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.  

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.

An Ocean of Minutes: Lit Circle Round 1

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

Summarizer: Shelby Edison

Polly and Frank drive to Houston Intercontinental Airport where Polly is scheduled to time travel. She is scheduled to go to the year 1993 and she and Frank have a plan to meet the first Saturday at the Flagship Hotel. Polly is traveling because Frank has been diagnosed with the flu and the only way for him to get medical care is for Polly to work for TimeRaiser and travel into the future. A woman nears her Polly starts to cry when she has to remove her pair of shoes that she wore from home. Polly, after changing, accidentally goes into the wrong waiting area, before being told to go to the correct room for 0-1 visas, or people with specific talents. The woman waiting with her has a breakdown and leaves. During her examination, Polly worries about being rerouted or not seeing Frank again. She doesn’t remember much of the journey, but she does remember finding a picture of her and Frank that he secretly gave her. She rips it up because she is certain that she will remember him. She gets to the future and in the hospital is told that it is actually 1998.

Back in 1978, Polly sits at a bar, where Frank works. She begins to cry and he hands her a napkin. Polly lives with her aunt, who encourages her to go back to the bar to see Frank again. She does and Frank gives her a matchbox with his name and phone number. For their first date, they walk in the park. It rains, so Frank suggests that they go to his place to get out of the rain. They see a squirrel get run over by a car, but it is still living. To put it out of its misery, Polly stomps on the squirrel. She says she should go home, but misses the bus. She realizes that she wants to g to Frank’s place but it is too late. In the car, Frank gives Polly an entire container of the napkins from the bar.

In 1993, Polly hopes that Frank will pick her up, but only TimeRaiser personnel can pick her up. She is taken by a driver to Galveston. Everything looks abandoned and she learns that 93% of the population has died due to the flu. She is supposed to work for the decorator at the Hotel Galvez. She wanted to call her aunt to find out where Frank is, but the telephone number that she has is from the 1980s. The driver has to go home and she is not able to call anyone. The next morning, the phone is her room goes off telling her where she is to go for the day. She is to be picked up by a bus and taken to work. She gets on the bus. A lot of other also get on the bus and they pass around tomatoes. The bus driver tells everyone to get off when they reach a factory but Polly explains that she is in the wrong place. The driver realizes the mistake, but says that she has to work there for a few hours or else he will get fired. The job at the factory is riding bikes to use for power. Polly rides the bike, and realizes that the bus driver is not returning for her. She has to use the restroom, and wanders around trying to find it. She finds a recording of children playing, but no restroom. She has to go in the bushes. She attempts to walk back to where she started the day, in hopes of meeting Frank, but the journey is longer than she thought. She ends up being found by an older man who tells her to come with him.

Discussion Director 1: Maja Neal

  1. Did you notice the tense changes through the times? If so, how did they affect your reading?
  2. Do you think Polly goes into the time travel operation with an inflated sense of her own importance?
  3. How did Polly’s job strike you – as a necessary payment or more like indentured servitude?
  4. In that vein, what past conflicts did this one (and Polly’s forced solution) remind you of? How did you react to her predicament?
  5. Why do you think the author chose to detour Polly through the working-class section of Galveston? What did it do for our understanding of the world in 1998?I think it was a really important choice of Lim’s to take Polly through the grittier part of Galveston before letting her get to her job. This way, not only do the readers get a glimpse of what normal life is like (considering Polly, by time-immigration standards, is special), but so does Polly. She gets to experience the regular working-class conditions, which might later make her more sympathetic towards them; also, her lodgings are still pretty humble for a “special” passenger, giving the reader a view of how little difference there is between employees. Polly also tends to bond with the workers around her (like the first and second drivers) and is concerned about the people in the bike energy mill, which I took as a demonstration of her empathy, despite the fact she remains high-strung.

Discussion Director 2: Eli Johns-Krull

  1. On page 21, Polly rips up the only photo she brought with her to travel forward with. While she begins to regret this almost immediately, she explains that she did it because there is not a “future timeline in which she could forget [Frank].” Do you agree with her motivations? Why (not)? What would you have done in her place?
  2. On page 23, it is revealed to Polly that she has not gone to 1993, as she planned, but 1998. Based on the book so far, and the sparing information we’ve gotten about the organization that brought her into the future, do you think this misplacement was an honest mistake or something more malicious Why (not)? Does the fear/secrecy about reroutements earlier in the chapter sway your opinion?
  3. “Even if, between now and ’93, aliens invade and the cities are crumbled and remade, the land will still end where the sea begins at the bottom of Twenty-Fifth Street” (5). This is the assurance that Polly and Frank share with each other when discussing meeting again in the future. They are sure of this before Polly leaves. But Polly arrives in a future where the cities have crumbled and been remade (though there are, as yet, no aliens). Do you think her surety about the future and their ability to find each other will last in this entirely unfamiliar world? Why (not)?
  4. On page 49, Polly encounters a recording of children’s voices on a playground being played for the guests at a resort. She notes that “she could think of no healthy reason for the recording.” Do you agree with her? Why (not)? Why do you think the resort keeps that recording playing?I, like Polly, don’t think there’s a healthy reason for the voices to be played. While I understand the merit of using voices as background noise (similar to meditation or a general hum of voices to use as while noise), there’s something specifically creepy about having it be kids’ laughter. Using children as entertainment, especially by adults, is generally slightly off-putting to me, but it’s especially strange to just have a recording of them playing. It’s not something I would ever use as background noise, which makes me wonder why it appeals to these bottle-wearing vacationers. I don’t have many guesses as to why the resort uses that record, except that perhaps there’s a scarcity of children in this new, changed world (either because people have stopped having them in response to the pandemic, or because something about the pandemic made it hard if not impossible for people to have children). If I had to chalk their motivation up to anything, I hope it’s nostalgia for a better time when there were children running around playgrounds (under the assumption that they aren’t anymore) than a more sinister/creepy reason.
  5. “Pandemic took ninety-three percent of us, through sickness or flight” (36). TimeRaiser, the company that sent Polly into the future, didn’t invent the technology in 1981; they got it from 1993. If they have gotten technology, do you think they’ve also received information about the nature of the future? Why (not)? They advertise traveling to a future where the flu has been cured. Do you think they are purposefully misleading journeymen? If so, what do you think their motivations are?

Lit Connector: Lauren Sternenberg

Edwidge Danticat’s Brother I’m Dying Connection (x2)
o   On Page 3, when Frank has just been evicted, he’s worried about his physical possessions. However, it’s not just the items, it’s what they represent to him (family, his personality, possibly even the life he and Polly built) but mostly, stability. His health degenerates shortly after, and suddenly everything that he was is going to end. This connects to Uncle Joseph’s worries in Brother I’m Dying about his church—his livelihood—being burned down due to “helping” the Peacekeepers kill the local gangs. He’s forced to run to keep himself save, to leave everything behind in Haiti and get to America. Then, like Frank, he officially loses the notebooks—Frank’s records—of his little chronicles of Haitian life due to governmental negligence—although his life is later lost as well due to negligence.

Hunger Games connection

World connection

Illustrator: Eva Trakhtman


This image ties directly to the scene where Polly puts a squirrel out of its misery (after its legs are ran over by a car) while on her first date with Frank. The squirrel’s legs are run over, and while Frank wants to call Animal Control, Polly buys a newspaper and stomps on the squirrel’s head. This action shows her determination, which carries through into her confidence and courage as she’s taking on the burden of time-travel. The fear of leaving behind a familiar world and a young love is hard to fathom, but Polly demonstrates in her mercy-killing of the squirrel, and in her abandoning of her old life, that she is an individual that does what she believes needs to be done.


How does the scene with the squirrel come to represent Polly’s actions later on in the book? How does this moment define Frank, and can anything be predicted about his character (or Polly’s) based on how he reacted in this scene?

Literary Luminary: Ellis Wilkins-Haverkamp

“They squeeze each other’s hands so hard, the skin of his suit bites the web between her fingers and there is no way they can touch skin to skin, and the seat of her heart falls away and so does her resolve.” (pg. 6)

“Polly fixes her eyes on the Van Gogh painting. The first time she ever laid eyes on it, in a guidance counselor’s office, she thought it was magic: the way the painting was like a window, as if you could walk right into the scene. Just by looking at it, you were somewhere else… Polly’s seen the painting too many times. She can’t get the light in the painting to do what it used to.” (pg. 14-15)

“It’s a plan able to withstand early closing doors and a snarl of stairways, not the ocean of minutes that twelve years holds.” (pg. 20)

Something to remember us by.” (pg. 21)

“Of course she would see him tomorrow. Of course he would be waiting on the first floor of the Flagship, sitting in those bulbous burgundy armchairs, where he had a view of the door. Of course she would get there hours before he even formed the thought that she might not make it. And by tomorrow evening, this acid fear that she would never again see his face would have lasted less than a day.” (pg. 41)

The final quote listed serves as an accurate representation of Polly’s state of mind throughout the first few chapters of the novel; she stands on the edge of absolute panic and doom while grasping at the thin threads of hope. The repetition of the phrase “of course” demonstrates her attempts to keep her spirit alive during times of uncertainty. Despite this, the phrase comes off somewhere between sarcastic and reluctant, as if she’s already come to realize that nothing is or will be going as planned.

Literary Terms Expert: Josie Nunn

“Polly would like to breathe in the smell of Frank’s skin one last time, a smell like salt cut with something sweet, like when it rains in the city. (1)”

This sentence on the first page illustrates a sense of longing. It reminds me of the feeling when you’re a kid and your mom is leaving you at school, and although you know she will go, you still try to make that last attempt to cling to her familiar body. On the other hand, I don’t find the city smelling like something sweet at all. Maybe it’s just a Houston thing, but Downtown smells like grease, gasoline, and heavy, humid air.

“They ate the raisins slowly so they would last until the sun went down, chewing each juiceless bead until only threads remained between their teeth. (6)”

Polly and Frank in this sentence are trying to make something impermanent, permanent. Even before Polly had to leave, they were trying to avoid time travel. The unavoidable ticking forward of time. When Polly goes to the future, she only has lose memories of Frank left.

“The first time she ever laid eyes on it, in a guidance counselor’s office, she thought it was magic: the way the painting was like a window, as if you could walk right into the scene. (9)”

During this time, Polly is having an uncomfortable exchange with another woman in the room. In her mind, she is trying to escape the situation; we can also assume that Polly was trying to make a mental escape in the guidance counselor’s office (I mean who isn’t?). Her overall predicament in the TimeRaisers airport makes her incredibly wary and want to step through the painting.

“But the phone had no buttons, not on the front or the back, the receiver or the cradle. It was like a face without features. (26)”

Polly is now in an unknown time and place. Although she’s being directed on where to go, she in internally lost. For some reason when I read this sentence it reminded me of the fetal baby in Silent Hills. Also in that game is travel through time and space! Polly seemed like she was almost going through a dissociative episode, also known as an out-of-body experience. Not necessarily that she is looking at her body from an outside perspective, but the feeling that the things that are happening are very real and it makes you feel overstimulated. The kind of out-of-body experience that is caused by a panic attack.

No Rest for the Wicked

One recent piece of evidence for The Wizard of Oz‘s staying power in the cultural consciousness is a sketch from the current season of Saturday Night Live. This blog hasn’t explored many theatrical adaptations of fictional works, with the exception of the play adapted from Donald Barthelme’s novel Snow White, which was, of course, adapted from previous versions of that classic tale. In a similar (but in many ways different) vein, Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked from 1995 evolved from reinterpreting a narrative familiar to the culture not as much from its original version–L. Frank Baum’s children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)–as from its 1939 movie adaptation, The Wizard of Oz. Maguire’s novel, in turn, was adapted into a highly successful Broadway show that’s been running since 2003 (Baum’s novel was itself adapted into a Broadway show over a century before that, in 1901). Having tickets for Wicked the musical during a trip to NYC this past December, I read Maguire’s novel first to be able to compare the different versions.

Wicked‘s basic premise is that it provides the “untold” life story of the Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz, one of the most infamous villains of all time. Wicked the novel, subtitled “The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West,” is told in five parts, after a prologue in which the Witch overhears Dorothy, the Lion, Scarecrow, and Tin Man rehashing crazy rumors they’ve heard about her. The first part, “Munchkinlanders,” shows us the birth and early childhood of our main character, Elphaba (whose “real” name we never got in Wizard, unless you count the character who inspired the figure in Dorothy’s dream of Oz, Almira Gulch, the ill-tempered neighbor back in Kansas who wants to euthanize Toto). This first part mainly involves getting the perspective of Elphaba’s parents, Melena and Frexspar, the latter a local unionist preacher/minister and the former a bored housewife whose mother, Nanny, comes for an extended stay to supposedly help out after Elphaba’s birth. Nanny bears witness to Melena’s affair with a Quadling named Turtle Heart who shows up at the house one day (Melena also tells Nanny about her former trysts, including one with “a tinker with a funny accent [who] gave me a draft of some heady brew from a green glass bottle”). Elphaba bites off someone’s finger with her abnormally sharp teeth the night she’s born–the same night a weird cultish group called the Clock of the Time Dragon shows up to give a prophetic performance about Frex’s fraudulence–and has strange green skin that keeps her parents emotionally estranged from her. When Melena eventually becomes pregnant again, she takes a strange herb procured by Nanny to try to ensure the new baby doesn’t have Elphaba’s abnormalities. At the end of Part 1, Melena gives birth to another daughter.

In Part 2, “Gillikin,” we meet Glinda, who meets Dr. Dillamond, a goat, on a train on her way to Shiz University. Glinda is from the Pertha Hills and has high social hopes, but then ends up with the social outcast Elphaba as her roommate. The two grow closer along with a group of other students (including Boq the munchkin) as they get caught up in political intrigue about the wizard trying to take away the rights of Animals. Eventually Elphaba’s sister Nessarose, who was born without arms, comes to Shiz as well, with a gift of fine ruby slippers from their father showcasing his favoritism toward her. Elphaba comes to believe that a Shiz administrator, Madame Morrible, is responsible for the death of the prominent professor goat (Dr. Dillamond) who was doing research that was basically going to reveal Animals and people were biological equals. Elphaba was his research assistant and grabbed all of his findings from his lab before they could be taken by others. Madame Morrible tries to enlist Elphaba and Glinda to do sorcery work for a shadowy cause, but Elphaba declines. Elphaba, Glinda, and some others get an audience with the wizard in the Emerald City to try to defend Animal rights. When they fail, Elphaba announces she won’t return to school, and vanishes for several years.

In Part 3, “City of Emeralds,” a former Shiz student from the Vinkus, Fiyero, encounters Elphaba again years later as she’s doing some kind of undercover operative work to try to assassinate the wizard, and they become lovers (despite Fiyero’s being in an arranged marriage). On the night Elphaba is supposed to do something to kill the wizard, there’s some kind of random interference her team didn’t anticipate, and Fiyero ends up getting killed at their meeting place.

In Part 4, “In the Vinkus,” we jump seven more years and discover Elphaba’s been living in some kind of convent in the interim; she’s now leaving it for the Vinkus with a mysterious young boy in tow and a mission to get forgiveness from Fiyero’s widow Sarima. Elphaba ends up living at Sarima’s house in the Vinkus, the estate Kiamo Ko, with her sisters and Fiyero’s children and Liir, the boy Elphaba brought with her (her child with Fiyero). At Kiamo Ko, Elphaba discovers an old spell book called the Grimmerie among Fiyero’s possessions that Sarima says a mysterious old sorcerer brought one day, claiming it was from “another world,” though Elphaba doesn’t believe this because she’s able to decipher parts of it. Elphaba’s sister Nessarose has become the Eminent Thropp of Munchkinland, a title they received through matrilineal lineage through their mother and that should have gone to Elphaba as the eldest, but she rejected it. Her father calls her home to potentially help Nessarose govern, but after visiting she decides not to and leaves; when she returns to the Vinkus, she discovers Sarima and her sisters have been taken by soldiers.

In Part 5, “The Murder and Its Afterlife,” Elphaba hears that Nessarose (nicknamed the Wicked Witch of the East) has been crushed by a house in a tornado, and that Glinda gave the girl who came out of the house (Dorothy) Nessarose’s red slippers, which have become an emotional symbol for Elphaba and a political symbol for Munchkinland (“SHE WALKED ALL OVER US” is a common Munchkinlander complaint, and Elphaba is convinced if the wizard gets hold of the slippers he’ll be able to re-annex Munchkinland, which seceded under Nessarose). After Nessa’s funeral, the wizard visits Elphaba at Colwen Grounds, and she learns he isn’t actually from Oz and only came for the Grimmerie spell book, which he wants to exchange for a hostage, Sarima and Fiyero’s daughter Nor. (He also reveals that Madame Morrible told him to have Elphaba watched after Elphaba rejected Madame Morrible’s enlistment at Shiz, which is what led to Fiyero’s murder.) On her way back to the Vinkus, Elphaba looks along the Yellow Brick Road for Dorothy (Glinda having told her she sent Dorothy along there to the Wizard). Along the way she has a reunion with Boq before stopping at Shiz to kill Madame Morrible, who dies five minutes before Elphaba gets there. Elphaba tries to take credit by confessing the murder to an old classmate, Avaric, who doesn’t believe her. She then runs into a dwarf from the Clock of the Time Dragon, who tells her he’s the guardian of the Grimmerie and who reveals that the Wizard is her real father (the lover who gave her mother the green elixir while Frex was off preaching). She gets close to Dorothy and co. on the Road, but then a storm comes in and blocks her. Then Liir hears and tells Elphaba that the wizard has told Dorothy to kill her in exchange for granting Dorothy’s wish of leaving Oz. When Dorothy and her friends arrive at Elphaba’s Kiamo Ko stronghold in the Vinkus, Elphaba throws all she’s got against her, in the form of animals, of course—dogs, bees, crows—but they all die. (Elphaba also allows herself to hope that Fiyero somehow faked his death and is the scarecrow in disguise.) When Dorothy gets there and Elphaba confronts her about coming to kill her, Dorothy says the real thing she came for was forgiveness for killing Elphaba’s sister when the house fell—parallel to the forgiveness Elphaba wanted from Sarima for being responsible for Fiyero’s death, but that Sarima refused to give her. Elphaba then accidentally lights herself on fire with the broom she’d lit to carry as a torch, and Dorothy, thinking she’s saving Elphaba’s life, throws water on her and inadvertently kills her. When Dorothy brings a token of the witch’s back to the Wizard to prove the Witch is dead–a “green glass bottle that said MIRACLE ELI- on the paper glued to the front”–the Wizard seems to realize something and soon flees his Palace. There’s debate about how exactly Dorothy left Oz, but the Witch is dead, and remains only in “the carapace of her reputation for malice.” The End.

The musical, whose subtitle is “The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz,” simplifies a lot of the novel’s elements even as it purports to tackle multiple witches’ stories instead of just one (though these multiplied witches are really just two, Elphaba and Glinda). Act I begins with the the number “No One Mourns the Wicked”: the announcement, made by Glinda, that the Wicked Witch (of the West) is dead. Glinda then circles back to tell the story of Elphaba’s life with the seeming goal of trying to understand how/why she was so wicked, revealing that Elphaba’s father is a governor (whom her mother cheated on) and, in “Dear Old Shiz,” that she knew Elphaba herself when they were students at Shiz University, where they roomed together. “The Wizard and I”: Though Elphaba, a great admirer of the Wizard, is socially outcast because of her green skin and was only sent to Shiz to attend her wheelchair-bound sister Nessarose, she quickly demonstrates an aptitude for sorcery that garners Madame Morrible’s favor and encouragement. “What Is This Feeling”: Glinda, a subpar student, mocks and is jealous of Elphaba, and they don’t get along despite clear similarities. “Something Bad”: Elphaba befriends the goat professor Dr. Dillamond, who makes her aware of increasing discrimination against Animals (and the fact that a lot of them are mysteriously losing their ability to speak). “Dancing Through Life”: The popular and aimless Fiyero arrives at Shiz, kindling an attraction in Glinda, who’s inclined to humiliate Elphaba at a dance (and who also convinces Boq to invite Nessarose). “Popular”: Glinda regrets her humiliation of Elphaba and they become friends. “I’m Not That Girl”: Elphaba joins forces with Fiyero to rescue a lion cub a professor is using for class. “One Short Day”: Elphaba’s sorcery talent earns her an audience with the wizard, and she invites Glinda to come to the Emerald City with her. “A Sentimental Man”: Elphaba demonstrates her ability to enact a spell from a book the Wizard shows her by giving some monkeys wings. “Defying Gravity”: When the Wizard–along with Madame Morrible–reveal they’re going to use the winged monkeys as spies, Elphaba becomes disillusioned with the Wizard, steals his spellbook, and vows to no longer play by society’s rules.

Act II opens with “Thank Goodness,” in which we see that the Wizard and Madame Morrible have publicly painted the witch as wicked in order to discredit any attempt she makes to reveal the Wizard’s true nature (and to paint her attempts to use her powers to save persecuted Animals as criminal), while Glinda’s become a celebrated public figure. “The Wicked Witch of the East”: Elphaba visits Nessarose, who Boq has been taking care of, and via the red slippers their father gave Nessa as a token of his favor(itism), Elphaba uses her powers to enable Nessa to stand and be free of her wheelchair. Nessa thinks this will enable Boq to truly love her; when instead he thinks her new independence will allow him to leave and pursue his true love, Glinda (about to marry Fiyero), Nessa snatches Elphaba’s spellbook to try to enchant him; Elphaba has to save him from Nessa’s spell with another spell, but the best she can do is turn him into the heartless Tin Man. “Wonderful”: Elphaba meets with the Wizard, who espouses on his love of the people of Oz’s love for him. “As Long As You’re Mine”: Elphaba and Fiyero get together. “No Good Deed”: When a house falls on Nessarose and Elphaba turns up, falling for the trap the Wizard and Madame Morrible set up to lure her out, Fiyero turns on his fellow soldiers in the Wizard’s army in order to save her, and is arrested. “March of the Witch Hunters”: A mob of Ozians is riled up to hunt down and kill the Witch by the Tin Man, who says the lion Elphaba rescued as a cub also has a grievance against her for turning him into a coward. “For Good”: Glinda goes to Elphaba’s hideout at Kiamo Ko to warn Elphaba (who apparently has Dorothy locked up below the floor, wanting her slippers) about the mob, and they espouse on the good influence they had on each other, assuming this will be their last meeting; Elphaba also makes Glinda swear that Glinda won’t try to clear Elphaba’s name. Glinda hides as the Wizard’s soldiers storm the hideout and, silhouetted behind a screen, appear to kill the Witch by throwing water on her. “Finale”: As Ozians celebrate the Witch’s death, it’s revealed that the Wizard is Elphaba’s real father (the stranger who was shown giving her mother a green elixir in the opening number), and that Elphaba was able to fake her death because it was only a rumor that water would melt her, and that Fiyero escaped and disguised himself as the Scarecrow, and that they’ll run away together to somewhere outside of Oz, and that Elphaba feels bad she can’t tell Glinda she’s really alive but won’t for the safety of both of them. The End.

Obviously the musical is a different genre than the novel, one that might be a little more interested in mass appeal (and thus happy endings).

phoebe musical

In a nutshell, Wicked the musical puts a lighter spin on the novel’s darker themes, most notably turning its grim ending into a happy (if slightly bittersweet) one. The merit of such an overhaul would probably be weak on strictly literary grounds (a point I’ll return to). But we would do well to remember that this is one of the most popular (so to speak) musicals in recent history, which means that it basically oozes mass appeal, like a Disney movie. The much more complex beast of a novel does not.

The novel is sprawling, so one interesting thing to note about the musical is its consolidation. The novel’s entire first part is condensed into the thirty-second mention in the opening song of Elphaba’s mother drinking the green elixir with the stranger and Elphaba’s being born with green skin. In the musical, Glinda is also positioned as the narrator of the tale of Elphaba’s life–she is the one describing Elphaba’s mother cheating on her father as well as her parents’ initial reaction to her birth, and these are presented as the facts of what happened–but it’s like, Elphaba herself wouldn’t have been able to know the details of these exchanges concerning her own conception and birth, so how does Glinda know them? The novel has a roving omniscient narrator, a narrative stance in which how it comes by its knowledge is a given that doesn’t raise such potential questions.

Also in apparent service to consolidation, Elphaba’s father is given the political governor position instead of her mother (though her mother’s political position was heavily downplayed in the novel’s opening section that focused on her), and is not a preacher as he is in the novel. (In the novel Elphaba and Nessarose also have a younger brother named Shell who barely makes what qualifies as an actual appearance a single time in the entire book and whose relevance is very hard to pinpoint; the musical dispenses with him altogether, as it also does with Nanny, Sarima, and Liir.)

One change that was good in the musical was Elphaba’s initial admiration for the Wizard and her ambition (that’s already clearly ironic because of the opening number celebrating her death), demonstrated early in the “The Wizard and I”:

But I swear, someday there’ll be
A celebration throughout Oz
That’s all to do with me!

In the novel, Elphaba doesn’t seem to have strong feelings about the Wizard one way or another until she gets deeper into the Animal intrigue issues, which are not going to inspire feelings of admiration. Establishing an initial admiration heightens the drama of the Animal intrigue issues and the extremity of Elphaba’s disillusionment and fate as the Wizard’s mortal enemy, and, unbeknownst to her, his daughter–though in the novel Elphaba is given this information directly, while in the musical this tidbit is relayed to the audience but Elphaba is apparently left ignorant of it. The near-end reveal of this paternity felt clunky in both the novel and the musical. I’m still not sure what the green elixir was supposed to actually be.

Almost as mysterious as the green elixir is the Grimmerie spellbook. In the novel, we first hear about this book when Elphaba discovers it at Kiamo Ko. Sarima explains that a mysterious visitor once dropped it off:

“He told me a fabulous tale and persuaded me to take this thing from him. He said that it was a book of knowledge, and that it belonged in another world, but it wasn’t safe there. So he had brought it here–where it could be hidden and out of harm’s way.”

“What a load of tripe,” said Elphie. “If it came from another world I shouldn’t be able to read any of it. And I can make out a little.”

Later, the Wizard tells Elphaba:

“This is an ancient manuscript of magic, generated in a world far away from this one. It was long thought to be merely legendary, or else destroyed in the dark onslaughts of the northern invaders. It had been removed from our world for safety by a wizard more capable than I. It is why I came to Oz in the first place,” he continued, almost talking to himself, as old men are prone to do.

So Elphaba’s ability to decipher parts of the Grimmerie, in both the novel and musical, is a major clue to her paternity, the fact that she’s partially from some other world. In neither version do we learn any more about what this other world actually is.

In the novel, the Wizard is seeking this magical spellbook, while in the musical, the Wizard apparently already has the Grimmerie in his possession. Elphaba (and Glinda) has her first audience with him in the novel on her own initiative of making a protest for Animal rights, while in the musical the Wizard specifically solicits her visit because of her sorcery talent to attempt a spell out of the mysterious book. This plot point seems to work better in the musical version than in the novel, as it’s where Elphaba learns of the Wizard’s true treacherous nature in a single condensed episode, as opposed to the novel’s depiction of her more slowly becoming disillusioned with him over the course of her time at Shiz, which means the tension is not as high.

Related to this plot point that the musical treats as the climax of Act I are the winged monkeys and Dr. Dillamond. In the musical, Elphaba inadvertently creates the winged monkeys from a spell in the book the Wizard gives her, then becomes consumed by her mission to free them once she understands the purpose they were created for. In the novel, Elphaba scientifically engineers the monkeys herself from research she gleaned from Dr. Dillamond (while also getting some help from the Grimmerie):

When the news of Nessarose’s premature death arrived at Kiamo Ko by carrier pigeon, the Witch was deep in an operation of sorts, stitching the wings of a white-crested male roc into the back muscles of one of her current crop of snow monkeys. She had more or less perfected the procedure, after years of botched and hideous failures, when mercy killing seemed the only fair thing to do to the suffering subject. Fiyero’s old schoolbooks in the life sciences, from Doctor Nikidik’s course, had given some leads. Also the Grimmerie had helped, if she was reading it correctly: She had found spells to convince the axial nerves to think skyward instead of treeward. And once she got it right, the winged monkeys seemed happy enough with their lot. She had yet to see a female monkey in her population produce a winged baby, but she still had hopes.

Certainly they had taken better to flying than they had to language.

Also, in the novel Dr. Dillamond is murdered at Shiz, while in the musical he’s not killed but instead stripped of his ability to speak, a punishment that in this context actually seems more cruel than death.

I could more or less take or leave the aforementioned changes as “better,” but one major change the musical made seemed to be more in keeping with the novel’s themes than the novel’s own ending: the reveal that Elphaba is not actually able to be harmed by water, because this is just a rumor. The novel opens with a prologue of characters familiar to us (Dorothy et al) spouting ridiculous rumors about the Witch that the opening section almost immediately goes on to dispel–and yet, in the novel, it is not merely a rumor that water is anathema to Elphaba:

She held his hand until he fell asleep, and wiped his face though his tears burned her skin.

But the image of Sarima in chains, Sarima as a decaying corpse, still withholding from the Witch her forgiveness for Fiyero’s death–it pained her like water.

“You smell of blood, go wash up,” said Nanny. “Is it your time?”

“I never wash, you know that. Where’s Liir?”

And in the end, just as in the end of The Wizard of Oz, it is Dorothy’s throwing water on the Witch that kills her (though in the movie this happens because the witch sets the Scarecrow on fire intentionally, while in the novel she sets herself on fire with her broom-torch by accident). The musical, on the other hand, turns the water issue into a rumor:

Do you hear that – water will melt her?! People
are so empty-headed, they’ll believe anything!

Though we can’t really be sure Fiyero is right that it’s a rumor until we discover at the end that Elphaba has not really died from water exposure but has only exploited everyone’s belief in rumors about her to then be able to escape and run away with Fiyero.

Which brings us to a couple of other major changes.

Like Elphaba, Fiyero is another significant character the novel kills off who gets to survive in the musical. The entire plot development in the novel of Elphaba being responsible for his death via her efforts to assassinate the Wizard–leading to the crucial character development of her desire for forgiveness (which she then sees unexpectedly and climactically reflected in her mortal enemy Dorothy)–is rendered moot. On top of this, the musical banishes entirely what might be considered Fiyero’s outsider status and otherness as a “diamond-skinned prince” in the novel:

“He stays at Ozma Towers and his name is Fiyero. He’s a real Winkle, full-blood. Wonder what he makes of civilization?”

“If that was civilization, last week, he must long for his own barbaric kind,” said Elphaba from the seat on the other side of Boq.

“What’s he wearing such silly paint for?” said Avaric. “He only draws attention to himself. And that skin. I wouldn’t want to have skin the color of shit.”

“What a thing to say,” said Elphaba. “If you ask me, that’s a shitty opinion.”

In the novel, the shared outsider status reflected in skin color is kind of a significant factor that Fiyero and Elphaba share that facilitates their intimacy (that said, it did feel like there wasn’t really enough attention paid to Fiyero in the novel’s Shiz section for as important as he turned out to be to the overall plot). The musical dispenses with this aspect entirely; though it definitely foregrounds the importance of Fiyero early on, it merely turns Fiyero and Glinda into football-and-cheerleader stereotypes. In the novel, Glinda wouldn’t have gotten with Fiyero in a million years:

“It was suggested to me once that [Fiyero] had been carrying on an affair with you in the Emerald City.”

Glinda turned yellow-pink. “My dear,” she said, “I was fond of Fiyero and he was a good man and a fine statesman. But among other things, you will remember he was dark-skinned. Even if I took up dalliances–an inclination I believe rarely benefits anyone–you are once again being suspicious and cranky to suspect me and Fiyero! The idea!”

And the Witch realized, sinkingly, that this was of course true; the ugly skill at snobbery had returned to Glinda in her middle years.

In the musical, Fiyero is a carelessly rich heartthrob whose eventual interest in Elphaba is supposed to show us he’s not as shallow as we’d assumed, and/or that Elphaba’s charisma is more powerful than we’d imagined. He’s not cheating on his wife by being with her as he is in the novel; instead, he’s cheating on the cheerleader.

This love triangle is also a product of one of the musical’s biggest changes–its elevation of Glinda into a second main character rather than just a supporting one. In the novel, Glinda fulfills her role of giving (or magically cementing) the red slippers to Dorothy after the house falls on Nessa, and Elphaba’s confronting Glinda about this after Nessa’s funeral is Glinda’s final appearance (during which she expresses the callous racism referenced above that obliterates any notion her relationship with Elphaba has improved her character, negating the sentiment expressed in the musical’s number “For Good”). In the musical, Glinda makes her way out to Kiamo Ko to try to warn or help Elphaba and is present for the climactic sequence, showing up so she and Elphaba can sing a moving duet about how much their friendship means to them. This felt like pure schmaltz to me because 1) it was schmaltzy, and 2) it didn’t feel earned. I was hard-pressed to see how Glinda had really changed Elphaba “For Good” when the height of her efforts seemed to consist of making Elphaba “Popular.” (I will note that the response in the theater from both strangers and the people I went with would seem to indicate that I’m in the minority here and most of the audience was moved by this number, and I’m tempted to say that’s mass entertainment for you–presented for “maximum emotional coercion,” to borrow a phrase from The Corrections.)

The musical may have dispensed with Fiyero’s otherness, but the added element of the love triangle seems to have almost inadvertently accentuated the homoerotic undertones between Glinda and Elphaba. The initial ambiguity expressed in the title and lyrics of the song “What is This Feeling” makes these undertones more overt:

What is this feeling?
So sudden and new?

I felt it the moment
I laid eyes on you:

My pulse is rushing:

My head is reeling:

My face is flushing:

What is this feeling?
Fervid as a flame,
Does it have a name?
Unadulterated loathing

Yeah, sure, it’s “unadulterated loathing.” In keeping with not being focalized on Glinda and Elphaba’s relationship, the novel’s lesbian undertones remain fairly understated:

For when [Glinda] chose to remember her youth at all, she could scarcely dredge up an ounce of recollection about that daring meeting with the Wizard. She could recall far more clearly how she and Elphie had shared a bed on the road to the Emerald City. How brave that had made her feel, and how vulnerable too.

Basically, Glinda replaces Dorothy in the musical’s climax, fulfilling a sort of parallel if more exaggerated role of enemy-turned-friend. Dorothy’s actual appearance in the novel “in the flesh,” so to speak, rather than as simply being spoken of by other characters, is a big part of the novel’s climax, presaged by her brief appearance in the prologue talking about the Witch. Dorothy never appears in the flesh in the musical; she’s referenced fleetingly before Glinda arrives at Kiamo Ko when Elphaba lifts a trap door in the floor and yells down at Dorothy that she wants the shoes. So apparently we’re supposed to understand that Elphaba has abducted Dorothy, but we never see an actual interaction between them. The trap door introducing the marginal Dorothy element was one of the things that made the second act of the musical feel rushed and incoherent.

It’s interesting that while the musical minimizes Dorothy’s role, it provides origin stories for the other classic characters that the novel doesn’t. The musical includes the one origin story the novel does touch on, the lion being cowardly because of his time as a test subject at Shiz (using this as a bonding device for Elphaba and Fiyero in a way the novel doesn’t), and then goes further by twisting Boq’s narrative into the Tin Man’s and Fiyero’s into the Scarecrow’s. In the novel, as Dorothy and her gang are approaching Elphaba’s fortress at Kiamo Ko, Elphaba secretly hopes Fiyero might not really be dead and has disguised himself as the Scarecrow (which of course turns out not to be the case), but I don’t recall any precedent in the novel for the Tin Man’s origin. But it does make sense that if you’re going to hint at one of the original character’s origin stories, you’d reference the others.

In the vein of the origin story and water changes, another thing the musical adds that I think makes the narrative more cohesive is Madame Morrible’s being responsible for the tornado that kills Nessa, designed specifically as a trap to lure Elphaba out so she and the Wizard can kill her. If the novel in any way implies that Madame Morrible is responsible for the tornado that kills Nessarose, I can’t find a reference to it, though the fact that this storm is the first of its kind does seem suspicious, to say the least. Otherwise, the description of its appearance is fairly vague and uncertain:

Such a maelstrom had not been known in Oz before. Various terrorist groups claimed credit, especially when news got around that the Wicked Witch of the East–also known as the Eminent Thropp, depending on your political stripe–had been snuffed out.

The musical seems to more openly represent the plotting between Madame Morrible and the Wizard that the novel implies may or may not actually be happening; it also maintains a structure pivoting around two different meetings between Elphaba and the Wizard, while adjusting what actually happens at these meetings. In the musical, the Wizard is specifically out to get Elphaba because of her open defiance of him during their first meeting, while in the novel he doesn’t even recall their first meeting at which he rejected her and her friends’ plea for Animal rights:

The Witch breathed in deeply. “I have met you before, you know,” she said. “You once granted me an interview in the Throne Room, when I was a schoolgirl from Shiz.”

“Is that so?” he said. “Oh, of course–you must have been one of the darling girls of Madame Morrible. That wonderful aid and helpmeet. In her dotage now, but in her heyday, what she taught me about breaking the spirits of willful young girls! No doubt, like the rest, you were taken with her?”

“She tried to recruit me to serve some master. Was it you?”

“Who can say. We were always hatching some plot or other. She was good fun….”

In the musical, Elphaba does not take false credit for Madame Morrible’s death after failing to murder her before she dies of natural causes. This turns out to be a blow to Elphaba’s character development in the novel of risking becoming as bad as those she’s fighting against:

“Surely [Madame Morrible] was beyond the point of hurting anyone now?”

“You’ve made the mistake that everyone makes,” said the Witch, cruelly disappointed. “Don’t you know there is no such point?”

“You had worked to protect the Animals,” said Boq. “But you did not intend to sink to the level of those who brutalized them.”

“I have fought fire with fire,” said the Witch, “and I ought to have done it sooner! Boq, you’ve become an equivocating fool.”

“Elphie,” said Boq, “look at me. You are beside yourself. Have you been drinking? Dorothy is just a child. You may not retell this to make her into some sort of fiend!”

Elphaba’s comment here that she’s fighting fire with fire foreshadows her death by fire–significantly, a fire she starts herself. Her death in this manner would seem to underscore the reading that she’s fallen victim to the same tactics she was originally fighting against–a reading that her survival in the musical negates entirely.

Elphaba’s recasting Dorothy’s true nature to suit her own purposes echoes what the Wizard has done to her, but this was seemingly too complex an element to try to jam into the musical, as were other motivations at the heart of Elphaba’s character:

Why hadn’t she joined forces with Nessarose, and raised armies against the Wizard? Old family resentments had gotten in the way.

Nessarose had asked for help in governing Munchkinland, and the Witch had denied her request. Instead the Witch had gone back to Kiamo Ko these seven years. She had squandered the chance to merge forces with her sister.

Virtually every campaign she’d set out for herself had ended in failure.

In the novel, Elphaba is like Dorothy, it turns out: both seeking forgiveness, and in Oz from another country. In trading Glinda out for Dorothy, the musical jettisons all of this.

In the novel, when Elphaba confronts Glinda over the slippers, you can see a nugget of inspiration for another change the musical made:

“I’ll remind you,” said Glinda, “that those shoes were coming apart until I had them resoled, and I laced them through with a special binding spell of my own. Neither your father nor you did that much for her. Elphie, I stood by her when you abandoned her in Shiz. As you abandoned me. You did, don’t deny it, stop those lightning bolt looks at me, I won’t have it. I became her surrogate sister. And as an old friend I gave her the power to stand upright by herself through those shoes, and if I made a mistake I’m sorry, Elphie, but I still feel they were more mine to give away than yours.”

This is a moment when Elphaba has to reckon with the consequences of the choices she’s made–she left Shiz for principled reasons, but that principled action still had its negative consequences, specifically on her own family member. The musical inverts this by making Elphaba the one to enable Nessa to “stand upright by herself through those shoes” rather than Glinda.

In the novel, as Elphaba seeks to carry out her mission of killing Madame Morrible, Elphaba ponders and overtly discusses with Glinda whether Madame Morrible really did put a spell on them at Shiz that’s been controlling them ever since:

“I just mean, Glinda, is it possible we could be living our entire adult lives under someone’s spell? … How do you know your life hasn’t been pulled by the strings of some malign magic?”

This discussion opens up into general symbolism about the Witch’s life, and about life in general:

“I have always felt like a pawn,” said the Witch. “My skin color’s been a curse, my missionary parents made me sober and intense, my school days brought me up against political crimes against Animals, my love life imploded and my lover died, and if I had any life’s work of my own, I haven’t found it yet, except in animal husbandry, if you could call it that.”

“I’m no pawn,” said Glinda. “I take all the credit in the world for my own foolishness. Good gracious, dear, all of life is a spell. You know that. But you do have some choice.”

“Well, I wonder,” said the Witch.

The shoes become a symbol of both the political and the personal that thereby muddy Elphaba’s motivations:

The Witch said, “Glinda, if those shoes fall into the hands of the Wizard, he’ll use them somehow in a maneuver to reannex Munchkinland By now they have too much significance to Munchkinlanders. The Wizard mustn’t have those shoes!”

Glinda reached out and touched the Witch’s elbow. “They won’t make your father love you any better,” she said.

The Witch pulled back. They stood glaring at each other. They had too much common history to come apart over a pair of shoes, yet the shoes were planted between them, a grotesque icon of their differences. Neither one could retreat, or move forward. It was silly, and they were stuck, and someone needed to break the spell. But all the Witch could do was insist, “I want those shoes.”

Following this shortly after Nessa’s funeral is officially Elphie’s and Glinda’s last encounter in the novel:

As she strode through the forecourt of Colwen Grounds, she crossed paths once again with Glinda. But both women averted their eyes and hurried their feet along their opposing ways. For the Witch, the sky was a huge boulder pressing down on her. For Glinda it was much the same. But Glinda wheeled about, and cried out, “Oh Elphie!”

The Witch did not turn. They never saw each other again.

So let’s note at this point Glinda’s exit from the novel–it’s in the final part (5), but with a fair amount still left to go (5 is probably the longest section in the book). Also, let’s note Elphaba’s more or less final attitude toward Glinda when she recalls Glinda after this final parting during her subsequent reunion with Boq:

“…Remember the saffron cream party after Ama Clutch’s funeral?”

The Witch breathed heavily for a moment; there was a pain in her esophagus. She did not like to remember those trying times. And Glinda had known full well that Madame Morrible was behind the death of Ama Clutch. Now as Lady Glinda she was part of the same ruling class. It was hideous.

Then there’s what Elphaba sees when she revisits Shiz to kill Madame Morrible:

The back lawn beyond the orchard was gone, and in its place stood a stone structure, above whose gleaming poxite doors was carved THE SIR CHUFFREY AND LADY GLINDA CONSERVATORY OF MUSIC AND THE THEATRICAL ARTS.

This spirit of Glinda’s public self is conveyed in the musical, as she overtly acknowledges to Fiyero the need to be duplicitous in the leadership role she occupies (denouncing Elphaba publicly while not believing what she’s saying privately). But in the musical, Elphaba understands this distinction between Glinda’s public and private selves–an element that becomes an interesting parallel to Elphaba’s own titular situation–while in the novel Elphaba’s final attitude toward Glinda does not seem to have evolved so sympathetically:

“You were devoted to Glinda, you were,” said Nanny. “Everyone knew it.”

“Well, no more,” said the Witch. “The traitor.”

The social commentary is pretty funny during Glinda and the Witch’s final encounter:

“I hear you were one of the first on the scene,” said the Witch, “when Nessarose died. How did that come to be?”

“Sir Chuifrey–my hubby–he has some investments in pork futures, you know, and Munchkinland is trying to diversify its economic base so as not to be at the mercy of Gillikin banks and the Emerald City Corn Exchange. You never know what relationship might develop between Munchkinland and the rest of Oz, and it’s best to be prepared. So where Sir Chuifrey does business, I do good. It’s a partnership made in heaven. You know I have more money than I can give away?” She giggled and squeezed the Witch’s arm. “I never imagined that doing public charity would provide such a rush.”

In consolidating characters–the love triangle mitigates Glinda’s businessman husband from the novel as a character–the musical sacrifices a lot, if not all of this commentary, though you can see something of Glinda’s spirit that’s been taken and used in the musical at play in this passage in the irony of the “good” themes–if she’s doing “good” for the sake of cultivating relations conducive to her husband’s business interests, is it then actually “good”…?

Elphaba and Glinda aren’t the only ones whose character development can’t be fully realized in the format of the musical. Take Elphaba’s father Frex, transmuted into a political role (governor) rather than religious one (preacher). The latter enables not only a deeper complexity of character development, but also enables that complexity to reinforce a major theme, as we see in one conversation between father and daughter:

“Why was I cursed to be different?” she said. “You are a holy man, you must know.”

“You are my fault,” he said. Despite his words he was somehow pinning blame on her instead of himself, though she still wasn’t clever enough to see how this was done. “For what I had failed to do, you were born to plague me. But don’t worry yourself about it now,” he added, “that’s all long ago.”

“And Nessarose?” she asked. “How do the weights and balances of shame and guilt account for her?”

“She is a portrait of the lax morals of your mother,” Frex said calmly.

“And that’s why you could love her so much,” said the Witch. “Because her human frailty wasn’t your fault.”

Frex’s version of Elphaba’s origin will later be disputed by an all-knowing dwarf (more on that shortly) in a way that reinforces the main idea behind the title–people are constantly constructing narratives about others that are more about serving themselves than being anywhere near a true reflection of the individual that narrative is about. Frex’s version of Elphaba’s origin says way more about him than it does her.

The musical nods to the novel’s complexity in ways I think I would have found confusing had I not read the novel beforehand. Why the musical’s set is festooned with clock gears and characters’ lines are strewn with time references is not clearly established, nor is the purpose of the impressive but seemingly underutilized mechanical dragon that periodically flares to life above the stage. The novel clearly establishes these elements as part of a (anti-)religion: the Clock of the Time Dragon, which plays something of a significant role in the plot with its prophecies, something else the musical dispenses with, including this reference to some controlling power far greater than the Wizard who may or may not have specifically conspired to have Elphaba conceived:

“You work with Yackle.”

“We sometimes have the same intentions, and we sometimes do not. Her interest seems to be different from mine.”

“Who is she? What is her interest? Why do you hover at the edges of my life?”

“In the world I come from, there are guardian angels,” said the dwarf, “but so far as I can work it out, she is an opposite number, and her concern is you.”

“Why do I deserve such a fiend? Why is my life so plagued? Who positioned her to influence my life?”

“There are things I don’t know, and things I do,” said the dwarf. “Who Yackle answers to, if anyone, if anything, is beyond my realm of knowledge or interest. But why you? You must know this. For you”–the dwarf spoke in a bright, offhand tone–“are neither this nor that–or shall I say both this and that? Both of Oz and of the other world. Your old Frex always was wrong; you were never a punishment for his crimes. You are a half-breed, you are a new breed, you are a grafted limb, you are a dangerous anomaly. Always you were drawn to the composite creatures, the broken and reassembled, for that is what you are. Can you be so dull that you have not figured this out?”

But one thing the musical and novel have in common is attention to wardrobe and a snarky sense of humor (“We can’t all travel by bubble.”):

Glinda approached slowly, either through age or shyness, or because her ridiculous gown weighed so much that it was hard for her to get up enough steam to stride. She looked like a huge Glindaberry bush, was all the Witch could think; under that skirt there must be a bustle the size of the dome of Saint Florix. There were sequins and furbelows and a sort of History of Oz, it seemed, stitched in trapunto in six or seven ovoid panels all around the skirting. But her face: beneath the powdered skin, the wrinkles at eyelid and mouth, was the face of the timid schoolgirl from the Pertha Hills.

The Witch took Glinda’s arm. “Glinda, you look hideous in that getup. I thought you’d have developed some sense by now.”

“When in the provinces,” she said, “you have to show them a little style. I don’t think it’s so bad. Or are the satin bells at the shoulder a bit too too?”

“Excessive,” agreed the Witch. “Someone get the scissors; this is a disaster.”

They laughed.

On the whole it seems the best possible version of the story would combine elements of both the novel and the musical. Through looking at both one can see how sprawling and in many places saggy the novel is–like the character of Shell, Elphaba’s and Nessa’s younger brother, who appears, very briefly, exactly once, and whose purpose is utterly unclear except for possibly some kind of setup for a sequel. One can also see how the sprawling canvas of a novel, while risking such sagginess and seemingly useless appendages, provides space for much more complex treatment of theme and (other) character(s). A whole other post could be written about how Maguire has developed this touchstone fantastical universe of Oz to couch a surprisingly sober critique of capitalism and religion alike in a comedic dressing gown that might be quite reminiscent of L. Frank Baum’s original political allegories.

For me, having to shove through the morass of Times Square on a December Saturday afternoon in order to get to the theater where Wicked was playing provided another layer of thematic development. Being stuck in a horde of people when one is running late to get somewhere does not make one think the best of one’s fellow woman. I can’t even remember now if it was me or the friend I was with who joked about understanding why someone (i.e. terrorists) would want to blow up all of this shit-show sea of people being blasted by the seizure-inducing flashing lights of gigantic advertisements. We conceded it was probably not a good idea to make that joke too loudly. It all made me think of the good v. evil narrative that the Bush administration propagated after 9/11. It was easy to think of the terrorists as evil, harder to try to understand that perhaps there could have been reasons they did what they did other than just being pure evil, reasons that had to do with things America had done. A whole other post could be written about how Elphaba’s trajectory in Wicked dovetails with America’s surrounding 9/11, if you consider her character arc of becoming as bad as those she was fighting against (going to the “dark side” as exemplified in Abu Ghraib). It’s interesting that the musical version (the novel having been published pre-9/11) was launched in ’03, when the good-v-evil narrative was being propagated so intensely in the buildup to the invasion of Iraq.

I don’t feel like we as a country have ever properly reckoned with the things we’ve done that are root causes of other problems we then claim to be a victim of (like certain migrant caravans…). Probably most of the people watching the musical with me in the theater that day would have been shocked by the idea that the 9/11 terrorists might have been anything other than pure evil, even as they were consuming a story about a politician spinning a story to make someone else seem evil to distract the populace from the fact that they, the politician, were not who they purported to be. (The terrorist parallel was patently a point I did not bring up to the group I attended with, one of whom had lost many colleagues on 9/11 and was revisiting NYC for the first time since then.) But there was something a little queasy to me about sitting in this plush theater, every aspect of which was more or less a manifestation of the very apex of the advantages of Western capitalist privilege, watching a show purporting to point out the fallacies of the duplicitous political rhetoric that engenders such privilege. I’d have to say that potential irony seemed lost on most of the audience…though I know that my logic is somewhat cynical and in theory would discount any commentary made through the inherently extravagant medium of a Broadway musical.

Of course these themes go beyond the Bush administration. Politics maybe haven’t so much as changed in the Trump era as been taken to their–logical?–extreme. In teaching my freshmen composition classes this semester, the subject of which is rhetoric (how language persuades), I mentioned the narrative of Wicked as a classic example of rhetoric at work–more specifically, Trumpian rhetoric: if someone might expose your true evil/inadequate nature, you make up a claim to discredit them so people won’t believe their claims about you. (It’s even better if the accusations you hurl at them are actually things you yourself did.) Trump’s words are the Wizard’s smoke and mirrors. Many of us see through him, but it remains to be seen how much that will actually matter.


Take The Long Train Home

Techniques tracked:
-rising action
-character/villain development (or lack thereof)

Stephen King’s annual doorstopper, The Institute, was released this past September. The book begins with Tim Jamieson impulsively deciding to take a flight attendant’s offer of a voucher to give up his seat on a plane to NYC. In no apparent hurry, Tim decides to hitchhike there instead, but on the way ends up taking a job as a “Night Knocker,” the equivalent of a night-shift cop who’s not allowed to carry a gun, in the tiny South Carolina town of DuPray. We learn Tim in fact used to be a cop in Sarasota, Florida, but left after a warning shot he fired ricocheted and killed an “innocent” bystander who was phone-recording the altercation Tim was trying to handle; his wife also left him because he didn’t want to have kids due to the world being too evil. 

We then switch to Luke Ellis, a twelve-year-old kid in Minneapolis with an off-the-charts IQ. Shortly after Luke takes the SAT and gains admission to both MIT and Emerson, he’s kidnapped in the night by a team of three people who kill his parents. He wakes up in a room that looks identical to his former one, but is in the Institute, hidden deep in the woods of Maine (where else?). Luke was not kidnapped because of his prodigious intelligence, but rather for his minor telekinetic abilities; the rest of the kids in the Institute are either telekinetic or telepathic, or in rare cases, both. Luke befriends other Institute prisoners where they currently reside in “Front Half”–Kalisha, Nicky, George, and Iris, who give him the lay of the land; they’re shortly joined by a new arrival, an even younger boy named Avery who has stronger telepathic abilities than most of the residents. We meet the utilitarian Mrs. Sigsby, who runs the Institute, and her sinister head of security, Trevor Stackhouse. Although they present an intimidating front, the Institute has been around for several decades and is in a state of disrepair, since it’s hard to hire repair workers and keep the place a secret. 

The Institute doctors subject the (pre)adolescent residents to regular tests, including one apparently designed to make them see “dots,” which the kids refer to as the “Stasi Lights” and seem to appear when their abilities are functioning. Some kids have worse reactions to the tests than others. It turns out the aim of some of the tests is to enhance the kids’ abilities, and when Luke lies about having gained some telepathic abilities from one, he’s subjected to the “immersion tank” and tortured, but still manages to keep his new enhanced abilities a secret. One by one, his friends start disappearing to “Back Half.” Kalisha telepathically beams Luke some images of what goes on there, revealing that the kids watch movies that revolve around some individual that they’re being conditioned to use their collective abilities to remotely assassinate. Participating in such collective psychic efforts strips the kids of their cognitive capacities to the point that they’re no longer themselves, the stage at which they go to the back half of Back Half and are eventually killed and incinerated. (Sinister.)

Luke befriends an Institute housekeeper named Maureen who’s known to be friendly to the kids, but who’s really just been posing to report any secrets they tell her to Mrs. Sigsby. But then Luke is able to do enough research on an Institute computer to help Maureen out of her ex-husband’s whopping credit-card debt so that she’s able to use her savings to send the son she gave up for adoption to college, and with the added factor that she’s suffering from some kind of terminal illness, Maureen decides to help Luke escape. Avery also uses his telepathic abilities to help, Maureen silently giving him instructions for how Luke can get out and where to go once he does. Luke manages to dig and squirm under a fence, almost getting stuck but inadvertently using his telekinetic abilities to lift it enough to free him. (He also has to cut off his earlobe with a paring knife Maureen left him to get rid of the tracker they implanted in it when he first arrived.) He follows Maureen’s directions and makes it through the woods to a docked boat, taking that downstream to a train yard, where he boards a train that will make several stops, including DuPray, South Carolina. 

Due to the Institute’s general deterioration and the removed tracker, it takes Sigsby and Stackhouse longer than it should to catch on to Luke’s escape. Both want to handle the situation on their own without having to call their higher-ups (specifically the “lisping man” who will answer the phone line Sigsby has for emergencies), as they fear it will mean the end of their careers, and possibly their lives. Figuring out how Avery communicated with Maureen from surveillance footage, they use their “zap-sticks” to torture him, and he reveals where Luke got out of the boat he took, but not that he got on a train. When another girl, Frieda Brown, gleans and rats out the train part, Avery is subjected to the immersion tank, but in their rush they neglect to first give him the regular shots to stifle his powers, and the torture ends up increasing his already powerful abilities. Meanwhile, they send out people to wait at all the stops Luke’s train will make. Luke jumps the train in DuPray and runs into a signpost right in front of Tim, who’s gotten a second job at the town’s train yard. Unfortunately, another person present when Luke jumps the train is a stringer for the Institute (they have lots of people on their payroll) and lets them know where Luke is. Sigsby gets a team together and goes with them to DuPray.

Meanwhile, Luke shows Tim and some others a flash drive Maureen gave him with footage she took of the back half of Back Half (also referred to by residents as “Gorky Park”) with the catatonic kids, which helps them believe his wild story. Sigsby and her team infiltrate the police station and there’s a shootout that kills a lot of people, but with the help of some DuPray residents, including the homeless conspiracy theorist Orphan Annie, Tim and Luke are able to take custody of Mrs. Sigsby, who took a minor bullet wound to her ankle. They call Stackhouse, who stayed behind at the Institute, and Luke makes a deal to exchange Maureen’s flash drive for his friends, who with Avery’s help figure out how to combine and channel their powers to overcome some of the staff and free the residents of Gorky Park. When Stackhouse manages to remotely lock them in an access tunnel as they try to leave Back Half, they call out to Luke for help. Stackhouse concocts a plan to poison them with a gas made from bleach and toilet cleaner. 

Tim and Luke return to the Institute with Mrs. Sigsby in tow. Sensing a trap, Tim manages a bait-and-switch where he makes Mrs. Sigsby put on his backwards cap and take the wheel of their van so that she’s mistaken for him when Institute staff open up on their van with a hail of gunfire. Sigsby is killed, but Tim and Luke, lying in the back, survive. At the same time, in the tunnel Avery uses his telepathic “big phone” to call to kids at other Institutes all over the globe to join their power to his, and sends his friends out to the playground, sacrificing himself. He channels the combined power to lift the Front Half building off the ground, destroying the other buildings in the process. Almost all of the Institute staff is killed except for Stackhouse and a couple of others, who surrender to Tim. 

Tim keeps the group of Luke’s friends who escaped, who then get sent off to their closest living relatives one by one with fake stories of how they were kidnapped and released. The lisping man visits before Nick and Kalisha leave to warn them to keep their mouths shut about what happened and to try to justify the mission of the Institute, which was built off of research done by Nazis. The lisping man claims to believe that the assassinations carried out by Institute children have saved the world from annihilation over 500 times, revealing that they have a handful of “precogs” who can tell the future to a point that they can pinpoint who needs to be killed to prevent nuclear apocalypse. Luke disputes the veracity of the precogs’ predictions based on statistical analysis, and can tell from his mind-reading powers that the man is not as confident in his claims as he seems (including that the world will soon end and it will be Luke and Tim’s fault). Tim convinces the rest of the kids not to believe the man’s rationalizations, and Luke says goodbye to Kalisha. The End. 

For probably the first half of The Institute I found myself less invested than I was in the first half of King’s doorstopper from last year, The Outsider, but the payoff at the end plot-wise was far better in The Institute. As always, King manages to keep the reader in “cracktastic” suspense throughout with a highly action-based plot, compensating for what by literary standards is fairly lacking character development. (For me what this usually amounts to is being engrossed while I’m reading the book but forgetting most of it once I’m finished.)

The characters might not end up being all that developed, as we will see, but King’s ability to rove points of view across a wide range of characters and capture their distinct (if at times clichéd) worldviews remains impressive. He’s the king of the ensemble cast, among other things, a probably not insignificant factor in the success of his movie and television adaptations. He can drop us into any character’s mind at any time, and maintains a pliable narrative psychic distance that allows him to tell us things characters don’t actually know:

[Luke] was asleep at once. He slept through the stop at Portland and the one in Portsmouth, although the train jerked each time a few old cars were subtracted from 4297’s pull-load and others were added. He was still asleep when the train stopped at Sturbridge…

King is also able to use point-of-view switches to generate suspense–we get to simultaneously see what’s going on with the good guys and bad guys, meaning we get to know what each side doesn’t know. We know how close Institute personnel are on Luke’s trail when he’s on the train. We know how close the bleach-and-toilet-cleaner gas is to going into the vents of the tunnel where Luke’s friends are. Were we simply stuck in the position of the good guys, knowing the bad guys are up to something but not in a position to know exactly what, we might identify strongly with their fear being exacerbated by the unknown, but it turns out actually knowing some of the specifics of that unknown is a richer experience of the potential horror.

In terms of character development, let’s start with Tim, whose decision to get off the plane to NYC starts the book. Tim gets the first part of the novel (out of nine parts). His book-opening decision is later cited as a possible precog flash, based on the idea that everyone has some low-level precog powers. Logically it seems a good starting point for the plot, since if Tim hadn’t gotten off the plane the fate of Luke and the Institute would have necessarily taken a different course. Tim’s chronic tension would seem to reside in a decision he made before the one that starts the book, the decision that led him to be on the plane in the first place, which involves the incident that caused him to have to leave the police force (a lot of the tension in the first part stems from the slow reveal of why Tim is so aimlessly drifting, potentially answering the question of why King didn’t start the book with an actual scene of the altercation that got Tim kicked off the force and only has it later recounted in dialog when he’s applying for the Night Knocker job in DuPray). The wife-leaving-him chronic tension is fairly undeveloped and random and seems more designed for thematic overlap with the question at the heart of the Institute’s existence–is the world (ir)redeemable? Eventually Tim will start dating a colleague from DuPray, but how the failure of his marriage informs his behavior in his new relationship is completely unexplored. You could say that another way Tim’s chronic tension comes into play is that the man who didn’t want children because the world was too evil ends up with Luke as his pseudo-child at the end, the one kid who probably knows more than anyone else about how evil the world really is, which would probably be more satisfying if Tim’s belief in the evil of the world had actually been developed rather than just stated once:

…ten years on the force had made him cynical. Sometimes he brought those feelings home (try often, he told himself when he was willing to be honest), and they had become part of the acid that had eaten away at his marriage. Those feelings were also, he supposed, one of the reasons he had remained so closed off to the idea of having a kid. There was too much bad stuff out there. Too many things that could go wrong. 

The lack of development of this aspect means that by the end it ends up feeling like Tim has impacted the plot, but not that the plot has impacted Tim. Pacing-wise it felt to me that the first part went into too much detail about Tim’s Night Knocker routine in sequences that did not adequately develop any of his chronic-tension issues. Of course most of this first part is designed to introduce characters who will play a pivotal role in the climactic shootout, but again the characters seemed more designed to express certain ideas or serve a plot function rather than feeling like actual people–primarily Orphan Annie, the homeless woman who seems like a nut for believing in conspiracy theories but whose beliefs are revealed to be more on point than anyone would have thought.   

It seems possible King opens the book with an extended section on the adult Tim before moving on to the real main character, Luke, to keep the book from feeling like it’s YA. One of the more interesting aspects of Luke’s character, his initially defining trait–his prodigious intelligence–is not the reason the Institute is interested in him, but it will be the reason that he is the one who is able to take them down. The introduction of Luke’s minor telekinetic abilities before he’s kidnapped felt a bit clunky: 

Luke got up with some relief and tossed his lunch sack in a trash barrel by the door to the gym. He looked at the pretty redhead a final time, and as he went in, the barrel shimmied three inches to the left.

Luke later thinks about the trashcan moving once or twice, but there’s no other instance of his telekinetic powers before he gets to the Institute. In a way this makes sense because his telekinetic abilities are supposed to be fairly minimal, and it seems that he doesn’t even recognize that it’s actually him causing the movement. So maybe you could justify the clunkiness of the telekinetic introduction, which means the real issue here comes back to character development: Luke has none. If he potentially struggled to manage his towering intellect and so part of this journey was him learning to appreciate it, that might be one thing, but the one scene that shows how Luke’s affected by his intellect and how it has the potential to turn him into a fish out of water, when he’s with the older kids taking the SAT, doesn’t show this to be a real or recurring issue; he’s able to joke with the older kids and gain acceptance fairly easily. (This scene really seems like it should have been developed in contrast to his interactions with the others at the Institute rather than as similar to it.) If he was potentially scared of going off to college as a kid who’s barely hit puberty, then what he has to do in the acute tension of overcoming the Institute could have given him the confidence to proceed into the adult world while he’s still a child, and there’s almost lip service paid to this idea when, early in the novel, Luke admits he’ll need his parents to move to Boston with him to go to college, but this is merely a passing reference rather than a developed issue; Luke seems more or less fine with the idea of going off to college as a twelve-year-old before he’s kidnapped and taken to the Institute. Yes, by the end we understand he’ll now have to go to college without his parents because his parents are dead, and we probably understand that he has been pushed into early adulthood by his ordeal and so he will be able to manage college without them, but this aspect of the narrative isn’t really emphasized or reinforced. In the end, Tim pretty much accurately sums up Luke’s character development: 

He wanted to tell Luke that he was brave, maybe the bravest kid ever outside of a boys’ adventure book. 

Or not. 

The book’s two main protagonists, Tim and Luke, are white males. The main person of color in the cast, Kalisha, is (shockingly) relegated to a supporting role. Kalisha is the fulcrum of a love triangle between Luke and another Institute boy, Nicky, that ends up being of absolutely no consequence to the plot, even though King leans on it in a (cheesy) attempt to bring about emotional closure at the very end.

Another white male, Avery, actually seems to have more character development than Tim or Luke along the way to setting him up as a pivotal plot device. Avery has a more developed chronic tension that’s emphasized repeatedly–he did not have friends in his life before the Institute. The dynamic among Institute children is of course quite different than in a normal school environment, which means Avery won’t be ostracized there like he used to be, even if he still is, predominantly, an oversensitive crybaby. Avery is so grateful for the friendship of the others that he’s willing to help Luke escape at risk to himself; the crybaby withstands torture, and at the end stays behind to call the “Big Phone,” knowingly sacrificing himself to enable his friends to escape. This aspect of his character development becomes heavy-handed in the final moments of Avery’s arc: 

They maintained their circle until the end, and as the roof came down, Avery Dixon had one final thought, both clear and calm: I loved having friends.

The irony that Avery is actually in a position to enjoy some aspects of life more at the Institute than outside it is echoed in the character who actually manipulates him to give up Luke: Frieda Brown, another child who’s been kidnapped for the Institute. Frieda is mentioned a handful of times before she comes to play her pivotal role in the plot, one instance seeming to emphasize a certain likeness to Avery’s defining trait: 

[Luke] waggled his fingertips in the free air outside the Institute for a moment or two, then got up, dusted off his bottom, and asked Frieda if she wanted to play HORSE. She gave him an eager smile that said Yes! Of course! Be my friend!

It sort of broke his heart.

This defining trait might potentially lead both Avery and Frieda to prefer life at the Institute to life outside it, a surprising and ironic development, but it leads them to act in different ways: Avery to sacrifice himself so his friends who don’t prefer the Institute can escape it, and Frieda to take action so that Luke’s escape will enable her to stay there rather than leave, and so she gives up the critical info about Luke’s escape that Avery had managed to withhold even through torture. This development is of course necessary to keep the rising action going and thus create a more nail-biting plot. The book can’t end with Luke simply crawling under the fence, hopping a train, and making a clean getaway. There have to be more obstacles to complicate that process, and there has to be a more direct confrontation with Institute personnel, a confrontation King has set up with one of the book’s epigraphs invoking the biblical story of Samson:

And Samson said, Let me die with the Philistines. And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. 

Over the course of the novel Luke specifically brings up or thinks about this story of Samson bringing down the temple roughly four times (which also ends up feeling heavy-handed). One of these passages early on specifically indicates that Luke will not be content to just get away, that this cannot be the narrative’s endgame: 

This was no dream, it was really happening, and to get out of here no longer seemed enough. That hard thing wanted more. It wanted to expose the whole kidnapping, child-torturing bunch of them, from Mrs. Sigsby all the way down to Gladys with her plastic smiles and Zeke with his slimy rectal thermometer. To bring the Institute down on their heads, as Samson had brought the temple of Dagon down on the Philistines. He knew this was no more than the resentful, impotent fantasy of a twelve-year-old kid, but he wanted it, just the same, and if there was any way he could do it, he would. (emphasis mine)

Now let’s talk about the character development of the villains, those who run the Institute. With this reckoning Luke is about to bring crashing down upon their heads, they might have the most potential to actually face their wrongs and grow as people–since we seem to be dealing with people as our villains here, and not some kind of demon from an evil dimension that I only recently realized was a connecting thread through a lot of King’s work.  

We get very little detail about our primary antagonists Sigsby and Stackhouse, though the latter is occasionally softened by being the only one to call the former by her first name, Julia, an implicit reminder of her humanity. They both think at different points that their jobs are basically their lives, so the stakes are certainly higher for them when their jobs are threatened by the novel’s acute tension, but what this also means is, again, lacking character development. The most we seem to learn about any Institute staff members’ past is that they are some form of ex-military, which would seem to be a commentary on the ethics (or lack thereof) of our country’s military-industrial complex. Maureen gets a posthumous monologue about the torture she witnessed during the Iraq War, making an explicit connection to how this enabled her to witness the torture of children without resistance, but these things we learn about her past again feel more like character being used for thematic development rather than the other way around. 

The fact that the villains here are human beings instead of interdimensional demons allows for a complication of their motivations–despite the fact that they are torturing children, they believe they are doing this to save the rest of the world from destruction; thus, they are not pure evil in the way that so many monstrous incarnations of Satan in other King narratives are. 

(On a side note, I’m currently in the middle of the first season of the King-inspired and -produced Castle Rock on Hulu, in which the main villain is a guy some characters believe to be an incarnation of the devil, and, whoever he is, causes a lot of violence and chaos wherever he goes; when my partner keeps demanding why he’s doing these things, the only answer is, well, he’s the devil, which is not a satisfying explanation. A force being evil simply because they are evil is just not that dramatically interesting. The show’s good enough in other ways that I’m hoping there is in fact a more complex explanation, but that remains to be seen.)

Sigsby’s uppity self-righteous attitude, not to mention her being the one to actually issue official Institute torture orders, has her marked for destruction from the novel’s outset, not unlike Cersei from Game of Thrones. (King pays explicit homage to Martin twice in this novel by having Tim read A Song of Ice and Fire after he moves to DuPray and by referring to his wife Tabitha as his “sun and stars” in his Acknowledgments.) Sigsby at least gets a less disappointing death than Cersei being crushed by rocks when Tim pulls his clever trick that ends up getting Sigsby shot by her own henchman. This could be an apt symbol of her being engulfed by a mess of her own creation, but nothing about Sigsby’s experience during the showdown in DuPray or her return to the Institute as a hostage seems to come close to actually changing her attitude about the things she’s done. Her change is merely a surface one, from alive to dead. She doesn’t change or develop in any other meaningful way. She’s simply a Bad Guy, designed for the reader to derive maximum pleasure from her death. (Cersei’s general attitude may not have changed by the end of her arc, at least not in the TV version, but we definitely got more significant insight into her motivations along the way in a way that made her feel developed.) 

Stackhouse would seem to have even more of an opportunity to change or reflect on his actions, since he’s one of the very few taken alive after the Institute is destroyed, but we learn nothing about how this affects him either. Here’s the last mention we get of Stackhouse: 

Tim decided not to pursue the Stackhouse question. It was obvious he wouldn’t get anywhere with it, and besides, Stackhouse was old news. He might be in Brazil; he might be in Argentina or Australia; he might be dead. It made no difference to Tim where he was. 

There’s also the potentially weird fact that Sigsby is the one who accompanies the team to DuPray while Stackhouse stays behind to look after the Institute–it really seems like it should have been the other way around, but ultimately it doesn’t matter, because even though they technically end up in very different places (dead v. alive), they end up in the same place, character-wise, with the loss of this place that was their life not actually making them rethink their priorities or motivations.   

Interestingly, the character who actually has to deal with the moral reckoning the most is the lisping man, the initially faceless higher-up on the other end of Sigsby’s Zero Phone. But again this is less character development than thematic development (verging into proselytizing) as the lisping man lays out the rationale behind the Institutes, which we’ve by now discovered dot the globe, with his ends-justifies-the-means logic, the monstrosity of which could be fit for Catholic propaganda. The lisp is a good trait to show him getting flustered in the course of the conversation as Luke challenges him, though also seemingly unnecessary if Luke can read his mind, as Luke does to specifically point out the man has doubts about some of the claims he’s making with such seeming certainty. The debate comes to a head with the hypothetical of if what they were doing would be worth it if it could be definitively proven they actually had at least once saved the world, and Luke says no. So I guess we’ve all learned a moral lesson here. I still know nothing meaningful about the lisping man as a human being. 

King has been an outspoken critic of Trump on social media, and people have noticed the parallels between the situation of the kids in the novel’s Institute and the kids being detained at our country’s southern border. King told the hosts of The View that the parallel was inadvertent: 

I try to keep my politics separate from the stuff that I write. People like story. People want story and if they want the news…they can go on and get [it].

Others seem convinced the commentary is more intentional, but the writing process as King describes it would be more optimal; trying to write a book with a particular (political) message is basically narrative suicide. King says he really had in mind old CIA and Nazi experiments, which makes sense. The issue is that he did seem to be writing with a message in mind about how wrong those were even if they were ostensibly for good reasons, so there’s still a certain didacticism that saturates the reading experience a little too much for my taste, even if I did appreciate his probably most overtly political comparison: 

They were stronger together, yes, but still not strong enough. No more than Hillary Clinton had been when she ran for president a few years back. Because the guy running against her, and his supporters, had had the political equivalent of the caretakers’ zap-sticks. 

Sounds like he’s really keeping his politics separate from his storytelling…

The most moving part of The Institute doesn’t come until after its ending, in King’s Author’s Note, in which he recounts how Russ Dorr, the man who has been his research assistant since the 70s and who was originally his children’s pediatrician, recently died. (I particularly enjoyed the passage about how Dorr was the only one aside from his wife who got to see King’s fiction “before it was fully dressed and ready for its close-up.”) The details about Dorr’s contributions to specific plots over the years (in particular the climax of Under the Dome; and one of his final contributions was The Institute‘s bleach-and-toilet-cleaner gas) really brings home a relevant aspect of King’s unparalleled productivity–he’s had a significant amount of help.


A World Apart, Part 2

The Obelisk Gate (2016), the second book of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, is the only book of the trilogy to follow two narrative threads instead of three–the first being Essun at Castrima where she was reunited with Alabaster at the end of Book 1, and the second circling back to what happened to Nassun when she left Tirimo with Jija right after he killed Uche at the beginning of Book 1. Essun’s thread is still relayed in the second person as it was in the first book, while Nassun’s is told in the third person. (Schaffa gets two point-of-view chapters, but not enough to qualify as a full-blown thread.) 

In Book 2 we learn that Jija figures out his daughter Nassun is an orogene because she gave a diamond she found via her orogeny to a lorist she wanted to learn from, and the lorist gives the diamond to Jija. When Uche knows Jija has it in his pocket, Jija figures out that Uche is an orogene too, and kills him. Nassun comes in shortly afterward and escapes a similar fate mainly by virtue of some inadvertent emotional manipulation (primarily calling him “Daddy”). Jija and Nassun travel north for a year trying to get to a place where Jija has heard there is a cure for orogeny, which he continues to be conflicted about, even when Nassun uses it to save him. When they get close to their destination, they’re saved from a group of bandits by none other than Schaffa, who we’ve learned escaped his literally explosive confrontation with Syen at the end of Book 1 by virtue of calling on a power that ended up claiming a lot of his former self and memories, so he’s essentially a different person now. 

Schaffa runs a community of orogenes known as Found Moon within the comm of Jekity, where he teaches and bonds with Nassun, much to Jija’s consternation. Nassun learns she’s able to connect to a sapphire obelisk floating nearby, though the first time the connection is inadvertent and causes her to turn another young orogene to stone. She then uses this power to help Schaffa and two other guardians at the nearby Antarctic Fulcrum (which she sessed while connected to the obelisk), where the orogenes have killed their guardians, turn everyone there to stone. She wants to use her abilities to remove the knot from Schaffa’s head she sesses is causing him pain, but he won’t let her, saying he won’t be able to protect her if he does; the thing in his head, and the other two Jekity guardians, want to kill her due to her obelisk-related abilities. She is visited by a stone eater she names Steel who says he can help her. When Jija confronts her about not being healed of her orogeny and she admits she likes doing it, he hits her and in response she ices his house. Later, he attacks her again, attempting to kill her, and she uses the sapphire obelisk to turn him to stone. 

Meanwhile, in Castrima, Essun learns she can connect to an obelisk at Alabaster’s behest. As his entire body slowly becomes stone, he teaches her to sess the silver threads inside the obelisk and living things that is the stuff of orogeny, known as magic, and explains that he was taken by the stone eater at the end of Book 1 to a city in the earth’s core, where he learned that the obelisks were created to harness the earth’s magic, but then something went wrong and caused the moon to fly out of orbit. He started the rift to create enough energy for an orogene to harness and use the networked obelisks (the Obelisk Gate) to get the moon back so the earth won’t induce future Seasons. 

After barricading herself in and being evicted from Castrima’s control room where she was doing research, Tonkee grabs a mysterious piece of metal that then buries itself in her flesh, causing Essun to have to cut off her arm. Hoa disappears from Castrima for awhile then returns saying he was fighting stone eaters who want to stop him from achieving his vision. Eventually Castrima gets a message from the nearby bigger comm of Rennanis that Rennanis wants to requisition them; a stone eater shows up to say the comm can join them–except for orogenes, a condition that upsets the delicate balance Ykka the Castrima leader has brokered between stills and orogenes. This stone eater grievously injures Hoa, who re-hatches himself through a geode, revealing himself to be the stone eater that was trapped in the obelisk Syen raised from the harbor in Allia in Book 1. Hoa says the Gray Man stone eater’s agenda is to let humanity die, so he wants to stop Alabaster’s objective of using the Obelisk Gate to re-harness the moon, which would end Earth’s wrath and the Seasons with it. As tensions between stills and orogenes in Castrima escalate, Essun kills a still who’s attacking a rogga child (triggering her because of what happened to her son Uche), and is going to kill more before Alabaster stops her, but the effort of doing so kills him in turn. 

When the Rennanis army attacks Castrima, it turns out that Ykka knows how to network orogenes together, and uses their combined energy to incite deadly boil bugs to attack their attackers. Connected in this network to Ykka, Essun finally realizes how orogeny and magic can work together to be even more powerful. When stone eaters attack, Essun calls on the onyx obelisk, whose power almost kills her, but she manages to use it to call the other obelisks and traps the stone eaters inside them. Once Castrima is secure, she uses the Obelisk Gate to track Nassun (which Nassun sesses in turn). Using the Obelisk Gate turns one of Essun’s arms to stone. The End. 

In this second installment we get clues as to the larger function of the obelisks as conductors of this substance of life known as magic. We also get the explanation of why Hoa is so dedicated to Essun–she was the one who freed him from the obelisk he was trapped in. And a relationship forms between Schaffa and Nassun that is the antithesis to both the relationship Nassun has with her mother and that Essun, once Syen, had with the former Schaffa. There’s also the conflict between orogenes who are Fulcrum-trained and those who aren’t (Ykka); pros and cons are presented for each but it’s what Essun learns when she’s connected to Ykka, who hasn’t learned to suppress herself in the way Fulcrum-trained orogenes have, that leads her to be able to open the Obelisk Gate and achieve her goal of saving Castrima–saving it, at least, from its external conflict. 

Chapter Outline:

1 Nassun, who wanted to become a lorist, gives a diamond to a visiting one who this lorist then gives to her father, Jija, which is how he figures out she is an orogen; Uche asks about the diamond in his pocket when he shouldn’t know it’s there, which is when Jija kills him. Nassun walks in shortly thereafter and he leaves with her. 

2 Essun goes to see if she can connect with an obelisk and Ykka insists on coming along; Essun is successful. 

3 Schaffa survives the blast Essun induced with the obelisk on the ship at the end of Book 1 by calling on a power that costs a price to help him survive–a significant chunk of his identity and memories. A man finds him when he washes up on the beach and takes him to his fishing comm, where a boy, Eitz, realizes from his uniform he’s a guardian and who Schaffa takes with him after he kills his family. 

4 A hunter returns to Castrima infested with boil bugs that Essun is able to remove with her orogeny, but they’ve done enough damage the man has to be killed. 


5 The end-of-the-world rift occurs as Nassun and Jija are on the road and Nassun diverts it to prevent it from killing them. 

6 Essun talks to Tonki about how long humans and obelisks have existed, and then to Alabaster, who tells her she has to learn to manipulate the stuff of orogeny that the obelisks contain–silver threads once known as “magic.” 

7 After a year of traveling Nassun and Jija arrive in the Arctic, where Jija’s heard a rumor there’s a cure for orogeny, and when they’re accosted by bandits they’re saved–by Schaffa. 

8 Essun integrates into the routines of helping out Castrima. She joins a hunting party who sees another group crucified on trees as some kind of territorial message. She starts training the comm’s younger orogenes. She argues with Alabaster about why he caused the rifting and he agrees to tell her everything. 

9 Nassun and Jija are taken into the comm of Jekity, which has a community for its orogenes called Found Moon. Nassun bonds with Schaffa during her training, and can sess silver threads in him, and how his sessipina causes him pain. 

10 Alabaster tells Essun what happened to him after the stone eater took him at the end of book 1–he’s taken to a city at the earth’s core, where he learns how the obelisks were created to harness the earth’s magic, but then something went wrong and the moon was thrown out of orbit. He tells Essun why he caused the rift that started the season–it will provide enough energy for an orogene to harness and channel through all the obelisks networked together (the obelisk gate) to return the moon to its orbit, which will prevent the earth from causing future seasons.

11 Schaffa dreams of his past and resists the urge of his sessipina to compel Nassun into obedience.  

12 Nassun is able to sess the silver inside Schaffa and elsewhere. When she’s startled awake by another orogene boy, Eitz, she instinctively reaches for an obelisk and inadvertently turns him to stone. Schaffa tells Jija (and has to threaten him) that Nassun will be staying at Found Moon from now on. He tells Nassun she has a higher purpose in remedying an old mistake he had a part in.

13 Alabaster talks about using node maintainers to help him open the obelisk gate (i.e., connecting and channeling multiple obelisks). Tonkee has barricaded herself in Castrima’s control room to do research, and when Ykka kicks her out for this, Tonkee tries to take a mysterious piece of iron (which seems to possibly be what’s in Guardians’ heads that gives them their powers) and it burrows into her body and Essun sesses silver threads coming from it, then has to cut off Tonkee’s arm to stop it. 

interlude: Hoa says stone eaters are slowly devouring Castrima and that in his recent absence he’s been killing them. There is one stone eater in particular who has a vision opposite to his that he’s trying to fight. 

14 Six months pass and Castrima is running out of food. One day they get a message that the nearby comm of Rennanis wants to requisition them, and Essun sesses an army nearby. A stone eater shows up from there saying Castrima can join them, except for its orogenes, sowing discord. Essun discovers Hoa in her room almost destroyed by this other stone eater, and feeds him his stones. He rehatches through a geode as the stone eater she saw trapped in the obelisk in Allia. 

15 Nassun and Jekity’s three guardians (including Schaffa) visit the Antarctic Fulcrum that Nassun sessed through an obelisk. Learning these orogenes killed their guardians, the Jekity guardians attack, and Nassun helps by using an obelisk to turning everyone there into stone. The other guardians and the thing in Schaffa’s head want to kill her for this, but Schaffa protects her. A stone eater visits Nassun saying he can help her. 

16 Hoa tells Ykka and Essun that the gray stone eater (who’s behind the Rennanis threat) wants to wipe out humankind and make sure no one else opens the Obelisk Gate so the season will wear on and wipe everyone out. Ykka and Essun argue whether they can trust Castrima’s stills under threat of an attack.  

17 Nassun practices her orogeny to the point where she think she can heal the thing in Schaffa’s head that causes him pain, but he won’t let her because then he won’t be able to protect her from the other Guardians. She goes to see Jija, who hits her when she says she’s not trying to cure herself of orogeny, but get better at it, and she ices his house. 

18 Hoa says actually the Gray Man stone eater does want Essun to open the Obelisk Gate, but for his own purposes. As Ykka is having people vote on how to respond to Rennanis, there’s an altercation where a still accuses a rogga of attacking them, and to keep peace Ykka kills the rogga. Then Essun sesses a still attacking a rogga child and kills her using an obelisk, and Alabaster keeps her from killing more people, which kills him. Essun says the comm won’t vote, or she’ll kill them.

interlude: Hoa tries and fails to make a truce with Gray Man. 

19 Rennanis attacks after Essun tries to speak to their representative Danel and is stabbed. Ykka knows how to network orogenes to generate enough power to excite the boil bugs into swarming the attackers. When Essun’s connected to Ykka she sees how magic is connected to everything and the obelisks, and she finally understands how orogeny and magic can work together to amplify each other’s power. The stone eaters attack and then Essun calls the onyx obelisk which almost swallows her but then she’s able to use it to call the other obelisks and traps some stone eaters inside them. With Castrima safe she uses the Obelisk Gate to track Nassun. 

interlude: Hoa puts Essun to bed; one of her arms has turned to stone. Hoa talks to Lerna about the geode of Castrima being badly damaged in the fight, but now that Rennanis is empty/killed they can go there. 

20 Nassun sesses the Obelisk Gate and her mother, then Jija attacks her with a knife and she uses the sapphire obelisk to turn him to stone.

A World Apart, Part 1

N.K. Jemisin’s ambitious Broken Earth trilogy begins with the novel The Fifth Season (2015). At the beginning of the beginning, we’re told that the world ends when a man, in conversation with a stone eater, breaks the earth, inducing what’s known as a Fifth Season, an extended period of climate change manifesting in cold and darkness. 

The first book alternates chapters between what initially appears to be three different characters: Essun, whose chapters are told in the second person, and Damaya and Syenite, whose chapters are in the third person. 

Essun has orogenic powers, meaning she can manipulate the earth’s heat and energy to her own ends. Orogenes are looked down on in the society of the supercontinent called the Stillness, as indicated when Essun’s husband Jija beats their three-year-old son Uche to death after figuring out he has orogenic powers. Essun discovers Uche’s body around the same time she quells a shake caused by the man at the beginning breaking the earth. Her orogenic identity revealed by having done so, Essun flees her village after learning that Jija fled earlier with their daughter Nassun, who’s also an orogene. On the road, Essun meets a strange young boy calling himself Hoa, who appears to know where Nassun is. 

Meanwhile, Syenite, a Fulcrum-trained orogene with four rings, is sent on a two-part mission with the ten-ringer Alabaster: first to reproduce, and second to visit the town of Allia to use their orogenic powers to fix something that’s blocking the harbor. Along the way, Alabaster enlightens Syenite about some orogene history she was ignorant of, showing her a node maintainer station where orogenes are kept just alive enough for their orogeny to be manipulated. After Alabaster is mysteriously poisoned but saves himself by hijacking Syenite’s orogeny to join with his own, Syenite inadvertently raises an obelisk from Allia’s harbor with a stone eater trapped in it. When a guardian then tries to kill them, the obelisk sucks Syen up and a stone eater spirits her and Alabaster away to the island of Meov, where they actually let orogenes be leaders. Syen has Alabaster’s baby, Corundum, and for a couple of years they live a happy life. 

We also meet the child Damaya, who is outcast from her family after inadvertently revealing her orogenic powers and who’s then retrieved by a guardian named Schaffa, who takes her to the Fulcrum in the Stillness’s biggest city, Yumenes, where orogenes are trained to use their powers with precision. Ostracized by her peers, one day Damaya meets an outsider, Binof, who’s snuck in looking for something whispered about in secret histories, and they discover a giant pit a guardian refers to as a “socket”; Schaffa kills that guardian shortly thereafter for acting erratic. Damaya is revealed to be Syenite in her final chapter, after she takes her first ring test and chooses her orogene name. 

Still on the road, Essun and Hoa meet a commless geomest woman calling herself Tonkee, and Hoa inadvertently reveals himself to be a stone eater when he turns an animal that attacks him to stone. Hoa loses Nassun’s trail when he senses a nearby community full of orogenes, Castrima, living in a crystal-filled geode and led by an orogene named Ykka, whom Essun then joins with Hoa and Tonkee. Essun realizes Tonkee is Binof (thus revealing Essun to be Damaya/Syenite), who tells Essun the socket they found in the Fulcrum as children is where obelisks come from, and that she’s been following Essun for years because she noticed that an obelisk was following Essun. 

Back on Meov, Syenite joins a pirating expedition that takes her near Allia, where she quells an active volcano that formed in their confrontation with the guardian who tried to kill them. This gives her presence away to the guardians, who sail to Meov to retrieve her and Alabaster. A stone eater drags Alabaster into the earth, and when Schaffa comes for Syenite, she smothers Corundum rather than letting Schaffa take him, since she fears Schaffa will make him a node maintainer. She then summons a nearby obelisk, causing it to send a pulse so powerful it presumably kills everyone in the area, though she manages to survive. Sensing the pulse from this obelisk is how Hoa, who’s revealed to be the narrator, found her. 

In Castrima, Essun is told someone named Alabaster is asking for her. He’s attended by a stone eater and has partially turned to stone himself. He asks her if she can control obelisks yet, and she realizes he’s the one who caused the rift that started the season, using an obelisk. He asks her if she’s ever heard of something called the Moon. The End of Book 1. 

Jemisin does an excellent job of establishing the acute tension right away, presenting the rifting that the trilogy is named for in the prologue, along with some basic information about this world called the Stillness. Interestingly, a major acute event for Essun, the murder of her son by her husband, is actually not directly related to this worldwide acute tension. It seems like Jemisin could have written it that Jija ended up finally detecting Uche’s orogenic powers when Uche did something in response to the rifting, but we’ll learn definitively in Book 2 that this was not the case; Jija would have detected Uche’s powers at this particular point in time even if the rifting had never happened, while Essun’s response to the rifting does reveal her orogenic powers, meaning she would have had to flee at this point whether Uche had died or not. These two acute events that we start with only coincidentally occur at the same time, but the coincidence provides Essun a sense of direction once she does flee; it gives her an objective that heightens the general tension–she needs to find her daughter Nassun, and the journey to do so is the thread through the whole trilogy.  

Another source of tension driving the narrative of the first book in particular is the implicit question of how the three separate storylines we’re following–Essun’s, Damaya’s, and Syenite’s–will end up intersecting. The presumption on first read is that the three characters are on trajectories that will lead to them all meeting up and doing something together. While this is the case in a sense, it’s a genuinely satisfying surprise that they all turn out to be the same person. Even after the reveal that Damaya was Syenite, I still didn’t guess that they were also Essun until the reveal through Tonkee/Binof, though I probably should have. This conceit might have felt deceitful if it weren’t fitting for the character: it symbolizes how the character essentially has become different people at these particular transition points in her life. The transition might be a little more definitive for Syenite turning to Essun, since she has to hide her previous identity to evade capture by the Fulcrum’s guardians, and since Essun is not supposed to be perceived as an orogene at all, but the transition from Damaya to Syenite is significant since she’s stepping into an identity that’s primarily defined as orogene. 

Following three different threads is good for pacing, drawing out tension in each one when we’re left with a cliffhanger that then won’t receive immediate resolution. We build toward something horrible that happened in Syen’s past, the event that caused her to have to become Essun, then end Book 1 on the cliffhanger of that past returning to her in the form of Alabaster, whose reappearance and question about the Moon indicate he has something in mind that he wants her to do. This, in conjunction with the potential of a reunion with her daughter, helps compel the reader on to Book 2.

Another interesting aspect of the overall story is the nature of orogenes themselves, or rather, their place in society. They essentially have superpowers, but are not venerated for them; instead they’re ostracized and feared, subsumed into the menacing bureaucracy of the Fulcrum, where they’re kept on a tight leash by the guardians, whose nature Alabaster encourages Syenite to question (who controls the guardians is a question we’re still left with at the end of Book 1).

The negative general attitude toward orogenes (often referred to by the slur “rogga”) is viscerally revealed from the beginning when we see that a man was driven to beat his own child to death because of his orogene nature, and is underscored further when we see how Essun has to flee when her nature is exposed, even though it’s exposed through an action that helped her village, using her powers to protect it from damage by a shake. Orogenes’ powers are even more vital to survival during a Season, and it seems to be this very need for them that breeds hatred of them. The prejudice seems to largely derive from the fact that some orogenes are not skilled at controlling their powers (hence the need for the Fulcrum) and have the potential to cause inadvertent but serious damage (especially since the powers manifest in response to strong emotions). Yet the inadvertent damage orogenes do (demonstrated primarily through the way Damaya’s powers are revealed) pales in comparison to the violence done to them in the name of combating their inadvertent potential violence, like Damaya’s treatment by her family, or Schaffa breaking Damaya’s hand as part of a lesson all Fulcrum inductees are given in order to understand the importance of controlling themselves.

The world building in the book is one of its most impressive elements, all derived from the basic concept that superhuman powers affect (or afflict) multiple people instead of just one person like traditional superhero narratives. People’s negative attitude toward orogenes, who manipulate the power of the Earth, could be read as a byproduct of their negative attitude toward the Earth in general, fostered in response to the cataclysmic Seasons that all but wipe out the human race. There’s an extensive glossary at the end of the book for all the weird stuff in this world, but it’s not technically necessary since Jemisin writes in a way where you can glean the necessary information along the way (it’s not difficult to interpolate that a “shake” is an earthquake), though there’s more information on the history of past Seasons than she manages to slip into the action.

One way Jemisin conveys impressions of the story’s larger world is through epigraphs, the use of which are unique for two reasons: first, because she puts them at the end of the chapter rather than the beginning (which makes logical sense in general since when you read an epigraph before you’ve read the chapter it’s attached to, you’re unable to glean its larger meaning or connection to the material), and second, because the epigraphs are not from our world, but from the story’s world, in the form of proverbs and diaries and pieces of “Lorist” texts, “stonelore” being historical accounts of what’s happened in the story’s world. (The question of history and what happened in the first place to start the Seasons will be explored much more extensively in Book 3.)

That people have an antagonistic relationship with the Earth due to the Seasons is an aspect of the world that is constantly reinforced through the language they use, specifically, through the way they curse. “Evil Earth” is a favorite, as are invocations of “rust” instead of “fuck” (as in “What the rust?” or “too rusting busy”), though on occasion traditional curses like “fuck” and “shit” will still be used. At times the Earth-based cursing can feel a little excessive (“bloody, burning Earth”; “burning, flaking rust”; “burning rusty fuck”; “Earthfires and rustbuckets”), but it’s still a handy creative expression of the world that makes the reader feel fully immersed in it because the characters feel fully immersed in it. It also does a good job of showing when Essun is upset, which is often. We’ll rejoin her in Book 2


Chapter Outline:

Prologue: the way the world ends for the last time: the land of the Stillness is described with its greatest city, Yumenes. A man and a stone eater talk there before the man breaks the earth. Obelisks, monuments from an older civilization, will also play a role in the world’s end. The son of a woman in Tirimo, Essun, is dead. A strange geode hatches a boy who heads for Tirimo.

1 In Tirimo, Essun finds her dead son Uche in her house after her husband Jija beat him to death when he realized the boy had orogenic powers. A local, Lerna, the only one who knows of Essun’s orogenic powers besides her two children, takes her to his place to rest and tells her people know there’s a rogga in town since the devastating shakes that happened nearby missed Tirimo in a perfect circle. Essun resolves to leave.

2 The child Damaya has been banished to her family’s barn after inadvertently revealing her orogenic powers. A guardian, Schaffa, retrieves her to take her to the Fulcrum in Yumenes, where orogenes are trained. 

3 Tirimo’s headman Rask has closed its gates due to the shakes, and Essun goes to talk to him to get him to let her leave, revealing she’s an orogene, while Rask reveals people saw her husband Jija leaving town with her daughter Nassun, whom Essun assumed Jija had also killed. When Rask takes her to the gate, the guards suspect she’s the town’s orogene and try to kill her, but Essun kills some with her powers and the rest flee. 

4 The formerly feral four-ringer Fulcrum orogene Syenite is assigned a double mission with a ten-ringer; she meets him in his suite and, in spite of his rudeness, has sex with him to fulfill the first part of the mission, reproducing. 

5 Traveling away from Tirimo, Essun meets a little boy by himself who says his name is Hoa.

6 Traveling toward the Fulcrum with Schaffa, Damaya gets a lesson in relations between guardians and orogenes when Schaffa breaks her hand.

7 Hoa reveals to Essun that he knows where her daughter Nassun is, but not how he knows. 

8 En route to the Fulcrum’s assignment, Alabaster and Syenite sess a major shake that Alabaster quells by using Syen’s orogeny against her will. Believing it was caused by a node maintainer (orogenes who are supposed to prevent such shakes), they go to a station and find them all dead, including a child (possibly Alabaster’s) who’s strapped in a chair; Alabaster reveals that many are sedated and forced to perform orogeny out at such stations against their will. 

Interlude: Islands and other continents are not things people talk about in the Stillness.  

9 Syenite and Alabaster arrive in Allia for their job and Alabaster ends up poisoned by his hotel food, but yokes Syen’s powers to his to use orogeny to expel the poison, explaining to her that it’s “parallel scaling.” 

10 Camping at a roadhouse, Essun and Hoa have to flee when something unseen attacks it, but then have to go back for water, where they meet a commless geomest woman. A kirkhusa attacks Hoa, who turns it to stone.   

11 At the Fulcrum, Damaya is ostracized after a boy named Maxixe talks to her, and when she frames him for stealing her shoes to get back at him, she inadvertently reveals more serious stuff was going on with other grits, like trading sex for liquor. 

12 Syenite goes to do the coral-clearing job they’ve been assigned by herself and ends up releasing an obelisk with a dead stone eater trapped in it from the bottom of Allia’s harbor.

13 The geomest, Tonkee, travels with Essun and Hoa, and they talk to people at roadhouses about what they’ve seen. Hoa says he’s lost Nassun’s trail because of a place he senses nearby where a lot of roggas are congregating. 

14 The Fulcrum instructs Alabaster and Syen to stay put. Alabaster won’t talk about the obelisk until they’re walking outside, and reveals that he can control it. They encounter a guardian who tries to kill them, but then the obelisk Syen raised from the harbor sucks her up, and shatters.

15 Essun et al get to the pseudo-comm with all the roggas, where they’re taken in by the rogga leader, Ykka. Essun is devastated that Nassun and Jija aren’t there. 

16 Syen and Alabaster wake up on an island, where a stone eater brought them. They’re welcomed by a community of pirates (Meov) who put roggas in charge. 

17 A non-rogga named Binof enlists Damaya’s help to find something she’s suspicious the Fulcrum is hiding, and they discover a secret chamber with a strange giant pit the guardian who catches them refers to as a “socket.” This guardian starts talking strangely and Schaffa violently removes something from the base of her neck, killing her. He has Damaya take her first ring test and she chooses the rogga name “Syenite.” 

18 Essun gets a tour of the crystal-filled geode where the comm of Castrima resides. 

19 Syenite and Alabaster debate over who will get Innon, Meov’s charismatic feral rogga leader who’s sexually interested in both of them, and then both end up taking him. Syen is pregnant. 

Interlude: A happy period for Syen. 

20 When her son with Alabaster, Corundum, is two, Syen convinces Innon to let her go on a pirate raid with him, and when she uses orogeny on a couple of ships, has to kill them so word doesn’t get out there are orogenes on the island. Then she insists on going back to Allia, where she quells an active volcano created by the obelisk with the stone eater.    

21 Essun realizes that Tonkee is actually Binof, and Tonkee explains how she’s been tracking her for years because she’s had obelisks following her, and that the socket they found in the Fulcrum is where the obelisks come from. Hoa confirms he’s a stone eater, and Essun runs into Lerna, her friend from Tirimo. Hoa tells her a man named Alabaster is asking for her. 

22 Guardian ships descend on Meov. A stone eater drags Alabaster into the earth, and to keep her son Coru from becoming one of the node maintainers, Syen kills him when Schaffa tries to take him, then calls on the power of a nearby obelisk, killing almost everyone in the vicinity but surviving herself. Sensing the pulse from the obelisk is how Hoa, the narrator, found her. 

23 In Castrima, Alabaster, attended by a stone eater and partially turned to stone, asks Essun if she can control obelisks yet. She realizes he’s the one who, with an obelisk, caused the rift that started the season. He says he wants her to make things worse and asks if she’s ever heard of a Moon.