York.

SHORTCOMING

We are told directly of the narrator’s sex and age:

I have often thought that when you are an eighteen year old girl, and can’t fix it so you look any older than your age, it is harder to get work than at any other time.

Carson McCullers

The young narrator is developing ideas — or merely articulating preconceived notions — about femininity.

Julianne Newmark

When establishing the Psychological Shortcoming it’s often useful to ask what a main character is wrong about. (Julianne puts it so well):

We know [the narrator’s] situation in New York City is somewhat unique, as a young woman far away from home in the city alone for her studies, and we know that she perceives the young married couple as very much in love and “happy,” in the early pages of her story. She thus reinforces the traditional trajectory for a woman’s life: marriage and then child-rearing. These she equates with “happiness.”

Julianne Newmark

Susan Faludi wrote an entire book about this, but as it specifically applied in America after the 9/11 attacks:

when we base our security on a mythical male strength that can only increase itself against a mythical female weakness — we should know that we are exhibiting the symptoms of a lethal, albeit curable, cultural affliction.

All of women’s aspirations — whether for education, work or any form of self-determination — ultimately rest on their ability to decide whether and when to bear children.

Susan Faludi, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women

However, the terrorist attacks only served to strengthen a phenomenon already in force. The Shortcoming of this narrator at the beginning of the story is the personification of a societal one: Don’t sit back and yearn for men to save whatever is wrong with the world. Failure to step up is the narrator’s Moral Shortcoming.

DESIRE

The narrator has been brought up to rely on men to step in and save the day.  In short, the narrator wants a man to step in as patriarch of the apartment complex.

This is so she doesn’t have to do anything herself, other than exist.

This is a cultural comment on accepted gender divisions of the 1930s, but it’s still in play today, evident less at a household level perhaps, but still most alarmingly evident in politics. I’m talking about the idea we’re seeing around the world right now — that ‘good people’ need a ‘strong man’ leader to save everyone from those foreign, evil men.

OPPONENT

As viewpoint character, the narrator of this story is not the character involved directly in the web of Opposition. Like us, she bears witness.

The violent, surface opposition exists between the husband and his wife, then between the cat-like man and the cellist.

The married man above the cellist is perhaps using the cellist as a proxy wife upon whom he exacts his deep-seated misogyny. (It would be too much against his morals to attack the woman he married for his woes — easier to criticise some other woman, objectified as ‘loose’.)

Who is the married man avenging, really, when he yells at the cellist to be quiet even though she is in the middle of being manually strangulated? (By the way, despite what movies tell us, this often leads to real, long-term, life-changing physical injury.)

The married man’s real — though unacknowledged — opponent is a society in which men lose masculine privilege when suddenly unable to provide economically for their families due to forces beyond their control.

It’s dangerous to read too much into connections between fiction and its author’s life, but I was interested to learn that as a youngster, Carson McCullers would practice Bach fugues on the piano for five hours a day. I suspect that puts the author’s sympathies more firmly with the cello player than with the viewpoint narrator.

PLAN

Directly linked to the narrator’s moral shortcoming — that she waits around for a man to save the day — is the fact that she makes no Plan. Her only plan is to observe and hope.

In this case, other characters in a story must make plans, though ‘plan’ is a bit of a weird word when describing actions that take place out of rage — or perhaps it wasn’t rage. Perhaps when the husband raped the young cellist he was undertaking a well thought-out plan to keep her in her place. It’s a myth that murderous, violent people ‘just snap’. Often their attack is cool, calm and well-calculated, more like Hannibal Lecter than The Incredible Hulk.

BIG STRUGGLE

On first reading I wondered if there had been a murder, and that the sounds refer to manual strangulation. Did you think that, too?

It is soon revealed that the Battle sequence culminated in assault, probably sexual. This was carried out by the cellist’s male visitor — described only as a cat (who comes and goes in the night). The other men nearby either shout at her to be quiet (the married man) or look on, doing nothing (the red-headed man).

(Cats are very useful to storytellers. When femme coded characters are described as cats, the result is often sexualisation. When masculo coded characters are described as cats, it’s often more reminiscent of a big cat who can kill you.)

ANAGNORISIS

The narrator does not undergo a complete Anagnorisis, choosing to continue with her belief that the red-headed man will still save them all from bad in the world. But now she is actively ‘choosing’ to believe this, and you can’t ‘choose’ to believe something unless you know there’s more underneath, right? And since the narrator is telling this story herself, she must understand that the red-headed man is not going to save anyone — that no one is going to save anyone else, because we are all caught up in our own small day-to-day lives.

This type of short story ending is therefore in keeping with Literary Impressionism, because the Impressionists didn’t believe people changed all that much, and if they did, it was only very slowly, not in epiphanies.

As Julianne Newmark explains at her blog, the narrator’s arc is shown to the reader by the motif of borders:

McCullers’s story is, though not as overtly, a story concerned with a woman’s development (the narrator is in the city to be educated), with borders (the distinctions that reverberate in McCullers’s work between North and South), and with other kinds of borders . . . such as the physical ones that separate her from her neighbors in the apartment building, such as the “age” ones that make it hard for an eighteen-year-old woman to get a job in New York City, as she says, and the class borders on which the narrator comments upon her realization that her married neighbors are becoming increasingly “poor” even though their building is not a building occupied by poor people and it does not look shabby at all from the outside. This young narrator is learning a lot about the transgression of borders and the maintenance of them in this story, even though she doesn’t comment on this directly.

Julianne Newmark

To comment on them directly would mean she has experienced a complete emotional arc. But the narrator is still young at time of writing. Carson McCullers only lived until the age of 50, so never experienced the long hindsight of old age.

NEW SITUATION

The reader can extrapolate that the red-headed man will go to his next place and live in a very similar fashion. People are creatures of habit.

The young woman who was assaulted will continue living with trauma. She has already changed her habits, symbolised by the fact that she no longer dries her stockings where others can see them. (This simple detail is psychologically telling — she blames herself for the rape, at least a little. And she thinks that if she is careful enough, it won’t ever happen again. Another form of self-delusion.)

The narrator’s fate remains less clear: Self-delusion is to her huge psychological advantage, after all. I am somewhat envious of those who successfully convince themselves everything is fine even though it’s clearly not (e.g. climate change deniers, ‘egalitarian’ women who eschew ‘feminism’, believing gender equality has been achieved). There are huge penalties for seeing injustice at close range, especially if this insight leads us to action.

We are highly rewarded for conforming to gender expectations as well. There is a lot at stake for this young woman narrator if she were to fully realise and accept her own gender equality, and the idea that perhaps it was herself — not just the Jesus figure of the red-headed man — who could have done something to help the cello player that night.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

FOR THE ANAGNORISIS

I am fascinated by people’s ability to choose self-delusion. (Some better than others.) Although I only read McCullers’ story this week, I made use of the same Anagnorisis arc in our picture book app Midnight Feast (2014). The main character Roya looks out the window, sees that she is surrounded by homeless and starving people, then makes the active choice to retreat into her imagination, which includes imagining they don’t exist.

FOR THE NARRATION

Contrast this narrator with the narrative voice of Alice Munro’s short stories, in which elderly women often look back on their younger years with a full understanding of who they were then and how they were shaped by their environments. This is then juxtaposed with the clarity of hindsight they have now. Clarity of hindsight is evident across Munro’s work even when the narration is (close) third person (rather than first, as it is here).

FOR THE STORYWORLD

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window is also the story of someone quietly observing his neighbours, eventually witnessing a crime. In the trailer for this 1954 film, notice how the camera moves like a fish swimming through water. Again, this is ocean symbolism at play, showing that the city is a dangerous food chain where bad things can suddenly happen.

Carson McCullers herself was partially paralysed by strokes by the time she was thirty. I imagine this made her an acute observer of her neighbours at time, similar to the character in Rear Window, who is laid up with leg injury.

FOR THE NARRATIVE VIEWPOINT

We remain fascinated by viewpoint narrators spying in on other people’s lives. The Girl On The Train was the tentpole psychological thriller of 2015, and led to many more like it.

Header photo by The New York Public Library

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

WHEN YOU REACH ME REBECCA STEAD

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead is ten years old now, published 2009. I’ve seen this middle grade novel described as magical realism, though for knotty political reasons we might prefer to call it fabulism. It is also science fiction and grounded in the real world. It packs a lot into 40k words.

There are many things to admire about When You Reach Me. But I’m not a fan of the title. I keep getting it wrong. (I keep thinking it’s When I Reach You.) It was originally called You Are Here, which I like better. (That would match the cover better, too.)

NARRATION

First, I admire the 12-year-old-ness of it. Take the following passage, which demonstrates the narrator is right there in a 12-year-old’s headspace.

“It’s okay.” I was so grateful that she had something to apologize for that it didn’t really occur to me to think about how it had actually made me feel. But I have thought about it since then. It didn’t make me feel good.

I’ve heard this style of narration was sort of invented by Katherine Paterson. I’ve seen it described as ‘third-person limited omniscient narrative’, which basically means the narrator is looking back on fairly recent incidents. A little time has passed, but not much. They’re still a kid telling the story. We know it’s not an adult looking back telling the story because ‘it didn’t make me feel good’ is a kind of emotionally naive thing to say. An adult would be more articulate about it.

Yet at the same time, the narrator is saying something universal and true.

REBECCA STEAD AND KATHERINE PATERSON

Speaking of Katherine Paterson, Bridge To Terabithia has The Chronicles of Narnia as a possible intertext and When You Reach Me has the very clear intertext of A Wrinkle In Time. Are young readers expected to be familiar with A Wrinkle In Time? A children’s story with a strong intertext must exist as complete in its own right. No knowledge of Madeleine L’Engle’s work is needed here, but those who’ve read it will get more out of this one.

I do think readers who haven’t read and enjoyed Madeleine L’Engle‘s A Wrinkle in Time can enjoy this book, but I would suggest reading L’Engle’s book before picking up this one; it will mean so much more.

Goodreads reviewer who also loved A Wrinkle In Time as a kid

Stead was inspired by Madeline L’Engle’s classic and initially only mentioned it briefly but her editor advised her to make more of it if she wanted to keep it in at all.

Stead was aware that she did not want A Wrinkle in Time to have too big an influence on When You Reach Me. Keeping this in mind, she reread A Wrinkle in Time through the perspective of different characters, which enabled her to develop new connections and ideas in her own work.

Wikipedia
TIME TRAVEL

Even better than reading A Wrinkle In Time, I’d say it’s helpful for young readers to have considered the possibility of time travel. That is the most complex part of this novel. Time is presented as like a book with all the pages filled in. (Actually, the analogy used  in the story is a ring with diamond chips around it.)

Butchering it badly, the idea is this: we simply move through time, but we exist on each page forever. This is a mind-bending concept to consider. Brian Greene, Marcus Chown and other popular science writers are fascinating on this topic. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6yMiUq7W_xI

(I see the potential for fascinating classroom discussions. linked to the science curriculum.)

GENUINE SUBVERSIONS

I also love that Rebecca Stead sets up archetype characters and then subverts them. She doesn’t simply invert them — she properly subverts them. The Alpha Bitch turns out to be human and not that different from the main character. A bully character is set up then dismantled as a nerdy type.

Connected to these subversions: By the conclusion of the novel it is clear that sometime there’s no grand fatalistic reason behind certain actions. The inciting incident, in which Sal is punched in the head, had no good reason behind it. It had a stupid reason behind it. The message, therefore, is that violence is senseless. (Sometimes it really is.)

But here’s what most critics have admired the most: The way all the time travel fits together, and how one clue leads directly to the next in this mystery, science fiction plot. There must be something especially gratifying for readers about that flow-on feeling you get from some stories, even if it’s only subconscious.

CHARACTERS OF WHEN YOU REACH ME

Stead doesn’t introduce the main child character’s name right away. In fact, we’re several chapters in before we know it. This has the effect of turning the main character into the Every Child, in which the readers can easily map themselves onto the fictional proxy.

Eventually we learn her name, at the beginning of chapter three:

  • Miranda — so named because it stands for people’s rights. A standout quirk: Miranda reads and re-reads A Wrinkle In Time. She carries around a battered copy.
  • Mother — Uptight, small (suggesting a nervous disposition), with a large social conscience. She wanted to be a lawyer but works in a lawyer’s office. In this era (she had her daughter in the late 1960s) it was very hard for women to become lawyers. Women were infantalised by the dominant culture. This mother now works in a lawyer’s office. They are not super wealthy, because they do lots of legal work pro bono. (A Save the Cat set up.) Miranda having access to legal help comes in handy later. (If you’d like to ruin children’s books for yourself, take notice of the parents’ profession.) The mother has her own character arc. That she only fits children’s clothes is a telling detail — the mother is childlike. Her constant rejection of the perfectly good, very nice Richard is a sign that she is yet to grow up. By the end of the story the mother is wearing business attire. Richard comments how good she looks. This change of clothing is symbolic of the mother’s own coming-of-age. Both mother and daughter undergo a character arc. You see this in the film Lady Bird, in Pixar’s Frozen, Thirteen and Freaky Friday. (Mother and daughter double reversals are common.)
  • Richard — Mother’s boyfriend of two years, so basically Miranda’s step-father. German. A lawyer, also with a strong social conscience. Stead gives him the quirk of one leg shorter than the other, and a constant reference to this which marks him out as not actually perfect. He sits at the table reading the newspaper (like lots of children’s book fathers) and is more laid back than the mother (like most children’s book parents).
  • Robbie B. — kid at school who says Miranda was named after a kidnapper. (I looked it up — he means Ernesto Miranda.)
  • Belle — owns ‘Belle’s Market’ near Miranda’s house. The produce she sells there isn’t great. Belle is an older friend and mentor to Miranda. Rebecca Stead has populated Miranda’s life with a network of people across the age ranges — probably more age variety than would be typical for a twelve-year-old. But this helps to expand the time. Annie Proulx does the exact same trick in many of her short stories, especially the Wyoming ones. She’ll often open a story about one character by giving us backstory about how he’s the fourth generation to own this land, etc. This is very deliberate on Proulx’s part, as she’s said so in interviews. In short, children’s writers can also achieve this time-expansion thing by including a wide age-range of characters. This has been happening for a long time, with the inclusion of older mentors and grandparents, even as social networks in Western children’s real lives have, on average, shrunk.
  • Sal — Sal and his Mom Louisa live in the apartment below. Sal ‘used to be’ Miranda’s best friend.
  • Louisa — Louisa works in a nursing home.
  • Mr Nunzi — another resident in the apartment block. Smokes, is careless with it.
  • Mrs Bindocker — the neighbourhood busybody who talks a lot. (A Rachel Lynde character.) Even her name sounds like someone speaking quickly. (Maybe it also reminds me of the word ‘spin doctor’.)
  • The Laughing Man QuackerQuack for short. Or ‘Kicker‘. The local scary guy. I listened to a true crime podcast once about a boy who went missing. One resonant observation: Police should always ask the kids for information. If there’s a weirdo hanging around, it’s likely the kids will know about it even if the adults don’t. When this guy is introduced we don’t know whether he’s going to be an opponent or an ally. Because this is middle grade, I’m going for false opponent who turns out to be an ally. As it turns out, The Laughing Man is a Jesus character in the same way that Leslie Burke is a Jesus character in Bridge to Terabithia, adding to the parallels I see between When You Reach Me and Bridge to Terabithia.
  • The boys by the garage — In a flash back, one of them beats Sal up. Clear bully opponents. The one in the green army coat punches Sal. Later we learn his name is Marcus and he goes to the same school as them.
  • Marcus Heilbruner is not your typical storybook bully. He likes to read books about maths. He believes time travel is possible. His bully characterisation is thereby subverted.
  • Julia — a rich classmate who goes on trips to Switzerland etc. The middle-grade equivalent of an alpha bitch trope. Julia describes her own colouring by referring to her skin and eyes in comparison to foods, which by 2019 is something many women of colour are wishing white people wouldn’t do. (Julia is a girl of colour but she’s been written by a white author.) But how woke were any of us back in the dark ages of 2009?
  • Annemarie — Annemarie’s longtime bestie. But in sixth grade Julia decides to punish Annemarie. Annemarie’s bedroom is covered in pictures of Julia, which reminds me of the Eleanor Estes story — The Hundred Dresses.
  • Alice Evans — the girl who gets picked on most. Gullible but book smart.
  • Dick Clark — the host of the gameshow Winner’s Circle. This is based on a real game show called The Pyramid Game.
  • Mr Tompkin — a teacher at school. Described by Miranda’s mother as a ‘frustrated architect’. The mother is herself a frustrated lawyer, so her thumbnail sketch says as much about her.
  • Wheelie — the school secretary. The students consider her the person who runs the school. She is nicknamed Wheelie because she never seems to get off her castor-wheeled office chair, but simply rolls around. Another quirk of Wheelie: She doesn’t take any shit and she’s precious about people using her stationery, and later, her phone. This adds tension after there’s a ticking clock set-up and Miranda really, really needs to use her notepad, then her phone.
  • Colin — a boy at school who follows Annemarie and Miranda around these days. He is the middle grade romantic interest of Miranda. Miranda wonders if Colin likes her. There’s some non-sexualised touching, like pressing foreheads together. Eventually the reader is rewarded when Colin kisses Miranda.
  • Jimmy — the guy who owns the sandwich place. He hires Colin, Annemarie and Miranda to work for him during their early lunch hour. He’s a schlubby guy but he provides the equivalent of a ‘cafe hub’ (seen in many TV series, especially) where the middle grade kids can legitimately, safely hang out. Well, I doubt this would ever happen in real life. Parents and teachers would be all about the child protection, though I don’t know what it’s like to grow up as a 12-year-old in New York City in the late 1970s. Maybe there really was that much freedom? See also: Lampshading Parental Absence In Children’s Literature. Stead herself has said: “[F]rom age nine, my friends and I were on the streets, walking home, going to each other’s houses, going to the store. I really wanted to write about that: the independence that’s a little bit scary but also a really positive thing in a lot of ways. And I’m not sure that most kids have that today”. This is a good reason why so many contemporary children’s books are set in a time before mobile phones and so-called helicopter parents.
  • Jay Stringer — a kid at school who doesn’t notice anything when he’s reading. Characters like this serve to populate the story authentically. This is why they’re given names, despite being part of the scenery.

STORY STRUCTURE OF WHEN YOU REACH ME

Possibly the best-plotted middle-grade book ever written.

Sam Eddington

There is, quite frankly, a lot of stuff out there to like. So what I have to do here is convey to you just how this book is, pretty much, one of the best children’s books I have ever read.

Betsy Bird
  • Each chapter is headed something like ‘Things That Smell’ or ‘Things You Keep Secret’, which is the structure of the gameshow Miranda’s mother is preparing for. In this way, the mother’s desire to win money at a gameshow is a subplot and structural guide to Miranda’s story — wanting to solve a mystery of notes which seem to come from the future.
  • The chapters are very short, more like micro chapters. There are advantages and disadvantages to doing this. The advantage is that you feel you’re making progress. Structurally, short chapters fit the theme of time as a series of individuated moments. But here’s what one of my Goodreads friends had to say:

I didn’t hate [When You Reach Me], just found it quite hard to read. The chapters are very short which seriously interrupted the flow of the story for me. I understand that this is probably aimed at keeping the interest and attention spans of the target audience (children) but I think it would have been better to extend the chapters and allow the reader the chance to get drawn into the story more.

  • Miranda herself is more of an observer than someone on a hero mission. People around her each have their own desires and plans and she regards her community as a mystery to be solved. Who is the laughing man? Why isn’t her best friend talking to her anymore? Is time travel possible? Why did the bully punch Sal? What is the Queen Bee mean girl planning for her beta? And so on.
  • For the final quarter of the book, the reader is in audience inferior position. We watch Miranda embark upon a mission. She’s in a 1970s assembly, helping Annemarie get to the toilet before she wets herself (a Save the Cat moment which endears her to us). She’s asking Wheelie for paper (we don’t know what for). Miranda has gone from being a fairly passive viewpoint character to being the hero of her own story. This is a subtle but satisfying switch and increases narrative drive as readers head for the climax.

SHORTCOMING

Miranda is the Every Child so her shortcoming is that she has limited freedoms. These kids have quite a lot of freedom, to my mind, being New York City kids and living in a socially connected neighbourhood.

She’s a mimetic hero — not especially good at many things. She’s no good at cutting sandwiches, no matter how many times she does it. But she’s surprisingly good at making origami frogs. Like regular kids, she is still working out her strengths.

Because Miranda is narrating her own story from the near future, she has a little bit more emotional maturity than she had before, but not much. She is a typical twelve-year-old in all respects.

Miranda has her own minor moral shortcomings.

[Rebecca Stead] tied in parts of her childhood into the novel. Besides the laughing man, she included her primary school, her apartment and a sandwich store where she used to work. Stead also added memories of herself acting mean without reason.

Wikipedia

DESIRE

Mystery desireline: Miranda wants to know who is sending her the postcards.

Romantic subplot: She wants to remain best friends with Sal, the boy in a neighbouring apartment. Unfortunately, he doesn’t feel the same way. This is therefore a story about learning to let go of your crushes.

OPPONENT

Rebecca Stead wastes no time in setting up the mystery, which functions, structurally, identically to an opponent. (The unseen opponent is the person sending the postcards.)

The mystery element of this story has a strong visual motif — that of the knot. Richard likes to untangle knots when he’s working on a difficult lawyer problem. Miranda learns this trick from him. Knots as motif endure throughout the story, alongside keys. Miranda’s mother refuses to give Richard a key to their apartment. In the end she does — two keys — tied together with a knot. In a parallel plot thread, Miranda has solved ‘the key’ to the mystery of the Laughing Man, and the symbolism is (literally) tied up.

A bully hierarchy is set up by the author but eventually subverted.

Miranda is often at low key odds with her mother, who is still quite childlike. Richard, on the other hand, is her emotionally mature ally.

Jimmy is an opponent as well as an ally — he provides a safe space for the kids to hang out and work though there is the subplot of him thinking they stole his two dollar bills.

PLAN

Here’s the thing about mimetic, childlike heroes. Paul Jennings does this too. Kids aren’t great at planning unless they have excellent executive functioning. Kids like Miranda don’t so much go about formulating a plan to solve a mystery. They tend to function as reactionaries. Others have the plans — they react. They are good observers, though, which makes them good storytellers.

So, Miranda gets a postcard, reacts. Gets another postcard, reacts. The plans she does make are not in service of solving the mystery. That’ll resolve itself eventually. Contrast a kid ‘hero’ like Miranda with a single-minded cop like Sarah Linden from The Killing.

BIG STRUGGLE

Rebecca Stead uses an interesting technique to dilate the pacing of the death scene. She numbers the events sequentially.

I consider the truck death scene the first part of the Battle.

ANAGNORISIS

The Anagnorisis comes quite early, before the Battle sequence. Miranda has a developmental milestone by realising that she is part of something much bigger. This is achieved by use of what is called The Overview Effect:

Then I sat on the couch and closed my eyes. I pictured the world. I pictured the world millions of years ago, with crazy clouds of gas everywhere, and volcanoes, and the continents bumping into each other and then drifting apart. Okay. Now life begins. It starts in the water, with tiny things, microscopic, and then some get bigger. And one day something crawls out of the water onto land. There are animals, then humans, looking almost all alike. There are tiny differences in color, the shape of the face, the tone of the skin. But basically they are the same. They create shelters, grow food, experiment. They talk; they write things down.

Now fast-forward. The earth is still making loops around the sun. There are humans all over the place, driving in cars and flying in airplanes. And then one day one human tells another human that he doesn’t want to walk to school with her anymore.

I’m sure there’s probably a Heideggerian explanation for this particular developmental milestone, in which children realise they are a part of something bigger. I have previously looked at one of Heidegger’s more famous theories in relation to children’s stories — Being-toward-death. That’s what kids realise they are going to die someday. It’s a pretty common character arc in young adult literature. The magical age of 12 is a time for many such revelations, and Miranda is indeed 12. Now, I have a limited upper capacity for reading about Heidegger, but perhaps someone else can confirm, or write a doctoral thesis on how Rebecca Stead’s work is about children realising that they are a part of something bigger, a.k.a., Being-in-the-world. (I just Googled it. It ain’t been done.)

Back to talking about structure. After the Battle sequence in When You Reach Me we have the mystery part of the plot which comes together. We learn that The Laughing Man has been sent to save Sal from being run over by a bus.

The words ‘book bag pocket shoe’ are revealed as the places where Miranda finds the notes.

Then we learn the big reveal: Who The Laughing Man is, and you probably guessed it before it is revealed (or confirmed) and this makes us all feel very smart.

Just as well, because the time travel part of this book confuses the hell out of me.

NEW SITUATION

There’s a romantic happy ever after, though not for the main character. She gets her friendship happy ever after, plus the budding romance with Colin.

And for anyone who says you can’t get away with epilogues in middle grade novels, I present to you When You Reach Me as example.

Olivia And The Missing Toy by Ian Falconer (2003)

Olivia and the Missing Toy by Ian Falconer shows Olivia the Pig at her most bratty, and her parents at their most indulgent.

There are several versions of the book cover of Olivia and the Missing Toy, and the dark one is the scarier of the two.

Olivia and the Missing Toy scary

The other is mostly white space, in keeping with most of the Olivia series. This book has a gothic episode in it — a definite spoof, with knowing use of the cliche “dark and stormy night”. Below, Margaret Blount explains one reason Olivia is a pig and not a little girl:

Even more suburbanised is Russell Hoban’s Frances where the child/animal substitution is so complete as to be unnoticeable. Frances the Badger is a small girl afraid of the dark, tucked up in bed but constantly annoying her parents by coming downstairs and interrupting the television. Why make her into an animal at all? The cosy delights of the Badger household — so like a human one — do remove the situation one or two degrees away from discomfort; some children are afraid of the dark, do dislike being alone.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land

As for Olivia the pig, love her or hate her. Olivia is one popular children’s book character who pisses a lot of parents off, judging by reviews I have read online. While I don’t have a problem with some of the Olivia stories, this particular one annoys the hell out of me. That tends to happen when an adult reader sees a parenting style in a picture book with which we disagree. Here we have a demanding brat, an acquiescent mother and a father who is quick to say ‘I’ll buy you a new one’ after Olivia’s own carelessness with a toy.

I don’t think this is one of Falconer’s best. And it doesn’t just apply to the indulgent parents and bratty child character; the story structure is also a little odd and I don’t think it works. Why not? Let’s take a closer look.



STORY STRUCTURE OF OLIVIA AND THE MISSING TOY

SHORTCOMING

riding a camel in egypt

The story actually opens with ‘One day Olivia was riding a camel in Europe…’ but unfortunately this is the most interesting part of the story and ends there. She wakes up and this was all a dream. I’m not sure how much Falconer has had to do with young children at the time he wrote this book, but I know very few Olivia’s age who need waking up by their parents. At this age they tend to leap out of bed earlier than everyone else in the house (unless their parents let them choose their own bedtimes, I suppose.) What is the reason for this opening? For one thing we do see the precious toy on the back of the camel. This shows how important the toy is to the character.

Shortcoming: Olivia is possibly too attached to a stuffed toy.

Next, Olivia does not like the colour of her soccer shirt.

She does not want to look like everyone else on her soccer team, even though the whole point of the uniform is to look like everyone else. (Explained by the mother.)

This particular shortcoming does not endear me to this character, as I feel it’s a self-absorbed and bratty kind of trait.

DESIRE

Olivia wants her mother to make her a red soccer shirt to replace the team green one. (The mother initially points out why this is a bad idea, then sets to work making the shirt anyway, on her sewing machine.)

This desire doesn’t work for me as a reader because soccer simply doesn’t work if everyone is wearing a random coloured shirt. The story should have been shut down right there.

OPPONENT

The opponent is introduced before we find out his exact mischief, and interestingly, we only see half of his little body at first. (The rest is off the page — as is the mischief.)

This is a nice technique.

An adult reader might be thinking Olivia’s true opponents are her over-indulgent parents. (They are making a monster.)

PLAN

When Olivia realises her toy is missing she:

  • Demands to know where it is by yelling at her mother.
  • Yells even more loudly in her bedroom.
  • Looks everywhere, including under the rug, under the sofa and under the (long-suffering) cat.
  • Asks her little brother, and yells at him accusingly.
  • Asks her baby brother, and yells at him even more loudly. (Volume is conveyed via capitalisation and font size.)

what did you do witih my toy
In this scene my empathy switches to the younger brother.

When none of these behaviours result in the location of the toy, Olivia gets up at night and plays the piano. (How this doesn’t wake the entire family, I’m not sure.) While giving up the hunt for the beloved toy is realistic given her young age, readers do love heroes who persevere. Olivia is neither a persevering nor a patient pig. (She is, however, petulant and possessive, riffing on the p’s.)

Somebody took my best toy

BIG STRUGGLE

With the switch to the gothic genre, signified by the darkened rooms, the candelabra, the realistically depicted lightning bolt which illuminates the bars on the window, and finally by the scary noise, Olivia checks out the sound coming from behind the door.

dark and stormy night

ANAGNORISIS

Olivia finds her toy, but there is no anagnorisis. She runs to her parents (it’s now the next morning, and yet again we have another stereotypical depiction of the father reading the newspaper while the mother cares for the youngest kid), and Olivia tattle-tales on the dog, expecting her parents to do something about the situation. The mother expresses her condolences. The father says, “Don’t worry, tomorrow we’ll go get you the best toy in the whole world.”

I really really want him to say, “Serves you right for leaving it lying around. Now go fix it.”

Fortunately, despite the indulgent parenting style of her parents, Olivia decides to fix the toy herself and shows great initiative by sewing it up herself. This is why I don’t mind Olivia; it’s her parents who shit me to tears. The other nice thing about Olivia as a character is that she is happy with her self-fixed toy even though it looks nothing like it did before. She doesn’t throw any tantrums about lacking the skills to fix it properly.

It’s interesting that Falconer didn’t want the words ‘All better” on this page, but the editor insisted upon it.

[Falconer] says he lost one argument: the addition of the words “All better” when Olivia repairs her missing and mangled toy. “A mommy phrase,” says the author. “Something kids would repeat,” says the editor.

USA Today

NEW SITUATION

Olivia holds a brief grudge against the dog and won’t let her mother read her any books about dogs for this one night.

And if you were wondering about what those books are (only partially depicted on the page):

She’s shown carrying four titles: The Cat in the Hat, Puss in Boots. Krazy Kat and Kitty Foyle.

Kitty Foyle? “A 1930s movie with Ginger Rogers,” Falconer says. “A little joke that no one will get.”

USA Today

“But even Olivia couldn’t stay mad forever”. She lets him sleep in her bed, along with the mended toy.


MCGUFFINS AS PLOT DEVICE: GOOD MCGUFFIN, BAD MCGUFFIN

Here’s the problem with this plot: The whole sequence with the shirt is a Macguffin. A m(a)cguffin, sometimes called ‘a weenie’ is a plot device whose function is to get the action going, but which may be forgotten or become irrelevant by the end of the story. Others use the term simply to mean ‘anything that gets the plot rolling’. But technically, by Hitchcock’s definition — he invented it — a true McGuffin must be forgotten by the audience.

Sure enough, we’ve forgotten all about the shirt by the end of the story, as has Olivia.

A famous example of a McGuffin is in the film Psycho, in which Marion Crane steals money early in the film, which brings her to the Bates Hotel. By the end of the film, no one cares about what happened to the money.

Psycho

Olivia and the Missing Toy is, of course, a spoof of a psychological drama such as Psycho. (The colour scheme of black, red and white lends the series really well to a spoof of something horrific.) So Falconer opened with a technique often used in that form. Here’s a question: Can the McGuffin work as well in a picture book? In a story of 42 pages, 11 (excluding the camel scene opener) are taken up by the whole shirt palaver. (On the eleventh page it is seen cast aside, as Olivia descends into her tantrum.) That’s a huge portion of the entire story.

it was under my bed

The first question is: Why does the McGuffin work in Psycho?

  1. It gives Marion Crane a reason to skip town and removes the option of going back. (Plot reasons.)
  2. It gives the character of Marion Crane a moral shortcoming, which the audience needs in order to see the character as rounded. A moral shortcoming also makes a character more interesting.
  3. It gives the audience a satisfying frisson of ‘serves you right’ when Marion is scared out of her wits.

As for the McGuffin in Olivia and the Missing Toy:

  1. There is no real plot reason for this McGuffin.
  2. It gives the character of Olivia a moral shortcoming — she treats her family badly when she loses something, BUT…
  3. There is no satisfaction for the audience here, because Olivia is a brat without a cause. There is no anagnorisis, there are no consequences.

In sum, this particular book in the Olivia series doesn’t really work as a story.

The Bus To St James’s by John Cheever

I bought The Collected Stories of John Cheever as a salve to heal my Mad Men withdrawals, and this is one of Cheever’s stories that absolutely reminds me of Mad Men. Stephen Bruce is a Don Draper character; his daughter is a Sally Draper type. Matt Weiner has cited Cheever as one source of inspiration for Mad Men, and in this story we have an early example of the sympathetic antihero.

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY

A married man (on his second marriage) has an affair with a woman in his social circle. They are seen out and about, the man’s wife hires a private investigator and eventually the woman’s husband leaves her, taking their children to the country.

mad men 660 amc

SETTING

The story opens with very specific geographical location:

The bus to St. James’s—a Protestant Episcopal school for boys and girls-started its round at eight o’clock in the morning, from a corner of Park Avenue in the Sixties.

Saint James Episcopal Church
I would need a New Yorker to tell me if the school is a real school, or if Cheever created a likely sounding school attached to a real church, or whatever. But it might be here?

Next we’re given the exact time, and a description of the atmosphere at that time of day:

The earliness of the hour meant that some of the parents who took their children there were sleepy and still without coffee, but with a clear sky the light struck the city at an extreme angle, the air was fresh, and it was an exceptionally cheerful time of day. It was the hour when cooks and doormen walk dogs, and when porters scrub the lobby floor mats with soap and water.

Finally, to round off the introductory paragraph, we’re given a taste of the social class we’re dealing with:

Traces of the night-the parents and children once watched a man whose tuxedo was covered with sawdust wander home-were scarce.

The second paragraph opens with a sentence that lets us know the fall semester is about to begin. Cheever never leaves setting to the imagination — apart from the fact that Shady Hill is a made-up suburb, he is usually very specific about what sort of people we’re reading about and where they live, and what the weather is doing.

Milieu

This is a time in which black and white education is separate in America. Though some forward-looking individuals are starting to question the status quo, the majority of whites in this story are happy with segregation.


CHARACTERS

There are five children who board the bus at this story’s bus stop. The way they are introduced — some have given names while others go by non-specific monikers — show us the relationship to the narrator:

  • Louise and Emily Sheridan
  • The Pruitt boy
  • Katherine Bruce
  • The little Armstrong girl

Mr Pruitt etc.

Mr. Pruitt brought his son to the corner each morning. They had the same tailor and they both tipped their hats to the ladies.

We now know that the narrator is male (though anyone who’s read Cheever will know that a first person narrator of is is more than likely to be male.)

We are then bombarded with the details of people we don’t know and can’t yet visualise. This is to provide verisimilitude — to help us to believe that this world really exists, because any real world situation would be peopled with characters such as these.

Mrs Sheridan

Mrs Sheridan’s is the first name to really stick, because the narrator gives us a bit more to hang onto with her. The detail of her repeated and emphatic ‘yes’es places her firmly in the reader’s mind:

“Oh yes,” Mrs. Sheridan said, “yes.” She never gave a simple affirmative; she always said, “Oh yes, yes,” or “Oh yes, yes, yes.”

Again, I get the strong feeling that this narrator is writing with a male gaze. But as the paragraph continues, we see that the narrator is closely aligned with Mr Bruce, whose ‘male gaze’ we are privy to:

Mrs. Sheridan dressed plainly and her hair was marked with gray. She was not pretty or provocative, and compared to Mrs. Armstrong, whose hair was golden, she seemed plain; but her features were fine and her body was graceful and slender. She was a well-mannered woman of perhaps thirty-five, Mr. Bruce decided, with a well-ordered house and a perfect emotional digestion of those women who, through their goodness, can absorb anything. A great deal of authority seemed to underlie her mild manner. She would have been raised by solid people, Mr. Bruce thought, and would respect all the boarding-school virtues: courage, good sportsmanship, chastity, and honor. When he heard her say in the morning, “Oh yes, yes!” it seemed to him like a happy combination of manners and spirit.

Mrs Sheridan is probably the most sympathetic character to modern audiences — she has ‘aged’ the best. She is the forward-looking character, wanting to open up the conservative little white school to black students. How would the 1957 audience of The New Yorker have considered this issue? Racial segregation in schools was definitely a talking point, and had been since at least 1951, when Oliver Brown attempted to enrol his African American daughter into an all-white public school in Topeka, Kansas. In 1954, the Supreme Court outlawed segregated public education facilities for blacks and whites at the state level. But it wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that private schools such as St James in this story were required to end segregation.

Mr Bruce

We are encouraged to become suspicious of Mr Bruce’s intentions from the get-go:

Mr. Bruce, eavesdropping on their conversation, behind his newspaper … he was pleased, one morning, to get to the corner and find that Mrs. Sheridan was there with her two daughters and the dog, and that Pruitt wasn’t.

We soon find out Mr Bruce’s motivations: He is interested in getting to know Mrs Sheridan because he finds her sexually alluring. But he is not really interested in her as a person. He’s interested in her as a ‘catch’. He has already determined that she is recently bereaved due to the drowning of her young son, and that she has an unsatisfactory relationship with her own husband (after having seen them argue in public), and now he’s moving in for the kill:

She was excited at finding someone who seemed interested in her opinions, and she put herself at a disadvantage, as he intended she should, by talking too much. The deep joy we take in the company of people with whom we have just recently fallen in love is undisguisable, even to a purblind waiter, and they both looked wonderful.

Lois Bruce

We learn that Mr Bruce is the sort of man who is attracted to women in times of shortcoming, which may explain what has attracted him to Mrs Sheridan. The same thing had attracted him to his own wife, and we know that Lois is his second wife because Mrs Sheridan has told him that she had known of his first wife (Martha Chase) at university. We deduce that he is the sort of man who plays with saviour fantasies in his romantic relationships, but once he’s ‘fixed’ a woman, he moves on to the next one:

Lois had been frail when Mr. Bruce first met her. It had been one of her great charms. … “I forgot to tell you that Aunt Helen called on Wednesday. She’s moving from Gray’s Hill to a house nearer the shore.” He tried to find something to say to this item of news and couldn’t. After five years of marriage he seemed to have been left with nothing to say.

We are given an entire, lengthy paragraph about Lois’s shopping on Fifth Avenue, which I think must be designed to bore the reader, in order to encourage the reader to understand why Mr Bruce might find his current wife equally boring. Unfortunately, this is exactly the sort of representation of women that gave Cheever a reputation for his dismissal attitude towards women in general. His narrator makes sure to say that her extreme interest in shopping applies to a great number of women, underscoring a stereotype about how women just love shopping:

Lois Bruce, like a great many women in New York, spent a formidable amount of time shopping along Fifth Avenue.

To further align the reader with Mr Bruce, Lois Bruce goes on and on about her ailments; first her back, then about how she hasn’t been able to taste anything all week. We feel less than sorry for her because after all she has been able to immerse herself in nothing more frivolous than shopping, buying up all manner of luxury items. When Lois compliments the cook on the soup only after seeing that her husband likes it, this small exchange tells us that she lives via her husband — not only via his bank balance, but via his very experiences. This is a woman who has subsumed herself within marriage.

The strife between them is the classic Mars and Venus stuff (women need attention; men don’t give enough attention), and she deals with this in a passive aggressive manner:

The ghosts of her injured sex thronged to her side when she slammed open the silver drawer and again when she poured his beer. She set the tray elaborately, in order to deepen her displeasure in doing it at all. She heaped cold meat and salad on her husband’s plate as if they were poisoned. Then she fixed her lipstick and carried the heavy tray into the dining room herself, in spite of her lame back.

But then we are let inside Lois Bruce’s head, which makes her into a slightly more sympathetic character. As it turns out she, too, has a bit of a saviour complex. Birds of a feather get together:

DURING the next two months, Lois Bruce heard from a number of sources that her husband had been seen with a Mrs. Sheridan. She confided to her mother that she was losing him and, at her mother’s insistence, employed a private detective. Lois was not vindictive; she didn’t want to trap or intimidate her husband; she had, actually, a feeling that this maneuver would somehow be his salvation.


THEME

So, do readers align ourselves with the unfaithful couple, or with Mr Sheridan and Lois? It’s a rule of thumb that readers will empathise with the viewpoint characters. Another rule of thumb is that readers will enjoy reading about characters who are a little mischievous, even devious, as Mr Bruce is when he’s trying to ‘catch’ Mrs Sheridan. (The Trickster Trope is an oldie but a goodie.) And the way Cheever writes Mr Sheridan, of whom we’ve only seen the back of an angry, red neck, and Lois, who is a self-absorbed, privileged whiner of a wife, further encourages audience identification with Mr Bruce and Mrs Sheridan. Perhaps Cheever is testing our alliances here. If we find ourselves empathising with a pair of faithless individuals, what does that say about us, as fallible human beings?

Racial segregation exists in the backdrop to this story. Is Cheever asking readers to pick sides by endowing the romantic leads such different opinions on this matter? Which side are you on, boys? Is the title significant to this part of the story? Unlike when driving a car, when you’re on a bus you have to go where you’re taken, either by the driver or by the culture. The cloistered, white, upper-middle class world of the Sheridans and the Bruces cannot and will not continue as it has these last few decades. Perhaps the end of two marriages symbolise change in the wider world.

The Bus To St James ceremonies and rites
Encounters with American Culture: Volume 2 (1973-1985) By Peter S. Prescott

THE APPLE NEVER FALLS FAR FROM THE TREE

sallydrapersmokes

I can see the influence on Matt Weiner, creator of Mad Men, in the following scene from this story:

“Oh, and I forgot to tell youthere’s been some trouble,” she said crossly. “Katherine spent the afternoon with Helen Woodruff and some other children. There were some boys. When the maid went into the playroom to call them for supper, she found them all undressed. Mrs. Woodruff was very upset and I told her you’d call.”

When Sally Draper is caught masturbating by Betty, it follows a scene in which Betty has been doing the same thing, only seemingly without realising it, against the washing machine. When Sally catches her father in flagrante delicto with his neighbour this precedes Sally’s foray into boarding school trouble, and eventually, on a station platform, Don Draper tells his daughter that she is exactly like her parents and will never be able to get away from that fact.

The comparison continues with the symbolism of the rats in a cage, which Mr Bruce smells when he enters his daughter’s room.

The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination By Robert Coles
The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination By Robert Coles

TECHNIQUES OF NOTE

SHIFTING POV

More than in his previous stories, Cheever switches point of view in this story, using a mixture of close-third person (first aligned to Mr Bruce and then to Mrs Sheridan), then moving the camera in and out of their heads, sometimes to view the couple from the edge of a cafe, as a casual observer:

One of her daughters had a mild case of measles, she said, and [INSIDE BRUCE’S HEAD] Mr. Bruce was interested in the symptoms. But he looked [OUTSIDE BRUCE’S HEAD], for a man who claimed to be interested in childhood diseases, bilious and vulpine. His color was bad. He scowled and rubbed his forehead as if he suffered from a headache. He repeatedly wet his lips and crossed and recrossed his legs. Presently, his uneasiness seemed to cross the table. During the rest of the time they sat there, the conversation was about commonplace subjects, but an emotion for which they seemed to have no words colored the talk and darkened and enlarged its shapes. She did not finish her dessert. She let her coffee get cold. For a while, neither of them spoke. [OBSERVING THE COUPLE FROM ACROSS THE CAFE] A stranger, noticing them in the restaurant, might have thought that they were a pair of old friends who had met to discuss a misfortune.

In writing groups, this is often referred to as ‘head-hopping’, and is seen as a bad thing, but it’s not. The reader is perfectly capable of dealing with this shift in point-of-view, providing it’s done seamlessly like this. If there is a dramatic shift in point of view (say from Mrs Sheridan to Mr Bruce) there will be a double carriage return, accompanied by a transitionary phrase such as:

MR. BRUCE returned to a much pleasanter home.

(thereby presenting us with a comparison).

WITHHOLDING SNIPPETS OF INFORMATION TO MAKE THE READER WONDER, BRIEFLY, WHAT’S HAPPENING

When Lois hires the private investigator to track down her husband, we see her leave the house and go around to someone’s apartment. Though we’re fairly sure she’s going to confront her husband, we’re not sure. I wondered briefly if she, herself, had a man on the side when she knocks on the door screaming, ‘Stephen!’ This is because we haven’t been told the given name of Mr Bruce. We soon find out that indeed this is her own husband she’s referring to, but because she yells, ‘Stephen Bruce!’ I’m in no doubt that Cheever knew exactly what he was doing. (He inserted the full name because he knew we’d be wondering who Stephen is.)


STORY SPECS

First published in The New Yorker, January 1956.

7,100 words


COMPARE AND CONTRAST

[Cheever’s] stories can be read as chronicles of how the struggle between good and evil impulses unfolds in the lives of people of varied temperaments and shortcomings — usually, though not always, amid the complex social rituals of upper middle-class American protestant society. Johnny Hake [sic — it was Francis Weed] in “The Country Husband,” Asa Bascomb in “The World Of Apples,” Mr. Bruce in “The Bus to St. James’s” — all these Cheever creations are involved in prurient escapades or exploitative behaviour, and it is Cheever’s gift to chart with great precision of language their experiences as they try to reconcile their actions and impulses with their consciences. In each of these stories, Cheever explores the tension between what he once referred to as our erotic nature and our social nature.

The Columbia Companion to the Twentieth-Century American Short Story edited by Blanche H. Gelfant, Lawrence Graver

WRITE YOUR OWN

Walter White Heisenberg Hat

Vince Gilligan did a similar thing to audiences — new on TV — when he created a morally upright citizen then turned Walt right around to expose him as a thoroughly nasty individual. This tested the audience, possibly even more than Gilligan himself could predict — and I now consider Breaking Bad to be somewhat of a barometer of a viewer’s misogyny. (A large proportion of viewers never lost empathy for Walter White at all, instead wishing the annoying but far more innocent wives dead instead — I met one such viewer in a doctor’s waiting room.)

Cheever has done a similar thing here (consciously or not?), though on a much smaller scale: He uses the usual writer tricks to foster empathy in Stephen Bruce then has him do bad things. He passes no moral judgement. We’ve seeing a lot of stories like this recently — we are now in the era of the antihero, especially in American TV.

When the book is finished I immediately lose interest in the characters. And I never make moral judgments. All I would say is that a person was droll, or gay, or, above all, a bore. Making judgments for or against my characters bores me enormously; it doesn’t interest me at all. The only morality for a novelist is the morality of his esthétique. I write the books, they come to an end, and that’s all that concerns me.

FRANÇOISE SAGAN

How can the antihero be put to good purpose? How can we create empathy in a morally corrupt character to lead the audience to some sort of empathy about human nature in general? Or about themselves?

See also: I have a character issue, by the actor who plays Skyler White, in the NYT