Cat’s in the Cradle, or, Plot’s in the Character

As per the writer Steve Almond, “Plot is the mechanism by which your protagonist is forced up against her deepest fears and/or desires.” This would seem to match up with Sigmund Freud’s theory of human nature that we’re all governed by…our subconscious fears and desires. Implicit in Almond’s definition is the tenet that plot originates with character. A character does something because they want something, or because they are afraid of something, and that action causes consequences that snowball and constitute an arc of rising action, action that frequently rises due to the character’s reaction to those consequences.

Ballads are poems and/or songs that tell stories, and in such condensed arcs one can often discern the elements of plot at work. Harry Chapin’s 1974 classic “Cat’s in the Cradle” is a compact model of character-driven plot. The first verse describes the first person narrator’s son being born, but the narrator isn’t around when the baby takes his first steps because he’s always working to pay the bills. When the son learns to talk, he declares “I’m gonna be like you, Dad.”

In the second verse the son is approaching adolescence. His father has given him a ball and he wants to use it to play catch with his father, but the father declines because he is too busy. The son does not seem to begrudge his father’s slight, and still declares that he will be like him. One single exchange represents the dynamic of the son’s entire childhood.

In the third verse the son is now home from college, so manly that the father is proud of him and now wants to spend time with him, but now it’s the son who is too busy. He asks to borrow the father’s car keys, signifying his desire to leave and spend time with people who are not his father. He no longer makes the declaration of likeness to his father that he did in the first two verses. The keys are a heavily symbolic object: the father controls and imparts the means of the son’s escape from the family environment.    

In the fourth and final verse the father is retired and the son is grown with a family of his own. The father calls the son and says he’d like to see him; the son says he’d like to, but his job and own son are keeping him too busy. Though he’s polite about it, the father realizes that the son is just like him.

As for the chorus, it is filled with images of young childhood:

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man in the moon
When you coming home, dad?
I don’t know when
But we’ll get together then
You know we’ll have a good time then

Cat’s cradle is a child’s game played with string, while the “silver spoon” is a well-known symbol for being born into wealth; “Little boy blue” is from a nursery rhyme, as is “the man in the moon,” as well as something children sometimes read into the moon’s ridged features. The selection of images that represent a boy and a man respectively is no accident; the juxtaposition of these images in fact encapsulates the entire narrative arc, both of the boy born to the man and the boy becoming that man. The repetition of the promise that they’ll have a good time when they get together reinforces that that time is not going to come; each time the chorus is repeated, the falseness of the words rings a little more clearly. By song’s end they still have not gotten together and had that good time, and the emptiness of the promise is fully realized.

The leaps in time the song makes between verses not only allows the writer to get in the arc of practically an entire life, but reinforces the father’s absence–entire chunks of his son’s life have slipped by without him being there to see it. The gaps in the son’s life that we don’t see shows us what the father doesn’t see, and dramatizes the frequency with which his son registers on his radar–it only occurs to the father to check in with his son periodically. The song’s handling of time also reinforces the nature of memory; at the end, the listener can almost feel the father looking back over his son’s life and honing in on the moments from the previous verses. It is notable that every verse except the first one presents us with a scene, a specific moment in time, while the first is general exposition about the period after the son was born. The handling of time in that first verse sets us up for how the song will handle time: the son is born “just the other day,” but by the end of the verse has already learned to walk and talk. Time flies, as the rest of the song will show. It thus raises the question, what will you do with your time? What will you prioritize?

When the son declares that he’s going to be like his father at the end of the first verse, it registers as admiration. But with the father around so infrequently, the only quality of his that the son can pick up on enough to emulate is his absence. While most fathers might want their son to want to be like them, when this father realizes his son is like him, it’s not a triumph, but a tragedy. The song takes a decisive turn between the second and third verses; in the first two, the son pursues spending time with the father, while in the second two, the father pursues spending time with the son. In both cases, the subject of pursuit does not reciprocate. The irony is that in both cases, the lack of reciprocation is the father’s fault. He chooses not to reciprocate when his son wants to spend time with him; when the son doesn’t reciprocate, we’re able to interpret that he’s doing so because of his father’s earlier lack of reciprocation–had the father reciprocated then, the son might have reciprocated now.

Here then, is the consequence of the main character’s action. The entire plot is a product of this father’s tragic flaw–his prioritization of work over family. In this compact narrative, much is left to the listener to deduce. From the first verse’s reference to “bills to pay,” one might infer that the character is not choosing work over family but rather work for his family. Perhaps this character’s desire that set this plot in motion was his desire to support his family, or, conversely, his fear of not being able to. The song then attains an extra level of irony if his fear of taking care of his family leads directly to him distancing himself from that family. What he does to help the family actually hurts it. No wonder this song’s such a tearjerker.

This song is a great model for a character study, and thus, for plot. Developing a character based on the lessons of this song, one might ask, what does my character prioritize? What is (the most) important to him/her? And then the question is raised, why are those things the most important to this person? The implicit answer is because of the specific events that have happened to him/her. A bottom up rather than top down approach seems best here: instead of starting with the priorities, start with specific events from the different stages of his/her life. This song provides four stages: childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and mature adulthood. Exploring a scene from each of these different stages can help to isolate the character’s priorities, and thus, what kind of person they are, and thus, what kind of plot they might generate. If the plot is to push the character up against their fears/desires, the plot needs to lead the character into a situation where they have to confront those fears/desires. That is precisely what happens to this character: he needs to realize that prioritizing work over family is not the best way to spend his time, and this is the subtext of the surface realization at the end of the song that his son is like him.

The Simpsonsreinterpretation of the song in their aptly titled episode “Labor Pains” from season 25 works on a couple of different levels that unexpectedly reinforce its character-based plot structure. Played out in an Itchy & Scratchy cartoon, the writers put a literal cat in a cradle when Scratchy shows up as a baby on Itchy’s doorstep. With the song providing the soundtrack, Itchy appears to be overwhelmed with love and does all the things the father in the song doesn’t do–he plays catch with Scratchy, teaches him to drive, takes photos of him with his prom date, and is at his college graduation. At this last he gives Scratchy a graduation gift, which Scratchy opens to reveal a bomb with a lit fuse. This is in accordance with the ongoing gag that Itchy has to kill Scratchy, but it’s also in accordance with the character-driven plot model: the character manifests a flaw early on, lighting the fuse on the figurative bomb that must go off by story’s end, forcing the character to recognize the bomb’s existence and suffer its consequences.

-SCR

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The Einstein Escalation: Barthelme’s Big Bang Theory of Rising Action

“The Einstein Approximation,” the fourteenth episode of the third season of the long-running sitcom The Big Bang Theory (originally aired February 1, 2010), begins with Dr. Sheldon Cooper in his living room struggling with some kind of physics problem laid out on a whiteboard, which he is trying to look at from his periphery so as to “engage [his] superior colliculus.” Later that day in the cafeteria of the university where he works, he continues to struggle with his problem of why electrons act like they have no mass when they move through a graphene sheet. He takes some lima beans from Raj’s tray to use as a model for carbon atoms, overriding Raj’s protests that he needs to eat them or he can’t have his dessert, and then some peas from Leonard’s tray to model the electrons. Later that night, Penny and Leonard are returning from their date roller skating when they walk into the apartment and slip on some marbles scattered all over the floor. Clearly in pain, they demand to know what Sheldon is doing. More concerned that they’ve ruined his model than for their potential injuries, Sheldon explains that he needed something bigger than peas. Later that same night, Leonard is asleep in bed with Penny when he gets a phone call; he confirms that he is Sheldon’s roommate and goes to the mall where Sheldon has broken in and is mired in a child’s ball pit. When Leonard asks what he’s doing, Sheldon responds, “Size ratio was all wrong. Couldn’t visualize it. Needed bigger carbon atoms.” When Leonard then threatens to drag Sheldon out, Sheldon swims through the balls, repeatedly evading him. In the next scene, Sheldon once again wakes up a sleeping Leonard and Penny to announce that he “figured out how to figure it out.” He says he needs to get a menial job to occupy his basal ganglia and free his prefrontal cortex to work in the background on his problem. After things go poorly seeking potential jobs at the unemployment office, Sheldon starts bussing tables at The Cheesecake Factory where Penny works. When he drops a pile of plates, their fracture pattern induces the problem-solving epiphany that the electrons aren’t acting like particles when they move through the graphene, but rather like a wave. 

What could this episode have in common with Donald Barthelme’s classic short story, “The School”? In this piece, a second-grade teacher describes all the things that have died in his class over the course of a particular school year. The first thing described as dying is some orange trees planted “as part of their education,” though before that there were snakes that died because a boiler was shut off during a strike, then an herb garden that was overwatered, then some gerbils, some white mice, and a salamander. Next to die are some tropical fish, then a puppy, then a Korean orphan. Then we learn that a lot of the students’ parents happen to be dying this particular year. Then a couple of students from the class itself. The students start asking the teacher where all the dead have gone, and if “death [is] that which gives meaning to life?” To which the teacher responds that “life is that which gives meaning to life.” They then ask if he will make love with the teaching assistant Helen because “we require an assertion of value”; the teacher declines but does hold Helen. As he’s doing so a gerbil knocks on the door, inducing the children to cheer.    

George Saunders analyzes Barthelme’s story in his essay “The Perfect Gerbil” as a demonstration of what he declares the most difficult part of the classic model for narrative structure, Freitag’s triangle: rising action.

250px-Freytags_pyramid.svg

Personally, I prefer the inverted checkmark model that doesn’t represent the falling action as proportionate to the rising:

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According to Saunders, Barthelme “sets up a pattern (things associated with our school die) then escalates it.” The problem is that the reader quickly recognizes the pattern, and thus is “ready to be bored.” Per Saunders, the writer would be assuming the reader is dumb if they were to believe that this pattern is enough to satisfy. Barthelme avoids this pitfall by inserting surprising moments to keep us going as he escalates the pattern. The action is at the lowest tension level when trees die. But then an animal (in this case snakes), being a more sentient creature, escalates the action of the story’s deaths. When we get to the puppy, we’ve risen from small animals to larger ones that we might feel more for. Then there’s a significant leap when we get to the “dead Korean orphan,” escalating to people from animals. The deaths creep closer to the class itself when the parents start to die. Then, actual members of the class themselves. The story then breaks the pattern to comment on the pattern when the students ask the teacher about death’s meaning. Now we’re ready for the end, which is where the story perhaps most significantly subverts the pattern pitfall.

A story begs the question of how to extract meaning from a series of events, or a pattern. What does all of this happening in this particular order mean for the readers and/or characters? Well, the obvious culmination of the pattern would be: more death. A more extreme version of death than has come before. Maybe the most strictly logical conclusion to this pattern would be for the entire class to die, and then the teacher himself. But this isn’t emotionally satisfying. Barthelme then escalates the action past the action of the pattern, a path opened up by the commentary on the pattern, when the questions are raised, What is the meaning of death? Of life? The lovemaking option is thus introduced. We find meaning in each other, even in characters who appear out of nowhere and have not been set up at all–in this case Helen’s sudden appearance is suddenly appropriate. Then Barthelme ascends (or escalates) to the truly great when he doesn’t stop here but makes yet one more action escalation–the gerbil that knocks on the door. This is essentially life returned from the dead, as the gerbil was one of the things mentioned to have died earlier. Really, it seems, Barthelme could have used any of the things mentioned earlier appear knocking at the door to reinforce the message of how lovemaking leads to the cycle of birth, that life goes on after death, etc., reinforced pleasurably in the fact that it “knock[s]” on the door like a person, but somehow more is achieved when Barthelme reaches for one of the things that’s lowest on the story’s rising’s action Freitag slope, the gerbil. This seems a better choice than the lowest on the slope, the tree, and the next lowest, the snake, which some (or at least I) would be unable to attribute human…attributes to. Which then leaves the gerbil.

One may not be able to extract as much meaning from “The Einstein Approximation,” but one can at least extract a study in structure. A problem that needs resolving is immediately presented–not why electrons behave as if they have no mass when they move through graphene, but that Sheldon the genius can’t solve this problem. The action rises through his stages of trying to solve it. The pattern established in his attempted solutions is modeling the carbon atoms and their electrons. He first uses peas for the electrons, then marbles, then balls from the ball pit. Each time he works on one of these models, the stakes of the consequences they cause rise. First, by taking the peas, he annoys his friend Raj, who wants to eat them. With the marbles he does more than just annoy his friends, he potentially injures them when they slip and fall; the effect the use of his model has is more extreme. In the ball pit, this effect again escalates in extremity when Sheldon becomes something of a threat to society by breaking into a public place when it’s closed and invades an area that’s supposed to be reserved for children; the threat to himself also rises because he could have been arrested. Logically, the next step in the pattern should escalate this threat further, but the real job of an ending is not to escalate the rising action according to the next logical step, but to change the pattern in a way that resolves it; this happens when Sheldon breaks the plates at The Cheesecake Factory and realizes the solution to his problem. He leaves the mess for Penny to clean up, but this is arguably a less extreme consequence than the threat he represented by breaking and entering.

The other pattern in the action, aside from an escalation in the extremity of the consequences of his modeling, is an escalation in the size of the models themselves. We go from peas to marbles to ball-pit balls: each of these round objects is larger than the last. We would expect from the logic of that established pattern to keep getting increasingly large spherical objects; the writers both fulfill and subvert this pattern with the final stage in the action, the breaking of the plates. This is a fitting subversion of the pattern in that the plate is a round object and so shares that property with the previous objects, and is larger than the last round object in the sequence, but its being a flat round object as opposed to spherical breaks the pattern, and the pattern is further broken in the breaking of the plates themselves; none of the other spherical model objects broke. This shift in the shape pattern also appropriately replicates the solution to Sheldon’s problem–his precise mistake is that he’s been using round spherical objects to model the electrons, treating them as particles when he should have been treating them as a wave. The plate is the perfect object to resolve the pattern also in that he is not using it intentionally as a model; he only recognizes it as a model accidentally, when he drops them.

There’s something fitting in Sheldon’s solution to how to solve his problem in that it’s essentially to stop trying to figure it out. This is a good approach to fiction-writing as well: when you’re trying to generate your rising action pattern and figure out what the final step in this pattern should be that will successfully subvert and resolve the pattern, trying to impose this final step consciously will likely prevent you from being able to discern the perfect ending. The discovery of the ending must be accidental to be surprising. Barthelme’s insertion of Helen the teacher’s assistant when she did not exist before is his equivalent of Sheldon’s dropping the plates. Sheldon gets mad at the customers who clap when he drops the plates instead of when he intuits meaning from the dropped plates, but perhaps those customers were applauding the right moment all along. As writers, we must be willing to drop, and break, the plates we have picked up.    

-SCR

“The Yellow Wallpaper” Write Up by Reagan Blewer

The story begins with the narrator writing in secret about her fancies and suspicions on her newly purchased estate before relenting that John, her husband and physician described as “practical to the extreme”, would laugh at her for such fancies. . She then notes that her hands are tied, that due to her husband’s credibility as a physician her own opinions on her condition are rendered invalid and concedes to her treatments, including being banned from writing among others. In order to avoid dwelling on her condition as John ordered her, she then begins to expand on the house, her description falling upon the yellow wallpaper in her bedroom that disturbs and repulses her wits sheer wrongness. She then ends her entry as John hates her writing .Two weeks pass and John refuses to “indulge” his wife by moving rooms as the wallpaper gives her distress, patronizing her. She goes on to describe the gardens but her attention is captured by the wall paper despite herself, irritating her with it’s disorderly bodily imagery and makes out a “sister” in the wallpaper. The entry picks up post-4th of July after a visit from family, the narrator notes that she is tired even though everything was handle by Jennie. in response to his wife’s worsening condition, john plans to send her to Weir Mitchell in the fall, something she sees as detrimental as the doctor is exactly like John. She notes her increased lethargy, uncontrollable crying as well as her compulsion to isolate herself. Once again she drifts to the subject of the wallpaper, finding a strange fondness for its intricacy and decoding its patterns, uncovering a world of her own which tires her. The next entry begins with her writing that she doesn’t know why she wants to write and that John loves her dearly. She recounts her encounter with John in which she futilely attempted to convince him to allow her to visit her cousins and ended up crying. John attempted to ‘comfort’ her calling her his darling and telling her that she must look after herself for his sake. She takes comfort in the fact that her child is not in bedroom with the wallpaper, finding a brighter side in that she doesn’t have to deal with the child in her current abode. SHe sees a woman in the wallpaper and retracts her prior statement, wishing John would take her away. Later, she communicates this to John who ultimately refuses her, dismissing her concerns. She begins to lose her temper but is immediately quelled by a lecture from John. Once again she finds herself lost in the wallpaper patterns, Her fixation has grown to the point of which she is bothered by John or Jennie even looking at the wallpaper, frightening Jennie and inwardly accusing her p studying the pattern, determined to decode the mysteries first. It takes over her life, smelling it, seeing it in her hair, and watching the wall woman move behind the pattern, eventually finding the woman outside every window, creeping along in daylight. This spirals to the point of which she ends up tearing away the wallpaper to “free” the woman, locking the door in her madness and immerses herself into the woman’s identity becoming her while John calls for her to open the door. Once he finally enters the room he is horrified by the scene before him, his wife declaring that she “got out at last” and he faints. She creeps over him.

The acute tension in this piece was the worsening condition of the narrator, her obsession with the wallpaper, her confinement to the manor and the dismissals of her husband.

 

The chronic tension was the control john exerted over his wife, the speaker’s depression, her disconnect from her child, and her overall feelings of being trapped

 

In the Yellow Wallpaper, we are given a chilling insight a woman’s descent into madness in the form of journal entries, a literary decision that frames the narrative in an introspective format that allows for a deeper exploration into the protagonist’s psyche.

In the first entry, the protagonist is smothered by the judgements of her husband and physician, John, and expresses her opinion in a swift admission with careful wording all around, reflecting how she takes care not to toe the line and neutral language.

 

“and perhaps -(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind -) perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.

In contrast, the descriptions of the wallpaper are dripping with mobid imagery and bold language, displaying the full extent of her revulsion and fascination burrowing past the quiet exterior from the start, and increasingly stands out against the simpler language as the story progresses. Another point of interest in this perspective is illustrated in each entry as she writes what affects her most, particular attention being paid to her conversations with John and his sometimes patronizing words of endearment. Her entries begin to decrease in size and awareness of the events regarding the yellow wallpaper begins to skew to the point of which she confronts jennie for simply touching the wall, accusing her of attempting to scry its secrets, secrets the speaker claims for herself with building ferocity until finally the she becomes the yellow wall paper itself, and her reality meshes with fantasy.

 

Another literary device the story integrated was the unstable power dynamic between the speaker and John. First, he has authority over her in the both the medical and domestic sense, which smothers the speaker as he continues to make decisions that determine her well-being like not allowing her to change rooms when the wallpaper unsettled her and placing her in a position of isolation with his dismissal of her requests to visit her cousins time and time again, these shows of power ironically serve as a catalyst of the power shift that takes place through the story as her obsession with the wallpaper grows with her abandoning her prior reservations along with her emotional restraint to the point of which she begins to rebel against his recommendations for her, snapping at him,locking doors daring to request more, and more with each refusal serving to increase her aggression until John is the one left banging at the door in the climax, horrified and her loss of control of herself leads to her freeing herself from any remnant of control he had left over her.

 

I would like to copy the surrealism of the imagery displayed in this piece, the author did an amazing job making the speaker seem completely convinced of her delusion along with the believable

 

Why do you think she really began to visualize the woman in the wall paper?

 

What do you think happened next? Did she run away?

 

“The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds” Write Up by Jackson Wagner

In Neil Gaiman’s “The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds,” Horner is a private investigator looking into the murder of a renowned blackmailer named Humpty Dumpty. He’s paid to do this by Humpty’s beautiful sister. The Kings Men tried to put Humpty back together but he died. The police chief warns Horner that he’s punching above his weight class and that he should abandon the case. Humpty’s fall was marked as an accident by most. Horner continues to look for clues on Humpty’s murder and is continuously told to drop the case. Eventually he figures out that Humpty’s sister is actually the killer, because she didn’t want anyone to find out she had her nose fixed by a now deceased surgeon whom Humpty had recommended.

It’s very interesting to see how Gaiman adapted a nursery rhyme into a gritty down to earth murder mystery. We kind of rooted for this investigator, while the author also kept us glued to the story because the reader wants to see how closely the story lines up with the nursery rhyme. The brutal ending also focuses on how gritty the world is and highlights how nursery rhymes and fairy tales used to have endings that were darker than the ones children are told today.

I would definitely want to steal Gaiman’s ability to take such a surreal world and ground it thoroughly in a reality of his own making. This is a silly story told to children, urging them to not climb too high. Gaiman twists it in to a tale filled with murder and intrigue. A bumbling simpleton in the original story becomes a cunning blackmailer with animal allies.

“Apollo” Write Up by Ella Bernstein

In “Apollo,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a man named Okenwa visits his elderly parents. Age has “shrunk” them; they tell fantastical stories, the opposite of previously being curt, intelligent professors. Okenwa worries if his parents will die soon, but would not be as concerned if he had a family, feeling guilty since his parents want grandchildren. One day, Okenwa’s parents tell him about robbers in another city. Their leader was Raphael, a former houseboy. Okenwa flashes back to when he was a young teen and Raphael was houseboy, after several others left since Okenwa’s mother was so harsh. His parents’ former haughty and scholarly attitudes worried Okenwa that he disappointed them by not being intellectual enough. However, Okenwa secretly loved kung fu. One day Raphael caught him practicing Bruce Lee moves, but to his surprise, Raphael joined in. The two bonded, and Raphael mentored Okenwa in kung fu. He even made Okenwa nunchaku (or nunchucks) out of an old mop. Gradually, Okenwa developed feelings for Raphael. However, Raphael got Apollo (a minor eye infection common in West Africa), and was quarantined in his room. The parents gave him eye drops and left him alone, but Okenwa snuck into his room. When Raphael admitted that he couldn’t put drops in his own eye, Okenwa did it for him, sneaking in three times a day to put in his eye drops. Their gestures suggested that they were falling in love. Raphael soon healed, and Okenwa was disappointed because he no longer had an excuse to visit him. But soon Okenwa got Apollo. To direct the blame away from Raphael, he lied to his parents that he got it from a classmate. They were so concerned that they called a doctor, stayed home, and put in his eye drops for him. To Okenwa’s disappointment, Raphael never visited. Finally, his parents left, and Okenwa looked for Raphael. He was outside, flirting with the neighbor’s house-help, Josephine. Shocked, jealous, and not thinking straight, Okenwa demanded that Raphael provide him food. Josephine held back laughter, and Raphael muttered something with “the sound of betrayal.” Then Okenwa’s parents drove up, and Josephine left. Okenwa asked Raphael why he never visited, and Raphael casually said that he wasn’t allowed. Panicked at the growing rift between them, Okenwa backed away from Raphael, but tripped and fell. When Okenwa’s parents saw, he lied that Raphael pushed him. Raphael is fired and Okenwa feels guilty forever.

There are many conflicts worth exploring in this story. As far as chronic tension goes, there’s a lot:

  • the anxiety and discomfort Okenwa feels towards his parents
  • his parents’ changed personalities
  • their desire for Okenwa to have a family
  • Okenwa’s guilt about lying about Raphael
  • inferior treatment of house-help, especially the mother’s harshness
  • house-help’s resulting resentment of well-off people like Okenwa

And for acute tension, there is, more obviously:

  • the budding relationship between Okenwa and Raphael
  • the Apollo infections
  • Raphael’s betrayal of Okenwa

For this presentation, I tracked two elements listed as chronic tensions: Okenwa’s worries about his parents, and the inferior treatment of house-help. Let’s start with Okenwa’s worries, in the story’s very first line.

Twice a month, like a dutiful son, I visited my parents in Enugu, in their small overfurnished flat that grew dark in the afternoon.

What’s worth noting here is the phrase “like a dutiful son.” From the very beginning, we are clued in that the narrator doesn’t visit his elderly parents because he wants to, or because he loves them, or because he enjoys seeing them, but because he feels it is his job. A few paragraphs later, Okenwa wonders when his parents will die, and although the thought makes him sad, he narrates:

And yet I knew that if I had a family, if I could complain about rising school fees as the children of their friends did, then I would not visit them so regularly. I would have nothing for which to make amends.

This again suggests that he does not visit his parents or worry about them because of an emotional connection he has with them, but because he feels like he owes them something, specifically grandchildren.

Later, in Okenwa’s flashback, he recounts his childhood anxiety about being a disappointment to his parents. Several paragraphs are dedicated to characterization of the parents: they were intelligent, philosophical, competitive, pretentious, and brusque. On the other hand, Okenwa had little interest or knack for academia, and it made him feel uncomfortable, nervous, and like a loner in his own house:

I read books only enough to satisfy them, and to answer the kinds of unexpected questions that might come in the middle of a meal— What did I think of Pip? Had Ezeulu done the right thing? I sometimes felt like an interloper in our house. My bedroom had bookshelves, stacked with the overflow books that did not fit in the study and the corridor, and they made my stay feel transient, as though I were not quite where I was supposed to be. I sensed my parents’ disappointment in the way they glanced at each other when I spoke about a book, and I knew that what I had said was not incorrect but merely ordinary, uncharged with their brand of originality.

Sometimes, this tension between Okenwa and his parents overlaps with the second element I tracked: unfair treatment of house-help. For context, house-helpers are basically live-in domestic servants, and they are common for wealthy Nigerian families. However, they are often treated as inferior. This inequality is highlighted in “Apollo”; not only are Raphael and the other houseboys treated as secondary, but the especially harsh personality of Okenwa’s mother makes life much worse for the houseboys. This is made clear right at the start of Okenwa’s flashback:

The houseboy before him, Hyginus, had been sent home for insulting my mother. Before Hyginus was John… he had broken a plate while washing it and, fearing my mother’s anger, had packed his things and fled before she came home from work. All the houseboys treated me with the contemptuous care of people who disliked my mother. Please come and eat your food, they would say—I don’t want trouble from Madam. My mother regularly shouted at them, for being slow, stupid, hard of hearing; even her bell-ringing, her thumb resting on the red knob, the shrillness searing through the house, sounded like shouting.

This initial situation is worrisome that Okenwa’s mother could be so harsh, but it gets even worse when Raphael and Okenwa develop their covert bond: suddenly when his mother is mean to Raphael, it is difficult on Okenwa, too. When Okenwa gets Apollo from Raphael, his parents immediately blame him:

My mother shouted at Raphael, ‘Why did you bring this thing to my house? Why?’ It was as though by catching Apollo he had conspired to infect her son. Raphael did not respond. He never did when she shouted at him. She was standing at the top of the stairs, and Raphael was below her.

Okenwa ends up lying to his parents about how he got infected just to divert their wrath away from Raphael. The inequality between children and house-help is further shown in the differences in Raphael’s and Okenwa’s experiences while infected with Apollo. When Okenwa catches it, his parents call a doctor, set up medicine and fruit by his bed, stay home, and put in his eye drops three times a day. They didn’t make half the effort for Raphael. Instead, they merely gave him his eye drops and left him to treat himself, and they never knew that he couldn’t do it. If Okenwa hadn’t snuck into his room, Raphael would have never gotten treatment, suffered for much longer, and probably would have taken far longer to recover from Apollo.

Raphael’s room itself is also worth talking about. As if Raphael wasn’t treated differently enough, his room is even separate from the house. When Okenwa walks in, he describes the scene:

I looked around his room and was struck by how bare it was—the bed pushed against the wall, a spindly table, a gray metal box in the corner, which I assumed contained all that he owned.

Raphael’s room is cramped and threadbare—earlier it is said that instead of lights, he gets a single exposed lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. When Okenwa walks in, Raphael moves to get up and says “What is it?” suggesting that he cannot imagine that someone he works for would visit him just to be with him, but that they need him to work even while he is sick.

I liked reading “Apollo” because it was so personal, chock-full of emotion and significance, and I felt like I could really connect with Okenwa. The progression of the plot was also really engaging, and being a super sentimental person myself, I was really excited for Okenwa and Raphael to fall in love, and I also felt for Okenwa when Raphael abandoned him for Josephine. I love stories like this one that deal with emotional subjects like unrequited love, betrayal, guilt, anxiety, and loneliness. I think we can all relate to that, at least a little. I also loved the deep exploration of characters in this story, and how important every person’s behavior and feelings were to the plot, but how at the same time they manage to be mysterious and surprise us.

And some things that I think, as a writer, I could learn from this story: I love the characterization, and I think it provides a valuable lesson. I think of it as a perfect blend between showing and telling, rich and given both through action, description, and through straight-up telling. The characterization is also inextricably tied up with the tensions, and I would like to more directly engage personalities with conflict in my stories, to enhance the intimacy and tension. I also think that Adichie is acutely aware of where she places this characterization, subtext, and tension, and every jump cut (there are many) begins with a direct progression of plot that is almost always engaged with a description of character, an elaboration of conflict, or both. I think it is important to be this aware of placement, which could make my writing more engaging and move more smoothly. Also, I would like to start making use of jump cuts like Adichie does, as valuable pauses to divide a story and to mark progressions in a story.

Alright, so questions!

  1. Why did Adichie choose to start off the story with Okenwa visiting his elderly and radically different parents, instead of just going straight into the story with Raphael?
  2. Is there any figurative relation to the infection Apollo and the Greek god Apollo, or is it just a coincidence?
  3. Why did Raphael betray Okenwa? Did he ever really love him?

“Julie and the Warlord” Write Up by Kyra McNally Albers

“Julie and the Warlord,” by B.J. Novak, follows a couple on their first date after meeting through an online dating website. Julie has had a bit too much to drink, and the man, whose name never appears, seems to be just being polite until Julie asks about his career. He explains to her that he is a warlord. As a warlord, he and his team control the Congo. He does not enforce laws or govern, but rather attack the people when the country becomes abundant with natural resources but lacks enough government protection. They bribe, kidnap, indoctrinate, torture, recruit, and kill until the country reaches satisfactory protection and resources. Julie is rather taken aback and does not especially like this warlord business, and only partially listens to him continue to explain. They eventually tone the conversation back down and discuss inane topics such Twitter, clothing brands, menus, and chocolate cake. They order a flourless chocolate cake to split, and the waitress comes back a little later with it. She asks if they want anything else, and after the warlord says he has a driver, Julie orders a fourth cocktail.

There is so much that goes on in this story beneath the action and dialogue… through action and dialogue. For example:

“Ooh! Okay, this is fun. Are you a … landlord? Because I do not have the best history getting along with landlords. My first apartment—”

“I’m not a landlord.”

The way Julie strays from the subject so quickly and easily onto a personal story, especially after she’s just stopped talking about herself, tells us a little something about her character (she’s conceited and unthoughtful). Meanwhile, the Warlord’s interjection shows how he is not one to accept such impertinence (which makes sense considering what he does for a living).

“Are you … a … drug lord?” Julie said, stroke-poking the side of his face with her finger.

If it was not already made clear how drunk Julie is, here’s another clue. Disregarding the intoxication, this also shows how cheeky Julie is in general. I’m not entirely sure what a stroke-poke is, but it certainly is not something you do over dinner to the face of some guy you just met as you ask if he’s a drug lord. From this action we can tell her lack of boundaries and manners may get in the way of this relationship, what with him being so impassive.

Character quirks such as these are what shapes the story. Imagine the same story without any gestures, the same conversation between two ordinary folks. Say their names are Sam and Pam:

“Okay, enough about me,” said Pam. “What do you do?”

“You mean like what’s my job?”

“Yes, like what’s your job.”

Sam answered, but Pam didn’t hear him clearly.

“Sorry, could you repeat that? All I heard was ‘lord’.”

“Yes, I’m a warlord.”

“I do not know what that is. Could you explain it to me?”

Sam nodded. “Certainly. As a warlord, I…”

See? The same thing happens, but without Julie’s playful ill manner or the warlord’s curtness, the story is bland and hardly entertaining or meaningful.

I admire the seamlessness of the characterization through showing instead of telling and hope to incorporate this into my own writing. I believe that can contribute to the entertainment, sophistication, captivation of the reader, or all three, depending on the circumstance and the piece itself.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do you think the warlord’s name was never mentioned?
  2. Will these two stay together after this date?
  3. Did Julie grow on the warlord over the course of the story?

“Seven Floors” Write Up by Evan Sherer

Summary

In Dino Buzzati’s “Seven Floors,” a man named Giuseppe Corte checks in at a highly reputable, beautiful hospital. The hospital has a unique system of management: patients are placed on the floors according to the severity of their illness, with the least severe at the top, the seventh floor, and the dying, the “condemned,” on the first floor. Giuseppe is placed on the seventh floor, as he appears to only have a mild fever. Looking out of the window, at the beautiful trees and the city, Giuseppe has a view of the windows of the lower floors. He strikes up a conversation with a fellow patient on the balcony next to him, who elaborates on how the shades on the bottom floor closed once a patient died.

With this information, Giuseppe is extra fearful of moving down to lower floors. To his delight, he is forced to move down to the sixth floor, so the hospital can accommodate a family in his room. Before he could protest, he was assured it was a temporary placement. The sixth floor is where it gets serious; the seventh is really just a joke, patients were just there for “fancy.” To try to get back to the seventh floor, Giuseppe bothers the nurses by exhorting that his time on the sixth floor was just TEMPORARY, that his illness was MINOR. While on the sixth floor, we learn about Giuseppe’s unnamed illness. It is “obstinate,” ineffectual, but when it does strike, it hits the entire body.

So the rest of Giuseppe’s stay at the hospital is him moving down the floors of the hospital, for reasons that mostly don’t have to do with his actual sickness. He goes down to fifth because the hospital just wants to split up the floors; then to the fourth to take care of some eczema that has nothing to do with his illness; to the third because the doctor advises him that the treatment is better on the third floor; to the second because the ward employees are going on vacation; and finally to the first, because the chief doctor, Professor Dati, makes an order that he be moved there, which seems like a mistake even to the other doctors. On the first floor, Giuseppe sees his shades mysteriously closing, leading us to believe that he dies.

Every time Giuseppe moves down, the doctors assure him that he is only temporarily on that floor, he gets more angry and disheartened as he moves farther away from the “real world,” the seventh floor, and the doctors are more concerned about his sickness.

The chronic tension is Giuseppe’s sickness, or his impending death, and the acute is his passage down the hospital.

What makes the story compelling?

One thing that made me fall in love with this story on the first read is how Buzzati plays with our expectations. The doctors continuously reassure Giuseppe that he will return to the top of the hospital, that his illness is a minor case, that these transfers are just simple errors on the hospital’s part, that Giuseppe will be out of there in no time, that he will live. But, contrasting with this is how Giuseppe gets closer and closer to death. Dino sets up our expectations that he will live, but no matter how much he complains, he gets closer and closer to death. Giuseppe’s fate is unfathomable, but Dino successfully makes it a reality with the allegorical nature of the story, and, more specifically, fairly believable, various reasons for Giuseppe to be moved down the floors despite his good health. It makes us think: was Giuseppe’s health ever all that good in the first place? Was the hospital playing some sort of sick trick in the end? Why is this called a state-of-the-art hospital if this happens? The questions that Buzzati raises in the reader are good questions to have, as they all, while questioning the story, question ourselves. In the end, Buzzati leaves plenty of room for the reader to have his own interpretation.

Another thing that makes “Seven Floors” compelling is just the concept of the piece, of the idea that one side represents life, the other death, and the character involuntarily traveling to the death side (this plays into what I say about symbolism later). The story is not driven by the characterization, nor imagery and honestly, not much the setting. The only thing the setting does is facilitate the plot, really. Buzzati somehow makes this story interesting with an unchanging plot; the same thing keeps happening over and over again. But we are getting closer, and closer, and closer. We don’t want to accept it, but it’s still happening. The reader is just waiting for Giuseppe to return to the seventh floor, but it doesn’t happen, and it was never going to happen. Does Giuseppe change? Not really. Does he learn his lesson, to shut your mouth, be positive, and maybe you’ll feel better? He dies in the end, so no. That tells that this story is more just a picture of human nature, a tale where the protagonist doesn’t learn his lesson, but the reader does. 

What can we use in our own writing?

One craft element that we can learn from “Seven Floors” is the close third person point-of-view. This particular perspective magnifies the story by aligning the reader with Giuseppe’s emotions, and keeping the reader in the dark, for the most part, about what kind of things are happening elsewhere in the ward or in the world. Although we don’t learn anything about Giuseppe’s life outside of the hospital, we feel his disbelief. As I read this for the first time, I kept saying to myself “there is no way he actually makes it to the first floor,” but guess what. We also get to watch how Giuseppe’s reactions to moving down the hospital, one floor at a time, escalate and fall. In the beginning, Giuseppe intentionally keeps his composure when he expresses his eagerness to stay in his room on the seventh floor. Moving down to the fourth floor, Giuseppe is in outrage, but still has hope. But once Giuseppe is moved down to the first floor, he is in an obvious state of depression, something that we could only feel the full effect of if we were in close third person. The POV, by only centering around Giuseppe, makes us ignorant of what else is going on in the ward, and how the doctors are personally dealing with this rogue patient. We feel the same disconnection Giuseppe has with the room outside his hospital room. I was perplexed as his gray shade closed on the first floor as well. And here’s another thing. Because the hospital made so many errors, I started to question if Professor Dati is out to get poor Giuseppe. The doctors seem to be on his side, but are they really? It’s just strange, kind of unfathomable how this state-of-the-art hospital can let an almost perfectly healthy patient die. We can talk about this later.

Another thing that we should take away from this story is Dino Buzzati’s great use of symbolism. On the second read, it struck me how allegorical this story was. Giuseppe is barely characterized; as I said, we don’t know a thing about his life outside the hospital. We also don’t know what exactly Giuseppe’s particular disease is called. What this does is easily let us fill the spot of the main character, and suddenly this story becomes a comment on human nature. The trees outside Giuseppe’s window is a symbol for his diminishing connection with the outside world. Perhaps, as the leaves shake in the wind even from the bottom floor, Buzzati is saying that the world still goes on after we die. Similarly, the seventh floor is an obvious symbol for life, for good health. Where the real world is all there when you look out the window. And, of course, the first floor is a symbol for death. Giuseppe is obviously not dead as he watches the shades close, or is he? Giuseppe’s behavior as he descends the hospital is Dino pointing out the faults of human nature. Dissatisfaction drives us toward an unhappy death that we feel is unjustified. I noticed how Giuseppe’s fever always strengthened as he moved down the hospital. This could definitely be for other reasons (which we can talk about) but I think it is because of his terrible temperament. The doctors also often link Giuseppe’s deteriorating condition with his emotions, saying that he will be healthier with a happier spirit.

Questions

What kills Giuseppe? Was it his passage to the first floor? Was it his temperament? Was his illness much more severe than everyone thought? He dies, right?

What is the climax of the story?

What was your relationship with Giuseppe?