The Secret Garden is a novel by British-American Frances Hodgson Burnett, originally published in serialised form in America between 1910-11, the end of the Edwardian era in England. We now consider this a story for children, probably because the main characters are children. Surprising to me: this story was originally aimed at an adult readership.
When I think a little harder though, it makes sense that The Secret Garden was aimed at adult readers. If there’s a moral in this story, it’s aimed at parents. At times it sounds like a parenting manual:
Two worst things as can happen to a child is never to have his own way – or always to have it.
The Secret Garden
If we’re going to call it children’s literature,The Secret Garden is an example from the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature, which lasted from 1850 until the first World War. In some ways it’s typical of its time, in other ways ahead of its time.
The Secret Garden utilises a madwoman in the attic trope, though the prisoner is a boy, not a madwoman. The haunted house and grounds are also straight out of a Gothic horror. The Secret Garden is a very clear example of the Gothic in literature. It is also clearly Christian.
I’m reading an abridged version, which is still plenty long. Though some child readers absolutely stan this novel, I don’t persoanally consider it children’s literature. In fact, I didn’t plan on ever digging deep into this novel because it gave me the absolute creeps when I was a kid myself. I was gifted a few copies and they’re still on the shelf. I started reading a few times and never finished. Then, in the year of our Lord 2020, when my own kid was in Year 6 and refused to study White Fang along with everyone else due to the animal cruelty contained within, they were handed a copy of The Secret Garden instead (because child cruelty is more palatable than animal cruelty…) Hodgson Burnett’s classic has clearly found resonance if you can still find class sets hanging around in Australian schools.
Notably, my own kid also despised The Secret Garden and, like me, couldn’t get past the first few chapters. Without whole class guidance from the teacher (who had actually prepped for a unit on White Fang), it was impossible to understand.
As an adult, I have since read a completely different kind of book with a similar name: Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden, which puts a whole different spin on things.
“Dance In America” is a short story by Lorrie Moore and can be found in the collection Birds Of America, published in 1998. Find it also in The Collected Short Stories. “Dance In America” first appeared in The New Yorker in 1993.
Medical rooms and hospitals are safe, infantalising, dangerous, creepy, life-saving, traumatising places, and I offer them here as examples of what Foucault called ‘heterotopia‘.
The hospital’s ambiguous relationship to everyday social space has long been a central theme of hospital ethnography. Often, hospitals are presented either as isolated “islands’defined by biomedical regulation of space (and time) or as continuations and reflections of everyday social space that are very much a part of the “mainland.’ This polarization of the debate overlooks hospitals’ paradoxical capacity to be simultaneously bounded and permeable, both sites of social control and spaces where alternative and transgressive social orders emerge and are contested. We suggest that Foucault’s concept of heterotopia usefully captures the complex relationships between order and disorder, stability and instability that define the hospital as a modernist institution of knowledge, governance, and improvement.
Hospitals (like airports) elicit the full range of human emotion and are symbolically useful arenas for storytellers. Who better than writers to describe what it feels like to be inside a hospital?
I followed [the psychiatrist] down a depressing hallway into a tiny windowless office that might have housed an accountant. In fact it reminded me a bit of Myron Axel’s closet, filled with piles of paper waiting to be filed, week-old cups of coffee turned into science experiments, and a litter of broken umbrellas nesting beneath the desk.
I must have looked as surprised as I felt when I entered her office, for Rowena Adler looked at the utilitarian clutter about her and said, “I’m sorry about this mess. I’m so used to it. I forget how it looks.”
Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You by Peter Cameron
The author may have enjoyed writing that description because at James Sveck’s next appointment they are in a different room.
Dr Adler’s downtown office was a pleasanter place than her space at the Medical Center, but it wasn’t the sun-filled haven I had imagined. It was a rather small dark office in a suite of what I assumed were several small dark offices on the ground floor of an old apartment building on Tenth Street. In addition to her desk and chair there was a divan, another chair, a ficus tree, and some folkloric-looking weavings on the wall. And a bookcase of dreary books. I could tell they were all nonfiction because they all had titles divided by colons: Blah Blah Blah: The Blah Blah Blah of Blah Blah Blah. There was one window that probably faced an airshaft because the rattan shade was lowered in a way that suggested it was never raised. The walls were painted a pale yellow, in an obvious (but unsuccessful) attempt to “brighten up” the room.
The description of James’ psychiatrist’s rooms is broken up, judiciously, and fits around the action. James’ reaction to the rooms reflects how he feels about life at this juncture: He expected better. He expected different; instead he gets this underwhelming life.
I looked around her office. I know it sounds terrible, but I was discouraged by the ordinariness, the expectedness, of it. It was as if there was a catalog for therapists to order a complete office from: furniture, carpet, wall hangings, even the ficus tree seemed depressingly generic. Like one of those little paper pellets you put in water that puffs up and turns into a lotus blossom. This was like a puffed-up shrink’s office.
In a book of essays, Tim Kreider’s description of hospitals is one of the best I’ve encountered:
Hospitals are like the landscapes in recurring dreams: forgotten as though they’d never existed in the interims between visits, but instantly familiar once you return. As if they’ve been there all along, waiting for you while you’ve been away. The endlessly branching corridors sand circular nurses’ stations all look identical, like some infinite labyrinth in a Borges story. It takes a day or two to memorize the route from the lobby to your room. The innocuous landscape paintings that seem to have been specifically commissioned to leave no impression on the human brain are perversely seared into your long-term memory. You pass doorways through which you can occasionally see a bunch of Mylar balloons or a pair of pale, withered legs. Hospital beds are now just as science fiction predicted, with the patient’s vital signs digitally displayed overhead. Nurses no longer wear the white hose and red-cross caps of cartoons and pornography, but scrubs printed with patterns so relentlessly cheerful—hearts, teddy bears, suns and flowers and peace signs—they seem symptomatic of some Pollyannish denial. The smell of hospitals is like small talk at a funeral—you know its function is to cover up something else. There’s a grim camaraderie in the hall and elevators. You don’t have to ask anybody how they’re doing. The fact that they’re there at all means the answer is: Could be better. I notice that no one who works in a hospital, whose responsibilities are matters of life and death, ever seems hurried or frantic, in contrast to all the freelance cartoonists and podcasters I know.
Time moves differently in hospitals—both slower and faster. The minutes stand still, but the hours evaporate. The day is long and structureless, measured only by the taking of vital signs, the changing of IV bags, medication schedules, occasional tests, mealtimes, trips to the bathroom, walks in the corridor. Once a day an actual doctor appears for about four minutes, and what she says during this time can either leave you and your family in terrified confusion or so reassured and grateful that you want to write her a thank-you note she’ll have framed. You cadge six-ounce cans of ginger ale from the nurses’ station. You no longer need to look at the menu in the diner across the street. You substitute meat loaf for bacon with your eggs. Why not? Breakfast and lunch are diurnal conventions that no longer apply to you. Sometimes you run errands back home for a cell phone or extra clothes. Eventually you look at your watch and realize visiting hours are almost over, and feel relieved, and then guilty.
Tim Kreider, “An Insult To The Brain”, We Learn Nothing
It’s a fact known throughout the universes that no matter how carefully the colours are chosen, institutional décor ends up either vomit green, unmentionable brown, nicotene yellow or surgical appliance pink.
Terry Pratchett, Equal Rites
They are now the only two people in the upstairs waiting room of the dental clinic. The seats are a pale mint-green colour. Marianne leafs through an issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and explores her mouth with the tip of her tongue. Connell looks at the magazine cover, a photograph of a monkey with huge eyes.
I enjoy stories about characters with wild imaginations, and that may partly explain why I love children’s books. From Where The Wild Things Are to highly symbolic fairytales to post-modern off-kilter realities, children’s literature is full of dreamscapes and fantastic journeys. But stories of imaginative power don’t end with childhood — there are many examples from general fiction of characters who create rich fantasies.
We all have three lives after all — our public life, our private life and our secret life. We rarely get a glimpse into other people’s secret lives. We may occasionally get bits and pieces, from friends and from family, but fiction offers the most in-depth explorations about how others might think. Our fantasy world is part of our secret world. We rarely share it with others.
That’s if we even have such a world. I have learned over the years that some people do and some people have nothing as organised and detailed as a ‘world’, but we are all creatures with immense imaginative capacity.
Most people spend between 30 and 47 percent of their waking hours spacing out, drifting off, lost in thought, woolgathering…
Why do we want to have alternative worlds? It’s a way of making progress. You have to imagine something before you do it.
CONSCIOUS DEPARTURE FROM CONSENSUS REALITY (COMPOS MENTIS)
No imagination whatsoever — a computer
The imaginative power which evolved as a huge advantage — the ability to look at a situation and imagine what might go wrong: worry. Also the ability to plan ahead, by imagining the future. Other apes can do this.
The ability to build imaginative worlds based on stories told by others.
A gradual expansion of the imaginative worlds of others, leading up to creating one’s own fan-fic or imagining oneself as Super-man.
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Children’s stories in which the characters dress up in costume and ‘fight crime’ or similar
Fantasies become self-generated. The imaginer comes up with original creations, or significantly modifies the creations of others.
The short story “What Is Remembered” by Alice Munro details the quiet inner world of an older woman — an imagination furnished by one main incident from her youth.
Munro’s female characters often develop imaginative tricks to get on with their lot in lives, whether it’s to deal with loneliness (imagining oneself on “Cortes Island” or to cope with a missing or estranged family member.
The imaginer denies unpleasant truths by making up alternative theories or by nurturing their own wilful ignorance.
In Helen Simpson’s “In-Flight Entertainment“, Alan won’t hear anything about climate change from the retired scientist sitting opposite, despite living in it.
“Her First Ball” by Katherine Mansfield stars Leila, who decides to ignore the old man telling her that she will one day be old.
The imaginer creates an expansive, detailed imaginative world or worlds.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty — a classic short story by James Thurber. The descriptor ‘Walter Mitty’ is now used to refer to person (usually a man) so caught up in his imagination that he no longer seems to feel the need to work hard to elevate his status in his real life. The modern Walter Mitty might be a guy who gets so much reward from the fantasy World of Warcraft that he quits his job to play it, eschewing the dominant culture’s view of how a man should properly live.
“Paul’s Case” by Willa Catha is another short story example from America.
“Miss Brill” by Katherine Mansfield is another story about a person with a small life, imagining something different.
The character of Bertha in Mansfield’s “At The Bay” series is a bit of a Walter Mitty character. Unmarried, unfulfilled, she imagines all sorts of scenarios with herself as a swept away romantic heroine.
But in Mansfield’s “The Escape“, it’s the husband rather than the wife who uses a fantasy world to escape from an unsatisfying married life.
My Summer In Love, Emily Blunt’s first film, is about two young women — Tamsin draws the other, more naive girl unwittingly into her re-imagined reality.
Similar to My Summer In Love is Peter Jackson’s Beautiful Creatures, a New Zealand film set in my hometown of Christchurch, based on the true story of two teenage girls who murdered one of their mothers.
The most detailed of these fantasy worlds are known as paracosms. This is a term most often associated with the Bronte sisters, who invented the rich imaginative country of Gondal. The imaginer dips into these worlds often, probably every day, multiple times per day. This is a power required of novelists and screenwriters, but also the creators of poems and short stories.
Bridge to Terabithia — a middle grade novel by Katherine Paterson about two children who invent a fantasy world across the river from their home.
Any portal fantasy could be read as the paracosm of the main characters. I consider The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe the collaborative fantasy of Christian-raised children bored in a big house because they’ve been evicted from London during the otherwise traumatic WW2.
Then we encounter the soft line of sanity, in which the imaginer may lose touch of the distinction between imagination and reality, starting with minor distortions, then mixed reality (a term I’m borrowing from Paul Mulgram’s Reality-Virtuality Continuum).
Another word for ‘consensus reality’ might be ‘veridical reality’. Veridical means ‘coinciding with reality’ (whatever reality might be).
UNCONSCIOUS DEPARTURE FROM CONSENSUS REALITY (NON COMPOS MENTIS)
False Memory — separate from the unconscious departures below in that not everyone experiences psychosis/dementia and so on, but each and every one of us has a faulty memory.
Helen Hayward makes a distinction between ‘memories’ and ‘reminiscences’:
When it comes to thinking about early loved ones often it is our reminiscences, more than our memories, that spring to mind. […] A reminiscence is an overloaded memory, on to which feelings from another memory — now recalls a past event, a reminiscent relives it. Because a reminiscence contains fantasies which have escaped the ego’s notice — unlike a memory which the ego is able to repress — it can remain in consciousness. If however these feelings do emerge, and the fantasy is unveiled, the feelings are likely to be spontaneously repressed.
Helen Hayward, Never Marry A Girl With A Dead Father
Separately we have the departures borne of more serious malfunctions of mind:
On TV Tropes there are many examples of Identity Amnesia as it presents in fiction, which is quite different from how it presents in reality.
United States of Tara
“Powers” by Alice Munro is a mish-mash of how various factors affect our hold on reality. The story includes epileptic fits, possibly electric shock treatment and definitely dementia.
“Dissociative Identity Disorder is by far one of the least understood mental illnesses out there. It is enshrouded in misinformation, outdated coursework (for students and practicing clinicians alike), and a seemingly unending barrage of defamation attempts.” — Beauty After Bruises
Folie a deux — a mental disorder (not a mental illness) that two people share and experience at the same time.
Possibly Heavenly Creatures, in which two teenage girls thought it was a good idea to kill a mother.
The world of Eros is the world of the imagination.
Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben wrote in his work Stanze (1977) that during the Middle Ages, love was seen as a labour of the imagination. In order to fall in love, it was thought that you had to fall in love with an image of another person, recreated from memory. In this way, both memory and love both rely upon one’s imaginative powers. The lover is in love with the (self-generated) image.
THE GENDERED NATURE OF FICTIONAL FANTASISTS
I’ve done no broad study of this, but of the stories I’ve encountered, there seems to be some gendered differences.
Both male and female characters are often revealed in fiction to harbour fantasies of various kinds.
But if there are victims of these fantasies, the victim is more often a woman, regardless of gender.
Male characters seem particularly drawn to the romantic hero — super heroes and war heroes. They imagine themselves saving the day, especially saving girls and women.
The male character in “I’m A Fool” displays strong imaginative powers when he spins a story about being a completely different person… to try and snag a girl. Again, this is borne of wanting more power in real life.
But sometimes male characters imagine themselves as baddies, like the main character in “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” by John Cheever. To be a bad guy, breaking the rules, is its own form of social capital.
Male characters often fancy themselves younger and try to regain their youth by sexual involvement with a girl, sometimes underage as in Lolita’s Humbert Humbert, or the main character of Thomas Keneally’s short story, “Blackberries“, or of Robert Drewe’s “A View of Mount Warning” or any number of similar tales which centre a man’s sexual desires.
For female fantasists, there is often a witch overtone. This is definitely the case for Tamsin in My Summer of Love. She draws in her victim with deceit — they dress up and drink ‘potions’ and go into the wilderness. Their final big struggle takes place in a river, with one almost drowning the other. Likewise, the true story behind Heavenly Creatures captured public imagination because two teenage girls seemed caught up in a folie a deux fantasy leading to someone’s death — again, another woman. We are, as a culture, scared of the erotic powers of young women and we imagine that when two young women get together their evil powers are doubled. “Ernestine and Kit” by Kevin Barry is also about the dangerous power of contemporary witches.
Fictional girls and woman seem more likely to be the creators/initiators of vast, collaborative imaginative worlds. In Bridge to Terabithia it is the girl, Leslie, who comes up with the concept. The boy goes along with it. It’s Lucy who discovers the wardrobe portal to Narnia. In “The People Across The Canyon”, the highly imaginative child just happens to be a girl.
What do you think? Is there a gendered difference in the depiction of fictional fantasists?
representing playful, wishful and constructive imagery
This not only sounds lovely; it sounds beneficial to individuals and society. Surely it’s by engaging in this sort of daydreaming that we come up with our best ideas.
2. Guilty-Dysphoric Daydreaming
representing obsessive, anguished fantasies
This sounds like a sort of post-traumatic response, or ‘stewing’, in everyday parlance. Some people seem to do this quite a lot, turning minor arguments into huge ones, but only in their own minds. For obvious reasons we should try not to let our minds engage in this sort of daydreaming.
3. Poor Attentional Control
representing the inability to concentrate on ongoing thought or external tasks
I now imagine an old-fashioned classroom — the kind with wooden floors and chair legs scraping, and chalk screeching down blackboards, led by a cane-toting teacher scalding Jimmy for staring out of the window. That’s the classic picture of the childlike and carefree pupil of yesteryear, constrained and reined in by the school system until he is old enough to be put to work in the mines.
Young children, of nursery school and kindergarten age, also practice emotional regulation in their make-believe, fantasy play. They play at emotion-provoking themes, including themes that induce fear, anger, and sadness. One person who has documented this, through observations in kindergartens, is the German researcher Gisela Wegener-Spöhring. For example, she described one play scene in which two little girls pretended that they were sisters whose father and mother had died and who were abandoned alone in the woods, with bears and other wild animals around. To deal with both their grief and fear, they held each other close and spoke intimately, and they built a cave to protect themselves and figured out what weapons they would use if a bear entered the cave.
As neuroscientists study the idle brain, some believe they are exploring a central mystery in human psychology: where and how our concept of “self” is created, maintained, altered and renewed. After all, though our minds may wander when in this mode, they rarely wander far from ourselves, as Mrazek’s mealtime introspection makes plain.
An idle brain may be the self’s workshop from The Chicago Tribune
Hearing voices is also a pretty normal thing that happens to people and you don’t have to have a diagnosable mental illness to hear them. This, too, can be attributed to ghosts, or paranormal activity:
Anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, who has studied voice hearing in psychiatric and religious contexts, has written that “historical and cultural conditions … affect significantly the way mental anguish is internally experienced and socially expressed.” Noting that there is no question psychiatric distress and schizophrenia are “real” phenomena that call for treatment, Luhrmann adds that “the way a culture interprets symptoms may affect an ill person’s prognosis.” Every psychiatrist I spoke to shared the belief that unusual behaviour should only enter into the realm of diagnosis when it causes suffering.
My Neighbour Totoro (1988), from Japan’s Studio Ghibli, is one of the few genuinely child centred films in existence. In contrast, most films out of DreamWorks and Pixar contain dual levels of meaning, including jokes only the adult co-viewer will understand, or emotional layers inaccessible to children.
For instance, in Toy Story3 Andy says goodbye to his childhood when he says goodbye to his toys. This evokes the emotion of nostalgia and sadness in adults. Test audiences revealed that children under about 13 have a completely different reaction to this scene — they identify with the toys and feel happy, probably wondering why the adults are tearing up. Nostalgia is one of the few specifically adult emotions.
In contrast, The Good Dinosaur (2015) didn’t garner great reviews. Some critics suggested it’s a fine story for kids, but adult viewers expected a layer aimed specifically at them. But there is no ‘adult layer’ to The Good Dinosaur, which ranks as Pixar’s second-worst rated movie(above Cars 2). In the West adults have been trained to expect kids’ films with separate layers just for us.
My Neighbour Totoro is different altogether.
When My Neighbor Totoro , directed by Hayao Miyazaki, came out in 1988, the public treated it only as a “child pleaser”. Yet Japanese people soon realized that My Neighbor Totoro was something more; it is actually a thought-provoking film. It is now considered one of the most acclaimed films for children and adults.
Here’s my thesis: Studio Ghibli achieves what Pixar and DreamWorks have thus far not managed:
A film which appeals to all ages
without alienating the preschool viewer from any single part of it.
Adults and children will be laughing at the same moments
experiencing very similar emotions simultaneously.
I first watched Totoro in 1995 as a 17-year-old exchange student in Japan, where it was aired on national TV one wintry Sunday afternoon. The air time suggests family viewing — a film for all ages. I’d be surprised if I ever met a Japanese person who hadn’t seen this film, regardless of age or whether they have children of their own.
Fast forward a sociological generation, My Neighbour Totoro was one of the first films I showed my Australian daughter. As I expected, she was captivated as a toddler.
We rewatched it last night. When she first saw it she was the age of Mei; now she is the age of Satsuki. Although it had been years since last viewing, her delight showed me the imagery remains deeply etched in her memory. Revisiting the world of Totoro felt like revisiting a holiday destination from early childhood.
Ponyo is another Studio Ghibli film aimed squarely at a very young audience.
SETTING OF MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO
I much prefer the Studio Ghibli films set unambiguously in Japan. The European-inspired Japan as depicted in films like Kiki’s Delivery Service fall into uncanny valley for me. Totoro is set in Japan.
The story is meant to be set in Tokorozawa. If you’re using Chrome as your browser, here it is on Google Earth. This is where Miyazaki lives.
If you would like to visit the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, make sure to book your tickets from outside Japan, because overseas bookings are given preference. Perhaps unfairly, Japanese people booking from within their own country must book many more months in advance.
It’s not easy to guess at the era of My Neighbour Totoro unless you watch it very closely and can read Japanese. (Bear in mind that the main audience — Japanese toddlers — also cannot read Japanese.) The story could be set anytime from Miyazaki’s own boyhood until the 1980s when it was released.
Adult fans have looked really closely and realised it could be set in any number of years within the 1950s. Hayao Miyazaki has been pressed to divulge when, exactly, it’s meant to be set. He replied, “It’s supposed to be 1955, but we weren’t terribly thorough in our research. What came to mind was ‘a recent past’ that everyone can relate to.”
Note that Miyazaki uses the word ‘everyone’. That includes children. He hasn’t created any part of this world that 1980s children would be unable to understand without explanation.
Apart from the minor calendar clues within the intratext of the film, My Neighbour Totoro could easily have been set when it was made, in the 1980s. We don’t get a glimpse of life in the cities because the story arena is contained to a very small part of Japan.
The second year I went to Japan (1999) I stayed in a dormitory attached to a university. This dorms were nestled under a mountain, which sounds lovely, except it hadn’t benefitted from a single bit of maintenance since it was constructed at the end of the second world war. If I hadn’t ever visited the city, I might as well have been living in post-wartime Japan. This was a hugely different experience from my high school exchange student year in Yokohama, one train ride from Tokyo, tech mecca setting of futuristic fantasy. I recognise the house from My Neighbour Totoro — the tiled sink, the wooden items, the country manners.
Country Japan has always been bifurcated from urban Japan — a point of pride and also a point of ridicule. The word ‘inaka’ might loosely translate as ‘rural/country’ in English, but it sounds pejorative and insulting as well. (Imagine ‘bumpkin’ on the end of it.)
However, this is not Miyazaki’s view of rural Japan. For Miyazaki, the natural parts of Japan contain ancient magic, and a visit into wilderness afford a trip into the deep subconscious. The forests which surround this old homestead of My Neighbour Totoro function as a forest functions in a fairytale.
IS THIS A UTOPIA?
Does the setting of My Neighbour Totoro count as a genuine utopia? According to Maria Nikolajeva, there are seven requirements of a utopian setting and Totoro almost fits, except for number six: Absence of death or sexuality. The sick mother in hospital is a constant reminder that loved ones can die. Satsuki and Mei are terribly worried about their mother and this drives their actions.
Miyazaki adapted Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (released as The Secret World of Arrietty), which also includes the spectre of death with the child sick in bed. Perhaps Miyazaki wants to avoid sentimentality, which is a danger in creating genuine utopias. Genuine utopias are also quite difficult to set a film-length story in, because suspense must come from somewhere. Perhaps ‘unease’ is a better word than ‘suspense’.
Helen McCarthy is the author of Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation and has said that Death in Totoro is simply ‘there’. Death is presented as part of being alive.
Miyazaki does two very difficult things in this film with considerable delicacy and grace: he makes a film at a child’s pace and on a child’s level; and he allows death to assume a major role in the movie without demonising or personalising death.
Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation
The house itself might be considered a bit of a death trap. Our own pergola fell down a few years ago and it was a mission keeping everyone away from it for their own safety. But here, the girls come closer to calamity than they realise when they use the rotting post as a play thing:
This traditional old homestead also has a well — another common death trap, though it exists only as part of the background scenery.
The soot gremlins may or may not indicate the presence of evil. The girls no longer have a safe home. I believe young children will find this house as creepy as the characters do.
However, we might put forward the argument that any Hayao Miyazaki film is a moral utopia:
[T]hose who are familiar with Miyazaki can trace the film’s modern success to his stubborn moral mind. Reluctant to put his characters into straightforward ‘good’ and ‘evil’ boxes, the Ghibli stalwart nevertheless rewards the pure of heart and punishes greed and gluttony. It’s a trait that wasn’t missed by Roger Ebert, who described Totoro’s small kingdom as, “the world we should live in, not the one that we occupy.”
Despite the English translation of the title, ‘tonari’ does not just mean ‘neighbour’ as in ‘those who live in the place next door’. Tonari is a wider word than English ‘neighbour’ suggests, and can mean ‘next to’, or ‘alongside’. Imaginary creature Totoro is ‘alongside’ the girls at every step of their journey (as well as dwelling ‘nearby’.)
One rule of portal fantasy — there is a transition between the ‘real world’ and the ‘fantasy world’. The audience must be allowed to linger in this transitional space for a little while. Ideally, a scene or two will be set inside the transition, or right beside it. In this case, it’s the tunnel made of branches. The father even joins the girls there, blurring for them the sensible, rational adult world and the fantasy play world they have created.
It appears as if someone—probably Big Totoro himself—has invited Mei into the fantasy world. Awakened by the little girl, he appears to be startled not by her presence but by her audacity. Mei’s seclusion has led to Totoro’s invitation to his world; the child archetype acquires the protection of nature, alone and away from motherly care. Mei’s entrance into the fantasy world reminds the audience of the beauty and splendor of nature, which the present generation seems to have forgotten.
One of the first games we see the Kusakabe girls playing is a Cowboys and Indians fantasy. I haven’t seen modern children mimic the war cries of Native Americans — Westerns have evolved into anti-Westerns, we are a little more enlightened. There is no longer the romance of American expansionism — we no longer buy toy cowboy costumes for our boys as par for the course. This childhood game does plant the story quite firmly in the 1950s when, even in Japan, American culture was having a big influence on children’s fantasy lives (as well as in every other way).
Later the girls are disappointed to find their acorns won’t sprout. But in a fantasy scene quite clearly inspired by English tales such as “Jack and the Beanstalk”, they use arm movements to create a magical force. The trees grow huge in an instant.
MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO: THE JAPANESE WIZARD OF OZ?
We Westerners like to view non-Western art through the lens of Western art. It has been suggested that My Neighbour Totoro is ‘The Japanese Wizard of Oz’. This may be useful as a hook for a Western viewer otherwise disinclined to watch anime on its own terms.
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons for Totoro’s success is that everyone has their own interpretation of what it means. While the physical appearance of the title character has been compared to everything from an owl to a seal to a giant mouse troll, on a metaphysical level the theories run even deeper. In Miyazaki’s book of essays ‘Starting Point: 1979-1996’, Totoro is described as a creation of Mei and Satsuki’s imagination, a gentle giant who guides them through their mother’s illness.
Some believe Totoro to be a Kami (a spirit tied to nature) belonging to the camphor tree which Mei falls into the belly of while she’s out playing. The tagline on the original Japanese poster translates as, “These strange creatures still exist in Japan. Supposedly,” which summons thoughts of old souls and endless wisdom. Ultimately, you can project whatever you want onto Totoro.
If you grew up in non-Scandinavian country, what was your first introduction to trolls?
Near the end of the film, Satsuki and Mae are shown reading The Three Billy Goats Gruff on a futon with their mother. The creature on the book looks like the creature Totoro, which suggests Mei imagines him up, inspired by the Norwegian folktale.
When Mei ‘meets’ him, she knows exactly who he is. “You’re Totoro!”
In Japanese Three Billy Goats Gruff translates to 三びきのやぎのがらがらどん (Sanbiki no yagi no gara gara don) in which the ‘gara gara don’ is onomatopoeia for the tripp trapp, tripp trapp of the first written Norwegian version (modified only slightly for English, without the double ‘t’s.)
But maybe Mei read a European version — the ‘trot trot’ of the goats sounds a little like Totoro. It’s significant that Japanese is a heavily onomatopoeic language. Children are excellent at making up their own, original onomatopoeia and I put it to you that Japanese children are excellent at i. Is Totoro Mei’s phonetic rendition of trotting?
Alternatively, ‘troll’ is transcribed as ‘tororu’ in Japanese. A small Japanese speaking child could easily pronounce the word wrongly and come up with Totoro, because Totoro is easier to say than Tororu.
STORY STRUCTURE OF MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO
At first glance, My Neighbour Totoro does not follow The Rules Of Story as described by numerous (Western) story gurus. It just feels… different, somehow.
The story [of Totoro] is made up of a series of incidents or episodes, almost none of which I’d classify as a plot point, per se. The only truly tense moment comes late in the film, when Mei runs off to the hospital by herself, worried her mother is in danger. This turns out to have been a false alarm, and everyone is soon reunited. The whole thing is resolutely low-stakes and gentle, its narrative lumpy and relaxed.
I’ve been thinking about how much Western storytelling trains us to expect that writers show the audience where they’re going right up front. Main characters have to be introduced right away. Twists have to be foreshadowed. Inciting incident in the first 10% etc. BUT Many of my favorite stories, especially Asian ones, don’t adhere to these “rules.” In My Neighbor Totoro, Totoro doesn’t appear until 30 mins into a 90 min film. The slow sense of discovery makes the film enchanting. Can you imagine any American film waiting until the 33% mark?
I have no trouble doing my usual breakdown of it, but here’s the thing we need to understand about My Neighbour Totoro: It is much more like a picture book plot than a Pixar plot, and it’s important to understand the concept of the Carnivalesque. (This is why My Neighbour Totoro has been compared to Where The Wild Things Are — the stand out Western example of carnivalesque children’s literature.)
Satsuki and Mei are enduring an upheaval — in common with the beginning of many children’s stories, they are at the tail end of having been moved from some unknown prior location to a creepy big house in the country.
Before they can feel at home here they must face their fears of the unknown.
There’s a much bigger unknown which the girls are initially able to put to the back of their minds, distracted by the newness of the creepy house: Their mother is ill. Like Satsuki and Mei, the audience doesn’t know the nature of this illness. We are kept in a state of ignorance, which may be worse than actually knowing. This is the common experience of childhood — even when children are told things, we don’t know what it means. Not really. This makes childhood scary.
But Mei in particular is the Divine Child archetype, both vulnerable and invincible at once. (Jungian.) The audience understands this contract from the beginning, even if we don’t know Jung’s word for it — nothing really bad will happen to Mei.
The sibling duo in which the younger child is at one with fantasy and imagination while the older child is on the cusp of adulthood, is common in storytelling:
Unlike Mei, who fully enjoys her childhood, her elder sister is about to enter womanhood. Satsuki resembles Wendy in Peter Pan, who must work to believe in Peter, while her younger brothers have no problem believing in Neverland.
At the deepest level, Satsuki and Mei want their mother to get better and to join them in their new house. But this doesn’t make for a story. There needs to be a more specific desire, one that the characters might actually achieve.
This is where the story turns carnivalesque. Started by the younger and therefore more imaginative Mei (in a sequence reminiscent of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe), they invent (or discover) a magical world as proxy for their subconscious. By entering into this world they will:
In a carnivalesque children’s story, supernatural/mythic creatures appear and they may appear scary. In this case, it is the large Totoro’s size. Notice how Mei at first encounters small, rabbit-sized Totoros — this correlates to how her fears intensify over the course of the story. In Japan, these totoros are known as Big Totoro, Medium-sized Totoro and Little Totoro. (This reminds me of The Three Bears.)
But Totoro is also furry like a welcoming great bed.
Despite this, Totoro has an element of danger. I’m thinking, if the creature rolls over, Mei could easily be squashed. The scene with Mei and Totoro contains a minor ‘Battle’ of a big sneeze, as Mei fiddles with Totoro’s whiskers. Many children’s picture books feature an outsized bodily function as the climax, most notably in fairytales such as The Three Little Pigs, but also in Yertle The Turtle and Julia Donaldson’s Wake Up Do, Lydia Lou!
In a cosy story like My Neighbour Totoro, the main characters will meet allies (helpers) along their mythic journey.
Then there is Granny. Mei is scared of her at first, perhaps because she is new, perhaps because she is old, perhaps because she is associated with a scary house. The Granny, like many elderly characters in children’s stories, lives in her own version of a fantasy world. She tells the girls quite confidently that if their mother ate her fresh homegrown vegetables, her illness will clear right up. This is not an especially responsible thing to tell a child, and it is what sets Mei off on her journey to deliver the corn cob to her mother. (This has been foreshadowed by Mei telling her father that she is a big girl now and is off to do ‘errands’. The father thinks nothing of this at the time.)
The boy next door (Granny’s real grandson) is positioned as a natural opponent because he is a boy. Satsuki declares that she does not like boys. However, Kanta reveals his kindness by offering the girls his umbrella — a well-known trope in Japan, where people will indeed share their umbrellas with you if you are caught in a downpour. (Downpours are common during rainy season — when Kanta is chastised by his mother for failing to take an umbrella, there was a surefire bet it would rain heavily.)
Totoro turns up at the bus stop at night — a scary prospect for the girls, whose deeper fear is: “What has happened to Dad?” Dad hasn’t turned up when expected. Without their father, the girls would be utterly alone in the world. So once again, Totoro turns up as a proxy for their fear, and the girls transform him (or her — where did those mini Totoros come from?) into a non-threatening, childlike creature who is so unassuming he is startled by heavy raindrops falling onto the umbrella lent to him by the girls.
In a suspenseful story for adults (say, anything from the thriller/detective genres), there will be a chase sequence. Here, too, there is a chase: Mei chases after the intriguing little creatures. In other words, it is Mei who drives the action, not the other way round. The utopian, cosy atmosphere would have been punctured had the Totoros been chasing Mei instead.
Mei also drives the action by visiting Satsuki at school.
Finally, she takes off on a one-girl mission to save her mother. Notice that before she does so, the sisters have an argument.
The Battle sequence, in which the village searches for Mei, is similar to cross-genre ‘lost child’ sequences. We wonder if Mei is dead when a child’s sandal is found. (I wonder who it belonged to?)
Satsuki finds Mei by visiting Totoro. Totoro is able to fly, and can also summon the cat bus. Satsuki saves Mei by making use of forest magic. At least, that’s the fantasy layer of the story.
More literally, Satsuki may summon the courage to find Mei of her own accord, imagining that she has the protection of mysterious, fantasy companions that she and Mei both conjured up, thereby leading her to Mei. By entering Mei’s imaginary Totoro world, Satsuki is also able to deduce that Mei has gone to the hospital with a ‘magic’ vegetable.
Ultimately, this is a story about two children who overcome their fears. They do this with the discovery that they are an integral part of the natural world. This discovery is proxy for the more mature insight they will develop later: That in order to be alive, we must also die. For now, though, their mother is not facing imminent death.
When Satsuki and Mei see their parents through the hospital window, they get the feeling everything with their mother is going to be all right. Often in visual storytelling, when characters come to some sort of realisation they are positioned at an elevated altitude. In this case they are up a tree — ostensibly so they can see through the window — symbolically because they now have a broader view on the situation and can put their mother’s illness in perspective.
This variety of Anagnorisis combines well with a Child Archetype such as Mei:
The child comes in the very beginning of life. Yet the child also symbolizes the rebirth of a new child; before the rebirth, death must come. The child archetype is an initial and a terminal creature, and represents the process of death and rebirth. When Mei sets out to the hospital to heal her mother, her family loses her for a period of time. The finding of the lost child symbolizes the rebirth of Mei. For Satsuki, finding Mei also means the rediscovery of her childhood. In the embrace of Satsuki and Mei, one witnesses the outcome of Mei’s death and rebirth. The child has combined the opposites, and the spirits are the witnesses to the event. The film ends with the happy smiles of people holding and hugging Mei and the spirits of nature looking over the cheerful scene from the top of the big camphor tree. Mei’s coming home completes a stage in the progression of human beings.
No matter what happens to the mother, Mei and Satsuki are now emotionally equipped to handle whatever cards they are dealt. They have learnt resilience by means of the power of imagination.
Worth mentioning: The original tagline was “We brought what you left behind.” Clearly this refers to Mei’s delivery of the corn cob, but also works at the symbolic level — Mei reunites her family and village with the wonder of nature around them.
THE ART OF MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO
There is much to be said on this topic — I’ll focus on just a few things.
Taking a condense snapshot of main colours (depicted in the poster below), it’s clear how much of this film is set in the rural outdoors (green). The blue band takes the Kusakabe girls into the sky on a flight fantasy in the cat bus. Another green band takes them further into nature. Disregarding the light orange (which indicates the credits) notice the film is bookended by browns — the brown is the home, at first new and scary, by the end a true home.
More recently I’ve been following a discussion about how scenes in Totoro break the rules of perspective, as it is traditionally taught. At first glance scenes look like cartoonified versions of photographs, but that’s not the case. People have whipped their rulers out and discovered that the animators/background artists have broken traditional ‘rules’ (made in the West) to include more information in a single scene.
This, too, is more in line with the off-kilter perspective found in children’s picture books than in animation aimed at older audiences, in which case scenes tend to be beautiful for their technical prowess.
In a film aimed squarely at children, it is perhaps unusual that Miyazaki’s characters don’t have that big-eyed, anime look. On the other hand, the character designs are very much in line with picture books — an art form which has so far rejected the ‘anime look’. In fact, I’ve heard agents and publishers advise illustrators to steer well clear of manga-esque characterisation if the aim is to illustrate picture books. The movements of Totoro’s characters are beautifully accurate impressions of how children actually move — in common with how the best children’s book illustrators are able to depict realistic movement in their picture books. The scene in which Mei scoots forward on Totoro’s belly could not have been achieved without close observation of young children. Hayao Miyazaki is well-known for his attention to detail. If he needs to depict water flowing over rocks in a stream, he will go and watch water flowing over rocks in a stream.
“The Love Of A Good Woman” by Alice Munro is the title story in the collection which won the Nobel Prize in Literature, 2013. It’s a long short story — about 70 pages. We might even call it a novella, though let’s just go with this:
The title story of Alice Munro’s collection, The Love of a Good Woman, provides an illustrative “example of the difference between novelistic elaboration and short story mystery and intensity.”
from the introduction to The Art of Brevity edited by Per Winther, quoting Charles May
Here’s my best description of “The Love Of A Good Woman”: a literary Stand By Me, in which we never find out what happens, because the mystery is not the point.
Both are set in the 1950s (Munro’s story in 1951; Stand By Me in 1959).
Both feature a plot in which boys out on a day trip adventure aim to gain respect by (or after) finding a dead body.
Both are set in a fictional small town where everyone knows everyone.
Even in Stand By Me, the story is really about relationships rather than the dead body.
Stand By Me is based on a Stephen King short story (called “The Body”). Both short stories feature dream sequences.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE LOVE OF A GOOD WOMAN”
The story begins with three boys finding the body of the town’s optometrist in his car submerged in the river. Although one might expect the plot immediately to focus on the mystery of the drowned man, Munro is in absolutely no hurry to satisfy the reader’s curiosity. She follows the three boys into their individual homes and leisurely explores their ordinary secretes. At the beginning of the next section of the story, Munro leaves the body and the boys altogether and focuses on a cranky dying woman, Mrs. Quinn, cared for by a lonely home nurse named Enid. Mrs Quinn tells Enid that Rupert, her husband, killed the optometrist when he saw him trying to fondle her. When Mrs. Quinn dies, Enid, who cares for Rupert, decides she must tell him what she has heard and urge him to give himself up. The way she decides to do this, however, creates the open-ended ambiguity of the story: she asks him to row her out on the river, where she will tell him what she knows, also informing him that she cannot swim. At the last minute, she changes her mind but cannot escape the situation. the story ends just before they leave the shore, so the reader does not know whether Enid confronts Rupert and, if she does, whether he pushes her in the river or rows them both back to the shore.
“The Love Of A Good Woman” begins like a novel, but instead of continuing to broaden out, as it introduces new characters and seemingly new stories, it tightens up, slowly connecting what at first seemed disparate and unrelated. It is a classic example of Munro’s technique of creating a world that has all the illusion of external reality, while all the time pulling the reader deeper and deeper into what becomes a hallucinatory inner world of mystery, secrecy, and deception.
Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity
[Alice Munro] is so gentle though, so respectful. She doesn’t make that error that Katherine Mansfieldstamped on in DH Lawrence of invading bodies and psyches as if we could ever understand others by magical omniscience rather than by empathy.
Cece Ferns — never tells his family anything. An only child. Older parents than usual. The older Cece Ferns is a heavy drinker and smoker. He abuses the son. It’s not clear if he abuses his wife or if the wife is suffering from another ailment. Cece has stepped into the role of carer.
Bud Salter — called “Buddy” by adults (he doesn’t like that). Bud comes from a bustling nuclear family with older sisters who are in the throes of romance and teenage-hood, and a much younger brother. The mother is harried and the father is presumably at work. This household feels a bit like that depicted in Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Malcolm in the Middle. Far from ‘perfect’, but also very homely.
Jimmy Box — Jimmy lives with a huge extended family. His father is disabled after polio as a 22-year-old. He has a bicycle-repair shop in the shed behind the house. This is another bustling household a little similar to Bud’s, except the family seem to genuinely get along. In contrast to Bud’s self-absorbed older sisters, Jimmy’s sisters apologise whenever they bump into one another. And his father is as nice outside the home as he is in it.
Ralph Diller — mentioned by name — another boy who could have easily been swapped out for any of the others. Not present for this particular discovery.
Mrs Willens — is out in her garden, seemingly unaware that her optometrist husband is dead in the water.
Colonel Box — related to Jimmy but slightly estranged
Mr Pollock — retired from the drugstore
Fergus Solley — ‘not a half-wit but looked like one’
Captain Tervitt — had been a real captain. Now special constable. Deaf and doesn’t normally wear hearing aids. Sleeps on the job but is nonetheless respected around town. A very prankable grown-up, in other words.
Enid — the home nurse for Mrs Quinn. Went to school with Rupert and was part of a group which bullied Rupert. Grew up next to Mr and Mrs Willens.
Mrs Quinn — says she’s age 27, on her death bed. Liver disease.
Mrs Olive Green — Mrs Quinn’s sister-in-law.
Rupert Quinn — Mrs Quinn’s husband, Olive Green’s husband. Tall. Potato Irish face. If he remembers Enid from school, he doesn’t let on.
Lois Quinn — Quinn daughter
Sylvie Quinn — Quinn daughter
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE LOVE OF A GOOD WOMAN”
In its structural sophistication, richness of theme, and moral complexity, “The Love of a Good Woman” is one of the most thought provoking stories in Munro’s oeuvre, arguably her most ambitious achievement. In the two collections published in the first half of the 2000s, namely Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage and Runaway, the writer continues to surprise and challenge readers, and scholars. Much in the fictive territory is familiar— the southwest Ontario settings; one narrator’s impulsive infidelity, another’s long- practiced aloofness— but the reader will notice some changes in the landscape.
Clearly, Alice Munro has never been an adolescent boy herself. But I swear she’s been following a group of them round, including inside their heads. I’ve never been an adolescent boy either, but I fully believe she’s depicted their psychology perfectly. These boys are stuck uncomfortably between being children and respected men in a patriarchal culture, expected to behave in a certain way — strong and stoic — that is their arch weakness. Or perhaps their real Shortcoming is that they are prematurely wanting to be treated like men when they don’t have the skill set yet. If they could just relax and enjoy being children for a while longer, they wouldn’t have any problems, to be fair. They could’ve just told their parents about the body, after all. Alice Munro makes sure to explain why they didn’t do this, within the third person narration.
Enid is the main character of the other thread in this story, and psychologically complex. Alice Munro is a writer who understands that people behave differently according to the situation. Enid is a wonderfully kind, giving and self-sacrificial adult. Yet as a teenager she was on the wrong side of bullying. This describes many adults, I think. Munro doesn’t do anything basic like try to convince us that Enid’s utter goodness as an adult is all down to the guilt she feels about picking on Rupert in high school. This really is a matter of situational psychology — sociable people who are decent adult human beings can be drawn into the bullying system of high school due to those exact same sociable attributes.
They want to be taken seriously. But they also don’t want the responsibilities of adulthood just yet. In this particular story, this Desire manifests in several competing desires: To earn the prestige of having found a body; to run away from the confronting reality of death.
Enid’s backstory tells us that she wanted to be a nurse, but because of she belongs to the last generation of girls who were never expected to have a job, she is persuaded away from becoming a registered nurse and instead becomes a practise nurse (less corrupting). She would obviously like to be useful and helpful. And what is her Desire in this particular story?
Who stands in the way of the boys being taken seriously? Natal families tend to stand in the way of this, no matter how ‘good’ they are. The job of the adolescent is to bifurcate oneself from the natal home and establish an independent identity. The families themselves are therefore the boys’ Opponents, as well as all the adults around the town who treat them as boys, rather than as the respectable men they are hoping to be (prematurely).
The unseen Opponent of the entire town is obviously whoever killed the optometrist. But this literary short story does not belong to the thriller/detective/murder mystery genres, and so Alice Munro is under no obligation to prioritise the importance of the murderer.
Who stands in the way of Enid’s wish to feel useful and helpful? Mrs Quinn herself achieves this by being such an unpleasant patient. This provokes unwanted, unpleasant emotions in Enid that Enid would rather pretend she never experience. So Mrs Quinn is one of her Opponents.
Enid’s mother, too, is an Opponent because this is a woman who believes women of means should not be working, and certainly not working so hard. But because she is reliant as an adult upon the income of her natal family, Enid is in a similar situation to the boys who found the body — not fully realised as an independent person. For the boys this is because of their age; for Enid it is gender.
As expected, due to their Shortcoming and Desire, the boys do a very responsible, adult thing by Planning to report the body to police. But when faced with the reality of the sergeant their younger selves win out, this time. They prank the old man and run away.
Unlike the novel, which would be bound to develop some sort of satisfying closure, [“The Love Of A Good Woman”] reaches a moral impasse, an ambiguous, open end in which the reader suddenly realizes that instead of living in the world of apparent reality, he or she has been whirled, as if by a centrifugal force, to an almost unbearable central point of intensity.
How else can we explain by Alice Munro left us hanging like that? This is a story about truth vs reality, and reality is presented as unattainable. Via dreams and unreliable narrators (the sick and dying; the boys; and even Mr Quinn’s testimony, whose word would be so unreliable it’s not even worth us hearing it) we live out our lives and we all need to find the particular kind of humility in which we’ll never know the full truth of any situation. We are all unreliable narrators.
Notice how Munro has set this up. She has included:
Narration about how sick people often go through a phase of extreme pessimistic and lack of confidence, all out of whack with the reality of their sometimes very nice lives.
Enid has these sex dreams which disturb her, but which she puts down to mind garbage.
Enid has this false memory in which she sees her father sucking a woman’s breast. Some people mistakenly use the phrase ‘false memory syndrome‘. Avoid that, because it’s not a syndrome in the medical sense. False memories are so common that we should in fact consider them a natural mechanism of the human brain. I have a few myself. I distinctly remember walking around as a young kid at my nana’s motel. I encountered one of the cleaning ladies in the linen cupboard. Instead of saying hello, she pushed me right over to the ground before walking past me. The ‘memory’ is as vivid as any other from my preschool years, but I don’t believe it happened. I was far too clingy a child to be walking around the motel complex without my mother, for starters.
The boys probably told someone about the dead body eventually, or perhaps someone else did. In any case, we never find out more about them. Their story feels a little like a McGuffin. But we can extrapolate what will happen to the boys, because Munro has given us enough to go on with Enid’s backstory, and the description of all the people who use the textbooks, and how people’s lives tend to go in this town after they finish their high school education.
We don’t know whether Enid lives or dies. We don’t know whether Mr Quinn committed the manslaughter. But what we do know is that Enid has reached the absolute pinnacle of self-sacrifice. Whatever happens out on that lake, she’ll never be the same again.
Illness, disability and disfigurement has a problematic history in children’s literature. What are the main problems, today and in the past, and how might writers aspire to do better?
A BRIEF HISTORY OF CHILDREN’S LITERATURE AND ILLNESS
When you think of classic children’s literature and illness, you’re likely to come up with The Secret Garden.
The Secret Garden […] presents ideas that could certainly be called subversive, since at the time they were new and of dubious reputation. In this case, however, they are ideas about religion, psychology, and health. Colin’s self-hypnotic chanting recalls the sermons of Christian Science or New Thought, in both of which Mrs. Burnett [the author] was interested. The idea that illness is often largely psychological, and can be cured by positive thinking, permeates [The Secret Garden]. Another new concept is that of the healing power of nature, of fresh air and outdoor exercise. Today we take ideas like this for granted, but Mrs. Burnett grew up in an age when the only exercise permitted to middle-class women was going for walks. The Secret Garden also shows the influence of the new paganism that found a following among liberal intellectuals of the time. It contains a kind of nature spirit in Dickon, the farm boy who spends whole days on the moors talking to plants and animals and who is a sort of cross between Kipling’s Mowgli and the many adult incarnations of the rural [man-beast god] Pan who appear in Edwardian fiction.
Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grownups: The subversive power of children’s literature
Now we are in the Third Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Children’s stories have never been so accomplished or diverse. Still, there have been expressions of concern lately about the amount of ill-health in contemporary children’s literature. Ill-health is one of modern children’s literature’s defining features.
Author Philip Womack and his fellow judges read 60 books to come up with the shortlist for the Branford Boase award, which rewards children’s authors at the start of their careers and has honoured names from Meg Rosoff to Mal Peet in the past. According to Womack, at least a third of the submissions this year had a “very similar narrative: there’s an ill child at home, who notices something odd, and is probably imagining it, but not telling the reader. They’re all in the first person, all in the present tense, all of a type,” he said.
“Children’s adventure it seems has become internal, the setting no longer the outside world but frequently the family, with narrative tension and action arising from issues such as mental health and individual trauma,” [Julie Eccleshare] said.
For Womack, small-scale dramas, focusing on illness or disability, can be done well – he pointed to titles including Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and RJ Palacio’s Wonder – but “in order to write this kind of narrative you need to be very skilful and I just think the problem is that publishers and authors maybe imagine that if you give a character an illness, they will be sympathetic”.
It’d be easy to assume, then, that there’s one clean trajectory threading the history of children’s literature, starting at healthy and robust, moving to physically ill, to mentally ill, to so protected and cosseted in cotton wool that it’s impossible to get injured, but inevitable to suffer mentally. Or, the main character is literally dead, narrating from beyond the grave. The Lovely Bones type narratives are the epitome of illness, in a way.
But the history of illness in fiction doesn’t look like that at all.
Why do we see more illustrations of children in bed, or wrapped up, in earlier ages? After finding this in a ‘humorous’ book of cautionary tales for children, I feel these images of laid-up children looking sad are partly to warn children off dangerous forms of play.
I also wonder if the contemporary absence of convalescing children is because our modern culture no longer remembers the concept of convalescence.
Ill-health in storytelling goes back to oral folktales. The Grimm Brothers produced seven different collections of tales. The final (considered definitive) was specifically designed to sell to families with children, and for that volume the Grimm Brothers fleshed out the oral tales they collected, adding their own puritanical Christian and misogynistic morals. But the two eldest Grimm brothers started off as pure collectors, and it was only in 2014 that Jack Zipes published his translations of that first, unadulterated collection of oral fairy tales into English. In the preface, Zipes writes:
The tales of the first edition are often about “wounded” young people, and many of them were told to illustrate ongoing conflicts that continue to exist in our present day. For instance, the tales frequently depict the disputes that young protagonists have with their parents; children brutally treated and abandoned: soldiers in need: young women persecuted; sibling rivalry; exploitation and oppression of young people; dangerous predators; spiteful kings and queens abusing their power; and Death punishing greedy people and rewarding a virtuous boy.
Zipes emphasises that these tales existed for several hundred years before the Grimm Brothers collected them. He’s also keen to remind us that these tales weren’t originally designed for children. They can’t really be considered children’s literature, partly because there was no clear delineation between the concept of adult and child. Zipes makes a link between ‘wounded’ and the ‘underdog’ as archetype:
Throughout the tales of the first edition, there is what I call an ‘underdog’ perspective. That is, there is almost always a clear hostility toward abusive kings, cannibals, witches, giants, and nasty people and animals. There is always a clear sympathy for innocent and simple-minded protagonists, male and female, little people, and helpless but courageous animals. Kings often renege on their promises or abuse and exploit their subjects, including their daughters, and they are either exposed, dethroned, or killed.
Even in modern storytelling, audiences have a strong preference for the underdog. In fact, one of the best ways to get an audience to side with a villain (antihero) is to show him (or rarely, her) in a vulnerable, low-status or put-upon position during the set-up. We see it in Breaking Bad, when Walter is sprung washing cars by his high school students. We see it in The Sopranos, when Tony does procures a CD player for his old mother who treats him like dirt.
This leads into reasons why stories about sick main characters are popular, and why writers might make use of illness to explore various ideas about the human experience. Let’s look at some case studies.
Cancer: The Fault In Our Stars
Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.
Marketing copy for The Fault In Our Stars
The blockbuster contemporary sick-lit YA novel is of course by John Green. Published 2012, The Fault In Our Stars has since been made into a film. Green took a few years between that and his next book, which is not about cancer but about mental ill-health, based on his own experiences with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
When one partner of a love story has a major illness, this is a legitimate and believable way to keep to love opponents apart. This is increasingly more difficult to do as a writer of love stories, because in our more free Western culture it’s fine to get together with the person you love, without a novel-length amount of longing and lust. That alone would be a bad reason to write terminally ill characters. Writing about cancer might be a way for teens with cancer to see a representation of their experiences in fiction — an experience previously ignored, and therefore taboo.
There’s another big reason which may account for the popularity of The Fault In Our Stars. As Nicole Galante argues in her paper “A Genre Against Them: Regulating Young Adults Through Literature“, most YA literature affords young people power… if only they are patient (and don’t die). This is a false kind of power, and probably not all that pleasing to read. This tendency accounts for the fact that most YA stories are ‘future-oriented’.
However, stories in which characters have no guaranteed future cannot be future-oriented. The characters must find a way to grasp hold of their power in the here and now. This makes literature about sickness surprisingly fresh.
Popular as it is with its target audience, The Fault In Our Stars did catch a little heat. Some readers felt Green went beyond ‘depiction and representation’ and slipped into ‘glorification’ territory.
Trust me, I understand that the deification of pain and suffering is a longtime feature of fiction. I bring up The Fault in Our Stars because as much as those characters explicitly and repeatedly speak angrily of people who idealize death, the text itself idealizes death; that book is widely beloved. The idea that suffering distills us down to something pure is an old and lauded trope of Western fiction.
Green’s Turtles All The Way Down is not the only blockbuster book about OCD. The following year gave usAm I Normal Yet? by Holly Bourne.
All Evie wants is to be normal. She’s almost off her meds and at a new college where no one knows her as the girl-who-went-crazy. She’s even going to parties and making friends. There’s only one thing left to tick off her list… But relationships are messy – especially relationships with teenage guys. They can make any girl feel like they’re going mad. And if Evie can’t even tell her new friends Amber and Lottie the truth about herself, how will she cope when she falls in love?
Marketing copy for Am I Normal Yet?
It’s interesting that the marketing copy says nothing about the main problem in the book — Evie is living with OCD. This is kept as an early reveal. Am I Normal Yet? is a popular YA novel and the first in a series known as The Spinster Club. The narrative is surprisingly didactic at times, launching into Tumblr-like tirades on issues such as the casual flinging about of terms like ‘OCD’ and ‘panic attack’ when the speaker has no idea what these conditions really mean for people living with them. As per the marketing copy, this is mostly a story about a young woman who is delving into dating, a bit later than her peers, due to her early teenage years being filled up with the nothingness and imprisonment of OCD. Like various other stories (The Sopranos, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, Big Little Lies), sessions with the therapist provide further insight into the main character’s head, even though it’s written in first person. Such self-examination in someone so young would otherwise seem unrealistic.
Plot-wise, Evie’s OCD depicts an exaggerated response to the normal (but healthy) anxiety shared by all young people as they enter the dating world. Strangely, I was reminded of Diary of a Wimpy Kid when reading this. Greg Heffley is younger of course, and prepubertal. (My favourite word. Go on, say it aloud.) Greg is disgusted by adult bodies, which comes to the fore (in sometimes sexist and fatphobic ways) as he visits the local pool, for instance. In this young adult novel Evie is older in years, but still having trouble reconciling the admixture of emotions around finding sex and romance appealing, yet repulsive. Evie’s OCD shines a light on something common to many — the unaroused state of looking in at romance and thinking it’s totally gross and crazy, versus the state of arousal and attraction, in which all of those feelings (normally, ideally) go straight out the window. In short, the main character’s OCD examines a common disconnect around romantic love and the dirtiness of sex.
Memory Loss: The Secret History Of Us
There is a subcategory of young adult novels which star young women who have lost their memory. The memory loss might be due to an accident, or there might be science fiction/paranormal/crime elements. She gradually recovers her memory over the course of the story. This is a subcategory of the amnesia story — a narrative device which allows reader and main character to discover the setting together, creating extra empathy for the main character.
I’m searching for the chosen one/long-lost princess/heroine, who disappeared as a baby. I’m definitely not going to check orphanages for pretty teenage girls who have suspiciously specific amnesia.
@Brooding YA Hero
In 2008 we got The Adoration of Jenna Foxby Mary E. Pearson. Set in near-future America, seventeen year old Jenna awakes from a coma after a terrible accident. Memories slowly return as she watches movies of her life. It reads as a teen medical drama.
In 2011 we got The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodgkin. Mara wakes up in a hospital with no memories of how she got there. She can’t remember the accident that killed her friends. She has PTSD and her family is concerned for her mental health. (Unlike many paranormal young adult stories, Mara has a family who cares about her.)
In 2014 we got Don’t Look Back by Jennifer L. Armentrout, about a young woman whose best friend has gone missing. Sam herself wakes up with no memories. The facts of Cassie’s disappearance are buried deep inside Sam’s memory.
2017 gave us The Secret Memory Of Us, whose plot looks very much like a newer version of The Adoration of Jenna Fox.
Olivia wakes up to realize she doesn’t remember. Not just the accident—but anything from the last four years. Not high school. Not Matt, the guy who is apparently her boyfriend. Not the reason she and Jules are no longer friends. Nothing. That’s when it hits her—the accident may not have taken her life, but it took something just as vital: her memory. The harder she tires to remember things, the foggier everything gets, and figuring out who she is feels impossible when everyone keeps telling her who she was. But then there’s Walker. The guy who saved her. The one who broke her ribs pumping life back into her lungs. The hardened boy who keeps his distance despite Olivia’s attempts to thank him. With her feelings growing for Walker, tensions rising with Matt, and secrets she can’t help but feel are being kept from her, Olivia must find her place in a life she doesn’t even remember living.
Marketing copy of The Secret History Of Us by Jessi Kirby
The ur-story of the ‘female led love story with memory loss’ is Sleeping Beauty. When the young woman remembers nothing of her past, authors have a lot of storytelling techniques at their disposal:
The female main character can undergo a sexual awakening, even if she’s had one before. We tend to romanticise our first sexual experiences, replaying them over and over in our minds. In The Secret Memory Of Us, Olivia gets to experience her first kiss with a boyfriend she has had for a while, and therefore safe with. In the story, she’s literally redoing her first kiss. To the young reader, this feels cosy and safe.
The female main character is at a permanent disadvantage. The boys around her — namely, her love interests, her brothers, everyone — knows more than she does. This allows the writer (and readers) to indulge in the helpless girl fantasy, in which adolescent girls are saved by more mature, competent boys. This is a common and enduring fantasy. The wide appeal of the Twilight books stand as evidence of that.
But if the female main character is passive through no fault of her own — e.g. a car accident — the author can also depict her as a ‘strong character’ with plenty of agency. Unlike Bella Swan, Olivia can’t be described as passive. The main character of a memory loss story can be really quite proactive in reclaiming her memories, piecing clues together with the singular focus of a detective. In other words, the memory loss plot allows an author to create a young woman who is both helpless and proactive at the same time.
A girl is forced to face the reality of her illness, engages in recovery through her ambivalent relationships with other sick teens, and ultimately figures out how to “come out” to the “normal” kids and gain acceptance even though she’s marked as different.
Kumbler also noticed some problems. One is to do with the cover art:
They [girls depicted on the covers] are unmarked by their illnesses, so there’s no physical difference to bar identification between healthy reader and ill character. The covers, then render illness invisible while simultaneously reinforcing our cultural imagination of tragically beautiful illness as the province of vulnerable white female bodies.
Another problem is to do with the accidental enforcement of the rules of femininity:
Illness novels (like other YA novels for girls) emphasize the importance of protocols of femininity, which must be followed regardless of whether one is sick or well. In McDaniel’s Six Months to Live(1985), for example, the central characters do each other’s makeup while in the hospital.
Another problem is in line with the point Barbara Ehrenreich made in her book about relentless and unhelpful positivity, Smile Or Die:
[The sick teenage girl is] urged to fight cancer through “imaging” techniques
Separately, the patriarchal nature of the medical system generally goes unchallenged and unexamined.
Kumbler lists some character tropes common to illness YA:
main characters defined by fashion choices, extracurricular activities, hair type, and parental occupation
the cute and charming terminally ill child
the amputee/cancer survivor potential boyfriend
the strong, attentive older brother
the “normal” guy at school who serves as crush object but is often a jerk
the father who can’t accept his daughter’s illness
hospital staff with accents or personality quirks (an Irish brogue, a tendency toward clumsiness, extreme perkiness)
And describes a common plot:
Typically, mysterious symptoms lead to diagnosis
Which leads to denial and angst
Which ultimately leads to either acceptance and cure or acceptance and death.
Illness is more common than disability, and when there is disability, it’s usually the result of an earlier illness. This is because there’s a lot more potential for drama in a new diagnosis.
The girl commonly keeps her illness hidden, but is punished when the secret comes out.
SICKNESS ON TV
It’s not just young adult literature which has been including characters with mental illness as part (or main character) in the cast. This is a trend also seen on television.
TV, and comedy especially, has really delved into mental illness recently. What do you think makes that such a prescient topic right now?
It’s funny because it definitely does feel like that’s a thing that’s happening on TV and that we are a part of it. But it was never our intention to really delve into exploring mental illness or different versions of depression or anything like that.
I think we’re just seeing more and more are shows that are allowed to take their characters seriously. I think that’s something BoJack is and I think the fact that you’re seeing more and more shows that are serialised goes hand in hand with that. In the past, a character had a funny quirk, but you couldn’t really delve into that because you had to make every episode make sense on its own. You couldn’t go too dark with it; you had to keep that status quo going for as long as possible.
But now you’re seeing the creators of the show really take those quirks seriously, and the actors can take that seriously and go, ‘Okay, well what does that mean that this character acts this way? Or react to these situations in this manner? Why would his character do that?’ You can keep asking questions and following up on that. These characterisations get richer and deeper and more deeply felt.
If you look at the last 60 years of television, I think you’d actually see a lot of characters that exhibit the symptoms, perhaps, of the kind of thing you see now. The only difference is now you can really unpack that and we’re given the space and the interest to really explore those things and take them seriously — and take the characters seriously.
It’s possible the balance of sickness and illness is pushing out adventure stories, but is publishing a zero sum game? If there’s a problem, could it be publishers are promoting domestic dramas more than they’re promoting adventure stories? So, a problem with marketing? Or is it readers themselves who are leading the charge here?
In representing serious illness such as cancer, and combining them with love stories, lightening the tone, are authors accidentally glorifying those very illnesses they’re hoping to realistically depict?
In a memory loss love story, does the proactivity of the female character in regaining her memory and solving the mystery really compensate for her inherent passivity? Related: If a young reader enjoys ‘female passivity’ fantasies, is that going to cross over into her real life, causing problems in relationships?
In medical dramas which give a lot of information about the illnesses and symptoms, the descriptions can border on the grotesque, turning the story into a gross-out experience. An injection can almost seem titillating.
By focusing heavily on a character’s illness, the author is setting the character up as separate from the reader. There’s a risk the author will end up making the reader feel like a caring person with a character arc which starts off invoking reader repulsion for reader pity.
Sick characters can position the character as a source of inspiration for non-sick readers. Perversely, sick characters can be set up as someone to idolize because of their illness. Idolisation doesn’t equal social acceptance or recognition.
A new diagnosis allows dramatic potential in loss of social status, beauty and romantic potential, as if it’s impossible to be ill as well as have social status, beauty and romantic potential.
In stories where a girl is punished for ever having kept her illness hidden, this is a clear message that it’s wrong to keep your own medical details to yourself. (This actually reminds me of some problems with the current #MeToo movement, in which authors writing about any sort of identity must come out publicly in order to be accepted as a legitimate voice.)
Teen illness stories are rarely narrated by the sick girl herself. First person narration via healthy best friend or sister has traditionally been a common viewpoint. In Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the story is narrated by a boy who lives nearby. The Fault In Our Stars may have marked an abrupt shift in how illnesses are depicted in young adult fiction. Green’s book is narrated by Hazel herself, which avoids all sorts of problems (mentioned above). Namely, if the girl dies at the end (or even if she doesn’t) the person who undergoes the character arc is the bystander, not the girl herself. Like the titular Million Dollar Baby, the sick/disabled girl is the sacrificial lamb for the (more important) bystander.
Disability And Disfigurement As Moral Problems
Disfigurement is a separate issue from disability, but worth a mention.
Disability and disfigurement aren’t the same thing, though of course a person can have both. Disability is about what a person can or can’t do (or the fact that society says they can’t, or doesn’t set them accessible paths); disfigurement is about how a person’s body appears.
But disfigurement, specifically, is alive and well in children’s literature — often used oppressively by the narrative. It’s often a symbol of evil, or a punishment, or something negative, or something meaningful on moral levels, as something for a character to “overcome.” It’s almost never simply a way that bodies can be. But in real life — like disability, like fatness, like other embodied aspects that literature uses oppressively — disfigurement is simply a way that bodies can be. We need to call out oppressive use of disfigurement in children’s literature. Notice when it’s a symbol. Notice what it’s a symbol of. Notice when it’s a punishment. Talk about it.
“If you give handicaps & scars to your characters only as a way of marking them as evil, outcasts, tough and manly, or to make them feel exotic/mysterious (aka, to other-ize them), think about what that says to your real-life readers, and then think outside the stereotype box.”
When characters are sick, they need to be the ‘main characters’ of their own stories. Whatever the narrative technique chosen, they should be the ones undergoing the character arc. The safest way to achieve this is to narrate the story via the sick character, not from her sister/boyfriend/neighbourhood boy.
Descriptions of the medical treatments need to be a careful balance between realistic/informative and grotesque. Ideally, we need #OwnVoices narratives.
We all know someone with illness. We’ll all lose health at some point. The stories overall should challenge the positioning of able and healthy bodies as normalcy.
Related to this, there’s plenty of opportunity for critique of the current medical establishment and its various problems, including refusing to take young women seriously when they report problems with their bodies.
There’s also plenty of opportunity for political commentary of user-pays health systems, and how that alone can wreck families. Or how having an illness without a name is harder to deal with. Or how having an invisible illness is a different experience from having an obvious one.
The stories should leave teen readers with a more nuanced and complex understanding of illness, including the surrounding politics.
Anyone who has fought the medical establishment as a teenage girl knows that, as far as most doctors are concerned, teenage girls are not considered honest or accurate reporters of their own unusual symptoms
The emphasis in the First Golden Age [of children’s literature] was very much on being healthy in mind and body – if a child became sick, he or she usually got well as part of their story. Today’s reader has no such encouragement. There is an alarming trend in what has been termed “sick-lit” which seems to wallow in the idea of a child self-harming, being ill, dying, or even committing suicide. I trace this back to a novel which was not written for children at all, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, but it has spread into best-selling books like Ways to Live Forever, Before I Say Goodbye, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and many more.
Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones wasn’t just influential on the subgenre of YA known derisively as ‘sick-lit’, but which continues to prove super popular with the 2017 release of John Green’s Turtles All The Way Down. It has now been a full sociological decade (15 years) sinceThe Lovely Bones was published. As Sophie Masson writes in an article in the latest edition of The Looking Glass:
In the last fifteen years, fiction set in or about the afterlife has become a popular and critically acclaimed sub-genre within contemporary speculative fiction for young adults especially, but not only, in English language publishing. These narratives, where the main characters die at the beginning of the story and find themselves in an alien world, the world beyond death, have developed into a fertile ground for imaginative and intellectual challenge and discovery, as a means both to depict the ultimate culture shock and a challenging exploration of otherness and alienation.
I highly recommend a read Sophie Masson’s article as it’s free to access. The following are my own takeaway points.
Writers and thinkers have always been exploring the afterlife. Afterlife stories can be divided into their own subcategories. For example, there’s a related subgenre of Grim Reaper plots. An example of the grim reaper plot is On a Pale Horse by Piers Anthony. On a Pale Horse is a fantasy novel from 1983. A feckless young man is about to shoot himself when the Grim Reaper appears. He kills the Grim Reaper instead, and then has to take the Grim Reaper’s place. However, this seems quite different from the modern afterlife story kickstarted by Alice Sebold.
Here’s something to bear in mind about YA readers: these days (in Australia, at least) more young people believe in an afterlife than believe in god. Readers will happily accept it.
FEATURES OF AFTERLIFE FICTION
Modern YA afterlife stories are a subgenre of paranormal YA fiction, which can include vampires, fairies, trolls and so on
The afterlife story is kind of like a portal story
They are usually but not always set in a fantasy setting
This afterlife world is a ‘liminal’ space, not the final end point. They are not the absolute territories of Heaven/Hell, but more closely resemble Purgatory/Limbo
The idea of Purgatory in these novels isn’t linked to religion — it’s there for the narrative
There’s still much mundane detail about the real world — what characters are eating, how much money they have. However there tends to be little mention of class.
The afterlife world might be a ghostly copy of the real place on Earth. The landscapes and townscapes of the afterworlds are more solid than the portals but are prone to unexpected changes and reversals which makes it hard for characters to carry out their quests
Characters in the afterlife tend to be unable to taste food
The genre blend is most commonly fantasy adventure
Rich narrative and prose styles
High sales as well as critical acclaim
Absence of moral judgement
The main characters of modern afterlife YA have either died violently or after illness, which links this genre to the wider sick-lit movement.
There may well be monsters to defeat. These may be supernatural beings. These monsters and beings are often transformed by their encounters with the newly dead young characters.
There is probably a romantic subplot.
There’s fancy terminology to describe narration which takes place outside the world of the story: extradiegetic. (It helps to know that ‘diegetic’ refers to something that occurs within a setting: ‘Inside-universe’.) Extradiegetic basically means ‘out-of-universe’. By making a character dead, that character is outside the main world of the story. There are other ways authors can create extradiegetic characters. For instance, they can create an elderly person looking back on an earlier part of their life. However, if you’re doing this, you’re probably not writing YA.
An extradiegetic character is closer to the audience than they are to the other characters within the story, because an audience (in narratology terms) is also extradiegetic. The audience exists outside the world of the story. (We are ‘extradiegetic narratees’, to be exact.) Therefore, a story with a dead narrator can achieve emotional closeness with the reader. This sounds counterintuitive at first — you’d think a dead person would be hard to relate to!
THE ADVANTAGE OF A DEAD NARRATOR
There’s a very good reason: The thing that marks YA out from adult fiction is its immediacy of voice. The narrator hasn’t aged much before their story is told. But when the narrator is full on dead, that character is afforded omniscience and wisdom which would otherwise feel unnatural, while maintaining the immediacy.
Many stories for young people are about displacement and feeling like you’re ‘the other’. That’s because you’re trying to find your place at this age. By being dead, the main character is very much The Other.
If there’s a romantic subplot, it’s the job of the author to keep two lovers apart for the duration of the adventure. Making one of them dead is a really efficient way to keep two characters apart. Or, they may both be dead but of vastly different Earthly ages. Or, the afterlife might be kinder to one than the other.
OTHER EXAMPLES OF AFTERLIFE FICTION
The authors of these works are themselves from diverse backgrounds.
The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (1881) — the narrator of Brazilian author Machado de Assis’ novel dedicates his memoir to “the worm who first gnawed on the cold flesh of my corpse.”
How The Dead Live by Will Self
My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk — published the same year as The Lovely Bones and begins, “I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well.”
Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman (sort of)
Everlost by Neal Shusterman and sequels
A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb
More than This by Patrick Ness
Afterworld by Lynnette Lounsbury
Ferryman by Claire mcFall
The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo
The Afterlife by Gary Soto
When We Wakeby Karen Healey
Me and Death: An Afterlife Adventure by Richard Scrimger
Memor: le monde d’apres by Kinga Wyrzykowska
The Ghost Squad by Sophie Masson
If I Stayby Gayle Forman — First person narrator Mia dies in a car crash then follows her friends and family as a kind of ghost, watching their reaction and writing about her life before she died.
I Stop Somewhere by T.E. Carter was pitched as Asking For It meets The Lovely Bones. The narrative viewpoint comes from The Lovely Bones — the main character is basically wandering around telling what happened before she died.
An earlier outlier and not really connected to anything that has come since: The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren. In this story:
This is a story about brotherly love in a Narnia-like world.
Two brothers die at the beginning.
They find themselves in the afterlife world of Nangiyala, a place of campfires and sagas.
The brothers have no trouble fitting into the new world.
They are happy to be there.
There’s no mention of the grieving mother left behind.
It’s possible to die again in this afterlife world.
THE AFTERLIFE IN WIDER POP CULTURE
Futility by Morgan Robertson (1898) — a fictional account of the Titanic disaster which was written 14 years before the Titanic sank. Futility tells the story of the world’s biggest ocean liner and how, on its maiden voyage, on a freezing April night, it strikes an iceberg and sinks, carrying its cargo of fabulously wealthy passengers to the bottom of the Atlantic. It was penned by a struggling sci-fi writer named Morgan Robertson. The name of his fictional doomed passenger ship? The Titan.
Sunset Boulevard, classic film (American) — the man lying face down in a pool turns out to be none other than William Holden, whose voiceover narrates his story and who is indeed dead.
Lost, the TV series (American)
The Returned, a French series called Les Revants (and all the other franchises based on this storyline)
The Glitch (Australian)
PROBLEMS WITH AFTER LIFE FICTION
It’s not hard to find people who dislike dead narrators. But why?
It can feel like the author cheated — ‘a little too easy, a little too glib’.
In Peter Selgin’s words, it requires suspension of all four laws of thermodynamics. Some readers are fans of mimesis, so this won’t suit them.
THE AFTERLIFE IN ADULT FICTION
Specialists in young adult literature have noticed over the decades that literary trends start with YA and work their way ‘up’ into adult fiction. As they expected, The Lovely Bones influenced adult fiction which is coming through now, a decade later. Take Lincoln in the Bardo for instance, an experimental novel by George Saunders. The ‘bardo’ refers to an intermediate space between life and rebirth. Though this book wins a Man Booker Prize and is hailed as ‘experimental’, it also owes a lot to less critically celebrated trends which started a decade ago in YA.
In Saunders’s conception, the “ghosts” that inhabit the bardo are “disfigured by desires they failed to act upon while alive” and are threatened by permanent entrapment in the liminal space.They are unaware that they have died, referring to the space as their “hospital-yard” and to their coffins as “sick-boxes”.
Might we count The Book Thief by Marcus Zuzak as afterlife fiction?
This book takes the dead narrator concept a step farther, with the Grim Reaper himself narrating, though some would argue that his “Death” is nothing but Omniscience wearing a hooded cloak and carrying a scythe.
Afterlife in Contemporary Fiction by Alice Bennett, a groundbreaking study in the afterlife as depicted in fiction for adults.
Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination by Greg Garrett, who doesn’t talk much about YA in particular.
Strays Like Us is a 1998 middle grade novel by American author Richard Peck. (155 pages)
Peck not only understands the fragile emotions of adolescents, he also knows what kind of characters will pique their interest. In this tender novel, he paints a richly detailed portrait of Molly, a drug-addict’s daughter sent at the age of 12 to live with a great-aunt she has never met. Molly soon discovers others like her in this small town full of secrets.
Strays Like Us is set in The (American) South but is not a Southern Novel as such. This is one of those American stories which could easily be set elsewhere — like lots of ‘midwestern’ stories set in suburbia or small towns. Molly’s story could belong to many kids all over.
This one happens to take place in small town Missouri. The ‘small’ town is significant because of the way gossip works:
“How did the guys find out anyway?”
“Becasue they don’t let you keep a secret in a town like this.”
Although this is like a 1950s utopia in some ways, there is a lot of poverty in this town and turns out to be an snail under the leaf setting. Richard Peck is making a statement about income inequality when he writes:
“There’s things they can do now for what Fred had,” [Aunt Fay] said finally. “But he didn’t have insurance.”
The story opens with Molly up a tree. She is in semi-hiding up here, melding with nature, and although in reality trees are reliant on each other via their root system, the common understanding of tree symbolism is that they stand ‘tall, proud and alone’, like Molly at the beginning of her character arc.
The exact year of this story is unclear — there is mention of computers and microwaves so I believe it is set in the late 1990s, at time of publication. Still, there is a 1950s feel about it. Locals are starting to feel suspicious of strangers, because until this period everyone has known everyone here.
The 1990s was the era of peak fear when it came to AIDS. We heard about it a lot — it was feared in the West unlike anything else, mostly associated with gay sex and illegal drug use and therefore highly stigmatised. Young readers today probably haven’t encountered that attitude in their own milieu, as AIDS has largely left public consciousness in the West, replaced by other fears such as the odd ebola outbreak, or mosquito borne encephalitis.
More clear than the exact year of the setting is the month of each incident. The reader is grounded in time with consistent reference to the month, the holiday event (be it Thanksgiving, Christmas or the beginning of the school year/start of a new one) and the season (whether Molly can hear bees or not and so on). Reference to season is more common in stories for and starring girls.
Spring came in a hurry here, before I knew it. The wind softened, and I felt the year revolving under my feet. Bare branches began to bud, and I remembered the heavy green shade of the trees, last summer when I’d come.
Nature also tends to be important in feminine stories, connected inextricably to the seasons in most ‘storybook’ parts of the world. Richard Peck manages to convey the ‘apparentness’ of this snail under the leaf setting by adding ‘fake grass’:
We stood in a little know beside a patch of fake grass where the casket rested. There weren’t any flowers. Mrs McKinney and Aunt Fay looked smaller than they were, hunched in their winter coats.
Richard Peck also uses a technique which makes any social situation more interesting — he abuts rich and poor people together, linking them inextricably. Molly herself is genetically related to a rich woman, but her whole life she’s lived in poverty. This is a version of a Cinderella rags-to-riches tale. Mrs Voorhees, bed-ridden and hypochondriac despite having married into riches after her first husband died in the grain elevator, shows that money can’t buy happiness — the modern take on the rags-to-riches story.
REVEALS IN THE NARRATIVE OF STRAYS LIKE US
Contains spoilers, of course.
Strays Like Us is a masterclass in drip-feeding information. In a quiet story like this one, these reveals provide the necessary reasons to keep reading.
Molly’s mother is a drug addict
Who is in hospital
And who has checked herself out back in October even though it is now Christmas
Will’s father is not in prison after all, he’s cooped up inside Will’s house with pneumonia
Which turns out to be AIDS
The homeschooled girl Molly meets at the library seems to have the perfect family situation but engages in criminal behaviour when she sets fire to the school
And is badly burned
In chapter 14, the wealthy, lonely woman Molly visits turns out to be her grandmother
Chapter 14 also gives readers and Molly the true extent of her mother’s terribleness. She is trying to use her status as a ‘mother’ to prevent a stint in jail for dealing in dope.
These reveals are in most cases based on lies told to other people, half-truths told to save feelings and stories told to comfort oneself. A lot of middle grade stories ask readers to consider the function of lies versus truth, and this is a good example.
The revelation that Will really does have a father turns out to be a bit of a ‘reversal’ so far as Molly’s concerned. She thought she was like him, but now she realises she’s alone in her predicament. This is possibly the worst thing that Molly can hear right now, just as it’s clear her own mother is not on her way to collect her and in fact has gone AWOL. This is how Richard Peck puts his main character through her paces, doing the worst to her but within the confines of a safe environment.
STORY STRUCTURE OF STRAYS LIKE US
NARRATION AND VIEWPOINT OF STRAYS LIKE US
Written in first person, Molly Moberly looks back to an earlier time in her life. At the time of ‘writing’, she is older and wiser. We are constantly reminded that this is written by an older person looking back. As a narrator, the older Molly is able to hint at differences between what is ‘true’ and what is ‘perceived’ by herself at the time. She is also able to tantalisingly foreshadow the reveals by telling the reader that there are secrets about this snail under the leaf setting waiting to be uncovered.
Will wouldn’t have to pay because of what happened to his dad. That’s what I thought because that’s what I wanted to think.
The Kirkus reviewer describes this form of narration as ‘abrupt and somewhat detached’ and also ‘wistful’ and ‘ingenuous’, showing that when it comes to picking your narrative technique, you simply cannot please everyone. However, Kirkus does admit that the narration ‘gains strength’ as the story progresses.
What do you think?
I’ve done no study on this, but it feels like alliterative names are more common in children’s literature, as well as in light-hearted genre fiction for adults. Molly Moberly, Missouri. This story has dark themes and Molly’s alliterative name — in a very small way — helps remind us somehow that this is a children’s story. Molly’s isn’t the only alliterative name; we also have Brandi Braithwaite and Rocky Roberts.
Molly Moberly has a ‘ghost’ which is revealed to the reader in drips and drabs but quite early on. She has been sent to a new foster home in yet another town because her drug-addicted mother is unable to care for her. Molly needs to find a parental figure. She also needs to let go of her biological mother ever fulfilling that role for her.
Because Molly is scared of rejection, she is disinclined to make friends, ostensibly because she figures she won’t be sticking around long enough to bother making any. When Will from next door introduces himself she treats him badly by rejecting his offer of friendship and hoping he’ll roll off the roof.
Molly has no wish other than to keep her head down, out of trouble, with her new life on hold waiting for her mother to come and get her.
More deeply, she wishes for stability and family.
OPPONENTS AND ALLIES
Will McKinney is a fake-opponent ally. He is in a similar situation to Molly — with precarious family circumstances and a lot going on.
Other opponents are well-meaning, as opponents often can be. Mrs Pringle, the well-meaning full-time mother who gives Molly a pile of clothes is trying to help, but ends up potentially damaging Molly’s sense of self-sufficiency by treating her as a charity case.
Aunt Fay is a true ally, understanding Molly’s emotional needs and giving good advice. Aunt Fay is the motherly figure Molly needs. Aunt Fay is well-developed as a character. When Will’s father dies we are given the hint of an existential crisis when she looks away out her side window at the tombstones and laments her own capacity for keeping the man alive or being able to keep him comfortable.
The cast of demented and sick people in Aunt Fay’s life make for a cast of eccentric and crotchety characters, alternately grateful and annoyed by Molly’s existence. These characters are not fleshed out — we don’t get to know their motivations. They function mostly as thumbnail sketches within Molly’s journey.
Rocky Roberts is a misunderstood villain. Like the disfigured man in Wolf Hollow, he is the handy scapegoat for bad things that happen in this small town.
Nelson Washburn stands for people who cast judgment over others without scrutinising the facts. Brandi Braithwaite, a caricature of a snarky adolescent girl, goes one step further and full-on makes up a story about seeing Rocky Roberts with a can of petrol on the night of the arson. These characters are opponents of ‘the truth’, which is what Aunt Fay stands for, and what her great niece Molly strives towards.
In a post-Pollyanna kind of way, Molly learns to care for herself by first caring for others, looking outside her own situation to see that others have their own problems, even when it appears they are living in a kind of utopia. This is Aunt Fay’s plan, no doubt, rather than Molly’s own idea. But usually in these stories, where a ‘plan’ has been foisted upon them by someone else, about halfway through the main character will switch from being extrinsically to intrinsically motivated. When Molly plays cards with Mrs Voorhees we know she’s switched her mindset. Nobody told her she had to do it — she sees Aunt Fay caring for others and takes her lead.
Aunt Fay models a necessary but uncomfortable confrontation about boundaries by having it out with hypochondriac Edith Voorhees who is sapping too much of her time and emotional energy. This marks the beginning of Molly’s anagnorisis — that things are always in flux:
Why couldn’t [Aunt Fay] go back to being the way she’d been, getting sassed by Mrs. Voorhees and sassing her back? Why did things have to keep changing, even here?
Next, Aunt Fay has another uncomfortable conversation with the coach when he brings in an injured Will, in a town where people are worried about the blood of the son of the man who just died from AIDS.
“Then talk plain. I do.”
In this way, Aunt Fay is modelling the telling of truth.
Next it’s Molly’s turn to have a big struggle of her own. Chapter 13 (a symbolic number?) describes the conflagration at the high school. This is the outer ‘big struggle’ which symbolises Molly’s internal growth. At the beginning of this chapter she is still keeping her ‘Debbie notebook around’ — though she’s only using the blank pages to keep notes about school, not to write fiction about her mother. The pace quickens as Aunt Fay is challenged with the task of getting Tracy Pringle’s mother to call the ambulance, with the ticking-clock of a badly burned child. Waiting downstairs, Molly realises that this big house is ‘too empty’. It dawns on her that Tracy doesn’t have a father (and that she is therefore not the only ‘stray’). The Pringles’ house appeared at first glance to be a warm house but is in fact cold and unwelcoming.
This is a story about found family, popular in middle grade stories. The message is, “You need to start finding your own people, because those you got lumped with by circumstance aren’t necessarily the best people for you.”
Strays Like Us makes use of the ‘Magical Age Of 12′ principle, in which Molly Moberly is 12 at the beginning of the story, turns 13 partway through it, and this maps exactly with her character arc from ‘naively hopeful’ to ‘realistic and rational’. In tandem, Will goes through the masculine version of coming-of-age, growing tall with a thicker neck and bigger muscles, especially after he loses his father and his grandfather mistakes him for father.
If you do not have a happy ending for the young, you had better do some fast talking.
— Richard Peck
The story ends when Molly is 13 and a half. She’s growing out of childhood pastimes that require getting her hands dirty. The story has followed the course of one full year and the final scene places Molly back up the leafy tree from the opening scene, creating circularity and the sense of an ending.
Something’s happened to summer. It melted away before we knew it.
Summer is of course a metaphor for childhood. The seasonal emphasis in this story has marked Molly’s trials in her journey from childhood to adolescent.
Molly gives the social worker her precious Debbie notebook, no longer precious. She wants Debbie to have it if it gets to her, which is the outer reason for her getting rid of it, but at a psychological level she is letting go of the idea that her birth mother will ever be her real mother.
I loved my mother, and she loved me. She loved me like a rag doll you drag around and then leave out in the rain. I still love her, but I live here.
This middle grade novel offers no neat solution to the social issues presented. This may or may not feel satisfying, depending on what the reader needs from a novel:
The novel settles upon a host of difficult issues and then, indescribably, lets them go: When Will sustains a bloody injury while playing ball, the coach requests that he quit the team because other members are afraid of contracting HIV. Instead of countering this ignorance, Will retreats, and the issue is dropped, with only a few utterances of protest from Aunt Fay. The novel becomes something of a treatise about a generation of children who have been cast aside by their parents; with its compelling premises and Molly’s fragile but tautly convincing voice, it will be seized upon by Peck’s fans, but may leave them longing for more.
Greg […] is coasting through senior year of high school as anonymously as possible, avoiding social interactions like the plague while secretly making spirited, bizarre films with Earl, his only friend. But both his anonymity and friendship threaten to unravel when his mother forces him to befriend a classmate with leukemia.
Okay, I admit it. I thought, “This is very much like The Fault In Our Stars.”
But remember, the sick-lit genre popular in this Third Golden Age Of Children’s Literature did not actually start with John Green’s young adult novel — it started way back in the late 1990s with The Lovely Bones.
The young adult novel by Jesse Andrews Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was published in 2012 and released as a film three years later in 2015. Jesse Andrews was the main scriptwriter for that. Here I’ll be talking about the film because I haven’t read the book.
Apart from a breakdown of story structure, in this post I’d like to touch on:
“sick-lit” — yes, it’s a derisive term but what else can I call it?
the female maturity principle
mothers in coming-of-age stories
tear-jerkiness and how to achieve it
the metafictive elements of this self-aware coming-of-age tale
TAGLINE OF ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL
“A little friendship never killed anyone.”
GENRE BLEND OF ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL
drama, comedy >> coming-of-age tearjerker
SENTENCE BEHIND THE STORY OF ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL
I’m having trouble with this. Could it really be as simple as:
Sometimes it takes proximal death to teach us the value of life?
SETTING OF ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL
The author himself attended Schenley High School, Oakland, Pittsburgh, not that long ago (as of 2017 he’s only 34). The story is set there, and suburban surrounds.
The majority of the film adaptation was actually taped at Schenley High School. When the cameras showed us the corridors from above I noticed that the tops of the lockers were dusty and the place had a general run-down look to it compared to slightly more glossy depictions of high schools in other teen dramas coming out of America. As it turns out, this may not have been because the set designers were actively aiming for a run-down state school — the real Schenley High School closed its doors back in 2008 after 99 years. This was originally an expensive school to build — one of the first to cost a million dollars, which was a lot back then. In 2013 the historic but closed school was sold to some developers who plan to turn it into luxury apartments. Anyhow, the filmmakers must have scooted in there before that happened.
In short, this setting is not some anonymous mid-western place, or a fictional high school set in a real town — this is a very real setting and locals of Oakland can no doubt recognise the landmarks, especially the Children’s Hospital.
Greg lives in a large, warm house, indicated by its highly decorative wallpaper and yellow hue.
Rachel lives in a similar kind of house with a bedroom that looks like it was probably set up by an interior designer. A feature of Rachel’s bedroom is that there are lots of scissors hung decoratively above her desk. I thought this was a cool idea (because first of all it would be hard to lose every pair of scissors in the damn house) but it was actually a Chekhov’s gun — later it is revealed with Rachel would have been using those scissors for (book carvings). In fact the art of intricate book carving as depicted in the film requires more than just a bunch of big scissors, but the scissors are — of course — symbolic in other ways.
STORY STRUCTURE OF ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL
In a very similar technique to that used in The Edge Of Seventeen we have a storyteller narrator taking us through the story, popping in at various point. The storyteller is the main character and their voices haven’t aged, suggesting they are telling the whole story pretty soon after the whole thing happened. The narrators are still young, still relatable to a young audience, and despite going through the harrowing events as described in the story, are still sufficiently flawed for us to find the storytellers interesting in their own right. (I’m treating the character and the storyteller as different entities because one has been through the character arc while the other is yet to.)
If you ever meet a white middle-class called Greg in a story he’s probably going to be an Average Guy. We’ve got Greg Heffley in Diary of a Wimpy Kid, for instance. (If he’s called Gregory plus a weird last name, my rule of thumb doesn’t work.) Dan is another name like that. The audience is encouraged to look past common male names like that and see the person underneath. These names have no character and no symbolic value.
Anyway, Greg in this particular story is so ordinary he is ridiculously self-effacing, to the point where he doesn’t see the point in anything, including in applying for college. You may know a few of these boys in real life. If not (and you’re at this blog), you’ll have met them in YA, for sure. Think slightly more more self-effacing than a John Green boy. I’d liken Greg’s feeling of hopelessness to James Sveck of Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You (who also happens to have depression), or to Joe of Kings Of Summer.
Of all the fictional characters I’ve ever met, Greg reminds me most of Josh Thomas’ character based on himself (Josh) of the Australian sit-com Please Like Me. They even kind of look similar.
Whereas Greg says things like this:
You know I’m terminally awkward and I have a face like a little groundhog.
Josh says he has the body of a woman and the face of an old man. Both characters are reactive rather than proactive — the classic witty underdog. The audience feels for them though because even if other characters in the setting do not laugh at his jokes, the audience finds them funny. We learn to see the underdog as the true wit — what’s wrong with these other characters?
Summer. What does that word even mean, right? More “summ.” Winter, same deal. More “wint”?
Greg, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Both Greg and Josh are close to a female with an illness — in this case it’s the daughter of his friend’s mum who has leukemia; in Josh’s case it’s his on-screen mum with depression. Josh Thomas has been praised for bringing awareness to mental illness here in Australia.
Do you have to be under a certain age to find these characters appealing? I haven’t done a wide enough survey. Speaking for myself, I find these characters fine for a short time and then they get irritatingly self-absorbed.
In Greg we have a guy who has actually found his passion — and what else can a teenager hope for? — but is so negative he doesn’t realise he’s found it already:
The idea behind each one was we took a film that we like and made the title stupider. And then made a new film to reflect the new stupid title. It’s a formula that only produces horrible films, but for some reason we kept using it.
Writers are told time and again: Your character has to want something!! If your character just sits around moping no one wants to read your shit!
But but but in real life there are definitely people who sit around moping and reacting to stuff and don’t their stories need to be told too? I mean, doesn’t that describe A LOT of teenagers you know? It may have even described you as a teen, and don’t you deserve to see yourself reflected in fiction?
As this story makes clear, a writer can absolutely make a story about a mopey guy who doesn’t really want anything. (I don’t know quite as many mopey girls who don’t want anything, but I’m on the look out.) Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is obviously a very popular story, too. The book has won awards. But there is a trick that must be utilised if you want to write about a generally depressive, nihilist, unmotivated character:
You know that trick when you’re writing an unlikeable character where you surround that character in other characters who obviously do like them? Well, same trick applies here. If your main character doesn’t want anything, surround him in people who do want things. They will force him into things. These characters are by definition his opponents — not in the criminal/evil/monster sense, but they’re probably going to be members of his family or in his wider social sphere.
What does Greg’s mother want? She wants him to be a good human being. Her way of going about this is a little misguided, but ultimately successful, let’s face it. She also wants him to apply for college.
What does Rachel’s girl friend Madison want? She wants Greg to do something amazing for Rachel by making her a short film.
And of course anyone who wants Greg to do anything at all is his opponent. It’s tempting to cut this paragraph short by saying “Greg is his own worst enemy.” That’s true enough, and would be absolutely true in real life, but for the sake of a story we need a few human opponents otherwise you haven’t got enough to beef out a complete narrative.
In this particular story we have the mother spurring her son into action. She makes him go spend time with Rachel even though he (quite rightly) thinks it would be weird to suddenly strike up a friendship with someone just because she’s dying. Once this is in action and the mother steps out of the story we have another maternal figure pop in: Rachel’s pretty friend who insists Greg make a movie for Rachel. We see her again when she’s swearing at him, asking why he hasn’t finished it yet. This provides Greg’s motivation for the second part of the story, which would otherwise flag as he sits around thinking his film is too terrible to show anyone.
On this topic, the need for teenagers in non-fantasy stories to have an opponent means that, inevitably, parents end up filling that role. I feel mothers (and female teachers) get an unbalanced share of the ‘annoying adult’ roles. It was disappointing to see actor Connie Britton wasted in this way — I’ve recently seen her in Nashville in which she is a fully-rounded character with a wide acting range, but here she is nothing but a neurotic nag who has even been going through her son’s stuff. TV fathers rarely get that role, unless there is good reason to suspect his kid is on drugs or something, but the overbearing mother who goes through her teenager’s things for no good reason? A common trope. Notice that once the mother’s power to boss Greg around wore off, it was another female figure who stepped in to boss him around. This is a version of what I call The Female Maturity Formula, in which all girls are Mothers-In-Waiting, naturally more caring and nurturing (and concomitantly annoying), in opposition to their male stars-of-the-show, who must go through something harrowing before starting to grow up.
This is not the problem of any individual story but applies to the corpus of popular stories. Mothers are generally a damn nuisance in coming-of-age stories. It is very rare for a teenager to have an excellent mother. Juno (2007) is one exception — not only that, Juno has a great step-mother. But then Juno is more of a bildungsroman than a coming-of-age story. Her goal isn’t ‘to have sex’ or ‘get the guy’ — she’s already done that after the first five minutes of the movie.
The character of Rachel, although this is not a love story, is written very similarly to any love opponent in a typical love story. When we first see them together on screen there is conflict:
Rachel: Is that a black power salute? Greg: No, I was going in for a fist bump. Rachel: I can’t fist bump you from up here. Greg: Yeah, I realize that.
I’m not saying much about Earl in this story breakdown even though he gets quite a lot of screentime. That’s because there’s not all that much to say about him. He is the funny character who provides comedy. Apart from that, he plays one main role — he is the ally who attacks Greg for his wrong choices. You’ll find someone to fulfil this role in almost every popular story:
I’m so tired of you treating this girl like she’s a burden. You know, her life is over after this! And you want to come over here bitching and whining about some irrelevant bullshit!
In this self-aware coming-of-age story the character of Earl is also wise beyond his years, and his understanding of Greg is comical because this is the kind of character analysis we’re only supposed to achieve after the entire story is over and we’re writing an English assignment on it:
Rachel: So you and Greg are coworkers?
Earl: Naw, we just friends. He just hates calling people his friend. Dude’s got issues.
Rachel: Yeah, he does. What’s going on?
Earl: Man, I don’t even know. It might be his folks. I mean, dude’s mom always tellin’ him how handsome he is, which he ain’t. So now he think he can’t trust anybody close to him. Dude’s weird-ass dad don’t socialize with anybody ‘cept the cat. So that’s a role model ain’t got no friends. Bottom line, dude’s terrified of callin’ somebody his friend…
He has an argument with Earl, who tells him not to be so self-absorbed.
He has an argument with Rachel, who he first fails to cheer up one day and then when she eventually does crack a joke he gets the shits with her because she’s meant to be sad about dying (and besides, he’s the funny man, not her).
Obviously I have a few issues with the character of Greg, and these are correctly anticipated by the author, who has straight-talking Earl tell Greg exactly what I’d like to tell him myself:
Earl: Like you care so much about what other people think, boy, you go around here kissing everybody’s ass pretending like they’re your friend. Look, nobody gives a shit about you, Greg! All right? Nobody gives a shit.
This goes quite a long way towards making the character of Greg bearable for me.
But is this series of arguments the real big struggle, narratively speaking? Actually no. I’ve analysed enough stories now to know that these interpersonal conflicts need to add up to something big. A fight to the death.
The real big struggle scene of this story, therefore, is the bit where Greg blows off the prom to visit Rachel in hospital. He takes her flowers, shows her the film against the white of the hospital wall and she dies then and there. The film-within-a-film itself is the big struggle, in storytelling terms.
Greg mulls over Rachel’s death. We see him hang out in her room, going through her stuff. He (and we) realise that Rachel had hidden depths at this point. Although she’s ‘The Dying Girl’ in the title, and the boys get their own names, finally we get to see Rachel for more than just The Dying Girl. For instance, she loved to make those book sculptures, demonstrating a high degree of artistry. She has a quirky sense of humour evidenced by the drawings of squirrels on her wallpaper. She is more like Greg than Greg realised. I rather cynically thought if only he’d stopped trying to crack jokes for five minutes and listen to her he could’ve realised that in real life. I’m not sure how common this response is to the denouement.
Another revelation is that Rachel had probably been waiting for Greg’s film before dying. That’s the narratively convenient thing about cancer — a character (and also a person in real life) can hold on for a big event before moving on. Heart attacks, strokes and accidents, in fiction as in real life, do not allow for that. This is probably why cancer is gaining a reputation for being an overly romanticised fictional way to die.
When we see Greg going ahead with his college application we realise he’s going to (re)apply to get in even though he doesn’t have the grades for it. Once again, a female character has been responsible for his pulling finger. She’s even composed a letter to the enrolment office on his behalf, and encourages him to do the same from beyond the grave.
We never learn whether Greg gets into college or not.
Are we supposed to believe that he is transformed by the death of someone he got close to? That he will take his own life by the reins from now on? A cynical audience may see that nothing Greg has done yet has been without the help of a female — dead or alive — and unless he goes through life relying on women to do his emotional labour, he may well die unfulfilled and alone. Fortunately for him, Greg is smart, good at making films and has a self-deprecating sense of humour. I’m left in no doubt: He will find the right girl (or a series of them, until he wears them out) and he will do just fine. He’s also white and middle-class so I’m sure he gets into college somehow.
TEAR-JERKINESS AND HOW TO ACHIEVE IT
I find it hard to believe that these tricks work for so many people because they don’t work for me. This may be because I am cold and heartless, or because I’ve seen it done a few too many times before, but if you want to leave your audience in floods of tears there are a few things you can do to help that along:
The person who dies is young and good-looking and likeable
The dying character has been waiting for something significant/quirky and doesn’t die until right after that has come to fruition
The main character rejects a significant life event (or portion of life) to sacrifice time for the dying character
There are arguments before the moment of death to do with selfishness, optimism, acceptance and hopelessness
The main character finds the dead character had hidden depths, but not until after she is gone
The dead character has put something in place before she died, to ‘come back from the grave’. The book offers her letter to the admissions board; the film even has her voiceover, which is kind of similar to hearing someone’s answering service after they’ve died. Terribly sad and a little bit spooky.
Flashbacks to when the dead character looked healthy and plump and pretty
Dear Pittsburgh State Admissions, I’m writing on behalf of someone who gave me half a year of his life at the time when I was at my most difficult to be around. He has a very low opinion of himself, which is why I think it’s necessary that you hear from someone who sees him as he actually is: A limitlessly kind, sweet, giving, and genuine person. No matter how much he would deny it. The drop in his academic performance this year is the consequence of all the time he spent with me and the time he spent making things for me and how hard that was for him. You can ask him about it, but his sort of over the top humility will probably get in the way. No one has done more to make me smile than he has. And no one ever could.
Rachel’s letter from beyond the grave
This particular story goes one step further, and I personally find it overly manipulative: The storyteller’s insistence that The Girl Doesn’t Die. Greg’s voiceover reassures us of this several times over the course of the story. This despite him initially telling us that in his senior year he killed a girl. This is a red herring, and because the only other main girl in the story is Madison, and because she’s basically bossy and unlikeable I was wondering if something would happen to her the night of the prom, without Greg there to protect her or whatever. But no. Nothing happens to Madison; Rachel dies and Greg’s voiceover tells us he lied. Reason being, he didn’t want to believe it himself.
This revelation is meant to punch you in the guts. I’m sure it worked for a goodly proportion of the audience, too. Narratively, the audience is walking in Greg’s shoes. Greg at no point believes Rachel is going to die, so he puts the audience through the same journey. That’s the explanation, anyway.
SELF-AWARE METAFICTIVE COMING-OF-AGE STORY
The film-maker part of Greg (and the author who created him) is aware of popular narrative, especially the subgenre of the coming-of-age story. Greg mocks this in a hipster fashion (which, come to think of it, makes me think he would’ve got into film school):
Generally in a coming-of-age story there is a hot girl who you destroy your life over. This is done in straight fashion in Kings Of Summer and many others:
One last thing. Hot girls destroy your life. That’s just a fact.
Greg says this at the moment Rachel starts to warm to him:
So if this was a touching romantic story this is probably where a new feeling would wash over me and suddenly we would be furiously making out with the fire of a thousand suns. But this isn’t a touching romantic story.
Despite Greg telling the audience that this is not a romantic story, it is nonetheless a love story. I would love to know if the audience is meant to believe this is something else, a bit like Nicholas Sparks writing chick-lit then cracking on he’s actually writing ‘love tragedy’, or if we’re meant to laugh at Greg thinking this is not a romance when it so obviously is. Or perhaps the author truly intends to test the audience when he has Greg say:
So again, if this was a touching, romantic story we’d obviously fall in love and she’d say all the wise, beautiful things that can only be learned in life’s twilight or whatever. And then she’d die in my arms. But again, that’s not what happened. She just got quieter and unhappier.
The writer demonstrates a strong sense of narrative structure by using a metafictive technique of subtitling the bits when the story changes direction. This is usually something only the writers/screenwriters are cognizant of. The audience isn’t usually meant to notice these turning points, but because Greg himself is a film-maker we are in on his knowledge:
But how self-aware is this story, really? Part of me thinks if this were truly self-aware the gender stereotyping would have been challenged, at the very least. On a surface level the gendering isn’t stereotypical — the girl asks the boy to the prom, for starters. But this is a foil: as I’ve mentioned above, the Female Maturity Formula is alive and well and goes completely unchallenged here.
Another gender trope that went unchallenged here: In comedy of all kinds the girls are disproportionately playing the ‘straight guys’. In this story, too, Greg regularly cracks jokes until Rachel smiles. Owing to her dire predicament, there is a ‘reason’ within the setting for her to be Greg’s straight guy. She exists narratively not only as a ‘love opponent’ but also as the instigator for Greg’s character arc. Because this girl dies he becomes a better person.
Of course, it’s not always the guy who gets to be funny. Sometimes it’s the girl who is funny. The guy might be depressive. She turns up to teach him to love life. This has been called the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl trope which ended up being applied far more widely than the person who coined that term ever wanted it to be, but it’s a useful concept because — again — despite the girl getting to be funny and cute, it’s the male character who undergoes the character arc. Whether she is the straight guy or the funny gal, female characters are not getting enough character arcs of their own. I would like a self-aware coming-of-age story to do that more often.