Two Weeks With The Queen is an Australian middle grade novel by Morris Gleitzman. My edition is copyrighted 1989, though other places on the web will tell you this book was first published in 1990 or 1991.
I was in Year Seven in 1989. Fast forward to 2021 and my own Year Seven kid is studying this book in their first year of high school. Fair to say, this is a story with longevity.
My kid proudly announced to their English teacher, “This is the first book I’ve read on my own without pictures!” Um, this is true, despite the many, many books in our house, and nothing to be proud of when you’re almost 13, still doggedly attached to graphic novels and comic books, repelled by walls of text. I was wondering which book-without-pictures would crack the seal for my stubborn reader. Well, this is the one that did it. Kudos to Morris Gleitzman.
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 personally 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.
My childhood 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, their teacher handed them 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.
Milo is on a long subway ride with his older sister. To pass the time, he studies the faces around him and makes pictures of their lives. There’s the whiskered man with the crossword puzzle; Milo imagines him playing solitaire in a cluttered apartment full of pets. There’s the wedding-dressed woman with a little dog peeking out of her handbag; Milo imagines her in a grand cathedral ceremony. And then there’s the boy in the suit with the bright white sneakers; Milo imagines him arriving home to a castle with a drawbridge and a butler. But when the boy in the suit gets off on the same stop as Milo–walking the same path, going to the exact same place–Milo realizes that you can’t really know anyone just by looking at them.
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.
A graphic novel about the Brontë siblings, and the strange and marvelous imaginary worlds they invented during their childhood
Glass Town is an original graphic novel by Isabel Greenberg that encompasses the eccentric childhoods of the four Brontë children—Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne. The story begins in 1825, with the deaths of Maria and Elizabeth, the eldest siblings. It is in response to this loss that the four remaining Brontë children set pen to paper and created the fictional world that became known as Glass Town. This world and its cast of characters would come to be the Brontës’ escape from the realities of their lives. Within Glass Town the siblings experienced love, friendship, war, triumph, and heartbreak. Through a combination of quotes from the stories originally penned by the Brontës, biographical information about them, and Greenberg’s vivid comic book illustrations, readers will find themselves enraptured by this fascinating imaginary world.
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 Bear Came Over The Mountain”by Alice Munro is told from the perspective of the dementia patient’s husband but we get some insight into her loosening grip on reality.
At the heart of this classic, seminal book is Julian Jaynes’s still-controversial thesis that human consciousness did not begin far back in animal evolution but instead is a learned process that came about only three thousand years ago and is still developing. The implications of this revolutionary scientific paradigm extend into virtually every aspect of our psychology, our history and culture, our religion — and indeed our future.
Bicameral: having two chambers
THE IDEOLOGY OF IMAGINATIVE POWER
The corpus of stories about fantasists leads us to the same, culturally-agreed conclusion: Imagination is fine so long as you:
Maintain a clear division between fantasy and reality;
Don’t engage others in your own fantasies without their full knowledge and consent.
We could add an axis based on positive/negative valence. To what extent do a character’s fantasies (etc.) have a positive/negative impact upon their life?
Well, it can go either way. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud knew that reminiscences can indeed lead to unhappiness. His psychoanalysis aimed to lighten this load.
Every memory you have ever had is chock-full of errors. I would even go as far as saying that memory is largely an illusion.
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.
“When a woman is frozen of feeling, when she can no longer feel herself, when her blood, her passion, no longer reach the extremities of her psyche, when she is desperate; then a fantasy life is far more pleasurable than anything else she can set her sights upon. Her little match lights, because they have no wood to burn, instead burn up the psyche as though it were a big dry log. The psyche begins to play tricks on itself; it lives now in the fantasy fire of all yearning fulfilled. This kind of fantasizing is like a lie: If you tell it often enough, you begin to believe it.”
Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype
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.
Gabby’s world is filled with daydreams. However, what began as an escape from her parents’ arguments has now taken over her life. But with the help of a new teacher, Gabby the dreamer might just become Gabby the writer, and words that carried her away might allow her to soar. Written in vivid, accessible poems, this remarkable verse novel is a celebration of imagination, of friendship, of one girl’s indomitable spirit, and of a teacher’s ability to reach out and change a life.
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 visit Japan you can explore a replica of Satsuki and Mei’s house.
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.”
Little White Lies
THE MEANING OF TONARI
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.
Little White Lies
THE THREE BILLY GOATS GRUFF
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?
But look a little deeper and My Neighbour Totoro is a tightly plotted fantasy with a classic mythic structure.
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 film and short story 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.
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
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.
The Returned, a French series called Les Revants (and all the other franchises based on this storyline)
The Glitch (Australian)
PROBLEMS WITH AFTERLIFE 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.
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.