A World Apart, Part 3

Every book of N.K. Jemisin’s epic Broken Earth trilogy won a Hugo award, with Jemisin being the first black writer to win this prestigious sci-fi award, period, which basically makes these books historical artifacts. The trilogy concludes with The Stone Sky (2017), which resumes the pattern of Book 1 with a structure of weaving three narrative threads. We continue with the two threads we were following in Book 2, Essun’s journey with the remnants of the Castrima comm to relocate to Rennanis and her quandary of whether she can both find Nassun and fulfill Alabaster’s mission of ending the Seasons, and Nassun’s journey in the aftermath of killing her father and having to flee the Found Moon comm where she was staying. The third thread is Hoa’s, in which he describes the history of how the moon came to be flung from its orbit (by him, as it happens not so coincidentally), starting the Seasons and thus the plot of this whole trilogy in the first place. Labeled “Syl Anagist,” these chapters are actually numbered in reverse chronological order, a countdown to the origin point of the entire narrative. 

Hoa, who we now know is the narrator of this entire narrative, begins Book 3 by stating outright that he’s the one who opened the Obelisk Gate and flung the Moon away, ending the world the first time. We then pick up with Essun, who’s being toted on a stretcher by some Castrima comm members as they hike their way to Rennanis because Essun’s efforts to save Castrima from its attackers at the end of Book 2 ended up destroying the geode that previously housed them. Hoa eats her stone arm. Doing any more orogeny will turn her to stone. The comm endures a difficult trek to Rennanis (during which they pick up another orogene Essun knew at the Fulcrum, Maxixe), but eventually make it, at which point Essun, unexpectedly pregnant with Lerna’s baby, feels free to leave and find Nassun, whom Hoa showed her was with Schaffa.

After Nassun kills Jija, she and Schaffa have to kill the other Found Moon guardians and flee. Nassun decides to assume control of the Obelisk Gate, and Steel (the Gray Man stone eater who was fighting against Essun and Hoa in the Castrima-Rennanis battle) directs them to a station where they get in a magic vehicle to take them to Corepoint. Steel warns Schaffa shouldn’t go but he does anyway, and as the vehicle opens enough to reveal they’re passing through the Earth’s core, he starts seizing from the pain of the iron bit in his head (which has been causing him pain on a regular basis since he’s been resisting its direction to kill Nassun). The Earth speaks to Nassun, who realizes the Earth is generating its own silver and thus alive, and that it’s angry that people took its silver. In Corepoint, Steel directs Nassun to an apartment where everything is done with magic, making it easier to take care of the catatonic Schaffa. It’s the apartment Alabaster stayed in when he was taken there by a stone eater after the Meov battle at the end of Book 1, and Nassun finds his diaries describing his plans for the rifting.

Interspersed with Essun’s and Nassun’s ongoing journeys, Hoa tells the story of when he was a “tuner” in Syl Anagist and met a new tuner, Kelenli, as they neared the time the tuners would help start the Plutonic Engine (which turns out to be the Obelisk Gate) to achieve “geoarcanity”—complete energy efficiency. Kelenli has a story to tell the tuners about who they really are, and takes them outside, where they’ve never been, to show them some pieces of this story, culminating with the “briar patch” at the base of the amethyst obelisk where, like the node maintainers in the Stillness, tuners are kept just alive enough to keep the necessary magic flowing for the system to work. Kelenli reveals that she’s really the last “Niess lorist,” and that Syl Anagist took land from the Niess, another people whose magic was more efficient than the Sylanagistines’, and who believed that magic shouldn’t be owned. To discredit this idea, the Sylanagistines invented a mythology that they weren’t human and subjugated them into the tuners. This dismays Hoa, who was previously proud of being a tuner. When Kelenli reveals they’ll all be sent to the briar patch after helping start the Plutonic Engine, Hoa and his fellow tuners plan to use the obelisks to destroy Syl Anagist instead of using them to achieve Geoarcanity. But as they’re attempting to do this, the Earth fights back, generating an energy that Hoa is forced to use an obelisk to redirect at the Moon to prevent it from killing all humanity on Earth, and thus knocking the Moon out of orbit. The tuners had thought their efforts would kill them, but the Earth turns them to stone eaters as retribution, and also starts the Seasons, and also takes retribution against the “conductors” who were manipulating the tuners all along to take the Earth’s magic for their engine by implanting them with bits of its core—thus putting them under Earth’s control and rendering them guardians.

After the Castrima comm has made it to Rennanis, Hoa takes Essun and a few others through the Earth to Corepoint, but they’re attacked by other stone eaters who are opposed to Hoa’s efforts to get the Moon back and make peace with the Earth, and Lerna dies. Shortly before they get there, Nassun is puzzled to see Schaffa up and moving on his own for the first time in weeks, and follows him down into Warrant, where guardians are in catacombs hibernating. She finds a machine forcibly removing the iron bit from the back of his head that he wouldn’t let her remove before. He’s genuinely happy, but then she messes that the living silver inside him is fading and that he’s dying. She leaves to open the Obelisk Gate to turn everyone into stone eaters so Schaffa can be turned into one and live, and as she’s leaving she runs into Essun trying to find her. Nassun has already yoked a bunch of obelisks together to use as a spare key to open the Obelisk Gate, and Essun has to call on the most powerful onyx obelisk to combat it, harnessing all the nearby guardians’ magic in order to do so and thus killing them. Once she has control of the onyx she uses it to harness the power of the Rifting to combat Nassun’s control of the Obelisk Gate in an epic power struggle, Nassun trying to direct the energy to turn everyone to stone eaters and Essun trying to direct the energy into pulling the Moon back to stop the Seasons. As the stalemate of the struggle forces them to both contain the energy for too long, Essun sees Nassun starting to turn to stone, and unable to watch another one of her children die, gives up on the Moon. She releases her hold on the onyx and turns to stone, and when Nassun sees this and gains control fo all the energy, she’s able to feel what Essun was trying to do with the energy—catch the Moon and end the Seasons—and chooses to follow through with what Essun wanted.

Schaffa eventually dies and Nassun goes with the others who came with Essun to Rennanis. Hoa turns Essun into a stone eater, and has been telling her the story of the trilogy for her to be able to maintain her sense of self.

The End.

The narrative logic as expressed in the point of view becomes particularly impressive once we have the full picture of all three novels. We knew Hoa was the narrator before Book 3, but at the end we understand a distinct reason for why Hoa is the narrator, and that’s something a lot of books don’t offer beyond a general idea that the story is worth telling. But Hoa is telling the story specifically because of how the story ends–with Essun dead, but in a position to be resurrected in a state where her previous self could be lost, an idea that was set up with what happened to Schaffa. And Schaffa’s loss of self that enabled him to survive the climactic battle at Meov that ended Book 1 is integral to the overall trilogy’s arc as well in a way that also reveals the genius of the narrative–the way it manages to drive a high-stakes action plot–the fate of the world is at stake–through characters’ emotions and development, the action carried on the back of the mother-daughter narrative.

The way Schaffa’s character complicates that mother-daughter relationship and drives the emotional stakes of the story is hard to overstate. We see how his abuse-out-of-love of Damaya-turned-Syenite manifests in how Essun deals with/trains Nassun–manifest most potently in her breaking Nassun’s hand the way Schaffa broke hers. That Schaffa, through then losing his former self who believed in the necessity of that abuse, gets a chance at redemption with the daughter of one of his former charges–a former charge he drove to smother her own son–feels fitting. His loss of self is necessary for him to form a true bond of love with Nassun, one that is ultimately stronger than her love for her mother–a love differential that’s tragic since her love for her mother is lower specifically because of her mother abusing her because of Schaffa’s influence, and a love differential that’s critical for the climax of the action: Nassun ignores her mother telling her not to use the Obelisk Gate because she feels she needs to use it to save Schaffa at any cost. Nassun is essentially forced to choose between her mother and Schaffa, and by that point it’s not a difficult choice for her. The fact that Nassun’s choice is not difficult might mean the tension is lower, but Nassun’s choice isn’t the climax. Her choice necessitates the battle against Essun, which necessitates the choice that’s really the climax–Essun’s. Essun is really the main character here even though Nassun could be deemed a close second. Essun has certainly been through more–three different lives, is what her three different names make it feel like–and in her climactic choice we feel everything she’s been through brought to bear on her decision. She is forced to choose between Nassun and Alabaster, since carrying through with Alabaster’s grand plan to get the Moon back at this point will mean killing Nassun. Essun chooses her child because of having endured the deaths of her previous children. That personal choice essentially means sacrificing the fate of the world, and that Alabaster will have broken it and caused all the consequent suffering for nothing. But that Essun has already had to kill one of her own children herself makes it pretty understandable why she wouldn’t be willing to do it again, no matter the larger cost. At any rate, it turns out to be the right choice, because making it shows Nassun that Essun really does love her in a way she couldn’t understand before (in a way that essentially matches Schaffa’s love), insight that then extends to Essun’s larger plan that she then reverses her previous objective to carry out. So there’s a daisy-chain of choices in the climax predicated on the mother-daughter relationship: Nassun chooses Schaffa, Essun chooses Nassun, Nassun reverses choice to Essun.

Plot-based-on-character-wise, nailed it.

And of course none of that choice-chain with Nassun and Essun could play out without the parent-child relationship that supersedes it: that of the Earth and Moon.

The twist that explains the function of Hoa’s telling the narrative is also nicely set up and ironic: the fact that Essun can be changed into a stone eater. This appears to be due to the fact that she’d literally turned to stone due to the use of the orogeny, something we saw happen steadily over the course of Book 3 and saw happen with Alabaster in Book 2 as well. It’s ironic because this thing that for so long seemed to be steadily killing her–orogeny turning her to stone–actually turns out to enable her to live forever…and it’s also intimated that in this state she’ll eventually be able to reunite with Alabaster.

Book 3 does a pretty good job of answering the questions the plot has raised at a steady pace, though I will say there’s a fair amount of the logistics I don’t really follow. The amazing thing is that the technical questions I still have–the answer to which are probably hinted at or indicated in ways that escaped my notice–don’t really matter; I followed the general and emotional stakes closely enough to stay invested….

One thing I’m not sure about in the grand scheme is why the Steel/Gray Man stone eaters didn’t want peace with the Earth, and all the ways Steel/Gray Man tried to manipulate both Essun and Nassun into doing something with the Gate and what exactly they wanted them to do with the Gate got convoluted/hard to track. Another is how the orogenes were created out of what happened when Hoa sent the Moon out of orbit; I understood how that created stone eaters and guardians, and guardians were supposed to be in charge of orogenes so I guess orogenes must have somehow been created also…at the end when Nassun is taking control of the Gate by blending magic and orogeny, something Essun has never seen before, Hoa says that’s what he did as a tuner in Syl Anagist.

How orogenes came to exist doesn’t really matter; what matters is the exploration of power dynamics (so to speak) that their existence engenders, primarily that dynamic where the more literally powerful have to be subdued and are hated because of their difference, even when those powers and differences prove beneficial. Nassun’s motivations to go to Corepoint and take control of the Gate in the first place derive from her wanting to end the hateful way orogenes are treated, even if that means ending everything else, and as someone who was hated by her own father enough for him to try to kill her, well…you can see how that might be traumatic. And the way these familial relationship are echoed in the relationship that’s essentially the engine of the whole plot–Earth having lost his child, the Moon, was also nicely done, a parallel that helps reinforce the feeling of the Earth as a conscious living being–the emotional, figurative way the Earth is broken that then leads to its literal breaking in the Rifting, which we finally learn was done, ironically, in order to fix that initial brokenness….

I first read and started writing about this trilogy last summer, and now the title “A World Apart” feels like it applies to our current world as much as Jemisin’s… While primarily reading the narrative’s applicable themes in terms of climate change when I read it last summer, reading it in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the shift in cultural consciousness definitely made me notice some corollaries I hadn’t before about racism and history and slavery. Jemisin pretty much explicitly connects these themes to climate change through the trilogy’s major conceit of the Earth being a living, conscious being in a manner not so dissimilar from humans:

Better the earth, Syl Anagist reasons. Better to enslave a great inanimate object that cannot feel pain and will not object. Better Geoarcanity. But this reasoning is still flawed, because Syl Anagist is ultimately unsustainable. It is parasitic; its hunger for magic grows with every drop it devours. The Earth’s core is not limitless. Eventually, if it takes fifty thousand years, that resource will be exhausted, too. Then everything dies.

The goal of “Geoarcanity” is to directly hook up to the Earth’s core so they can take and control the magic there:

In effect, the Earth will become a massive plutonic engine too, the dynamo that is its core churning forth far more magic than is put into it. From there, the system will become self-perpetuating. Syl Anagist will feed upon the life of the planet itself, forever.

The Earth will be yoked and harnessed like an ox. Or maybe it’s more like Syl Anagist drinking the Earth’s milkshake, since the way this “magic” is being harnessed as a fuel source capable of producing wonders beyond imagining to the primitive civilizations of the Stillness is highly reminiscent of the lengths–or the depths–that we go to to extract oil. The folly of human hubris in thinking we have dominion over the Earth…or being willing to enslave/exploit anything or anyone.

The critical role that history–or more specifically, the myth of history–plays in this exploitation is a major theme of the trilogy that feels especially relevant now in this moment of America trying to come to terms with the role that slavery and exploitation continue to play in our daily lives. We learn that Alabaster conceived of his grand plan to get the Moon back after learning of its disappearance in the first place, which was a piece of history that certain parties apparently wanted to obscure:

Instead, the scholar showed Alabaster his findings. There were more, Alabaster told you, than just three tablets of stonelore, originally. Also, the current Tablet Three was rewritten by Sanze. It was actually rewritten again by Sanze; it had been rewritten several times prior to that. The original Tablet Three spoke of Syl Anagist, you see, and how the Moon was lost. This knowledge, for many reasons, has been deemed unacceptable again and again down the millennia since. No one really wants to face the fact that the world is the way it is because some arrogant, self-absorbed people tried to put a leash on the rusting planet. And no one was ready to accept that the solution to the whole mess was simply to let orogenes live and thrive and do what they were born to do.

You control people by controlling–or suppressing–information. And the information of why the Seasons exist is the carrot driving the narrative of the whole trilogy. Another iteration of controlling/exploiting people by controlling the narrative of their history is behind why the Seasons exist–the loss of the Moon happened because of a plan enacted as vengeance when Hoa and his fellow tuners found out the true story of their history:

Once, after all, I believed I was the finest tool ever created by a great civilization. Now, I have learned that I am a mistake cobbled together by paranoid thieves who were terrified of their own mediocrity.

Kelenli claims this knowledge of their history is necessary for them to better be able to control/access the onyx obelisk, one of the most powerful. Stories can be manipulated as a tool of oppression, or as Hoa shows via the act of narrating the trilogy, as a means of restoring/defining the essence of one’s self…

Syl Anagist at its height is likened to an empire, having spread over most of if not the entire world. We learn they subjugated the Niess people in the course of doing this primarily for two reasons–the Niess were better with magic than they were, and they believed it couldn’t be owned. That these two things are actually related, their belief that it couldn’t be owned the reason they’re better with it, doesn’t seem to have occurred to the Sylanagistines. Magic is likened to the life force, or the essence of life, produced by the Earth itself, and the Niess’ being in harmony with it because they don’t subscribe to the concept of ownership seems highly reminiscent of Europeans taking the land the Native Americans were living on. The legal concept of “ownership” (and smallpox blankets) enabled them to take the land, and it was a concept they then applied to human beings as well.

Enter the node maintainers…Syen’s killing Coru, her own child, at the end of Book 2 to prevent him being taken for a node maintainer was very reminiscent of Beloved, in which a mother killed her daughter to prevent her being taken as a slave, and is then haunted by the ghost of that child. Essun’s loss of her arm at the beginning of Book 3 is also reminiscent of another novel about American slavery, Octavia Butler’s Kindred, whose first line is “I lost an arm on my last trip home,” and in which the loss of that body part is symbolic of the emotional and psychological loss enslaved people suffer.

Jemisin raises another…uncomfortable slavery-related point when the Castrima people finally reach Rennanis:

So Ykka is now coming to terms with a truth you’ve understood since you woke up with a stone arm: To survive in Rennanis, Castrima will need the node maintainers. It will need to take care of them. And when those node maintainers die, Castrima will need to find some way to replace them. No one’s talking about that last part yet. First things first.

There’s an implication that functioning societies essentially need some number of people to be exploited in order to function, and that this sacrifice is ultimately worth it…though Essun does suggest that if she succeeds in the plan of getting the Moon back and stopping the Seasons, the node maintainers might not be necessary anymore–since they’re necessary to maintain the Earth’s volatility that’s a product of the Seasons. So, harmony has to be achieved to negate the need for exploitation, and Essun ultimately succeeds, so Jemisin seems to be ending on a hopeful note…

And reading this both during coronavirus and post-Floyd, it’s tempting to wonder if we’re in the equivalent of a Season…the summation of Jemisin’s work in this New Yorker profile of her published earlier this year on the cusp of Covid inadvertently echoes the idea:

Jemisin, who has a degree in psychology, is interested in power and in systems of subjugation. In her books, the oppressed often possess an enormous capacity for agency—a supernatural ability, even, that their oppressors lack—but they exist in a society that has been engineered to hold them down. Eventually, the world is reordered, often with a cataclysm.

The idea of world-reordered-by-cataclysm also came up in a more recent New Yorker article about an academic’s concept of “Afropessimism”:

But, unlike [bell] hooks, [Frank] Wilderson does not choose to imagine possible futures. The only way to cure the condition of slavery that ails Black people, he says, is “the end of the world.” There will have to be a total end to things—an apocalypse. From civilization’s ashes something truly new might finally grow. How to hasten this final reckoning?

I’d like to think that Jemisin’s vividly rendered and resonant apocalypses could at least be a start…


Chapter Outline:

Prologue: Hoa is going to describe the beginning of the world, in the sprawling city of Syl Anagist, whose people “have mastered the forces of matter and its composition” and which uses the power of the amethyst obelisk in a socket; there are nodes with such obelisks all over the world. Hoa is the one who opened the Obelisk Gate and flung the moon away, ending the world the first time. 

1 Essun awakes being carried on a stretcher with the caravan going to Rennanis and learns her arm has turned to stone and that what she did to save them from Rennanis destroyed Castrima’s geode. Hoa eats her stone arm.

2 In the wake of Nassun killing Jija, the other guardians Umber and Nida try to kill Nassun, but she, Schaffa, and Steel fight them off, then flee with the rest of the orogene children after Nassun begs Schaffa to let them come. 

Syl Anagist 5: Conductor Pheylen introduces Houwha to a new member of his kind (tuners), Kelenli, who says her orders are to start up the Plutonic Engine, aka the Obelisk Gate, and says she’ll show the others who they really are, and they’ll move toward Revolution.

3 Essun slowly recovers and wants to find Nassun, but Tonkee convinces her it isn’t practical. They camp in a stone forest Essun suspects will be attacked. Ykka has a showdown with some Rennanis prisoners, killing one unwilling to work with the comm, but the Rennanis general Danel is willing to work with them. 

4 Schaffa forces the other orogene kids to go off on their own path and resists killing them. Nassun needs to go to Corepoint on the other side of the world, the place where the obelisks come from, to assume control of the Obelisk Gate. Schaffa says the Earth wanted him to find an orogene who could do this. Steel (who’s revealed to be the Gray Man stone eater), will lead the way, but says a price must be paid. (With Rennanis, Steel was trying to manipulate Essun into doing what Nassun now will.)

Syl Anagist 4 Getting closer to the launch of the Engine (which will achieve geoarcanity, “an energetic cycle of infinite efficiency”), there’s some mistrust of Kelenli, who’s the only one who can control the onyx obelisk. She proposes to take them on a tuning mission outside, where they’ve never been, and, excited, they get ready. 

5 Essun’s camp is attacked by a commless band that turns out to have an orogene with them–Maxixe (missing legs), from her time at the Fulcrum. (Before she realizes who it is, she uses orogeny to try to fight him knowing it will turn part of her to stone, and she chooses one of her breasts.) 

6 Nassun and Schaffa travel to Steel’s deadciv ruin and get there after a month, entering a tunnel to go underground toward Warrant. 

Syl Anagist 3 On their mission, Kelenli takes them in a building where there’s a mysterious machine generating more energy than it takes in, and is more efficient than the Plutonic Engine. Kelenli says they built it. 

7 Hoa tells Essun the Gray Man stone eater is manipulating Nassun into opening the Obelisk Gate (ostensibly to kill her so no one with such advanced abilities will be a threat to them). He tells her Jija is dead, then takes her through the earth to where he died, where she speaks to a comm member who tells her Nassun left with Schaffa. 

8 Nassun figures out the tunnel is in the ruins of a massive old city and that something is sucking the magic from it. Steel is waiting at a station and tells her she has to figure out how to power it; she figures out the area’s damage was caused by an obelisk driving itself into the earth, and then she finds a vine that can pull magic from other things, and she takes it from the sapphire obelisk. A vehicle pulls up and they get in, though Steel says Schaffa shouldn’t come. 

Syl Anagist 2 Kelenli takes the tuners to a house and reveals that she was raised alongside Conductor Gallat as an experiment to see if her kind could be human. She then tells their origin story: Sylanagist took land from another people, the Niess, who had more efficient magic and didn’t believe it should be owned. To discredit them, the Sylanagists invented a mythology that the Niess weren’t human, and eventually to uphold it they created Kelenli’s kind to be tools made in the image of their fear. Hoa challenges why Kelenli is telling them this and she says she’s the last Niess lorist and that they need to know this history to be able to master the onyx obelisk. 

9 Danel, in the capacity of lorist, wants to go with Essun on her mission to end the Season. What’s left of the comm of Castrima loses a lot of people on a hard trek through the desert. 

10 In the vehimal, they enter a hole Nassun is unable to sess the boundaries of. She figures out the vehimal is actually made of the silver. Part of it dissolves to show her the earth they’re passing through, and she sees the core, the source of the corestone in Schaffa’s head, and he starts thrashing in pain, the silver in him intensifying. The Earth speaks to her and she figures out that it is living, generating its own silver, and that it’s angry because people took that silver. She vows to stop the cycle of vengeance. They get through the core and up through the other side and get to Corepoint.  

Syl Anagist 1 Conductor Gallat shows the tuners the last thing Kelenli wanted them to see–the fragment of the amethyst in its socket. They see that at its base is the “briar patch” where they’re sent if they get in trouble–bodies kept just alive enough to generate magic for the “sinklines” that help the fragment generate magic. 

11 Essun and Ykka and the Castrimans take a node station, since they’ll need node maintainers to keep Rennanis functioning. Lerna points out Essun is pregnant with his baby. They get to Rennanis, which is filled with stone statues of former people from when it was conquered (when Essun used the Obelisk Gate), though the stone eaters have removed a lot to eat later, according to Hoa, and Essun realizes Antimony turned Alabaster into a stone eater. 

12 In Corepoint, where there are a lot of stone eaters, Steel directs Nassun (who has to drag Schaffa) to an apartment that does everything with magic. She finds old diaries written by Alabaster about his plan for the rifting to restart the world. She can see the Moon. She thinks about using the gate to turn Schaffa into a stone eater so he can live, but that would mean turning every human into a stone eater. Steel tries to dissuade her based on how long Schaffa would live and how lonely he would be. 

Syl Anagist 0 After learning they’ll go to the briar patch after geoarcanity is achieved, Hoa and the other tuners resolve to use the obelisks to destroy Syl Anagist instead of to create the Plutonic Engine for geoarcanity. On launch day, a higher-up reveals they took an iron sample from the core whose magic potency was why they conceived of geoarcanity in the first place. When the tuners start their plan, the Earth fights back, and the energy generated is so powerful that instead of sending it back into the Earth, which would destroy all humanity, Hoa aims it at the Moon, knocking it from its orbit. The Earth turns them to stone eaters as retribution, and as retribution against the higher-ups who were actually manipulating them into the geoarcanity plan, implants them with the iron bits from the core that will bend them to Earth’s will (creating the guardians), and the Seasons begin. 

13 Hoa takes Essun and several others through the earth to Corepoint, but on the way they’re attacked by other stone eaters who don’t want peace, and Lerna dies. Nassun has summoned twenty-seven obelisks to use as a spare key to open the Obelisk Gate. Schaffa is up and moving and goes down to Warrant below Corepoint, where guardians are hibernating in cells. Nassun finds him in a wire chair, his core stone being mechanically removed, then sesses his magic is fading and he’s dying. Then Nassun runs into Essun. 

14 Nassun determines to open the Gate to turn everyone to stone eaters. Essun tries to stop her by using a network of magic taken from the sleeping guardians (killing them) to summon the onyx obelisk, and they have an epic power struggle. Essun realizes she’s going to have to give up on getting the Moon back if Nassun is going to live. Once Essun has turned fully to stone, Nassun chooses to use the Gate to get the Moon back like Essun wanted.

Coda: Schaffa eventually dies and Nassun and the others elect to go to Rennanis. After the battle with her mother, Nassun’s hand turned to stone and she can’t do orogeny anymore. Hoa turns Essun into a stone eater, and he has been telling her this entire story for her to retain her sense of self in her new state.  

The Wolffman’s Bromances

I. “Smorgasbord”

This semester, before the coronavirus caused us to disband from the shared physical space of our classroom, I had the high-school freshmen read the story “Smorgasbord” by Tobias Wolff, from his collection The Night In Question (1996). Even though this was actually the first short story I was assigned to read in my very first fiction workshop when I was in college, I’d never read it with a PVA class before, probably because we usually end up reading Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” and I don’t like to double up on a writer, especially a white male. And Wolff is pretty much the quintessential white male literary writer.

Two pairs of freshmen were assigned to summarize “Smorgasbord.” Here’s the first summary:

The unnamed main character is impatiently waiting to consummate his relationship with his girlfriend. He’s invited by Crosley, another boy at the boarding school, who was invited by Garcia, a dictator’s son, to have lunch with him and his stepmother, Linda. Once in the limousine, the main character notices Linda’s beauty and is immediately attracted to her. Garcia then has a fight with Linda about, according to Crosley, money. Garcia stubbornly stays in the limo while the others eat dinner in a Smorgasbord chosen by Crosley. In the restaurant, the main character is distracted by a waitress’ attributes. Crosley and the main character eat a bunch of food while discussing the main character’s impending shift in the relationship with his girlfriend. Garcia, out of frustration, calls them to the limo and they drive away. When they arrive back at the school Linda gives both of the boys 100 dollars after Garcia refuses the money. They converse about what to do with the money and decide to spend it on prostitutes. This causes a breakup in the main relationship 5 months later because “he no longer loves her.”

The chronic tension in the story is that the main character is horny.

The acute tension is the main character meeting Linda and noticing how mighty fine she is.

And the second pair’s summary:

In “Smorgasbord,” we are presented with a private preparatory school student who is feeling insecure and troubled over his financial status. He feels excluded and different because he is not able to go home like the other students. This adds to his insecurity. He travels to dinner and thinks about his misfortune and differences. After eating, he goes back to his room and thinks about this. Soon, his friend Crosley invites him to go out with his other friend Garcia. He has been thinking of ending things with his girlfriend. Crosley and the narrator leave to go in the limo along with Garcia and his stepmom, Linda. They travel to a restaurant and begin dining.
The main character and Crosley return to their table with large plates of food. They start talking with Garcia’s stepmother Linda, and she asks them if they have girlfriends. Crosley says no, but the main character replies yes, and then goes on to talk about his girlfriend Jane with the two of them. He can see that Linda’s “eyes are laughing”, which gives him a flashback to his English class. Garcia then appears at the door, very angry. Linda says that it’s time to go, and the three of them follow Garcia into the car. As they say goodbye, Linda offers all three of them hundred dollar bills. Garcia rudely refuses, but the two other boys accept. The main character returns to his room and tries to go to sleep. Flashforward to a month after he returns and sees his girlfriend, and they break up, because they realize they don’t love each other. Back to present and Crosley returns to the room to see if he has any Tums. Crosley then asks to stay, and the main character hesitantly agrees. They talk, and Crosley tells him the story of him stealing then getting caught returning his old roommate’s coat. The story ends with the two of them wondering how they should go about buying a prostitute.

If you mix these two descriptions together then you get a better idea of what’s going on here and how the chronic tension is working. There’s really two threads of it, the one the first description focuses on–the girlfriend/sex–and the one the second description mentions at the beginning–his insecurity at the boarding school because of his (lack of) financial status. The acute tension is going to this “smorgasbord” with this attractive woman who is supposedly the wife of a dictator. Neither of the descriptions here quite clearly identifies what the climax of this arc actually is; it’s buried in the first one in the “They converse about what to do with the money” part, and the second one gets a bit closer with “They talk, and Crosley tells him the story of him stealing then getting caught returning his old roommate’s coat.”

Crosely is an initially obnoxious character who the main character tells us most of their classmates keep their distance from because he’s rumored to be a thief. The narrator has also mentioned how he’s hungry a lot because of not having a lot of money, and during the smorgasbord acute tension, he and Crosley both eat like there’s no tomorrow. As they’re doing this, as the second summary mentions, the beautiful woman (whom their appetites for food are objective correlatives for their lust for) interrogates them about women, and when the narrator waxes poetic about his girlfriend, she makes him feel foolish. Her gift of money to them, which they both accept, is a concrete gesture that symbolically shows a likeness between them (contrasted with Garcia, who refuses it), a likeness elucidated by the conversation they have afterwards: they’re both poor. Crosley confesses in this conversation that the rumors are true and he really did steal from his roommate, a coat that drove him crazy with desire. The real climax of the narrative arc is in this moment:

“Man, did I want that coat. It was ridiculous how much I wanted it. You know?” He looked right at me. “Do you know what I’m talking about?”

I nodded.



This is a moment where the main character overtly acknowledges that the two of them are the same in this fundamental way. The smorgasbord acute tension (s)experience has enabled them to recognize this sameness and bond over it. A change has taken place because the narrator was lonely at the beginning and we can now see that he will not be as lonely anymore: in this place full of rich entitled brats like Garcia, there is at least one other person with whom he has something in common.

The resolution or denouement after this climactic moment bears this change out by showing us that the main character was being truthful in response to Crosley’s critical question and by showing them continue their bond in a conversation that explicitly links money to sex. Near the conclusion we see the narrator mentally justifying the idea of buying a prostitute with the idea that it would be specifically for his girlfriend Jane’s sake. By this point we’ve already been told that they’ll break up a month or so later because he doesn’t love her, and we know, or should know, that his justifications for the prostitute are ultimately self-serving bullsh*t. It’s left ambiguous whether he and Crosley actually go through with getting prostitutes or not. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that the fantasy of getting one facilitates a bond between him and Crosley that we presume will outlast this night (probably it will outlast his relationship with Jane).

So narratively, it works. A specific change happens because of the events specifically described. Perfect story, right? Structurally, I guess you could say that. This story is a pretty good example of using both food and clothes as objective correlatives, as per my previous post–the concrete object of the stolen coat stands in for the longing created by class discrepancy in this elite prep school and facilitates the recognition of an abstract idea of shared likeness. But someone very specific is sacrificed to achieve this structure: the women. The story’s female characters are essentially rendered objects to serve this structure and plot rather than developed as characters in their own right.

First, there’s Garcia’s stepmother, the beautiful Linda, an object of lust whose reaction to his discussion of his girlfriend–another female object–serves to reveal his own delusions to himself, to reveal that he’s really just using her for sex (or the promise of sex at this point), aka using her like an object, and you would think that this realization might make the story self-aware in a way that’s pointing out misogyny rather than engaging in it. The narrator’s hollow justifications for getting a prostitute–the story’s third female object–would also seem to be a gesture of recognizing misogyny, and yet the uplifting, almost giddy tone taken in the story’s final line describing the bond this facilitates with Crosley pretty much undoes all of this:

And so we sat up and took counsel, leaning toward each other from the beds, holding our swollen bellies, whispering back and forth about how this thing might be done, and where, and when.

I didn’t really realize until I looked at this line again how homoerotic it is…which is in service of the point I was going to make anyway: by focusing the acute-tension reversal, the story’s critical change, around the narrator’s relationship with Crosley, this bromance is elevated as the most important relationship in the story, all the female characters narratively used only to develop it in the exact same way the narrator uses his girlfriend and would use both Linda and a prostitute. This relationship hierarchy sends a message: if women are only narratively present to further male relationships, men are implicitly elevated as more important.

When the freshmen discussed the story, some were assigned to be “connectors”–to connect some aspect of the story to other literary texts they’ve read. One pair’s response got at this idea of the female being used as a plot device to facilitate male bonding:

Both “Gilgamesh” and “Smorgasbord” use specific character archetypes to carry the story along and bring two other characters together. In the case of these two stories, the archetype is of the alluring woman. In “Smorgasbord”, the character is Garcia’s stepmother, who is both physically and psychologically alluring. Linda attracts the main character with her scent and good looks. She also attracts him with her mysterious mannerisms (smoking cigarettes and wearing the cape) and gregarious personality. After the dinner, Linda gives both Crosley and the main character a hundred dollars, effectively cementing their friendship. In “Gilgamesh”, the alluring female character is Shamhat, the prostitute at the start of the epic who makes Enkidu more civilized. While she doesn’t directly bring Gilgamesh and Enkidu together, her relationship with Enkidu changed him and thus the plot of the story, bringing together Gilgamesh and Enkidu both physically and emotionally.

That’s not to say you could never have a story about a bromance without it being inherently misogynistic. It’s really ultimately about how the story treats the female characters; even if it is a bromance story and the female characters ultimately exist to emphasize that aspect, you have to hide the fact that this is their primary narrative function and make them feel more human than “Smorgasbord” does.

II. This Boy’s Life

Recently rereading J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, which begins right after Holden Caulfield has been kicked out of his third or fourth prep school, a passage early on instantly reminded me of “Smorgasbord”:

The week before that, somebody’d stolen my camel’s-hair coat right out of my room, with my fur-lined gloves right in the pocket and all. Pencey was full of crooks.

Salinger of course is another quintessential white male literary writer (one who I also noted in my previous post uses food and clothes as effective objective correlatives), and when his own misogyny and behavior with women was called into question, he was vociferously defended by the establishment, that inherently sexist/misogynist institution unconsciously reflected in “Smorgasbord.”

Having recently finished Wolff’s memoir This Boy’s Life, I gained a little more insight into the cultural and familial forces that molded Wolff in his formative years, and how these were manifesting themselves in “Smorgasbord.” The book is quite captivating, divided into chapters with near short-story arcs but that are each a critical piece in the longer arc of the book as a whole. But as when I re-read “Smorgasbord,” I had feelings that this technical prowess was hiding something darker. Wolff makes you read between the lines with what might be deemed (by the patriarchy) textbook examples of show-don’t-tell, but at times it feels like what he’s showing is revealing more than he consciously intended.

The book begins with Wolff at ten/eleven years old driving across the country with his mother, who’s fleeing a not-so-great relationship. During one of their periodic stops to let their old car cool down, a semi-truck screams past them, and his mother notes it must have lost its brakes. After they get back in the car, there’s a hubbub up ahead where the semi drove over a cliff, and Wolff gazes down at the small and distant wreckage. The conclusion of this chapter-story is foreshadowing what is waiting for them at the end of this trip.

The bad boyfriend his mother was fleeing, Roy, shows back up once they’ve settled in Salt Lake City, and he ingratiates himself to young Wolff with a Winchester rifle. Wolff doesn’t mind when his mother flees Roy again, as long as he gets to take the rifle with him. (Guns are hugely important in the book, both thematically and as a structural device.) When they end up in Seattle, his mother falls into dating a man named Dwight, and it seems serious when Wolff goes to Dwight’s house some hours away in the boondocks and meets his kids for Thanksgiving. Dwight tries to entice Wolff with the promise of a turkey shoot where he can use his rifle, but this turns out to be untrue on two fronts—there’s no turkey, only paper targets, and only adults are allowed to participate. Dwight, we are learning along with Wolff, is largely full of sh*t, only interested in reinforcing his own ego.

Of course, Wolff might be biased in his account of Dwight, but there are ways he slyly reinforces an impression that he’s not exaggerating when it comes to Dwight—he’ll note times that he expects Dwight to fly off the handle, but Dwight surprises him and doesn’t. Another way Wolff undermines a one-sidedness in his account is by showing us that these unfavorably presented traits of Dwight’s are developing in himself. When Wolff returns to school after not getting to participate in the fake turkey shoot, he tells his delinquent friends he blew a turkey’s head off, and when they call him out for his obvious lie, he’s prompted to carve graffiti into one of the stalls in the school bathroom. This leads to his mother being called, an event that is then presented as a catalyst for her decision to send him to live with Dwight–because he’s in need of discipline she can’t provide–and thus also a catalyst for her eventual decision to marry him. (That this marriage is for her son’s sake but turns out to be destructive rather than beneficial for him–this marriage is that semi-truck gone over the cliff at the beginning–is the book’s great tragedy.) Dwight lied, Wolff lied in response to Dwight’s lie, and this is what ends up landing him with Dwight for the long haul…

To continue the gun thread, another significant moment in the development (or rather, deterioration) of Wolff’s relationship with Dwight is when Wolff comes home one day and there’s an ugly dog on the porch Dwight tells him is his, because “you paid for it.” Wolff doesn’t know what he means until he goes in his room and sees his prized Winchester rifle from Ray is gone. This foreshadows another theft that Dwight is already in the process of, having insisted on putting Wolff’s paper-route earnings in the bank for him and not even allowing Wolff to use the money to buy new shoes for himself when he needs them.

The ongoing conflict with Dwight creates a narrative goal for the main character of Wolff to escape, the avenue for which becomes the possibility of going away to a prep school, even though Wolff has terrible grades and is a general delinquent. Before he hears back from the schools he’s applied to—with fake transcripts and recommendation letters—he cuts off the tip of one of his fingers in woodshop class and has to have it surgically reattached. This injury becomes the conduit to finally galvanize his mother to leave Dwight for good, when Dwight, during one of his fairly standard nagging/abusive routines, aggravates the injury:

“Don’t talk to me like that, mister,” he said, and jabbed his fingers against my chest.

He didn’t push all that hard, but he caught me off balance. I stumbled backward, tripping on my own feet, and as I went down I threw my hands out behind me to break the fall. All this seemed to happen very slowly, until the moment I landed on my finger.

This is one of those moments where Wolff reinforces that his account of Dwight is fair and not exaggerated out of bitterness: he acknowledges that Dwight “didn’t push all that hard,” and that even if Dwight had intentionally injured him on other occasions, what happened to his finger here was more or less an accident.

Let’s compare this to the movie version. The setup for this finger-re-injury incident is traded out for an earlier one in the book, Dwight yelling at Wolff for throwing away an empty mustard jar that to his standards hasn’t been scraped out as much as it could be. By this point in the movie Wolff has already gotten his prep-school scholarship, though in the book he hasn’t yet when the finger incident happens that finally enables him to leave Dwight’s. (In the book the mustard incident–which Wolff then calls his estranged brother Geoffrey about, exaggerating what happened–is how he learns about the possibility of attending prep school in the first place.) The conflict is turned into the climax of the film when, instead of Dwight jabbing him lightly and him falling accidentally, the two explode into a full-blown fistfight, during which Dwight ends up biting Wolff’s injured finger extremely intentionally. Dwight then almost strangles him before his mother manages to stop him. (This would seem to be a stand-in for a separate incident in the book where Dwight almost strangles his mother that the movie omits.) Wolff, who already has his fraudulently procured prep-school exit secured, tells his mother she can leave with him, and she agrees, and they run out of the house giddy with joy, and Wolff’s voiceover (via Leonardo DiCaprio) says “It was that easy…”

Well, that’s Hollywood for you. This also reminds me of The Catcher in the Rye, where in the very first paragraph of the book Holden lets you know his feelings about Hollywood via his brother’s career:

Now he’s out in Hollywood, D.B., being a prostitute. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies. Don’t even mention them to me.

Part of the reason Holden seems to hate them so much is because of the absurd fantasies about life they propagate, and the change this movie adaptation made to Wolff’s book seems emblematic to me about everything Holden hates about the movies. It was hardly that easy for Wolff and his mother to get out even after the finger re-injury incident makes up his mother’s mind that they will. Not even close to that easy. There’s basically a whole section of the book after that point the movie leaves out.

In both versions, we get that after years of Wolff’s working on his paper route, Dwight spent all the money–thousands of dollars–he claimed to be saving for him. The movie leaves it at that. But the book goes further in providing more of a resolution to this injustice, completing a more satisfying narrative arc by using that object(s) I’ve noted has become very relevant in other parts of the book: the gun. We’ve seen Wolff’s mother’s bad boyfriends seduce him with firepower and we’ve seen him fall for its false promises (parallel to the false promises made by the boyfriends). We saw Dwight outright steal two major things from our main character—his prized Winchester rifle and all of his hard-earned money. (Wolff notes that he stole money from his customers on occasion, but that was money that was not given over to Dwight and we saw him lose it to a con artist at a carnival in a sequence that also seems to reinforce a sort of cyclical nature to theft/conning/duplicity. Which means as a reader you’re basically put in the position of feeling Dwight’s theft from Wolff as an enraging injustice even though we know Wolff himself is a thief.)

So the way the book completes the arc of the Dwight conflict via guns is: after Wolff’s mother has finally managed to leave Dwight, Wolff hears from his stepsister that Dwight is planning to go to Seattle that weekend to win her back; while Dwight is gone on this errand, Wolff returns to the house and robs Dwight blind of all of his hunting equipment, including several rifles. He barely gets any money when he tries to pawn them, seeming to possibly symbolize the futility of this cycle of retribution, and yet there was something highly narratively satisfying in his robbing Dwight, of guns specifically, after the role(s) they played in the story. It also seems symbolic that the conclusion of their narrative arc is a disposal not just of one, but an entire arsenal. It seems symbolic of his leaving the machismo culture of this rural part of the country behind, as he is in fact about to do (for the different, if no less problematic culture of the elite prep school…).

The conflict with Dwight is one of the principle ones of the book in a way that you might argue gives him more airtime and character development than Wolff’s mother (and of course Robert De Niro, playing Dwight, gets billing over Ellen Barkin, playing Wolff’s mother, in the movie). But I’m not designating Wolff’s relationship with his abusive stepfather as a “bromance.” The book has another bromance, constituted by Wolff’s relationship with a boy named Arthur. I said that in “Smorgasbord” the main conflict is ultimately about the bromance, using the main character’s relationship to women to develop the bromance, but in This Boy’s Life, the bromance is the relationship that’s being narratively used to develop the narrative’s more primary conflict/relationship with the abusive stepfather Dwight.

The character of Arthur appears in both the book and the movie, and like the arc with Dwight, the movie truncates Arthur’s arc so that it’s not developed with the full satisfying symmetry achieved in the book. Arthur is first introduced when he and Wolff get into a fistfight after Wolff, despite recognizing Arthur as a kindred spirit, calls Arthur a “sissy” (changed to “homo” in the movie, I guess so modern viewers could understand the extremity of the implications). Wolff was encouraged to do so by some friends due to Arthur’s effeminate tendencies, but despite these, Arthur beats Wolff in the fight and makes him take the insult back.

Eventually Arthur and Wolff become friends, and at one point the book almost offhandedly mentions:

One night he kissed me, or I kissed him, or we kissed each other. It surprised us both. After that, whenever we felt particularly close we turned on each other.

In the movie, this is changed to Arthur kissing Wolff on the cheek when they’re playing piano together, after a long shot of Arthur gazing longingly at an oblivious Wolff, implying, not subtly, that Arthur is the gay one while Wolff has no potential leanings in that direction. Arthur’s feelings for Wolff become an implied motivation for something Arthur does that basically changes Wolff’s entire life, completing the narrative arc of the conflict with Dwight because it’s what enables Wolff to finally leave for prep school—Arthur, who works in the school office, is the one who procures the official forms Wolff needs to successfully forge his transcripts and recommendation letters.

In the movie, after Arthur gets Wolff the forms, we never see him again (though there is a note at the very end that he eventually did get out himself and move to Italy). But in the book, immediately after the scene where Arthur gets him the forms and he fills them out and sends them off, it describes them getting into one of the fights they’ve been getting into since the kiss (though the kiss is not invoked directly). A teacher who runs well-attended public boxing matches for a profit—which ought to give you some idea of the culture of this small town—forces Wolff and Arthur to participate as supposed punishment. During the match, Wolff ends up using some moves that Dwight taught him. Arthur’s last appearance in the book is during a description of an uppercut Wolff dealt him, though he notes that Arthur (again) won the fight. The passage with the fight then concludes:

I was distinctly aware of Dwight in that bellowing mass all around me. I could feel his exultation at the blow I’d struck, feel his own pride in it, see him smiling down at me with recognition, and pleasure, and something like love.

And we never hear of or from Arthur again… Much like the theft of the guns, the boxing match concludes the Arthur arc very symmetrically—Arthur was introduced with a fight and his arc ends with a fight. The viciousness toward his friend provoked by the ritual pretty much embodies what the culture of the town (embodied in Dwight) is doing to him and why he needs to leave. Narratively, structurally, it works, much like “Smorgasbord.”

But the way Arthur is dispensed with after he serves his purpose in the narrative is troubling to me in ways that feel similar to my discomfort with the way Jane is used in “Smorgasbord.” Used by the character, and, more problematically, used by the writer…

Arthur’s potential homosexuality is leaned on pretty heavily:

The weakest part of his act was the girlfriend, Beth Mathis. Though Beth wasn’t pretty she wasn’t exactly a gorgon either, as you would have thought from the way Arthur treated her. He gripped Beth’s hand as they walked from class to class, but he never talked to her or even looked at her. Instead he stared testily into the faces he passed as if looking for signs of skepticism or amusement. No one seemed to notice, but I did. It troubled me. It seemed so strange that I kept my mouth shut.

But aside from the fact that Wolff is cagey about who exactly kissed whom that one time, which is notable, he doesn’t much otherwise implicate himself in any homoerotic feelings, other than the fact that girls are mentioned only in the service of performances of machismo and never because he has serious feelings for them. This type of machismo is expressed in the passage above when he offhandedly says “Beth wasn’t pretty [but] she wasn’t exactly a gorgon either.” Such a description seems to accurately reflect how his conditioned adolescent mind evaluated women at the time, but I’m not seeing much in the retrospective relaying of it to evaluate this evaluation as problematic. Similarly, it seems that when Wolff baldly notes things like how he brazenly stares at his attractive older stepsister Norma, he’s implicitly shaming/rebuking these actions as gross, but other times it seems that not really enough work is done to interrogate these things.

It’s also troubling to me how Arthur’s final appearance is subsumed into “something like love for Dwight”; again, it feels like the passage is written in such a way that we’re supposed to recognize this form of love as sick because it’s constituted by these absurd violent performances of masculinity. But because of its placement, that sick love is linked to his potential love for Arthur, implicating that potential love as “sick” as well. That a sick love for Dwight might be formed in response to a need to eradicate this sick love for Arthur is complicated to say the least; the whole fight is essentially occurring because of their repressed feelings for each other, as the chain of events as presented seems to show: they kissed, they started fighting in response to their feelings of closeness; a teacher caught them during one of these fights, forcing them to transfer it to a public boxing match. Wolff shows the events happen this way without overly explicating them, in accordance with the creative writer’s show-don’t-tell mandate. But he doesn’t show quite enough for me when it comes to wrapping up the Arthur arc, especially in light of the implication that his love for Arthur is as sick as any he might feel for Dwight, and especially in comparison to how he articulates the complexity of his feelings from the retrospective vantage in regards to other male relationships of his, particularly with his friend Chuck, a pretty important character left out of the movie entirely, the friend he goes to live with after the finger re-injury leads to him finally leaving Dwight’s. And this is not the only way Chuck’s character–and Wolff’s feelings for Chuck’s character and what happens to Chuck and the way he describes those feelings and what happens–enters the realm of misogyny.

Chuck ends up entrapped in a situation very different from but with certain parallels to Wolff’s when he impregnates an underage girl and is faced with the choice of marrying her or going to prison. While in certain ways Wolff seems to be showing us a situation that reflects the horrors of small-town life and culture, what exactly is figured as “horrific”about this scenario becomes problematic for me. It’s Chuck’s potential fate of having to marry the girl that’s the horror due to who this particular girl is:

Somebody had knocked her up. She’d kept her pregnancy secret for as long as she could, and she was so fat to begin with that this deception came within two months of bringing her to term. Her name was Tina Flood, but everyone just called her The Flood. She was fifteen years old.

Again, I’m sure this is all an accurate description of how this girl was perceived and treated at school. And Wolff makes some effort to call out his own attitudes toward “The Flood” at the time as problematic, but by the time he does, Chuck’s staunch refusal to marry her even under threat of prison has been figured as heroic. As the reader, Wolff puts you in the position of rooting for Chuck, which was his position. He and Chuck are both trying to escape, after all. And like Wolff, Chuck does end up escaping his potential fate of entrapment when one of his friends who also slept with Tina succumbs to the pressure to marry her:

I was shaking with relief and joy and cruel pleasure, for the truth was I didn’t like Huff and felt no pity for Tina. To me she was just The Flood and now I saw Huff trapped in its grip, paddling feebly on its broad heaving surface, pummeled and smothered, going under and bobbing up again somewhere else with his hairy arms churning and his pompadour agleam.

Here Wolff acknowledges that the pleasure he takes in Chuck’s escape at Tina’s expense is “cruel” in a way that again evokes an impression of honesty—here he is putting all his ugly feelings on display for the reader, and with that “cruel” label seems to be overtly acknowledging their ugliness. But is that enough to compensate for the episode being depicted such that even a feminist reader such as myself is seduced into taking up Wolff’s position of sympathy for Chuck escaping this situation that he got himself into by essentially using a girl like toilet paper? Is that enough to compensate for reducing the female to an object once more, designating her an “it” while the male counterpart that he claims to have the same level of feelings for as Tina gets to retain his human pronoun? The pure poetry dedicated to the description is a specific effort on the part of the retrospective writer, after all, one to capture the problematic mindset, but still.

Wolff again seems to be trying to inject some writerly awareness about how gross this all is from the retrospective position when he circles back chronologically to a moment with Chuck to end the book with. Chuck gets a much more articulated sendoff than Arthur:

He had escaped Tina Flood, he had escaped prison, and before long he would escape me. We weren’t friends any more, but we both had cause to rejoice and this helped us imagine we were friends.

And the final line:

It was a good night to sing and we sang for all we were worth, as if we’d been saved.

This is a link back to some references revolving around Chuck’s father, a preacher. The “as if” strikes a note of discord, basically implying they have not actually been saved even if they’ve escaped their immediate bonds and believe this is enough to “save” them. Wolff may have escaped his immediate physical proximity to this culture, but he has not escaped its mark on him. Before returning to this point to end the book on, Wolff has summarized a fair amount of what happens after he leaves the place where he’s spent the bulk of the book, so we know for sure it’s true he hasn’t actually been “saved” in this moment, that just leaving is not enough. That he ends with faux-salvation instead of actual salvation again seems a way to potentially indict rather than excuse a lot of the terrible things he’s done, but it still doesn’t feel like quite enough acknowledgment to me. I’m seeing a pattern of (white) female and gay characters subverted to (white) straight male ones, which would seem to perpetuate the problems of the culture Wolff came from more than address them.

There was one other thing in This Boy’s Life that left a bad taste in my mouth in conjunction with the ending of Arthur’s arc and the depiction of homosexuality. Wolff summarizes the period after he leaves Dwight’s, mentioning that he spends the summer at his father’s, but with his father largely absent, he ends up mostly in the company of his father’s friend:

For two weeks I drove back and forth along the beach and ate TV dinners and went to movies with an acquaintance of my father’s who had offered to keep an eye on me. One morning I woke up to find this man embracing me and making declarations of love. I got him out of the apartment and called my father, who told me to “shoot the bastard” if he came back. For this purpose he directed me to a .223 Air Force Survival Rifle he had hidden in the closet. He waited on the telephone while I fetched the rifle from its hiding place, then instructed me in its assembly.

That night the man leaned against the apartment door and sobbed while I stood in the darkness on the other side, silently hugging the rifle, sweating and shaking as in a fever.

This is the last we hear of this. Of course it’s an interesting call-back to the gun motif, linking it to the homoerotic. I don’t even know what to do with this, though. The quick summaries of this period, his time at the prep school, and his tour in Vietnam (the latter two subjects of other books of his) feel too quick, and we get so little about what happens during this time that it’s interesting this is one of the few details he does include. It seems a microcosm of all the book’s elements, really, the latent homoeroticism in male relationships tied up with guns. But the gay element here is likened to the threatening, to something he’s forced to take up arms against. It’s depicted as predatory. And once again I was reminded of The Catcher in the Rye, specifically when Holden retreats to the abode of a former teacher–“about the best teacher I ever had,” who’s “a pretty young guy,”–who’s revealed to be a “pervert” who tries to take advantage of Holden.

Perhaps my reading these two books around the same time reinforced my queer reading of them, but I’ve become convinced via both Wolff’s descriptions of what happened with Arthur and his narrative handling of him that Wolff is definitely more gay than he’s letting on, and that Holden Caulfield is gay/bi. (I won’t go into the textual evidence for the latter at this point, but at least one other person has picked up on it.)

At any rate, if we’re going to continue to hold up these old white males’ work as examples of technical literary prowess, I think it’s important to interrogate the attitudes that prowess is encoding.


The Power of Objects, Part 2: Food & Clothes

A few years ago I wrote about the power of objects in both life and stories to carry the weight/convey the impact of abstract emotions. I referred to the company Apple in that post in the context of designing their products to look more “friendly,” but I’ve been thinking about that company’s logo lately, specifically its reference to the narrative in the first book of the Bible, the aptly titled “Genesis,” when Adam and Eve are in the Garden of Eden and everything is perfect except for that one darn tree they’re not allowed to eat the fruit from. Then yada yada yada, the serpent tempts Eve and she eats the fruit from it and gets Adam to too, and bam, they both gain *knowledge*—illustrating how the concrete object of the fruit shows the abstract concept of a transfer of knowledge. The first way this knowledge manifests is that they become aware of their nakedness, and connected to this awareness is an immediate need to cover that nakedness, which would seem to imply that knowledge is inherently connected to shame…and of course the general suffering known as the human condition.

Anyway, all that is to say, this narrative of the genesis of human suffering, whether you believe someone dictated it direct from God’s mouth or not, is also a narrative of the genesis of clothes, which happened because of an exchange of food. And while I always have my eye out for a good objective correlative when I’m reading books or watching movies and TV, lately these two particular kinds of objects present in that “original” narrative–food and clothes–have been jumping out at me.

The distinctive bite taken out of Apple’s apple pretty much explicitly links it to the Biblical apple:

apple logo
The Apple logo.

In the biblical narrative, the apple is rendered an “epistemological” symbol, a fancy academic word that means “related to knowledge.” And the shame and suffering ultimately attendant with that knowledge in the biblical version would seem to render the bite taken from the apple–the knowledge taken–a negative entity. Apple has subverted this idea, sending the message that its products are conduits to knowledge, because in our secular culture, knowledge is a positive, desirable entity.

Game of Thrones 2.1: “The North Remembers,” April 1, 2012

That’s just one example of how a symbol’s meaning can shift based on context—the same symbol that’s negative in the Bible becomes positive in the world of material consumption. In a similar way, objects can have a meaning or value that’s particular to an individual, and they can have a meaning or value collective to a group or culture. Taking advantage of both these individual and collective meanings can enrich a narrative. Food and clothes in particular can be good objects to use because they have potential individual and collective appeal. Everyone has to eat, and everyone has to wear clothes.

So let’s look at some examples of how food and clothes have carried meaning and emotion in fiction, and some creative nonfiction for good measure. There are a couple of different approaches we could take here—looking at the literary symbolism of the objects, or looking at how they figure in the narrative structure to compel a feeling of closure/emotional satisfaction in the reader. I’m going to primarily focus on the latter with some discussion of the former along the way.

The reason food jumps out at me when used as an objective correlative is probably because I was introduced to the general concept in an example that used food, the “bloody potato” from Chekhov’s “The Murder,” as my first post covered. Since then, I’ve written about another potato being used as an objective correlative, in Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See, in which a boiled potato contrasted with a piece of cake helped render it understandable why someone would choose to join the Nazi regime. In my ongoing project of reading Stephen King’s work, another use of potatoes jumped out at me in his novel The Shining (1977) that almost inverts Chekhov use of it in the blood—the bloodiness of a domestic beating is conveyed by a woman’s glasses lying in her mashed potatoes, not actually bloody but with gravy dripping down them in a way that evokes blood:

He and Becky crying, unbelieving, looking at their mother’s spectacles lying in her mashed potatoes, one cracked lens smeared with gravy.

And then, as I was writing this, the New Yorker reposted a nonfiction piece by King from 2000 describing his experience of being hit and nearly killed by a van when he was out walking in rural Maine:

[The driver] told friends later that he thought he’d hit “a small deer” until he noticed my bloody spectacles lying on the front seat of his van. They were knocked from my face when I tried to get out of [the driver’s] way. The frames were bent and twisted, but the lenses were unbroken. They are the lenses I’m wearing now, as I write.

In the interest of the angle of how critical an object food can be, I’ll also note that King notes that this driver later said he was out driving where he was that day…

…because he wanted “some of those Marzes bars they have up to the store.” When I hear this detail some weeks later, it occurs to me that I have nearly been killed by a character out of one of my own novels. It’s almost funny.

That’s because King knows how important food can be in a narrative. Also, the reason the driver wasn’t watching the road when he hit King is because his Rottweiler was trying to nose into a cooler of meat in the backseat. You can’t make this stuff up, I guess. But the point is, you should try. I’ll come back to King, who shows that taking advantage of food and clothes has both literary and commercial appeal.

For an example of commercial appeal, sitcoms use this trope frequently where characters talk about one thing and mean another. In a Friends episode in which Chandler’s gotten a new roommate and, being men in the 90s, neither he nor his former roommate Joey can express their feelings about this loss, their emotions explode over breakfast:

Joey: And now there’s no juice. There’s no juice for the people who need the juice and want the juice. I need the juice.

Chandler: There’s another carton right over there.

Joey: Hey, this isn’t about juice anymore, all right man.

Chandler: All right, so what’s it about?

Joey: Eggs. Who’s eggs do you like better, his or mine, huh?

Chandler: Well I like both eggs equally.

Joey: Oh come on. Nobody likes two different kinds of eggs equally. You like one better than the other and I wanna know which.

Chandler: Well what’s the difference? Your eggs aren’t here anymore, are they? You took your eggs and you left! Did you really expect me to never find new eggs?

Friends 2.17, “The One Where Eddie Moves In,” February 22, 1996

In one of the readings I give my intro fiction class from Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, she uses a passage from Thomas Mann’s Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man to illustrate the concept of “significant detail”:

It was a narrow room, with a rather high ceiling, and crowded from floor to ceiling with goodies. There were rows and rows of hams and sausages of all shapes and colors—white, yellow, red and black; fat and lean and round and long—rows of canned preserves, cocoa and tea, bright translucent glass bottles of honey, marmalade and jam. . . .I stood enchanted, straining my ears and breathing in the delightful atmosphere and the mixed fragrance of chocolate and smoked fish and earthy truffles. . . . I spoke into the silence, saying: “Good day” in quite a loud voice; I can still remember how my strained, unnatural tones died away in the stillness. No one answered. And my mouth literally began to water like a spring. One quick, noiseless step and I was beside one of the laden tables. I made one rapturous grab into the nearest glass urn, filled as it chanced with chocolate creams, slipped a fistful into my coat pocket, then reached the door, and in the next second was safely round the corner.

Burroway points out the passage’s appeals to the senses, articulating what this food-focused passage is showing the reader without coming right out and saying it:

I was quite poor, and I was not used to seeing such a profusion of food, so that although I was very afraid there might be someone in the room and that I might be caught stealing, I couldn’t resist taking the risk.

Someone used to seeing “such a profusion of food” would not observe it in such detail. The objects of the food here are being used to reveal the character’s state and state of mind.

The titular metaphor of J.D. Salinger’s classic The Catcher in the Rye (1951) uses food in an even larger-scale way for narrative structure by helping provide what Janet Burroway calls a “reversal”—a concrete manifestation of change, which is what compels narrative closure (we feel like the story is complete if a change has taken place–something has “happened” that has rendered relevant the events described up to that point). But the most significant change–an emotional one–is abstract, so has to be shown in a more concrete way, using objects. Even something as small as having a character walk through a puddle at the beginning of a story and around a puddle at the end helps drive home or make felt the larger change the events of the story have caused the character to undergo.

The first time its title comes up in Salinger’s novel explicitly is when Holden overhears a kid he’s walking behind:

He was singing that song, “If a body catch a body coming through the rye.” He had a pretty little voice, too. He was just singing for the hell of it, you could tell. … He kept on walking next to the curb and singing “If a body catch a body coming through the rye.” It made me feel better. It made me feel not so depressed any more.

That this child makes Holden feel less depressed reflects his larger conflict with the corruption/phoniness of the adult world. The reference comes up once more, later, when Holden visits his younger sister Phoebe and she asks him what he wants to be:

“You know that song ‘If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye’? I’d like–“

“It’s ‘If a body meet a body coming through the rye’!” old Phoebe said. “It’s a poem. By Robert Burns.”

“I know it’s a poem by Robert Burns.”

She was right, though. It is “If a body meet a body coming through the rye.” I didn’t know it then, though.

“I thought it was ‘If a body catch a body,'” I said. “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around–nobody big, I mean–except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff–I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”

It’s significant that both the kid and Holden have the words wrong—it indicates that this fantasy of his, that what he wants to be, is “wrong.” Which he himself seems to know here, since he calls himself “crazy” for it. Of course, you can know it’s crazy to want or feel something and that knowledge will affect how much you want and feel those things not one iota. The rye that the children play in–the food object, which never appears literally but only in Holden’s mind and the line of a poem–symbolizes sustenance and wholesomeness, a sort of purity associated with childhood—or rather, with Holden’s conception of it.

What Salinger does next is clever, because in reaching for a reversal through a concrete object (even if that concrete object is not literally concrete because it only exists in a fantasy/metaphor) a lesser writer probably would have gone back to the rye. But Salinger leaves the food behind, because the reader’s gotten what they need from it: the idea that Holden feels the need to protect children from going over the cliff into adulthood—that Holden sees adulthood as a corrupting influence, as death. In the novel’s final scene, Holden takes Phoebe to the zoo and she rides on a carousel:

All the kids kept trying to grab for the gold ring, and so was old Phoebe, and I was sort of afraid she’d fall off the goddam horse, but I didn’t say anything or do anything. The thing with kids is, if they want to grab the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off they fall off, but it’s bad if you say anything to them.

Now the “gold ring” on the carousel ride is the object communicating Holden’s feelings about children growing up and his own relation to that inevitability, and the feelings it communicates show they’ve reversed from when he was talking about the catcher poem with her earlier. Letting her reach for the gold ring is the equivalent of letting her go over the cliff in the rye field and not “catching” her. To let her do this is to come closer with being okay with doing that himself. That he’s no longer figuring adulthood as going over a cliff but instead reaching for a gold ring also shows a change in attitude toward the concept toward more positive in general. And the drenching rain that falls on him after he lets her reach for the gold ring is cleansing. The ring isn’t food or clothes, but it works with them.

Because there’s also Holden’s red hunting hat, his marker of uniqueness/difference that he acquires on the morning of the day the novel begins, which near the end he symbolically gives to Phoebe and she symbolically gives back to him, reinforcing these changes, or rather, reinforcing the intensity with which this change is felt in the reader. Clothes are actually all over this book, taking advantage of one of their categories of meaning—denoting class—as well as pulling an interesting trick when two different characters borrow Holden’s clothes: first his prep-school roommate Stradlater borrows Holden’s houndstooth jacket to go out on a date with a girl Holden himself seems interested in, and Holden describes how James Castle, a boy at one of his former prep schools whom he let borrow his turtleneck sweater, killed himself while wearing it. By wearing Holden’s clothes, Stradlater and James Castle represent different possible versions of Holden himself, but at the same time, on a more literal level, the fact that they borrowed clothes from him indicates that he has nicer things than they do, that he comes from a wealthier background. Which affects the rest of the novel in ways that escape the scope of this particular post…and the use of suitcases as an object also ties into this in ways I won’t go into now.

The use of clothes as an objective correlative related to class was also all over another book I recently read, Tobias Wolff’s memoir This Boy’s Life (1989). Wolff more or less describes leading a sort of double life of split identity between delinquent and literal and figurative Boy Scout; its narrative arc’s climax is constituted almost exclusively through clothes in a chapter in which a wealthy benefactor buys him clothes for the prep school he’s gotten into by forging his recommendation letters and transcripts. The climactic chapter’s climactic passage emphasizes the power of clothes in general:

She glanced at me again and then stepped back so that I was alone before the mirror. The elegant stranger in the glass regarded me with a doubtful, almost haunted expression. Now that he had been called into existence, he seemed to be looking for some sign of what lay in store for him.

He studied me as if I held the answer.

The “stranger in the glass” is rendered thus by the expensive clothes he’s wearing that he’s obviously far from familiar with. The movie adaptation left this and a lot of other stuff out, but it did make use of the Boy Scout uniform as concrete metaphor for the good-boy identity not figuratively fitting the adolescent Wolff’s character:

Leonardo DiCaprio as Tobias Wolff in This Boy’s Life (1993)

I’ll talk more about this book in another post, but the last thing I wanted to note was a chapter that makes use of food. Wolff is a renowned short-story writer, and the chapters that serve the longer arc of the memoir also frequently function like contained stories. Again part of what helps give them that feeling is the use of objects. In this particular chapter, Wolff is maybe ten or so, and is at a gathering at a park one day when a man starts hitting on his mother. The man lures Wolff and his mother to his nearby house with a promise:

“Lunch,” the man said. “That’s no problem. What do you like?” he asked me. “What’s your absolute favorite thing to have for lunch?”

I looked at my mother. She was in high spirits and that made me even grimmer, because I knew they were not due to my influence. “He likes hamburgers,” she told him.

“You got it,” he said. He took my mother’s elbow and led her across the park toward the house.

But once there, the promised lunch is downgraded:

I followed him to the kitchen and sat at a counter while Judd pulled things out of the refrigerator. He slapped together a baloney sandwich and set it in front of me. He seemed to have forgotten about the hamburger. I would have said something, but I had a pretty good idea that even if I did there still wasn’t going to be any hamburger.

Of course, a “baloney” sandwich becomes symbolic here of the lie that was told. This lie might initially seem harmless or unintentional, but becomes much less so in light of what happens later, for which the baloney exchange was clearly a setup: when it comes up in conversation that Wolff’s mother can’t afford a bike for him, the man promises him a bike:

“What kind of bicycle would you like to have, Jack?”

“A Schwinn, I guess.”

“Really? You’d rather have a Schwinn than an English racer?” He saw me hesitate. “Or would you rather have an English racer?”

I nodded.

“Well then, say so! I can’t read your mind.”

“I’d rather have an English racer.”

“That’s the way. Now what kind of English racer are we talking about?”

Judd brought the drinks. Mine was bitter. I recognized it as Collins mix.

That last exchange with the drinks seems like it’s a possible objective correlative for the narrator’s feelings here: his side of this exchange tastes bitter, because he recognizes it as false, probably due to the baloney exchange. But any recognition here is really retrospective and/or subconscious it would seem, because Jack does seem convinced of the truth of the bike, thinking that his mother’s going on a date with this man later that night will “firm things up.” But his mother returns home crying, and the next day when he asks about the bike, she doesn’t answer. At that point he does know for sure that’s the end of it. And this knowledge, bitter as it is, feels like an ending.

Wolff’s book shows, among other things, how clothes project a facade, a relevant theme to both fashion and public relations, as the opening of Jennifer Egan’s short story/chapter “Selling the General” demonstrates:

Dolly’s first big idea was the hat. She picked teal blue, fuzzy, with flaps that came down over the general’s large dried-apricot ears. The ears were unsightly, Dolly thought, and best covered up.

When she saw the general’s picture in the Times a few days later, she almost choked on her poached egg: he looked like a baby, a big sick baby with a giant mustache and a double chin. The headline couldn’t have been worse:


Dolly bolted to her feet in her dingy kitchen and turned in a frantic circle, spilling tea on her bathrobe. She looked wildly at the general’s picture. And then she realized: the ties. They hadn’t cut off the ties under the hat as she’d instructed, and a big fuzzy bow under the general’s double chin was disastrous.

Not only does this passage show how clothes project an image for this general (a genocidal dictator), but Dolly’s own anxiety over this headline is reflected using both food and clothes when she spills the tea on her robe.

One of the TV shows most relevant to clothes in the past two decades, Project Runway, understands clothes’ emotional power. Serving as a guest judge on season 9 back in 2011 when she was editor-in-chief of Marie Claire magazine, Joanna Coles said something in episode 9.4, “All About Nina,” that’s stuck with me:

Clothes are emotional. When you put them on, they make you feel something, and they make other people feel something when they see you in them.

Of course, a show like Project Runway and most clothing lines are exploiting these emotions for profit, and emotions become tied to branding. I’m going to tie that back to food with some passages from Stephen King’s The Stand. A lot of King’s horror derives from a juxtaposition of the horrific with the mundane (kind of like how in a scientific experiment you need a control among the variables). And food is a good way to constitute the mundane/domestic/routine. The horror of death is heightened by this contrast in a passage when an army officer looks at men dead from the superflu in the cafeteria through camera monitors:

A man and a woman in blue coveralls were crumpled at the foot of the candy machine. A man in a white coverall lay beside the Seeburg jukebox. At the tables themselves were nine men and fourteen women, some of them slumped beside Hostess Twinkies, some with spilled cups of Coke and Sprite still clutched in their stiff hands. And at the second table, near the end, there was a man who had been identified as Frank D. Bruce. His face was in a bowl of what appeared to be Campbell’s Chunky Sirloin Soup.

What struck me was the use of the brand names. These days it’s a fine line between verisimilitude and advertising…it’s a use of specificity that contributes a feeling of authenticity, and does reflect our real world that’s populated by such brands. King uses branded food again in a passage that shows how it stands in for his favorite emotion, not fear, but love:

Just thinking of that note was enough to make him wince. No “Dear” before his name. No “Love” before her signature. She didn’t believe in phony stuff. The real stuff was in the refrigerator. Sometime while he had been sleeping off his drive across America, she had gone out and stocked up on every goddam thing in the world that he liked. Her memory was so perfect it was frightening. A Daisy canned ham. Two pounds of real butter—how the hell could she afford that on her salary? Two six-packs of Coke. Deli sausages. A roast of beef already marinating in Alice’s secret sauce, the contents of which she refused to divulge even to her son, and a gallon of Baskin-Robbins Peach Delight ice cream in the freezer. Along with a Sara Lee cheesecake. The kind with strawberries on top.

Bottom line: food and clothes can say a lot….




An Ocean of Minutes: Lit Circle 2, Round 1

Now that we’re doing a “book club” at PVA, our presentations are taking the form of a “literature circle.” We’re on our second round of reading Thea Lim’s novel An Ocean of Minutes. Some of the students’ lit circle materials for the first three chapters of  (pp.1-51) are below:


Discussion Director: Ivan Josic

  1. How far would you time travel for a loved one, if at all? Would you do it for an acquaintance or a stranger?
  2. Why do you think the author decides to put this crisis in the 80s and not, say, the present or the near future?
  3. Why does Thea Lim exclude information on the disease, not even giving it a name?
  4. What do you think would happen in a severe, pandemic-afflicted America like Thea Lim’s? Would there still be vacationers? What will happen in our own diseased future?
  5. How/why does Thea Lim differentiate her mode of time travel from other works?

I believe Thea Lim gives little information on the “deadly flu pandemic” because, as she frames the story, it’s not necessary. The disease has already taken its toll on humanity, and Polly Nader and her husband must work around this fact as they plot a course for themselves into the future. There is no need for an r-naught or a Patient Zero because this is no medical thriller, there are no doctors. As the Galveston bus driver says, 93% of America is already dead or gone.

Lit Connector: 

Illustrator: Pieper Grantham 


For my role as Illustrator this week, I made a collage featuring some of the images seen in this section. My collage has two main sections: Polly’s original timeline and the future she finds herself in. Representing her past is a paper bag filled with objects representing memories, objects, or goals associated with her life. I was really struck by the image of people clutching paper bags with the objects they would carry into the future, and I knew I wanted to construct Polly’s own paper bag filled with the things she would carry. Included in the bag is the squirrel, the beer, and the cocktail from her date with Frank, the man in the hazmat suit and the logo for St. Luke’s hospital representing the flu and her reason for traveling into the future, the baseball cards she brought, and the lightbulbs and the story of the woman wanting to bring high heels from the airport. When she lands in Galveston, it’s not a pretty sight, and everything is overgrown with brush, which is what I tried to convey through the scrunched up foliage clippings. Also in her future is the tomato she got on the bus, which is the very tiny smudge on the Galveston clipping. For the record I also wanted to include the baby sock, the matchbook with frank’s number, and a bicycle, but I guess there’s only so much I can ask for from a magazine.

Discussion Question: What do you think was the most startling and unexpected thing Polly encountered in 1998?

Literary Luminary: Caroline Paden

Four Quotes:

Page 20: “She is entering a world where the notion of something as normal as dinnertime does not exist.”

Page 25: “How much does it cost to put scalloped edges on every napkin? Such an act of beauty that goes mainly unseen.”

Page 40: “But there wasn’t [a light switch], at least not anywhere light switches are commonly mounted, scaled to basic human dimensions: within a foot of the door, within five feet of the floor. It was a small but eerie discrepancy.”

Page 49: “A speaker played a recording of children’s laughter, swings, and wind chimes. She could think of no healthy reason for the recording.”

The first quote is significant to the story because I think Thea Lim touched on an extremely relevant aspect of our lives right now during this weird semi-lockdown: the disruption of normalcy and routine as we (and Polly) enter a frightening new situation because of a deadly pandemic. In this section, Polly fully confronts for the first time the fact that she is doing something incredibly risky that she’s never done before. Her life is about to drastically change, and she has no idea what’s waiting on the other side of this journey except the promise of something better. To me, this quote also ties into how time ceases to exist in places like airports and train stations—they’re liminal spaces, where you’re not meant to rest or settle down, so routines and mealtimes and social structures get thrown out the window in favor of a kind of subdued anarchy. This quote would have felt familiar to me before this whole coronavirus situation, but it feels really familiar right now

Literary Terms Expert: Valentina Avellaneda

  1. Houston Intercontinental Airport
    1. Descriptions of the airport in a dystopian sort of society depict the enormous differences to the place we know in the present world. Though it remains a place of coming and going (transition), the way time travel plays a role in the airport gives it a more permanent feeling as when someone travels to the future, they cannot easily return. Comparing the airport in the book to the one in reality, characteristics of a modified, magically realistic world are evident.
    2. Before you can get within a mile of terminals, you reach a bus stop moored at the edge of a vast concrete flat, where you must leave your vehicle and ascend a snaking trolley, like the ones they have at the zoo.” (page 1)
  1. The color yellow
    1. The first time the color is introduced is in the beginning (“Frank is wearing a yellow hazmat suit. The color marks him as infected.”, page 1) as a color that differentiates health vs sickness. The color yellow is often associated with happiness, clarity, courage and abundance, characteristics opposite of what one suffering in a flu pandemic would express. Yet, altering the connotations of the color yellow serves to emphasize the other worldly circumstances to come (aka time travel!).
    2. Another place the color yellow is evident is in the reference to the Cafe Terrace at Night painting by Van Gogh (page 13). Van Gogh once said “The night is more alive and richly colored than the day.”, an opinion many might disagree with. Offering controversial tones, this painting allows readers to get insight into the bizarre world Polly is about to enter.
  1. Rebuild America Time Travel Initiative (and its procedures)
    1. The concept of time travel in this book gives it not only a dystopian feel, but also comments on the immigration situation in our society. Considering Polly has to sacrifice spending precious years with Frank while they’re young, to travel into the future in hopes of saving his life, the idea of separation is evident. Here, families (or couples…) are being torn apart by worldly events out of their control.
    2. Furthermore, how Polly is treated with her O-1 visa reflects the lack of equal opportunities immigrants are given. Her visa seems to provide some privileges those with an N-1 visa are deprived of, as they’re forced to live in metal boxes and ride stationary bicycles to provide energy as a job.
    3. They already have those people. They need people to fill the jobs no one wants.” (Page 14) Here, Polly’s capabilities deem her worthy of a visa entailing better circumstances.
  1. Baseball cards and matchbook
    1. These two items serve as a link between Polly and Frank’s relationship. The baseball cards are seen when Polly is having a medical evaluation to see if her health is good enough for time travel, and the psychologist tells her he needs to confiscate them. Polly has the cards as they may be worth $$$ in the future and because they belong to Frank.
    2. When Frank and Polly first meet, Frank writes his phone number in a matchbook. This simple gesture reflects the strength of their bond, as they no longer need luxurious items or grand gestures to be reminded of one another’s presence.
  1. Human powered energy
    1. The concept of resorting to other energy sources for the sake of the planet (or that natural resources run out…) is one we are not new to today. Yet, having “lower class” people riding bicycles day after day to power AC in tourist traps twists the idea of “another energy source”.


“In the Kindergarten” Lit Circle Round 2

Here is the second group of freshmen’s literature circle materials on Ha Jin’s short story “In the Kindergarten.”

Summarizers: Gryphon and Luke

In “In the Kindergarten” we meet a young girl named Shaona living in China during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Shaona overhears her teacher, Teacher Shen, speaking on the phone with Doctor Niu about paying for her abortion. Shaona does not know what an abortion is, and questions whether it was a place where a baby was held. It is important to know that the story takes place at a time when China’s One Child Policy was in full swing. Here, we are presented with the chronic tension. Teacher Shen requires both money and certain resources to deal with her abortion. Later, the class is told by the teacher that they were going to spend the day picking puslanes, a plant used during port-partum bleeding. They were told that the herbs would be sent to the kitchen and that they would eat them for dinner. Before they left the field with the duffle bag of the puslanes, the teacher drops a third of them off with Uncle Chang, the one in charge of the vegetable fields at this establishment. Shaona is confused, but doesn’t question it. When the children were presented with dinner, they were disappointed due to the fact that there were no purslanes. Shaona recalls seeing her teacher go home with a large green bag and assumed it was filled with laundry, but now she knows it was filled with purslanes. Here is the acute tension. Shaona and the other children are upset with this, and the next day, Shaona urinates in the bag of purslanes while the children and Teacher Shen were chasing a rabbit. The story ends with Shaona eating a large meal and feeling confident in herself. She feels that she is now a “big girl”.

Discussion Directors: Caroline A and Deonna

  1. What is the purpose of the interaction on pages 46 and 47, where the children are arguing?

  2. Why do you think Jin chose to write from Shaona’s perspective instead of the teacher? How would writing from Teacher Shen’s POV affect the story?

  3. What was the significance of Shaona’s conflict with Dabin? How does her giving away her peanuts affect the story?

  4. Why does the author include the detail of Teacher Shen giving a sizeable amount of the purslanes to Mister Chang?

  5. How does Shaona’s arc come full-circle at the end of the story, where she becomes a “big girl”?

Why do you think Jin chose to write from Shaona’s perspective instead of the teacher? How would writing from Teacher Shen’s POV affect the story?

Jin chose to write from Shaona’s point of view in order to portray Teacher Shen’s situation through the eyes of child. This juxtaposition between the way a child’s mind perceived her predicament—as shown in the scene when Shaona overhears her conversation on the phone–and what the reader realizes to be the teacher’s struggle to recover from an abortion, allows the author and the reader to view the situation through fresh eyes. Using the perspective of a mischievous child over a rather serious situation (abortion, theft, abusing labor, etc.) creates interest and tension for the piece, as well as gives us many small details that we would not have gotten otherwise, such as the relations between the children in the kindergarten and the teacher’s outer ward persona, despite her inner conflict.

Lit Connectors: Athena and Jessie

1. The school
2. Smorgasbord
3. Chanice’s Workshop Story
4. Gallus, Gallus
Both stories, “In the Kindergarten” and “The School” had many vibrant and impotant strokes of peculiarity, both involved children, and in both stories those children acting very strangely. In the Kindergarten is similar to the story we read last semester The School in its use of unsavory language by children. We noticed that in In the Kindergarten, although only kindergarteners, the children used curse words that gave an absurd tone to the piece. Likewise, The School was overall a very odd story. In it, the children in one class at a school witness a series of increasingly peculiar events that all involve the deaths of things they have interacted with. It starts small, and ends up going up to the death of a Korean orphan. Throughout it, the children who go to the school start to sound more and more grown-up, which adds to the surreal feeling it gives off. Both of the stories include children that use more adult language to give off an absurd vibe, and emphasize the strangeness of the situation. In The School, this odd situation is the succession of deaths, and in In the Kindergarten, this situation is the teacher’s need to support herself because of her abortion.

Illustrators: Sonya and Isabella


We decided to try and draw a couple of different things from the story and combine it into one image. Firstly there’s the girl/main character in the center who is holding her skirt full of purslanes, as that was a scene from the book. Shaona is holding her skirt to collect them, which is a part of the tension as the teacher later takes them for her own reasons. The teacher, Teacher Shen, is nearby, almost like a shadow supervising her to make sure she is collecting enough to satisfy Dr. Niu. There is description about what Teacher Shen is wearing and what her face looks like, but not as much about the other characters. A big concern for Teacher Shen is being able to exist without confrontation or her secret being released: she wants to get the doctor to keep quiet about her abortion, and to receive more money to assist with her needs; taking care of her and her mother and eating eggs to stay healthy after the abortion. We drew a plane above to signify the tension and possibility of it being a warplane when Shaona notices it and wonders how pilots could fit inside, followed by a childish observation saying ‘only pigeons could fit in them’, showcasing her naivety.

Do you think the chronic tension is Shaona missing her parents, or Teacher Shen being in need of money? Why or why not?

Literary Luminaries: Marie and Sebastian

  1. “What’s an abortion? Shaona asked herself. Is it something that holds a baby? What does it look like? Must be very expensive.”
  2. “[The teacher] used to sing a lot; her voice was fruity and clear. But recently she was quiet, her face rather pallid.”
  3. “The boy would be ‘jailed’, and he might get even with her after he was released.”
  4. “[The children] were shouting out ‘rat-a-tat’ as if the spinning platform was a tank turret.’


Specifically, we thought the quote “The boy would be ‘jailed’, and he might get even with her after he was released.” was an important part of the story. It’s an interesting bit because it, combined with several other quotes describing the children and their interaction with the adults in the kindergarten, lends to the impression that the kindergarten wasn’t a place where safety or kindness was encouraged. In the first place, the fact that the child is going to ‘jail’ and won’t get out for a while, is highly questionable and makes the reader assume that the kindergarten isn’t a fun or morally constructive place to be. The second part is even more concerning. ‘…he might get even with her after he was released…’ is a clause that’s very concerning for multiple reasons and sparks several questions. This is a six-year-old. What can a six-year-old do to seriously get even with another six-year-old? It’s presumed to be a violent action because of his previous behavior, which means that this kindergarten creates very violent kindergartners and is overall not a fun and funky place to be. This is critical to the rest of the story because it establishes the environment that Shaona is living in and the story takes place in.

Craft Terms Experts: Harrison and Gabi


Example 1:

The lines, “the teacher TO embezzlement” (45) are a great example of the first-person point of view. These lines are Shoana describing her teacher Mrs.Shens appearances and her mannerisms This lets us know as the reader what Shaona thinks about her teacher. This is an important piece of the story because Shaona perspective about her teacher changes latter in the story once her teacher takes the purslanes home. So it is therefore important to know her perspective of her teacher

Example 2:

From “Shanoas mind was racing TO a few purslanes” (48). These lines show Shaona’s hope for eating the purslanes. But then later on on the page form the lines  “she remembers seeing TO harvest home” we see Shoanas understanding that her teacher took the purslanes. This is important because this event cause Shaona to be mad and later then pee on the purslanes.


Example 3:

The 3rd to the final paragraph on page 44 is an example of Characterization. The lines give a very in-depth description of how Shaona is distressed in her situation. It talks of how much she misses home and how much she hates the kindergarten’s beds, and how her dismay at her situation has warped her view of the Kindergarten and shows us how happy she was before in contrast to her distress.


Examples 4:

From the ending of the page of 46 to 47 dialogue is used in a fight between students. This causes one of the students to be put in a pantry like a place as punishment. This causes Shaoan to like her teacher even less.



“In the Kindergarten” Lit Circle Round 1

Here is the first group of freshmen’s literature circle materials on Ha Jin’s short story “In the Kindergarten.”

Summarizers: Rey and Angela

The story begins with Shaona, a little girl of around 5 or 6, who is living at a kindergarten with her classmates and her Teacher Shen, who overhears a conversation between her teacher and an unknown person, discussing the painful aftermath of an abortion she recently had. After the call is over, Teacher Shen gathered the children and led them outside, where she told them that they would be picking purslanes, a herb that grew in the schoolyard. After a while of collecting the herbs, Shaona got into a fight with her classmate Dabin, who insulted her for the number of purslanes she had picked. He was taken away by the teachers, and the children continued searching the fields, excited for the purslanes that Teacher Shen had promised they would get for dinner. At mealtime that night, Shaona noticed that their food is what it always was, and gets angry because they did not get to taste the purslanes. After dinner, Dabin was released by the teacher, and in order to keep him from messing with her, she gave him some peanuts she had gotten from her father, who she hasn’t seen for 2 weeks. At recess the next day the children play instead of collecting herbs but continue their labor the day after. While the class is picking purslanes, a wild rabbit runs out into the field, and all the children run after it trying to catch it for their dinner that night. During the rabbit chase, Shaona leaves the class behind and pees on the collected purslanes. She is so satisfied with her attempt to sabotage whoever would be getting the herbs instead, that she doesn’t even get upset when they have the same foods for dinner that evening.

Discussion Directors: James and Elissa

  1. What is the significance of Teacher Shen’s pregnancy?

  2. Did she give Dabin the peanuts to placate him? I doubt he would have gotten away with much with all the teachers around

  3. Why are the Kindergarten children cussing?

  4. Where do you think the story takes place?

  5. Was she selling the purslanes or was she eating them?

In the story “In the Kindergarten”, we (being Elissa and James, students at HSPVA) believe that the story takes place somewhere in Asia, specifically China. The author, Ha Jin, includes tiny small little details about the characters, the food, and the surrounding area that clue the reader in to where the setting may be. For example, the names of the characters are Chinese, Shaona, Dabin, Teacher Chen, Uncle Cheng, Weilan, Luwan, Aili, and Aunt Chef. While ‘Aunt Chef’ may not be explicitly Chinese, I think it’s an Asian thing to call older adults that you know “aunt” or “uncle” because that’s what I’ve been doing since I was able to talk. We have reason to think that this story specifically takes place in rural China, due to the amount of farming that the main characters do. Furthermore, Teacher Shen seems extremely concered about her pregnancy, and even talks about perhaps getting an abortion, which alludes to the one child law in China, which while may or may not still be in affect, was most likely in affect at the time that this was written. Finally, the food that was mentioned also gives helpful clues to the fact that this is in China, specifically the purslanes and fried eggplant which is a very japanese/chinese type food.

Lit Connectors: Edlyn and Quentin

Suffer the Little Children


Ms. Interrupter (Gabi’s workshop piece)

The Wolf and the Cherries (Christian’s workshop piece)

We can connect In the Kindergarten to The Wolf and the Cherries because both stories are about a small child facing a challenge. In Christian’s workshop piece it is about a boy taking on a wolf and in In the Kindergarten a girl is struggling in Kindergarten. Both use food to try and win the conflict they are experiencing. The girl uses peanuts, which are then taken from her. The boy uses cherry pits, which were taken from him by the wolf. In both stories the character ends up triumphant, the girl because she got the edge on her teacher who wasn’t giving them the sprouts she promised, and the boy saved his village from a wolf.

Illustrators: Christian and Chanice


The first image relates to the story because it depicts a young girl who is (probably) the same age as the girl in the story. Many have assigned the role of protagonist to the little girl and the climax would be when she pees on the parsnips while the rest of the children are chasing a rabbit. The images a whole represent the story and the arc of the story. The story describes children at a boarding school and their life on the daily. The main setting of the story is the schoolhouse. The readers are introduced to the teacher and a conflict with another man. He goes on a tangent about the teacher paying him because her rent is due. She is hysterical. This adds to the tension when the reader finds out that the teacher has used the money she worked for an abortion. The images like the sack of harvest show the fruit that the children picked.

Literary Luminaries: Natalie and Heather

“She felt that from now on she would not cry like a baby at night again.”

“ ‘Say that again, bitch!’ ”

“‘I’ve an old mother at home. My mother and I have to live . . . And you know, I lost so much blood, because of the baby, that I need to eat eggs to recuperate. I’m really broke now. Can you just give me another month?’”

“Soon Shaona couldn’t stand playing queen anymore, because she felt silly calling him ‘Your Majesty’ and hated having to obey his orders.”

We chose the third quote to elaborate on. This quote introduces the teacher’s conflict, which is the chronic tension of the story. She recently had an abortion and is now struggling to deal with the finaces and resulting health issues because of it. She remarks about how much blood she lost and needs more nutrients. During this quote, she is on the phone, asking her boss for a raise in order to be able to buy more food, but he continues to refuse. The student, Shaona, who is the main character hears this conversation and is confused about what she is talking about. This leads her to desperate measures where she leads the kids outside to pick the purslanes. Shaona, our narrator and voice of the story, is one of her students who is picking them. She doesn’t understand why she is picking the plants and comes up with her own theories; she initially thinks that they are going to eat them at dinner or some other meal, but is confused why they don’t. This is the acute tension of the story as the younger and innocent mind tries to comprehend the intense and mature situation of the teacher’s abortion.

Craft Terms Experts: Benjy, Lakshmi, Caroline W


  1. “Oh please!” the teacher blubbered on the phone. “I’ll pay you the money in three months. You’ve already helped me so much, why can’t you help me out?’…

“Have mercy on me, Dr. ·Niu. I’ve an old mother at home. My mother and I have to live. … And you know, I lost so much blood, because of the baby, that I need to eat eggs to recuperare. I’m really broke now. Can you just give me another month?’”

  1. “Big asshole,” Weilan said, and made a face at him, sticking out her tongue.

“Say that again, bitch!” He went up to her, grabbed her shoulder, pushed her to the ground, and kicked her buttocks. She burst out crying.

  1. “Aunt Chef couldn’t cook those we got yesterday because we turned them in too late, but she’ll cook them for us today. So everybody must be a good child and work hard. Understood?”

  2. He turned away to talk to other children, telling them that purslanes tasted awful. He claimed he had once eaten a bowl of purslane stew when he had diarrhea. He would never have touched that stuff if his parents hadn’t forced him. “It tastes like crap, more bitter than sweet potato vines,” he assured them.


We chose the first set of quotes. These quotes are present towards the beginning of the story. In this dialogue, Teacher Shen is having a conversation with someone on the phone. It’s in this small portion of dialogue that we understand Teacher Shen’s chronic tension and intentions. Even though the main character, Shaona, is unaware of what an abortion is or how a baby is born, the readers know what is happening. The craft element of dialogue in this case is used to reveal Teacher Shen’s backstory, the fact that she got an abortion and couldn’t afford it because she has to support herself and her mother. It’s this backstory that allows the readers to know what exactly is driving the story. Without understanding that Teacher Shen can’t afford food using this piece of dialogue, we wouldn’t know why the kindergarteners were picking purslanes if they weren’t being cooked, which is what drives the story. There are many different ways to define the chronic tension of a character. In Shaona’s case, her chronic tension is defined through direct narration. That makes sense because she is the main character. The use of dialogue to define Teacher Shen’s backstory, chronic tension, and motives as a character makes sense as a choice of the author because the main character is overhearing this dialogue.

An Ocean of Minutes: Lit Circle Round 5

Here are the students’ literature circle materials for this week’s book club meeting on Thea Lim’s novel An Ocean of Minutes (pp. 198-249). The first round is available here, the second round here, the third round here, and the fourth round here.

Summarizer: Lauren Sternenberg

The section opens with Norberto and Polly prepping for their wedding. She tries on many of Marta—Norberto’s previous girlfriend—and they pose for pictures to solidify the lie. Overall, Polly does her best to fabricate a magic between them for the photos, but it falls flat.

Next, there’s a slight montage of Polly becoming used to travelling to Norberto’s and work, in general, just settling in. She gets to know him a bit better, finding out his family is from El Paso, then moved to Albuquerque where he was separated from his family. Norberto joins the corps to try and find them, but it failed, and he moved to Alabama to drive for the Great South Bus Lines. After, he met Marta and they walked to San Antonio to get the house he’s in now. He’s proud of his hand-made house and record collection, where the one that was Marta’s favorite is turned around.

Norberto suggests they walk on the beach to get used to each other. They hold hands, where Polly feels trapped, until she find’s he was waiting to let go after 120 seconds. He says they should recreate a special moment, which they’ll do the day after. He has her stand in the surf until she dreams of home and her mother.

They get on the boat and get the details of their marriage story right, where Polly is given Marta’s mother’s ring. She realizes it seems like she’s betrayed Frank in marrying Norberto, but she can’t turn back.

The next day, they go to get married. They’re both stricken because this isn’t how they imagined getting married, and when they have the choice to kiss each other, they don’t. On the boat ride home, she tries to get Norberto to see the beauty that Marta saw in the coast, but he misses it.

In April of 1980, Polly is struck by Frank’s collection of items, and she asks him about what he’d do with all their mementos if she were to leave him. He says he’ll throw them away. The evening is heavy between them afterwards, and they agree to take a weekend trip to help. Sadly, the trip has been planned to the minute by Frank, and Polly feels suffocated. They argue about going on the bus tour, then she tells him they have all the time in the world, and he has nothing to be afraid of. He receives it badly and seems defeated.

His reaction reminds her of when Polly’s mother died and she went to the woods instead of school, and how when Donna caught her, she cried until Donna asked what was wrong, and she was afraid of being the only person to remember her mother. Her memories would keep her mother safe. She wanted to tell Frank that, but she can’t.

They go on the bus and sit in silence, where them taking a picture for his grandpa lightens the mood. It tanks a minute later because of the tourists all around them, and she attacks Frank for being so calm. He walks back to his car, defeated, which prompts Polly to buy plastic cherry blossoms for him. She apologizes. He keeps those flowers in the car.

Now, in regular time, Polly realizes Norberto hasn’t come home. She goes looking for him back at Moody Plaza, where he calls her a moron in front of other O-1’s. He smells like alcohol. When they return home, she yells at him about being secretive, where he brings up that they’re not really married. Polly rips his magazines in response.

Norberto tells her the fixer he hired took all his money and photos, and he’s desperate for any leverage. He starts to advance on her, but she refuses. When he doesn’t stop, she smashes him in the head with a lamp and runs off into the rain.

Polly runs back to the women of 4A1, where she’s taken in again by Cookie, who’s excited because her son is set to see her. They were kicked out of the complex from before. Polly resumed tile work and hoped she didn’t kill Norberto. She sees him at work but isn’t sure if it’s real.

On the night Cookie’s son is set to show, he comes much later than expected. Him and Cookie have a sweet and short reunion.

Cookie invites Polly to live with her and her son, and she plans to go, until her foreman calls her to go to the Head Office.

Once there, she’s worried she’ll be arrested for Norberto’s murder—even though she’s not sure he’s dead—and she fills out lots of paperwork and waits until she realizes she’s not a suspect. Instead, she finds out Norberto’s paid off her bond and got her a boat ticket to Buffalo, Frank’s last known location.

Polly gives Cookie her wedding ring as thanks and she heads to the terminal. She sees Norberto there and worries about his financial situation, but she can’t look at him. He says he just had to do the right thing. When she tells him she thought she killed him, he pleads with her to get on the boat.

Polly gives him Frank’s baseball cards. Norberto says he won’t forget her. When she boards the train, she looks back expecting to see something familiar. There is nothing.

Discussion Director: Eva Trakhtman

  1. Why do you think that Norberto was so reluctant to talk about his past and his relationship with Marta if this reluctance to speak could potentially damage the charade they’re putting on?
  2. In the flashback, when Polly and Frank went on their Cherry-blossom road trip, the two got into an argument about Polly seemingly approaching the relationship too nonchalantly, and Frank approaching it too seriously. How do you think the world of 1998 shifts these sentiments, if at all?
  3. On page 225, Polly struggles to come to terms with her mother’s death, she lays in the woods after school trying to remember her mom, to tether her. When Polly cries at the dinner table, Donna confronts her and finds out what she’s doing in the woods after school. Donna says, “Once something’s been done it can’t be undone.” and this becomes the motto with which Polly approaches her life. How do you feel this motto has translated into 1998?
    1. I feel like this is the conclusion that Polly has struggled to come to once she arrived in 1998. It took Polly a very long time to accept the fact that she has not thought through the full effects of her decision, and she is still living through the ripples of her decision. I believe that ultimately, because of this great travel through time, so far we have only seen Polly in her recovery stage. Polly does utilize this “once something’s been done it can’t be undone” approach with most aspects of her life, taking Baird’s betrayal with great stride, even sailing away from Norberto and Galveston still seemingly emotionally intact. I think that the only aspect of her life she doesn’t apply this motto to is her Frank-mission (Frission). Polly’s strong bond with Frank (or at least with his memories) makes him an exception, and even the driving force of this piece, because this “can’t be undone” attitude would keep Polly in one place attempting to be content, unless she has a driving force that betrays that attitude.
  4. In the scene where Cookie finally finds her son, why do you think Thea Lim made him purposefully late for the reunion party? What is the significance of that choice?
  5. What do you think of Polly and Norberto’s goodbye scene? Should Polly have given her baseball cards to Norberto even though they are her reminder of Frank? How do the stresses and conflicts of this world affect the way in which you see the rape-attempt (if at all) and the attempts to make up for it?

Discussion Director: Ellis Wilkins-Haverkamp

  1. What is the significance of Cookie in the overall narrative of Polly’s life and story?
  2. What similarities do you see between the characters of Baird and Norberto?
  3. Why does Polly recreate her date with Frank while brainstorming the backstory of how she and Norberto met? Additionally, what was the turning point that mad Polly realize she had betrayed Frank? (page 215-216)
  4. How does Frank’s perspective on time’s inevitability compare to Polly’s? Which do you more align with?
  • Ultimately, I believe Frank and Polly differ in that Frank is always preparing for something to go wrong so that he can always remember when times were going his way, and generally has a bleak outlook on the negative potential of the future. This is well represented by how sad Frank gets as Polly brings up the hypothetical of if they were to break up in a day, as well as in the very first chapter, when Polly finds a baseball card (I think) from Frank that says “Something to remember us by,” demonstrating that he’s completely prepared to face the chance of he and Polly being separated forever, trying to keep good memories in mind. Polly, on the other hand (as we’ve seen) is somewhat overly optimistic, and believes everything will eventually work out. As a result, she doesn’t hold the same value of collecting as Frank does, because she assumes that the positive moments will always return to the present, with no need to hold too many mementos.
  1. Why did Polly give Norberto the baseball cards? What does this say about their relationship? (page 249)

Lit Connector:

Illustrator: Shelby Edison


This picture is of the cherry blossoms in Washington DC during the 1980s, when Polly and Frank take their trip to see the flowers. Frank has planned a full day of touring the city and taking in the cherry blossoms. Polly, on the other hand, would rather get lost in the city and spend time with Frank. They get into a fight over their disagreements, and Polly realizes that from losing her mother, she has a slight fear that once things happen, you cannot undo them. This picture relates to the book because it shows the sights they would’ve seen on their trip. The atmosphere is crowded, lively, and happy, while Polly and Frank feel alone and upset. The difference between the setting and the interior feelings really exemplify how this patch in Polly and Frank’s relationship is different from most of their other happy experiences together.

During the cherry blossom chapter of this section, how did learning about a part of Polly and Frank’s relationship that wasn’t ideal change your impression of the couple? For example, do you think that Polly and Frank’s relationship wasn’t as special as Polly’s memories tell her they are? Or does the relationship now feel more realistic?

Literary Luminary: eli johns-krull

  • “Are they communists?”

“The opposite! They needed trading partners, so they kept their neighbors alive. Cooperation can be self-interested. But not here. In the ‘80s, people’d strip a corpse to survive. It was awful.” (205)

  • “If you get close enough to the water, you can’t see behind you. You can pretend you’re on a beach, anywhere. Somewhere else.” (210)
  • “The same place. But a different time…I guess that makes it a different place.” (211)I wanted to focus on this quote for several reasons. For one, it ties back to a discussion we touched on last class about how Polly has been treating the past as if it was a different place that still exists and is now being forced to reckon with the fact that it has ceased to be entirely in the face of time marching on. I thought it was interesting to see this idea echoed by Norberto in a moment where he and Polly are attempting to become closer in the face of their impending union. It shows a parallel between the two characters; both think of the past as a place separate from the one they now live in, but it seems Norberto understands better (and has for longer) that the past, as much as it may be a different place, is not one to which he can return. He can only imagine himself back to it when he stands on the beach, unable to see the present for what it truly is. At the same time, this quote spoke to me because it reminded me of the question “how many planks of a boat can you replace before it becomes a different boat entirely?” This quote wrestles with the same idea; how much can time change a place (or, for that matter, a person) before it becomes somewhere completely different?
  • “You cannot put life on hold to have a moment of grief, so every second, half the people in the world are split in two This is what they mean by life goes on, and the worst is that you go on along with it too.” (216)
  • “She wants to tell him that the past is safe, no matter what. But she knows, with a stinging pang, that it is the future he is concerned with.” (229)
  • “The only thing worse than leaving without saying good-bye to Norberto was seeing him again.” (247)
  • “Once something’s been done, it can’t be undone.” (249)

Literary Terms Expert: Maja Neal

  1. “There was nothing on the horizon. Only the flat line of forever.”
  2. “It was otherworldly and reaching, like the sand was stretching out its arms to touch somebody.” (P. 219)
  3. “The tourists seem to think the car is not a car, but a rock to be brooked, as if by a stream.” (P. 230)
  4. “Yet this vision ruined her ability to be a machine. Now every time she passed that window, she could not help but look, a twitch that spoiled the groove.” (P. 239)

I liked this expression specifically because the whole ordeal with Norberto was especially, grossly captivating, the kind of story that makes you go “ew ew ew” but also compels you to know how it ends. Polly’s reaction after the attempted assault is almost indicative of that. She hallucinates him (or doesn’t?) out of fear at first, but after he sells his house to gain her passage to Buffalo, she fluctuates between guilt and shame, going back and forth on whether or not she wants to see him. This particular sentence is from before, so she’s still working at her tile job with the H-1s and is terrified of Norberto or the police finding her and arresting her for murder. I liked how the expression capitalized on the workers’ dehumanization – they are treated like machines – and “a twitch that spoiled the groove” is just a lovely-sounding metaphor for one thing that’s throwing Polly’s whole life off.

An Ocean of Minutes: Lit Circle Round 4

Here are the students’ literature circle materials for this week’s book club meeting on Thea Lim’s novel An Ocean of Minutes (pp. 142-197). The first round is available here, the second round here, and the third round here.

Summarizer: Eva Trakhtman

  • Polly receives a “No Results Found” answer from the Demographics Center. Polly is pitied by her neighbors, but she continues to go through her workdays, finding small distractions in crossword puzzles.
  • Baird gets progressively more worried about quarterly reviews and makes sure that Polly follows her necessary break-times. Polly finds out that Baird didn’t save Leonard because he didn’t want to, not because TimeRaiser is homophobic.
  • Baird is very restless and nervous during quarterly reviews. He is like this because the two of them are behind schedule, and also (most importantly) the stolen yearbook with Elvis Presley (and Leonard) is laying right next to the logs. Cassie (one of the reviewers) goes to get the logs and brushes past the yearbook. The review ends and Baird and Polly are unsure of whether Cassie saw the yearbook.
  • After that traumatic event Polly starts crying, and she finally tells Baird that she is actually searching for Frank and not a cousin. Baird is surprisingly empathetic; he tells Polly that she should go to the Strand to get more information about who left Galveston in the past years.
  • Polly goes to the Strand and convinces herself that selling her body to strangers is something that she can do to get money for information. She is immediately cornered by two men and led to a bar. When the men start showing her unwanted affection, she realizes she can’t go through with her scheme. This is when Baird, who is sitting drunk at the end of the bar, swoops in and saves her (by cracking bottles on the men’s heads). Returning the favor, Polly saves Baird from the bouncer and leads him outside, he starts crying here and asking Polly to forgive him before he is picked up by a cab.
  • The next day at work Polly is not allowed back at work, she is stripped of her 0-1 status and is made an H-1 for allegedly stealing the Elvis Presley yearbook (Baird framed Polly!).
  • Polly works an H-1 job manufacturing bathroom tiles, she lives in horrible conditions and has to shower in the Pit. Polly is miserable and snaps at a woman who collects inspirational sayings and who tries to share them with Polly. The next day to make up for her “bratty” behavior, Polly gives some of her carrots to the woman, whose name is Cookie, helps her clean the Pit, and informs her of the Demographics Center.
  • Polly is approached by Norberto who offers her a place at his apartment, he asks her to pretend to be his wife (because she apparently looks like her) so that he can get cash-benefits from the government. He says he’ll do this in exchange for information about Frank. Polly rejects this offer. Early the next morning she is woken up by Cookie and some other ladies who lead her to an abandoned house a distance away and say that they can clean it up and move in together. Polly agrees to do this. On their way back to their complex, Polly sees Norberto following her. He catches up to her and tells her that Frank is still alive and is currently in Buffalo, New York. Polly agrees to marry Norberto as long as she doesn’t have to pay any more rent.

Discussion Director: Ellis Wilkins-Haverkamp

  1. How does the (beginning) of the chapter demonstrate changes in Polly’s character, specifically when it comes to the Frank situation?
  2. How did Polly’s attitude towards other characters differ from her interactions with them in previous chapters (Sandy and Misty, Baird, etc)?
  3. On page 158, Polly tells Baird that she can’t simply leave her job because she’s bonded, only for Baird to respond with “What’s ‘bonded?’” Did you take this more as Baird using sarcastic ignorance to compel her to look for Frank, or did this cause some suspicion about the amount of information TimeRaiser gives to the bosses of Journeymen?
  4. What are your thoughts on Polly’s decision to go to prison instead of battle Baird in court? What motivated her to do this, and would you have done the same?
  5. What new big similarities did this section introduce between TimeRaiser and real-world systems?

For my final question, I noticed in Polly’s description of prison that it ultimately seemed like she was just put in isolation with worse living conditions while ultimately still needing to work for TimeRaiser. This reminded me of the prison labor we have today, as many prisons don’t pay their inmates for the work they do at all (this includes Texas, where this prison is). TimeRaiser’s prisons operate similarly, even making Polly take money out of her life fund to buy tools that allow her to do the tasks she’s been assigned. In addition, prisons in Texas threaten their inmates with solitary confinement if they don’t do their work which reminded me of the fact that Polly had to work in a windowless, repurposed freezer.

Lit Connector: Shelby Edison

  1. On page 177, Polly’s bunkmate has a book of inspirational quotes that she reads out. This reminded me of Mr. Brown, the teacher in the book Wonder, and the inspirational quotes that he gives to his class.
  2. On page 153, Polly has a discussion where she explains that she is in her 20s, but the people she is talking to say that because she time traveled, she is really in her 40s. This reminded me of the debate that I’d have when I was little over how old you were if your birthday was on a leap year.
  3. Polly signing as a distraction on page 154 remined me of a scene in the musical Hello, Dolly, where Dolly creates an elaborate song to distract one character from noticing another one.
  4. On page 169, Polly and Frank spend time together in a pillow fort and talk about the future. This reminded me of the ending scene from the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

In the film, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy sit in front of Pemberley, having a picnic outing together. In Ocean of Minutes, Frank has collected a bunch of flowers when Polly returns, and they sit together, being extremely romantic. While the exact scenes don’t mirror each other exactly, but they had very similar energies. Both scenes have the two lovers sitting together alone and talking about how much they love each other, which is pretty intimate. In my head, I also imagined these scenes to be similar in how they looked.

Illustrator: Eli Johns-Krull

eli pic

In this section, Polly, after visiting the Strand with Baird, loses her job with him and with it her position as an O-1. Now a H-1, Polly must leave her previous accommodations and move into the storage container H-1 housing she previously pitied as she saw from afar. Polly struggles with this through the section, including refusing to shower for fear of the shame of being seen by a passing group of O-1s and reacting with anger when Cookie, a fellow O-1, attempts to connect with her. Polly’s fall from grace in this section shows a major change in her status, significantly limiting the little power she had before and increasing her time with TimeRaiser by almost a year. This image of storage container housing connected the best of the images I found to this idea, as being forced into these new accommodations represents the breadth and severity of this change for Polly, as well as providing her something to run away from in addition to the hope to see Frank she’s running towards. Polly is made desperate by this housing, desperate enough to first agree to work with other H-1s on a dilapidated house away from the storage containers, before ultimately agreeing to marry Norberto and move in with him to escape the reality of what living as an H-1 truly means.

Do you agree with Polly’s decision to marry Norberto out of convenience? Why or why not? How do you think this will affect Polly’s ability to reconnect with Frank if/when she finds him?

Literary Luminary: Maja Neal

  1. “Just as the invention of air travel had made it easy to go, but no easier to leave, the invention of time travel made time easy to pass, but no easier to endure.”
  2. “In her heart, the past was not another time, but another place that still existed. It was just that she had taken a wrong turn.”
  3. “She had lost the luxury of rage.”
  4. “But the cold was not the true problem with the shower pit. The problem was that Polly had seen the pit from outside,”

Polly says this in regards to the H-1 shower pit that she and her coworkers used to look down on with pity and shame. Now that she’s an H-1, she’s experiencing not only physical discomfort but guilt. She feels awful when she realizes every woman in the pit is just like her, asking “how did I get here?” This feeling is especially significant when juxtaposed with Polly’s former use of O-1 status as a safety net and a mental pillar. Polly’s “problem” is that she knows what the higher-up working class lives like, and was proud enough to think she would always stay in that position of (very) relative luxury; now, having had her status suddenly stolen, she’s thrown for an emotional loop that results in her arrogance and short temper with some other H-1s.

Literary Terms Expert: Lauren Sternenberg

“This was the happiness of touch, and in that instant she was like a plant standing up, as water makes clay into mud.” (142)

-This is a simile, but it also seems like a direct prelude to Polly’s “letting go” of Frank and latching fully on to the world she’s in now. With Misty being an opposite to Polly’s innate dislike/disappointment in not seeing or meeting Frank, the exhaustion she feels is apparent. She decides to begin looking forward here, in this moment, and like the simile suggests, her letting go of what could be impossible is making her stunted progress—the clay—morph into something she can reap a life from—the mud. On the opposite end, when Polly learns from Norberto about Frank’s inquiries, her life is once again dried up—signified in her decision to leave the women and Cookie’s offer to stay with them in a damp apartment.

“On sober days, Polly and Baird worked together like cogs in a clock, exchanging wrenches and pliers instead of words, a language in tools.” (146)

“To their left, west, there lay the Strand, an avenue of old-timey buildings, tram tracks, and cobbled pavement, like the movie set for an old western with honky-tonk pianos.” (158-159)

“Polly imagined fantastical things at the end of the trail: an underground city run by self-subsisting runways; a hidden port with ships going anywhere but here; a storage locker packed with all the things she missed—peanut butter, orange juice, porkchops, television. She tried to stop these wild fantasies so she would not be let down.” (190)


An Ocean of Minutes: Lit Circle Round 3

Here are the students’ literature circle materials for this week’s book club meeting on Thea Lim’s novel An Ocean of Minutes (pp. 100-141). The first round is available here, and the second round is here.

Summarizer: Ellis Wilkins-Haverkamp

We begin the section with a flashback to May of 1979, being introduced to Frank’s family. We learn that his father left his mother for a time, and then came back, which caused her to develop somewhat of an obsession with happy endings. Through this obsession, she invites Polly’s aunt Donna to her wedding anniversary with the hope of setting Donna up with Frank’s uncle, Teddy. For fear of disappointing Mrs. Marino and despite knowing Donna would have little interest in having a matchmaker, Polly allows this plan to take shape without telling Frank the truth until the day of. At their party, Frank fakes fatal everywhere-pain as an attempt to get Donna to drive Frank “to the hospital,” but Donna has found her own way to ward off Teddy, so Frank and the crowd recover. Mr. Marino proclaims his love for Mrs. Marino, and they smooch it up, and Frank marches Polly to the bathroom to do the same.

We cut back to the future, as Polly watches in awe of the Journeymen that stay incredibly productive. While doing some work with Misty, sorrow washes over her as she remembers Frank and she begins to run downstairs with Misty trailing behind her, until she sees the girl with the red hair explaining that her boss got her a hair dryer for doing some extra work for him, and Polly wonders if Baird could take her to meet Frank.

As she considers ways she could bribe Baird (without finding many), she is flagged down by Norberto, who first questions her about the contact form before revealing that he does not have it, and that it may not even exist. As she becomes frustrated, Norberto tells her that he did find something: a form that proves Frank came looking for Polly while she was still in transit. For the first time, she breaks down into tears in front of someone.

Overcome with confidence that Frank is still searching for her, she approaches Baird and makes a deal with him; she’ll take back his not-suspicious book, and he will wait at the rendezvous point for Polly’s “cousin,” both plans taking place on Saturday. Disguised as a window washer, Polly makes her way to the office and pretends to clean a table as she steals the book, making it back to the hotel with no problems. Upon her success, Baird takes the book and finally heads to the beach. When he returns alone, Polly questions him, but he assures her that there was absolutely no sign of Frank. In somewhat of an attempt to cheer her up, Baird shows Polly the book, which contains not only a yearbook photo of Elvis Presley, but Baird’s boyfriend, Leonard. With disappointment once again, Polly heads back up to her room, and goes to sleep, just like every other night.

The next chapter begins, Polly notices that she’s passed by TimeRaiser’s Demographic Center, and finally stops inside to put in a search for Donna and/or Frank, only to realize that the price is much higher than her life fund allows for. The woman at the desk tells her she can borrow it off, and swipes her card to see if it goes through. It does, and with no way to turn back, Polly is forced to put in a search for Donna, for whom she finds nothing because Donna doesn’t work for TimeRaiser. Instead, she writes a letter to Donna at her last known address.

With only one Saturday left in September, Polly snuck out of the Hotel Galvez down to the beach in order to search for Frank herself. As night approaches, she finds a good post to watch the doc workers and the road from, and she eventually sights some guards, one of which she’s seen before, talking to a man who pulled into the parking lot. From behind, she can’t see him, so she begins to run up to the group before he grabs a duffel bag from the guards, and she realizes it is definitely not Frank. Still, she visits the docks at dates she considers significant, eventually latching onto hope that Frank will come to the hotel on the night of a Mel Gibson movie. When he doesn’t, she finally realizes that it’s only been her all along.

The section ends with a leap back into the past, witnessing one large, swift overview of seemingly everything Polly and Frank would do together, the regularities and varieties of their lives with each other.

Discussion Director: Shelby Edison

  • On page 107, Lim utilizes comedy to tell a story about Frank and Polly’s relationship. This is the scene where Frank tells Polly to say he needs to go to the hospital, then promptly fakes an illness. How does Lim’s use of comedy in this flashback add to the overall book? For example, does it provide a much-needed respite from Polly’s distress in the TimeRaiser world or does it help to characterize Frank and Polly’s relationship outside of illness?

My answer: I really enjoyed this bit of comedy that Lim included. I think that it was much needed after Polly’s disappointments so far. It definitely gave me the chance to laugh and rekindled an interest to carry on in the novel, apart from all of Polly’s sadness. This comedic scene portrays Polly as someone whose character trait is not just being sad. It also develops Frank as such a fun character, who really cares for Polly. Though he doesn’t appear in any scenes in 1998, which is a bulk of the book, these flashbacks, especially comedic ones, make me feel like he is in the entire story because we have learned so much about him.

  • Lim makes a pop-culture reference of our world – the Elvis Presley high school yearbook. How does referencing a piece of pop culture that exists in our world ground us in the new world in Ocean of Minutes?
  • “It was the first movie made since the founding of America, and Mel Gibson has traveled from 1983 Hollywood to make it.” This sentence appears on page 137. Page 120 introduces the concept of time crime. How does a more casual approach to time travel that is less rigid than the system that Polly is a part of change your perception of time travel in the TimeRaiser world?
  • Page 100 explains the family dynamic in Frank’s family, told by Polly’s point of view and she uncovers the affair the occurred between Mr, Marino and another woman and the family tensions surrounding this episode. How would the reader’s perception of the Marino family have been different if it was told from Frank’s perspective? Did you want a more inside view of the family, or did you like Polly’s account as a outsider?
  • The chapter starting on page 139 is one paragraph and filled with descriptions of Polly and Frank’s relationship, but for the most part, little to no plot. Why do you think that Lim chose to include this chapter in the book? How does the singular paragraph styling of the chapter enhance the prose within it?

Lit Connector: Eli Johns-Krull

  1. “‘Big-’ Frank glances at Polly- ‘hair?’ Polly rolls her eyes” (101) connected to John Oliver’s “torso” joke in his segment on the Miss America Pageant (Last Week Tonight With John Oliver).
  2. “Yet she was invisible to them, because she was where she belonged, with the rags and bucket” (122). Polly’s ability to get away with stealing the envelope because her work makes her invisible to those around her reminded me of the first episode of Sherlock, wherein they make it a point that the serial killer got away with several murders because his job made him invisible.I don’t watch Sherlock, but I have seen the first episode on two occasions. I vividly remember that the writers put it in dialogue that the reason the taxi cab driver got away with murdering people for so long without the suspicion of either the police or Sherlock himself was because, as a cab driver, he’s a virtually invisible (or, at least, unmemorable) presence to the people around him. Polly being able to get away with stealing the envelope out of the office because she’s viewed as a maid, and a Journeyman (probably with the assumption she’s H-1) at that, which makes her presence go unnoticed and unremembered (so far, at least) reminded me heavily of this idea. Though their crimes are on very different scales, I thought it was an interesting parallel that both writers make it a point that it is the character’s position (and, with that, their class) that makes the characters invisible, instead of a specific effort on their part.
  3. The interaction around Polly’s LifeFund at the Demographics Center (specifically the fact that she paid before she was ready/could actively make the decision to) on page 129 reminded me of pay-to-win phone games, specifically the TheOdd1sOut video about games that charge you without your knowledge/full consent.
  4. On 133 Polly talks about the protagonist of The Time Machine travelling to the end of time, which reminded me of the part in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when the crew travels to the restaurant at the end of the universe.

Illustrator: Maja Neal

the herald

This is, of course, Elvis’s (and Leonard’s!) high school yearbook. One very cool bit of information I came across while looking for images is that there is, in fact, a Ruleman directly next to Elvis in the book – it’s just a girl and her name is Shirley. But I thought it was very fun of Lim to pop that name out for realism purposes. This book is also the item Polly steals from the central hotel office to use to pay Baird, who, in exchange, goes and waits at 25th street for Frank. He’s ultimately unsuccessful and Polly feels a bit used, but when Baird becomes harsh about the fact that he’ll never see Leonard again and needs anything of his he can hang on to, Polly starts to understand. This was a particularly memorable moment in the book for a lot of us, based on who I talked to, not only because of Elvis but because it was a moment demonstrating Baird’s weakness about Leonard, which perhaps represents a person that Polly is still very much able to become if she never finds Frank.

Question: Does Polly truly see herself in Baird (as evidenced by the bottom of 127) ? That is to say, do you think she still believes deep down that Frank’s coming, or not?

Literary Luminary: Lauren Sternenberg

  1. “Mrs. Marino has a monstrous longing to see love conquer everything, to eviscerate all memory of the year all failed. And Donna is in its path. But asking Frank to tell his mother to stop would be like asking him to make her tell of all those midnights when she couldn’t bear her marriage bed, and so she sat at her kitchen table, peeling apples while noiseless tears slicked her cheeks.” (page 104)
  2. “Polly cannot sacrifice Donna to Mrs. Marino, because Donna would never be anyone’s sacrifice, anyone’s white-gowned blonde, screaming demurely.” (page 105)
  3. “Safety kept receding: it didn’t arrive, as she thought it would, when she returned to the laboring zone, where the hotel’s innards were exposed like a dollhouse, and workers stepped like storks from post to post, across an unpoured floor, sun hats under hard hats to keep skin from burning.” (page 122)
    1. I chose this quote to focus on because it clearly displays the memories of Frank are becoming farther away as Polly adjusts to this new world. Her safety was Frank, and now that he’s gone—at least for now—she feels as if the last bit of stability she had is receding. Of course, during this quote, Polly has just grabbed a valuable item for Baird at the risk of embarrassment, so the direct meaning is not clearly tied to Frank. Implicitly, though, the hotel’s innards could represent Polly’s thoughts, and the longer she goes without reassurance from Frank, the more frayed her hopes are becoming. Also, this language is beautifully descriptive and indicative of Polly’s current state.
  4. “The Demographics Center was in a battered strip mall that sat on the highest shoulder of the seawall, defenseless against the bleachy sun and sprays of sand, in a no-man’s-land between hotels. The windows were filthy with sea salt and mud, and Polly passed it by more than once before she realized it was her destination.” (page 128)
  5. “All she could remember was the moment when the time machine breaks and the traveler is hurled forward into futurity. He sees a trillion sunrises and sunsets, until everything goes red. He is at the end of time. There is nothing but ashy beach and giant, slithering crabs with palpitating mouths and pale, jerking antennae. He remembered the sounds of his world, birdsong and teatime, and he thinks, All that is over.” (page 133)

Literary Terms Expert: Eva Trakhtman

“On a sea of strange, she needed him to be her twin, so from very little evidence, she compelled a story for him that mimicked her own.” (p.113)

“The man and woman looked nothing like the others who peopled the site, who were small and sun-worn, with cagey posture.” (p.120)

“The waiting was like ice on a stripped nerve.” (p.123)

“Before, she’d watched ships stop short where the waters surrendered their depths, and trawlers rush to receive their merchandise – like a giant trapped in a crevasse as tiny beasts flooded to strip its bones.” (p.124)

This takes place while Polly is busy refurnishing the same chair and is staring out a window, scheming up a way to sneak back down to the 25th street and finally meet Frank. I think, this quote is first of all, very gory and beautiful and I love the image of a trapped giant. I believe that this quote can be used as a direct reflection of the way in which Polly and other time travelers are exploited by TimeRaiser and are affected by this new time in general. So far, we have seen Polly arriving in 1998 (docking) and then become overwhelmed by this new world that is so mystical and eerie to her, and in which she knows she still has to find Frank (her docking is voluntary). Right after she utters this observation, Polly says that she no longer sees that image in the docking ships because she knows that is the location where she will meet Frank. I think it’s interesting to see, as well, how quickly her mind on a topic can change when it is invaded by thoughts about Frank.

“She could hear her neighbors making noises as one organism: a gasp, a pause, then laughter.” (p.138)

“It was she who had invented his vast, urgent movements. In the end, there was only Polly.” (p. 138)


An Ocean of Minutes: Lit Circle Round 2

Here are the students’ literature circle materials for this week’s book club meeting on Thea Lim’s novel An Ocean of Minutes (pp. 52-99). The first round is available here.

Summarizer: Josie Nunn

The old man, Henry Baird, picks up Polly. He is the one who asked for Polly to come and help him restore furniture for a hotel vacation spot. It turns out that he’s the one that made Polly come to 1998 instead of 1993. 93% of the population has been wiped out from the pandemic. Like Polly, Baird wanted to time travel in order to help save his boyfriend; however, TimeRaiser blocked him from joining because he is gay.

Polly meets the driver from the other day at Moody Plaza. His name is Norberto. She tries to make calls to Frank and other family members but none of the calls go through. Polly learns from Norberto that 1) she is paid by TimeRaiser through her LifeFund, 2) the North and the South have spilt up into the United States and America, and 3) America has become a resort destination for the rich countries that survived the pandemic. Also, people keep speaking Spanish to her.

Flashback to Frank going over to Polly’s ex-boyfriend Chad’s house to get back Polly’s furniture. The furniture originally belonged to her late mother. He fights Chad, but Chad’s sister comes downstairs and tell them to knock it off. So, Chad goes downstairs and helps Frank load the furniture in the back of his truck.

Polly goes to work at a hotel being reconstructed. She meets Baird there. He sleeps while she works. Polly keeps asking Norberto about finding Frank.

On Tuesday Polly meets Misty and Sandy. They tell Polly that she might be able to find Frank at the Demographic Center. Sandy is pessimistic while Misty is more optimistic.

After work on Saturday, Polly walked all the way to where the Flagship Hotel once was. She sees a family swimming which makes her uncomfortable. She gets to a wall of trash and finds a chair that was at the Flagship Hotel. A group of soldiers come out and point their guns at her. She gets searched and then taken to a trailer to get questioned. Eventually, they let her go with a warning. Apparently there’s a problem with H-1’s trying to escape by crossing the border.

Discussion Director 1: Shelby Edison

An Ocean of Minutes Discussion Questions

  • Throughout this section, Norberto repeatedly promises Polly that he will attempt to look into information to reconnect Polly with the people she is trying to find. And Norberto repeatedly fails to keep up on his promises, leaving Polly disappointed. Do you think that Polly will eventually give up on asking Norberto for help on reconnecting? Or will she fall into a cyclical pattern of getting her hopes up before being disappointed?
  • On page 90, there’s a shift in perspective to branch away from Polly and go into Baird’s memories as he reflects upon his time with Leonard. Why do you think Lim decided to implement a perspective change in this paragraph? Did it take you out of Polly’s story abruptly, or did it add complexity to the TimeRaiser world that Polly is living in?
  • Pages 69-74 go back in time to show Frank’s mission to take Polly’s furniture back from Chad. Reflecting back on last discussion, one of Frank’s character traits so far has been countering awkwardness with a sweet gesture (i.e. Frank not remembering the napkins from the bar, but then giving Polly a whole roll of them.) Did you find this chapter to be a continuation of this character trait of Frank? Did you find his crusade to take the furniture back to be reckless or romantic? Why?
  • One quote on page 90 especially stood out to me: “To feel sad about the past is to recognize the past as passed.” How did you interpret this quote in relation to Polly’s story? Polly seems to be a character who refuses to see the past as passed, holding onto a sense of debilitating optimism. Do you agree with this interpretation of Polly? Do you see her inching closer to accepting the past as passed, or living in a state of perpetual time-travel jet lag?

My answer: I saw this quote to mean that until we have accepted that something can no longer happen, we live with a sense of (false) hope that anything is possible. Relating to Polly, I think that her mission to find the Flagship Hotel at all costs shows how she is unwilling to accept that the past is passed, unwilling to say that the odds of reconnecting with Frank are low and her expectations are a product of a different time. I also think that the fact that scenes which take place is the past (1970s) are told in present tense show Polly’s unwillingness to not live in the past.

  • Polly meets Sandy and Misty, two sisters who are Journeymen that help Polly out with explaining some of the fundamentals of the world. Misty presents a new outlook on the TimeRaiser system, as being from 1984, she’s experienced such a bad world that she is just happy to be alive and well, even if freedoms are limited. Did Misty’s perspective change how you viewed the TimeRaiser system? What are the benefits of introducing a character to the story who tolerates the system of the new world?


Discussion Director 2: Eli Johns-Krull

  1. “They fixed it, with something like only seconds to spare, in the buffer time” (54). Here we learn that the change from 1993 to 1998 was a correction done while Polly was in transit, and therefore not something she could have learned about. Does the indication she was sent to 1998 because of accidents and miscommunications change your opinion of TimeRaiser? Why or why not?
  2. On page 64 we get an explanation of the LifeFund system, which seems to indicate that TimeRaiser controls all of Polly’s money and expenses. Does this strike you as a reasonable system, or an exploitative one? Why or why not?
  3. “Believing [the cosmic powers were shunning her] was more pleasant than realizing the cosmos had no preference” (76). Do you agree with Polly here? Why or why not? Would you rather believe the universe is working against you or is ambivalent to you?I think it might be more pleasant to believe the universe is actively shunning you, because that feeds back into the idea that you are important enough for the universe to take notice of your existence. Polly wants to believe she matters, one way or another, and despite it being terrible for the universe to have it out for you, it shows that the universe cares, in a roundabout way. Despite that, I believe it is better, overall, to go through life with the realization that the universe operates on too large a scale to focus on you specifically. I personally follow the idea of absurdism as the guiding principle of my life, which yields the answer that any plan of the universe’s happens on too grand a scale for human beings to ever comprehend it; therefore, the simple answer is that it is better (or, at least, more accurate, to view the universe as ambivalent). Through that, you are freed from universal constraints and, I believe, more able to take agency for yourself and your own actions.
  4. “We’re getting the past back, but better. It will be the way we like to remember it instead of the way it was. People will pay anything for that” (82). Do you think the American culture over-glorifies the past? Why (not)? Why do you think we like to imagine the past as better than it was?
  5. “How do we know it wasn’t actually an even more virulent version of the flu masquerading as a vaccine?” (87). Sandy offers this at the end of a series of conspiracy theories about TimeRaiser’s true intentions with sending the vaccine back to 1981. Do you think this idea is plausible? Why or why not? How does what we know about TimeRaiser affect your opinion?



Lit Connector: Maja Neal


Landscape of overgrown buildings: similar to the one from [the video game] The Last of Us


Polly describes the buildings around her as being overgrown as if taken back by nature. This led me to picture the run-down landscape as similar to the one from The Last of Us, but with less buildings, as she also says (and I can believe, from what I’ve seen of spectacularly flat Galveston). The Last of Us, similarly, takes place a few years after most of humanity has been wiped out by an awful disease. The only really big difference is that the game’s disease turns people into zombies. Either way, the post-apocalyptic feel – and, more specifically, the one of a world regrown instead of a world totally obliterated – is pretty close.

Border control: Pretty much an exact metaphor for the current Mexican border crisis

Baird’s past: Extremely similar to Klaus and Dave’s situation in The Umbrella Academy.

The splitting of America and the United States: The Civil War references are pretty much on blast here. 

Illustrator: Lauren Sternenberg

lauren pic

I chose this picture because throughout major events in this section, there are chairs.

First with sitting in the trishaw with Baird, where her job and the state of the US is explained to her. Then with Norberto, who isn’t the most accommodating to get Polly in touch with Frank.

The next big event is a flashback to Frank confronting Chad about Polly’s mother’s furniture. He proves he cares about her enough to stand up to this ugly, violent man, which undermines the fear Polly feels in the future about her being forgotten. If he can remember where her mother’s furniture is, make arrangements to go get it, and successfully do so, I’d say they have a good chance.

Then Polly actually goes to work, where Baird is drunk and sad about his lost love. She is comfortable for the first time here.

Lastly, with the interaction with immigration. She’s held in a chair while being questioned, then left in the chair long enough that she falls asleep thinking of the Flagstaff hotel she still needs to meet Frank at. The chair here represents hope, and even as she is pulled away, she regains some of that confidence Misty and Sandy accidentally made her lose.


Literary Luminary: Eva Trakhtman


  1. She’d tried to examine what she saw with detachment – blocks of houses with trees growing out of their roofs, roads mutating into woods – as if she was only a visitor to this place, because she was. (p 75)
    1. This quote shows Polly, who is unable to get out of bed in her hotel room, observing 1998 America from outside her window. Polly is a stranger in a new world, which is why she refers to herself as a tourist, and her inability to perceive the world around her as currently her own is consistently expressed throughout the book. This is just one example. I chose this quote because of the clear animosity in the writing “roads mutating into woods”, which reflects how Polly invalidates the world around her. I wonder how long it will take her to rid herself of this distancing technique, and if she ever will, it’s interesting to see denial written so beautifully and intricately.
  2. Nostalgia drove their work; without sentimental value they’d be out of a job. But you could not get too involved with the nostalgic impulse yourself. (p 89)
  3. The girl in her bikini was almost more unsettling than the foreign horrors Polly had envisioned, because her alikeness insisted that Polly’s own decent world was on the same spectrum as this one. (p 91)
  4. “We’ve never seen an O-1 escapee before. You’ve got a good deal, in relation. Why would you try to stow away?” (p 96)
  5. “Christ Almighty. That’s what you get for being a nice guy. You better pipe down before I take you back to holding. You made your bed, now lie in it.”

He was right. She had signed the papers, she had agreed, and now she only had herself to blame. She had done it all without understanding the weight of what she was doing. Until this moment, the choice she’d made had kept its true, perverse nature secret: it was irreversible, and only comprehensible after it was done. (p 99)


Literary Terms Expert: Ellis Wilkins-Haverkamp

“Silence crackled between them.” (pg. 56)

“Her brain was not able to sustain the information he’d given. It held it for a pause, them rejected it, like a coin slot dropping a bad dime.” (pg. 64)

“There was a polished-steel mirror, but she kept away from it, not wanting to see a strangers face.” (pg. 67)

“She heard the sound of waves crashing, but really it was the plastic sheet, gusting in and out at the hallway’s end, like the south side of the building had gills.” (pg. 67)

“The march of goosebumps across his shoulders, his hand in her hair, his toes lacing her ankles, his arm on her waist like a roller coaster bar, her body unlocking, the catch of her heart.” (pg. 68)

“Empty plots had a bald, startled look, still bearing the footprints of a house…” (pg. 77)

“She put it back, name-side down, but the brand was on both sides. The wormhole spit her back out.” (pg. 79)

“Polly knew what was going to happen before it happened, the ill about to come from Sandy’s mouth, like an incantation, a thing that becomes actual when words hit air.” (pg. 87-88)

“Eventually this white noise of optimism would completely fuzz over her memories of their minutiae…” (pg. 89)

The quote on page 68 holds significance not only in the way it’s spoken with various examples of personification, but also how the quote acts as one large symbol of Polly’s jealousy. Someone, no matter who they are, is able to have what she has been reaching for since even before she time traveled: the chance to have a baby with Frank. And now, in a drab, depressing room that’s far from her ideal future, she’s far away from a potentially dead Frank, while somebody else gets to have what she can’t.