Unmentionable (1991) is a collection of 9 hi-lo short stories by iconic Australian author Paul Jennings.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “ICE MAIDEN”
In “Ice Maiden”, a boy falls in love with an ice statue, but he gets over his love for the ice once he meets a real girl.
I have some sympathy for the phenomenon whereby adolescents lust after (hopefully) safe targets — celebrities, cartoon characters, teachers, coaches. These objects feel safe because they will never reciprocate our nascent lust.
“Ice Maiden” is about the humiliation sometimes felt when lusting after someone — or something — utterly unattainable.
There are strong echoes of Pygmalion in any story with a plot like this. Jennings has rewritten Pygmalion knowingly, with mention of a Greek statue. I’ve written about Pygmalion previously. The Greek myth is inherently sexist. When writing this humorous retelling for kids, Paul Jennings didn’t manage to subvert that aspect at all. I don’t believe he manages any subversion in “Ice Maiden”.
The image of the beautiful frozen girl is also inside a glass case, which has echoes of fairytales such as Snow White.
I just wouldn’t go anywhere near a redhead.
Jennings opens the story like that and I’m immediately suspicious. But Jennings reassures us:
Now don’t get me wrong and start calling me a hairist or something like that. Listen to what I have to say, then make up your mind.
The moral shortcoming of the narrator is that he doesn’t like redheads, and refuses to be friends with Mr Mantolini’s cousin.
The narrator wants to continue lusting after an ice statue in the fish shop window, but she’s about to perish under the hot sun. His object of desire will no longer exist.
Mr Mantolini, who wants to replace the statue of an ice maiden with a new one.
My plan was to take her to the butcher. I would pay him to keep the ice maiden in his freezer where I could visit her every day.
Jennings makes use of a ticking clock device:
The sun was rising in the sky. I had to hurry.
The Battle sequence begins with the narrator kissing the ice statue on the mouth. The slap stick gag is that his lips get stuck to her. We all know the gag, and accept that, in stories, ice is dangerous in this way.
The narrator takes the statue into the sea, aiming to melt her in sea water.
Paul Jennings uses the trope of ‘life flashing before eyes’ to insert back story, including the revelation that the narrator himself has red hair. At least, it’s a reveal if you aren’t reading an edition with this picture on the front:
This is meant to be a subversion of redhead bigotry. I.e., You can’t possibly hate red headed people if you have red hair yourself. But this doesn’t take into account the phenomenon of internalised hatred and lateral violence. So this reveal feels like a failed ‘subversion’ to me.
The entire story feels as if it were written around a pithy closing paragraph:
I guess that’s when I discovered that an ice maiden who is dead is not sad. And a nice maiden who is red, is not bad.
A big reveal is that the narrator’s red hair probably helped save him (because it made him more visible to rescuers in the water). We are therefore meant to conclude that red hair is a good thing now.
Another big reveal is that ‘Tony’ is a girl. She is beautiful despite being a red head. This reveal is a little forced. Tony is a gender neutral name, but this is the way boys spell it. All the girl Tonis I’ve known have spell their name with an ‘i’. However, once Jennings spelt the name with a ‘y’, he had to keep spelling it like that. Or, chose to.
The reveal also relies upon a fractured, non-native rendition of English of Mr Mantolini, which doesn’t quite work.
We extrapolate that the boy is no longer sad about losing the ice version of a crush because he can now fixate upon the girl who inspired the ice creation, in the same objectifying, dehumanising way.
If the reader is familiar with the ur-Story of Pygmalion, we might imagine they will have a son and daughter together.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “BIRDMAN”
Sean wants to win a flying competition. We deduce he’s after prestige.
Sean is trying to fly.
Spider is ostensibly an ally, helping Sean to fly. But he’s also encouraging Sean to perform beyond his capability. The boy friendship combo in which our main character is the Every Boy and his best friend is an even lower-mimetic hero is common, even today. We see it in Wimpy Kid (Greg is the Every Boy, Rowley is his chubby, hapless best friend); we see it in Monster House (DJ and Chowder); we see it most famously in Harry Potter (Harry Potter and Ron Wesley). When we see it in Hollywood, often with grown men, these are known as Buddy Comedies.
Note that Jennings has used the trick of alliterative names to link two characters together. (Both Spider and Sean begin with ‘s’. Katherine Mansfield, who wrote a very different sort of short story, made use of this also e.g. in “The Garden Party“.)
Buggins is the kid who always wins the competition. He is also vindictive. He deliberately ruins Sean’s wings. This is the big bad opponent.
The mother is an opponent because she doesn’t want her son to participate in this competition.
Without really requiring a plan, Sean and Spider happen upon ‘treasure’ buried at the beach. They find a dead cat in the shape of a hat, which is a blend of gross-out and black humour.
Their plan is to pick up the uncle’s hang glider from the railway station. But they are dismissed by the authority figures there. The cat takes over Spider’s body and makes him boom like a man. The hat is thereby proven magic, in a way hats often are. With a hat, a character changes roles completely.
The boys know immediately that the cat opens its eyes and copies what it sees. This leads to a series of humiliation gags:
- The father puts on the cat hat and ends up eating dog food like the dog
- Sean follows girls into the changing room, in a gag which I doubt was ever funny to girls. It now has an extra level of ick post Trump’s boasts about hanging out in the changing rooms at Miss Teen USA competitions.
At first Sean and Spider choose not to use the cat hat, because it’s too unpredictable and risky to make use of in a high stakes flying competition.
But of course the cat hat is used. We expect this. The revelation is in how it’s going to be used.
We extrapolate that Buggins will end up with poo on his head and face. This is a highly satisfying ending for many in the child audience. As a kid I was delighted by Roald Dahl’s poem “The Cow” included in Dirty Beasts, which ends:
She dived and using all her power
She got to sixty miles an hour
‘’Bombs gone!’’ she cried. ‘’Take that’’ she said,
And dropped a cowpat on his head.
I took my copy of Dirty Beasts to school. Our teacher read it naively, but before he had read the final line, he cast the book aside in disgust. My classmates turned to me and with accusing tones said I’d personally ruined storytime (which they wanted to last longer). Obviously, I’m scarred for life. (But not by the vengeful poo conclusion.)
STORY STRUCTURE OF “LITTLE SQUIRT”
From the title of “Little Squirt” we can tell: A small boy underdog gets his own back after being bullied by larger boys than him.
This is so short it’s almost micro fiction. It’s a story of a literal pissing contest between boys.
The story opens with an actual pissing competition (used metaphorically mostly, to describe hierarchical struggles between boys and men). Sure enough, Weesle is little and therefore at the bottom of the hierarchy.
Weesle wants to be better than his big brother at competitions.
Sam and the other boys, who are bigger and therefore better than him at competitions.
His mother sits him down and tells him to practise. If he practises, he’ll be better than the other boys.
By talking about the running race, Jennings misdirects us. We don’t see the big finale of the running race; we see a repeat of the pissing competition in the toilets.
The gag is that when the earnest mother sat Weesle down and told him to practise, Weesle didn’t interpret that as ‘practise for the running race’. He interpreted that as ‘practise for the pissing competition’.
Weesle is now proud of himself.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE MOUTH ORGAN”
“The Mouth Organ” feels like Paul Jennings making up for his hitherto use and misuse of girl characters. The main character in this story is a girl. The saviour is a woman. Right there, on the page, Jennings writes:
There’s nothing to say that the man has to be the brave one. Why shouldn’t it be a woman?
Why a girl in this story? I have a working theory that stories with heavily symbolic use of trees tend to be more feminine, especially when the trees are a flowering variety. Flowers = pretty = femininity.
The exact nature of the problem is revealed slowly.
Nicole has accidentally killed a tree. The tree must flower, because until it flowers, Mr Hardbristle has — with no real rhyme nor reason — decided that he won’t forgive himself for his wife’s death until the magnolia tree, planted upon her grave, flowers.
Nicole feels that it is her personal responsibility to mange the feelings of Mr Hardbristle, which is another reason why Jennings may have (unconsciously or consciously) chosen a girl to be the main character of this one. In stories, across the board, girls are considered givers of emotional labour. A stand-out example of this dynamic in children’s literature is a Nick Bland picture book called The Very Cranky Bear. In that story, a female sheep saves the day by donating her own fleece. The gendering of the animals in that story is no accident.
Nicole wants to replace the dead magnolia tree, which will eventually make Mr Hardbristle happy.
Nicole wants Mr Hardbristle to be happy and to forgive himself. Mr Hardbristle can’t seem to manage that, despite his extra decades of emotional maturity, so that makes Mr Hardbristle the girl’s opponent.
When the man with the mouth organ appears, we wait to see if this guy is an opponent or an ally. This is a Paul Jennings story so we know: He’ll be an opponent at first, until the child learns to use the magic he gives her. Then, when she has learned to manipulate his magic, he’ll be proven a firm ally.
Busk, earn money, buy a new magnolia tree.
This plan isn’t working at first because nobody gives Nicole much money.
There is a level 1 metadiegetic level to this story which describes the fire which killed Mrs Hardbristle. This has its own big struggle — in fact, it’s mostly big struggle sequence.
The big struggle sequence of the level 0 busking story starts with a slapstick, carnivalesque scene in which tourists rip their clothes off because the girl is playing a strip tease tune.
Paul Jennings makes use of a ticking clock (it feels a little forced) because the mouth organ wants to return to its owner. She needs to earn $1000 for a tree but she hasn’t got enough yet.
Nicole has a personal big struggle with the mouth organ itself when it lodges itself inside her mouth, like a sideways banana. This puts her classmates in a trance:
The class close around me with outstretched fingers. Their nails are like claws.
The entire class chases her through town as if they are wild animals.
When Nicole has been through the mill, accidentally turning the townsfolk to wood, she meets the Ponytail Guy again.
There’s been a misunderstanding. The Ponytail Guy reveals that the mouth organ ‘does good for those who do good. And bad for those who do bad.’
When Nicole tells him what she wants money for, the mouth organ suddenly starts to do good.
The story ends on a ‘tune of love’. The magnolia tree is in full bloom.
This is a very feminine ending and I would have liked Paul Jennings to use a boy main character for this story. Ironically, perhaps, this would have been more gender subversive.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE VELVET THRONE”
“The Velvet Throne” is a bit of a departure for Paul Jennings. The main character is not a child. The twist is a little more difficult to piece together. It relies on a basic knowledge of divination — the practice of seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural means.
Mr Simpkin is a carer for his brother — Gobble — who has an insatiable appetite. Mr Simpkin is a victim of this appetite because there’s never enough food left for him, and Gobble makes insatiable demands. Gobble is verbally abusive.
Mr Simpkin is spineless, which is his main problem. This character flaw allows him to be mistreated.
This is the story of a downtrodden man’s awakening. He starts off wanting to keep his brother happy and go to work, but he will develop a real Desire in the Anagnorisis.
In the meantime, he needs a proxy desire, to get him to that point. He wants to get away from his opponent…
Gobble, Mr Simpkin’s brother, who is enormously fat. emotionally abusive and demanding. Gobble is a human dragon character, sitting on a hoard of money which belongs to Mr Simpkin in the first place.
The man who locks Mr Simpkin in the toilet block.
He’s doing a bit of a Marion Crane, though with his own money, by running away and booking into a hotel.
That’s the plan, but he gets locked in the public toilet.
The night in the toilet block is pure psychological horror. And it plays on a fear we’ve probably all had at some point — getting locked inside a building because we haven’t managed to find our way out before closing time. Some of these fantasies are utopian — getting locked in a supermarket and eating all the marshmallows. But this one is dystopian. It’s cold, it rains, and toilet wall graffiti functions as divination.
The revelation is that whatever’s written on the toilet wall as graffiti comes true. So Mr Simpkin realises he can get rid of his abusive brother in one fell swoop.
He writes damning graffiti on the wall, gets home and finds he no longer has a brother.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “CRY BABY”
“Cry Baby” is more like “The Mouth Organ” than any other of his stories, both in structure and in tone. This one stars a boy who cries, which is gender transgressive for Paul Jennings. Unfortunately the entire story is called “Cry Baby”, which shames a boy for his tears, undoing what might otherwise be a nice message — that a boy crying actually saved the day.
There is the weirdness of the bum on photocopier, which today doesn’t have quite the same air of jocularity to it. We’re a lot more careful about images of naked children these days, even ones taken by the children themselves, because we have to be.
Gavin, a.k.a. Cry Baby’s shortcoming is that he cries more than is socially acceptable for a boy. He is also a non-judicious prankster. (An odd combination, now I think about it.)
His problem is that he’s been suspended from school for photocopying his butt and putting it on the pinboard. Another sulky mother — the mother won’t talk to him.
The school incident is a bit of a MacGuffin. His next problem is that he cries on his mother’s precious writing pad and ruins it.
Gavin wants to get himself out of trouble.
Teacher followed by mother.
Then the road rage men, covered in tattoos, back when only rough characters got tatts. (Now pretty much every second Australian seems to have tatts.) Tellingly, they’re driving a Ford.
Outside, looking for his mother, Gavin just happens to spy his grandfather, who is off on a trip to find the water-holding frog. These are frogs who live in Western Australia. They have adapted to a climate with a rainy season followed by lengthy drought.
Gavin decides to escape his mother’s anger by taking off on a frog-scouting jaunt with his grandfather.
It doesn’t take much to endanger your own life in the Australian outback. Leaving the tap of water on will do it.
The Battle sequence is Gavin looking for the frog while his grandfather naps, almost dead of thirst, according to Gavin.
He finds the frog by crying on the ground. His anagnorisis is that something shameful can save the day.
I’m wondering if they’re going to have to suck the frog dry in order to survive. People do gross things for water. But by complete coincidence, at that exact moment, there’s a rain storm. So I extrapolate that they don’t need to kill the frog they’ve come in search of.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “EX POSER”
“Ex Poser” is another very short story based around humiliating someone — a girl, this time — for adolescent nascent love. This set up feels borderline abusive. My problem with this story is that the narrator’s actions and intentions are rewarded with the love of a popular, rich girl. His humiliation tactics are never questioned, because the reader will side with him, the underdog. Also, girls aren’t stupid. Girls don’t typically like boys who humiliate them, and I hate to see it modelled.
A boy has pimples and he is not rich. He feels he has bad luck because of this.
When a boy called Boffin makes an accurate lie detector, the boy would like to humiliate the snobbiest girl in the class by asking her questions about her love life. He does this in front of an audience for maximum impact.
The narrator’s love opponent is the girl he humiliates.
He plans to ask Sandra Morris embarrassing questions for the sheer joy of humiliation.
The Battle scene is where the narrator asks Sandra who she likes.
The big twist is that she doesn’t like the equally rich and popular boy in the class — she likes him.
I’d like to think Sandra realises she doesn’t want to be with a boy who humiliates her and reveals that she only said that to get him back for the stunt, but this is a happy ever after ending. Boy gets girl.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “SLOPPY JALOPY”
“Sloppy Jalopy” is another revenge story, this time against a teacher who confiscates jewellery. Before he is able to exact revenge, the young narrator must endure quite a lot of humiliating hijinks himself.
A boy isn’t allowed to wear an earring to school. His father is also a character who does wacky things like cut the top off a standard Holden to turn it into a (non) convertible in the name of uniqueness. This means they can’t go out in the rain.
He wants his earring replaced.
The teacher who confiscates his earring, along with the chorus of his sister, who seems to agree with the teacher about no jewellery at school.
Next the father is an opponent for being wacky.
Inside the earring shop, the opponents sell the boy an earring which attracts rubbish.
The main opponent is the filthy tanker truck who covers them in muck. This reminds me of Steven Spielberg’s early film Duel (basically Jaws but set on a highway).
The narrator will escape the rubbish by getting into a taxi. This doesn’t work. The taxi becomes dangerously covered in rubbish.
This story is somewhat divided in two — the first Battle is the near death experience after the narrator is covered in gunk.
The second half of the story is the big struggle against every bit of rubbish which wants to stick to him. This is the Muck Monster trope. Except there’s no environmental message. This is pure gross-out slapstick comedy.
After the taxi big struggle, the revelation is that the earring is what’s attracting rubbish. He gets the earring back from the taxi driver.
The new plan, which belongs to the bookended story set at school, is to take the earring to school in a jar (apparently if it’s inside a glass jar it doesn’t attract rubbish), and hope to get it confiscated so that the mean teacher will become covered in rubbish.
We extrapolate that this is what happens next, creating a circular story structure.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “EYES KNOWS”
“Eyes Knows” is a cautionary tale against doing things just because someone else says so. The wrapper story is the more serious narrative of a child who is forced to choose between his separating parents.
The main character has been sabotaged by a ‘little robot man’ who tells him what to do. The problem is that he’s now stuck high up a ladder, scared that he will fall.
In the backstory we learn that Harry is in a vulnerable position because his parents are separating. They are forcing him to make a decision about who he wants to live with. This is an impossible choice. In this vulnerable position, he accepted the appearance of a decision-maker.
Jennings uses a save the cat moment near the beginning of the story (save the caterpillar).
Harry wants to be able to make a decision. Since he can’t, he is going to outsource it. Once he decides to put his trust in the robot man, he no longer has to make any moral decisions.
Since Jennings opened with Harry in peril we know from the start that the robot man is his opponent. (A fake ally opponent, to be specific.)
Now Harry has been established as a do-gooder (with the caterpillars), he continues on his do-gooder mission when he tries to save the old people from the nurse, who treats them like children.
Harry and the old people embark upon a carnivalesque escape. In a trope utilised later by Speed, one of the characters on that bus has a history of fast driving (because he used to be a racing car driver, not because he got lots of speeding tickets).
When Harry entrusts the robot to make the divorce decision for him (in the wrapper story of separating parents), he realises this shouldn’t be his decision to make. He confronts his parents, who come to their own realisation.
Harry discards the little robot and other kids find it. This creates another circular story, in which we imagine a similar caper happening all over again.