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.

-SCR

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 for a full-blown thread.) 

In Book 2 we learn that Jija figures out his daughter Nassun is an orogen 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 orogen 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. 

interlude 

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 orogen 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 orogen 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 conveyed 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, who 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

-SCR

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. 

Feminist Capital

The prolific Meg Wolitzer’s latest novel, “The Female Persuasion,” begins with college freshman Greer Kadetsky meeting the famous feminist Faith Frank when the latter comes to the former’s campus to give a talk. During the Q&A session, Greer mentions that she and some other girls have recently been assaulted by a fellow student who, when reported, was given only a slap on the wrist. Afterwards, Greer and her friend Zee, who’s the one who told Greer about Faith Frank in the first place, encounter Faith in the restroom; Faith gives Greer her business card, which Greer doesn’t use until she’s job hunting a few years later. She ends up landing a position at Faith’s new feminist foundation in NYC, financed by the ethically questionable venture capitalist Emmett Shrader. Greer’s boyfriend since high school, Cory (who went to Princeton while Greer went to a no-name school after her parents failed to fill out the financial aid paperwork for Yale), gets a job as a consultant in Manila, so they have to keep maintaining a long-distance relationship. 

Zee wants Greer to give Faith a letter asking if she can work for the foundation too, but Greer confesses to Faith at a happy hour that she doesn’t want Zee to work there because she basically doesn’t want to share the experience, and does not give Faith the letter. Greer, who’s always had trouble expressing herself, then gets promoted to writing speeches for women who have had difficult experiences to give at foundation-sponsored conferences. Things go well until Cory’s eight-year-old brother Alby dies after getting hit by a car his mother was driving, prompting his father to leave the family to return to Portugal, and his mother to have a mental breakdown. Cory quits his lucrative job and moves home to take care of her, even cleaning the houses she used to, and eventually he ends things with Greer when she can’t understand the extent to which he’s rearranged his life. Zee ends up moving to Chicago, and when one of her underage and underprivileged students gives birth at school, forges a relationship with her coworker Noelle and discovers a calling working with trauma patients.  

A few years later, the foundation gets less and less funding approved for projects that actually help women, and Faith, sensing morale is low, insists on a project to rescue and mentor girls who were victims of sex trafficking in Ecuador. When one of the rescued girls comes to speak at a conference, Greer, in addition to writing the girl’s speech, actually gives the keynote at the conference, her first time speaking publicly. It goes moderately well, but then Greer learns that the project was a sham–the girls were rescued, but no mentorship program was ever set up for them, which means that a lot of what she wrote in the girl’s conference speech and her own was not true. When she confronts Faith Frank about what she’s learned, Faith acknowledges that it’s bad but has no intention of exposing it because it will endanger the foundation’s ability to help women in the future. When Greer cannot accept this logic and quits, Faith throws in Greer’s face that she never gave her Zee’s letter, apparently trying to make the point that Greer has also hurt other women and has no right to moral high ground, a move that shocks Greer and shakes her conception of her longtime role model. In telling Zee how she lost her job, she ends up confessing to Zee that she lied about having given Faith her letter, which takes Zee some time to forgive her for. 

A few years later, Greer has become a bestselling author of a book called Outside Voices about women needing to learn to speak up for themselves. She’s gotten back together with Cory–whose mother eventually recovered, and who’s written a video game about finding the souls of loved ones who have died–and they have a daughter. Greer thinks about encouraging their bright babysitter Kay in the way that Faith encouraged her and so many other women. She writes an imaginary letter to Faith in her head acknowledging that Faith’s calling her out on her own bad behavior led to her actually confessing it to Zee when she wouldn’t have otherwise. The End. 

One aspect about the writing that stood out in this book was the amount of exposition, amounts that might have seemed excessive if it weren’t for the pleasure and specificity of the details. Chapters are told through different characters’ points of view; Greer gets the most chapters, but then we also get Cory, Zee, Faith, and Emmett (Faith and Emmett each only get one; an outline with a chapter breakdown is at the very bottom). Wolitzer manages to hang whole lives on what is in some ways a fairly skimpy hat rack of a plot, but the hat rack is strong enough to support them. That hat-rack plot in a nutshell would be Greer working at Faith’s foundation, not giving Faith Zee’s letter when she said she would, and Faith throwing that in her face when Greer quits after discovering that the foundation has engaged in fraudulent activity. Boiling the plot down to the skeleton of these events, getting Zee’s perspective in the story seems understandable, since her whole life trajectory is impacted (and we seem to be shown that it’s actually for the best that Greer never gave Faith that letter because it enabled Zee to find her true calling, and her wife), but getting Cory’s in this context is less so. Even getting Emmett’s perspective makes more sense than getting Cory’s, since Emmett is the one who essentially starts the foundation. Cory and the development of Alby’s death actually has little bearing on the novel’s main events, and in that sense it’s essentially a useless appendage, plot-wise. Greer ends up missing the foundation’s first big summit because of it, but this itself has no long-term consequences on anything. Still, Wolitzer more or less gets away with including this technically unnecessary storyline because of its level of detail and emotional rawness. (Perhaps one could argue that Cory’s life trajectory ultimately having little direct impact on Greer’s–it seems they would have ended up married whether Alby had died or not; his death just delayed it–is a statement about how relationships don’t have to compromise female independence.) 

The level of detail and the richness of the exposition is pulled off via lush prose, with sentences like: 

Zee thought of Cory Pinto’s little brother—gone. She thought of the faces of everyone she knew, trembling in the gelatin of their own temporariness. 

and 

Throughout her life, intermittently fearing her parents’ eventual deaths, the only positive aspect about that inevitability was that finally there would be no one on earth who would say to her, “Would it kill you to wear a skirt?”

and 

And so it went, conversations with Cory on a different continent while Greer leaned across a sticky, shellacked skate-rental counter.

A lot of the content that we get in the exposition seems to reinforce feminist themes rather than plot, like when Cory is in high school and flips over a sign some guys are holding up to rate Greer so it reads 9 instead of 6, or how we end up seeing that Cory’s moves with Greer in the bedroom were derived from watching porn. Because of the lush prose and themes but skimpy plot, my general reading experience was that while I compulsively devoured the sentences along the way, I was ultimately left somewhat unsatisfied. Part of this might also be due to how the retrospective narration seemed to set up a more significant climax than what the climax actually turns out to be. Near the beginning we’re told: 

But what she knew for sure, eventually, was that meeting Faith Frank was the thrilling beginning of everything. It would be a very long time before the unspeakable end.

I take the “unspeakable end” to refer to Greer’s falling out with Faith when she quits. This climax takes a couple of turns: Greer has to grapple with the ethical complexity of trying to do good in the world, the “weighing,” as Faith calls it: per Faith, it would not be good to out the foundation’s fraud because then it would prevent the foundation from being able to do good in the future. (That the scene of this discussion takes place while Faith is in a salon being groomed to look different from how she really looks is a nice touch; and a previous scene where the vegetarian Greer eats meat at a foundation gathering because she doesn’t want to be contrarian also foreshadows how figuratively the foundation is force-feeding her something unsavory.) When Greer can’t accept Faith’s ethical logic and quits, Faith feels the need to knock her off her moral high horse by throwing Greer’s own bad feminism in her face: never giving her Zee’s letter (though for me it stretches credulity more than a little bit that Faith even remembers the existence of this letter). Another turn comes when, later, Greer realizes she never would have admitted the truth to Zee if Faith hadn’t done this, so in a way Faith was actually helping her with this seemingly petty gesture. Faith actually helping Greer with this move rather than hurting her is reinforced by something Faith says to Emmett after Greer has quit: 

“Showing an interest is only one part,” she said. “You also take them under your wing, if that’s what they seem to want. But then there’s another part, which is that eventually you let them go. Fling! You fling them away. Because otherwise they think that they can’t manage on their own. Sometimes you fling them too hard. You have to be careful.”

Apparently Faith didn’t fling Greer too hard, though, because–ta-da!–she goes on to write a bestselling feminist book of her own, seeming to fill a very similar mold to Faith’s in being an inspiration to young women who’s also criticized for narrow and privileged views. Greer essentially turning into Faith felt disappointing, since based on Greer’s experience with Faith I would think she’d try to update the model. 

The other disappointing aspect of the resolution with the bestselling book is that it seems like a missed opportunity. Greer apparently never has any contact with Faith again after she quits, and we’re told the foundation was never outed for the fraud with the mentorship program. But it’s mentioned early on that Greer actually describes her experiences with Faith in her own book, that her book’s first scene is one of the actual book’s early scenes, meeting Faith in the bathroom. It would seem, then, that Greer’s book would be the perfect platform to challenge the old model, to out the foundation for its fraud, or for Greer to at least grapple with the decision of whether or not to do so, but we don’t get any of that; instead she just ends up perpetuating the model. In the final chapter she has some interactions with her young babysitter Kay, who doesn’t think Greer’s book is really doing enough, but Greer just thinks Kay’s feminist opinions are, unbeknownst to her, recycled ones: 

[Kay] offered these opinions as if they were entirely new; the pleasure and excitement in her voice were stirring. Greer could have said to her, “Yes, I know all about this. Faith said that women said the same thing back in the seventies,” but that wouldn’t have been kind.

Greer is also frequently just annoying, especially when she’s talking about the foundation: 

“That’s what everyone was talking about at the first Loci summit,” Greer had said recently on the phone [with Zee] when the subject came up. “The meaning and uses of power.”

“The summit you missed, because of Cory’s brother.”

“Yeah. But everyone who was there—the rest of our team—said that it was clear that it’s a topic we’re going to return to, because no one can get enough of it. It excites everyone. Power! Even the word is powerful.”

This abrasiveness largely seems to be intentional though, depicting the foundation as inherently problematic. (It’s also a good reason why it was a good idea to not have the book be solely in Greer’s point of view, even though she is the linchpin of the plot.) 

Another interesting detail is the return of serial assaulter Darren Tinzler at the end when Zee sends Greer to the link of a video of him; Greer then recalls when Faith told her in the Q&A session at the talk where Greer first saw her that it wasn’t worth trying to fight him; now here he is all these years later still at large, which Greer takes as a sign that Faith’s brand of compromising is problematic. She and Zee debate what the solution is, and the idea of another foundation comes up, one that would have to be different than Loci, but this is as far as they get. As some critics say, good books explore complexity by raising more questions than answers, but to me it still felt as if this wasn’t enough, mainly because in general the conclusion felt like Greer has sold out.

Reading this book that elevated exposition over plot made me think about Claire Vaye Watkins’ talk “On Pandering,” and how we frequently write to and for men, and how maybe the emphasis on plot as the most important aspect of a novel is part of this type of pandering. Wolitzer’s depicting the richness of life not solely in the service of plot might be a mode more of the female persuasion. 

-SCR

Outline: 

Part 1 

Ch. 1 Greer’s POV: Meeting Faith Frank at the talk she gives when Greer is a freshman at Ryland

Ch. 2 Greer’s POV: The rest of college, backstory about her lackadaisical parents and Cory being her academic rival since elementary school and getting together when they were seniors (and his genius little brother Alby), imagining a post-college future with Cory

Ch. 3 Cory’s POV: backstory about growing up with immigrant parents and getting with Greer; his getting into Princeton and Greer getting into Yale but learning her parents messed up the financial aid forms; occasionally cheating on Greer in college but feeling bad about it; getting his consulting job

Part 2

Ch. 4 Greer’s POV: getting the job at the foundation (after almost interviewing at Faith’s former publication Bloomer the day it folded), Zee asking her to give Faith a letter asking for a job

Ch. 5 Greer’s POV: Not giving Faith Zee’s letter, then a work happy hour where she confesses to Faith about not giving it to her, lying to Zee, getting promoted, going to a weekend gathering at Faith’s house and eats meat even though she’s a vegetarian, then has a ton of missed calls when she regains cell reception

Ch. 6 Cory’s POV: Trying to get home from Manila after his father called with the news that his mother ran over his brother in the driveway and killed him; exposition about his life in the wealthy district of a poor place; then at home with his family and Greer, except for his father, who left for Lisbon; his mom has a mental breakdown so he stays to take care of her and starts cleaning the house she used to; he does heroin with his cousin and grows more distant from Greer until they break up

Ch. 7 Zee’s POV: Working at the terrible law firm and living at home; her letter to Faith Frank; exposition about discovering her sexuality; moving to Chicago for a teaching job at an underprivileged school, where she has a fraught relationship with the guidance counselor Noelle until they bond after having to unexpectedly deliver a student’s baby together

Part 3

Ch. 8 Faith’s POV: Four years have passed. Taking a phone call from her son before getting a Chinese massage for stress relief; exposition about growing up with strict parents then fleeing to become a cocktail waitress, where her friend got pregnant and was treated horribly when she got an abortion, then getting involved with the women’s rights movement, starting Bloomer, seeing Emmett Shrader in a meeting after seeing him once briefly in Vegas, sleeping with him before finding out he was married; during the massage she decides to let Greer do the keynote at the next conference since her morale’s low because the foundation hasn’t been doing many special projects to actually help women recently, so Faith has gotten Emmett to agree to a new one.

Ch. 9  Greer’s POV: Greer giving speech at conference along with one of the women the foundation rescued from sex work and is supposed to be mentoring; a few days later a former employee of Shrader tells her the mentoring program actually never happened; she tells Faith, who wants to keep it under wraps, so Greer quits, and Faith bashes her for never giving her Zee’s letter

Part 4

Ch. 10 Zee’s POV: She’s found her calling in trauma response; Greer comes to visit after she quits and tells her she lied about giving Faith her letter, which Zee can’t immediately forgive her for

Ch. 11 Greer’s POV: Greer goes home after Chicago, sees her mother’s clown show for the first time, and sees Cory, who’s working at a computer store

Ch. 12 Emmett’s POV: Faith meeting with Emmett to confront him about what happened with the nonexistent mentorship program; exposition about his rich wife he doesn’t find that interesting but whose money he used to start his venture capital firm; his attraction to Faith; his wife leaving him and his starting the foundation; at the meeting after seeing all the gifts grateful women have given her he declares that he’s done everything wrong and should have been with her

Ch. 13 Cory’s POV: Developing his video game SoulFinder based on how he felt after losing Alby; his brief fling with a childhood acquaintance; his mom recovering and starting to clean houses again and decides to move

Ch. 14 Greer’s POV: Cory stays with Greer in NYC visiting for his video game investor. 

Ch. 15 Greer’s POV: Several years have passed. A party celebrating her book Outside Voices being a bestseller for a year. Now she’s married to Cory and they have a daughter. At home after the party Zee sends her a video of the guy who assaulted her in college still being abusive to women. She imagines telling Faith, whom she put first in her book’s acknowledgments, about her life. 

Where the Stephen Kings Sing

Both Stephen King’s The Outsider and Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing begin with a similar (and common) premise: the cops’ efforts to solve a murder committed in a small town. These two books start to diverge in the gruesomeness of their central crimes. In The Outsider, a young boy has been brutally slaughtered and partially eaten after being sodomized with a tree branch. In Crawdads, a young man has fallen from a fire tower in what could conceivably have been an accident. The books also diverge in the classic genre versus literary distinction of being more plot-based than character-based or vice versa. The Outsider is all plot and little character, while character development is central to Crawdads–primarily of its isolated protagonist Kya Clark, but also of the setting of the marsh where she grows up, which does in a way become characterized as fully as any human.

In The Outsider‘s plot, all the evidence points toward respected Flint City Little League coach Terry Maitland being the murderer of Frank Peterson; several eyewitness statements place him at and around the scene of the crime, as well as the seemingly incontrovertible DNA of his fingerprints and semen. Yet video footage also definitively places Maitland in a different town at the time the murder occurred. To quote the book’s promotional copy: “How could a man be two places at once?” 

Perhaps King acolytes might argue that Ralph Anderson, the detective tasked with solving the case, is an example of strong character development. Anderson is so sure he has an airtight case due to the initial evidence that he doesn’t question Maitland himself to see if he has an alibi before he arrests him. Incensed that Maitland coached and thus had close contact with his own son, Ralph arrests Maitland in front of the entire town. When Maitland is taken to court for initial proceedings, the Frank Peterson’s brother shoots Maitland and kills him. Put on paid leave according to normal administrative policy, Ralph continues to look into aspects of the case that indicate something more was going on than meets the eye. With Maitland’s death, the book takes a turn from the traditional thriller into King’s métier–the supernatural. Maitland’s daughter sees and has a conversation with a “man who has straws for eyes,” and Ralph’s wife Jeannie also encounters a strange man in their house–even though the doors are locked and the alarm is on–who tells her to tell Ralph to stop looking into the case. Despite Jeannie’s pleas for Ralph to consider that something supernatural could be going on and that he should leave the case alone, Ralph continues to dig deeper, getting Maitland’s lawyer to hire a private investigator, the eccentric but effective Holly Gibney from King’s Mr. Mercedes trilogy, who could be considered the book’s other main character even though she doesn’t appear until halfway through the book. 

Holly, who has some OCD and social issues, uncovers evidence of a similar crime as the Peterson murder occurring in Dayton, Ohio: twin girls gruesomely murdered, DNA evidence clearly pointing at one man, who then dies before going to trial. The accused man was an orderly at a facility where Maitland’s father was a resident, and shortly after the murders, Maitland ran into him there, where the man–accidentally it seemed–scratched him, drawing blood. Maitland also scratched someone after committing the Flint City murder–local bar bouncer Claude Bolton, who happens to resembles the mysterious man Jeannie saw in her living room. 

Another cop, Yune Sablo–whose Hispanic heritage is repeatedly reinforced by his use of the words “amigo” and “ese” and the catch phrase “of course I am just the son of a poor Mexican farming family”–notes that the crimes remind him of a legend his abuela told him about a “Mexican boogeyman” who would collect kids in a bag and drink their blood so he would live forever. The idea that there’s any legitimate relevance to this tale, however, doesn’t gain traction until Holly Gibney shows Ralph and some others an old luchadora movie with the same plot after reviewing the evidence she uncovered in Dayton; the monster in the movie is able to make himself look like other townspeople so that they’ll take the blame. Ralph’s character development from then on is predicated on his willingness to accept the outside-the-bounds-of-reality premise of this “outsider.” Holly basically convinces him to in time for the climactic confrontation with the outsider in a Texas cave, after a rogue cop who’s come under the outsider’s influence shoots the rest of the group Holly and Ralph came with. The outsider is hiding in a place where people once died because he feeds on grief in addition to children’s blood, and he has to hibernate between transitions. To quote my hands-down favorite Goodreads review of the book by a user named Becky, “this latest [big baddie] was defeated with a few impotence jibes and a weighted sock. I wish I was joking.” 

After the confrontation in the cave, Ralph has definitively had his worldview changed to encompass supernatural possibilities. But that reversal feels more based on a type–Ralph is a detective and has to go where the evidence takes him, rationally and within the bounds of circumscribed reality–than any carefully developed personality traits. As for Holly, she has the challenge of convincing hard-headed men to open their minds to these unlikely possibilities, and while she rises to the challenge, it doesn’t feel like a significant change in her character actually derives from her success in doing so. In a lot of ways she feels like little more than a sieve for a competent woman–or perhaps I should say a shockingly competent woman. Goodreads reviewer Becky aptly points out the “casual sexism” of the “regular backhanded ‘compliments’ tossed Holly’s way (that she’s EVER SO GRATEFUL FOR, but also modestly embarrassed by).”

In contrast, while a murder mystery is integral to Crawdads‘ plot, the real heart of the novel is the development of its protagonist Kya Clark. The novel alternates chapters detailing the murder investigation that takes place in 1969-70 with chapters that track Kya’s development from child, starting in 1952, to adult, at which point her story catches up with the murder. 

Kya is defined by her isolation. Living in a shack in a marsh on the coast of rural North Carolina, her mother leaves when she’s seven, her only remaining sibling leaves shortly thereafter, and her abusive father leaves her completely alone a couple of years after that. A truant officer succeeds in getting Kya to attend school for one day, but the experience is traumatic enough that she escapes future efforts to get her to return by hiding in the marsh woods; she’s alternately referred to by the townspeople of nearby Barkley Cove as “marsh trash” and “the Marsh Girl.” Tate, a former friend of her brother’s who’s as fascinated with the natural environment of the marsh as she is, eventually teaches her how to read, leading to a romantic relationship that almost feels overly idealistic until Tate shatters it when he leaves for college and breaks his promise to return for visits, becoming the next person Kya loved who abandoned her. In the aftermath of that heartbreak, Kya takes up with Chase Andrews, a former quarterback and town golden boy who is also an itinerant womanizer, unbeknownst to Kya because she only ever goes into town to get groceries and gas for her boat. He tries to have sex with her on their first date, and when she manages to resist, he insists that he won’t do anything she doesn’t want him to, biding his time until, after he intimates that he intends to marry her, she finally does let him take the virginity Tate didn’t because he thought she was too young. Tate returns to warn her about Chase’s character, which Kya is eventually forced to confront when she reads of Chase’s engagement to another woman in the paper. In something close to a reconciliation with Tate–though she refuses to forgive him for what he did, or to let herself love him again–Kya lets him send some of the samples of marsh detritus that she’s made a lifelong habit of cataloguing and illustrating to a publisher, securing her a book deal that ensures financial security so that she’ll no longer have to “dig through the mud for her supper,” unearthing the mussels that she sold in town for a meager amount of grocery money. Just when Kya’s life seems to have hit its stride, Chase, now married, returns and tries to rape her, but she manages to fight him off. At this point the narrative has just about met up with the point of Chase’s death. Kya is arrested for his murder. 

Once the investigation thread of the cops tracking clues segues into Kya’s trial, we still get a couple of chapters capping off the previous thread following Kya, which should, theoretically, show us what Kya was actually doing the night of Chase’s death. But specification of Kya’s guilt or innocence is maddeningly withheld, reminiscent of the manner in which Tony Earley withholds his point of view character’s mysterious plans in his short story “Backpack.” The closest we get is the chapter from Kya’s point of view of the trip she was on to meet her editor the night Chase was killed: 

…the bus, which seemed as long as the town, drove out of Barkley Cove.

Two days later, at 1:16 in the afternoon, Kya stepped off the Trailways from Greenville.

The prosecution has attempted to poke holes in the alibi of her trip by positing that in this two-day gap, Kya could have taken a bus back to Barkley Cove the same night she left, killed Chase, bussed back to Greenville by the next morning, and then returned on the bus that everyone saw her return on at 1:16. It’s impossible to tell whether Kya’s version of events is supposed to refute the idea that she did this; the patent lack of her own description of what happened in that two-day gap seems to imply that something important did happen in that gap that we’re as yet being denied access to. 

What this means is that as readers we experience the trial in the same state of ignorance as the townspeople who make up the jury, though by this point we’re prejudiced in Kya’s favor rather than, as the jury is, prejudiced against her–if she did kill him, we’re thinking, he would have deserved it. Kya’s lawyer, who took the job pro bono, makes a strong case that the prosecution’s version of how the murder must have occurred is highly circumstantial, and that, based on the existing evidence, it might not have been a murder at all, but an accident. The case is strong enough that the jury, prejudiced though they are, has to acquit Kya. Shortly afterward, she sees the cops pick up Tate in what looks like an arrest, and his imminent long-term absence makes her realize she does love him. It turns out he’s being notified that his father died, which means he’ll stick around for a whole-cloth reconciliation. They get married and essentially live happily ever after in the same (renovated) shack Kya’s lived in her whole life, minus her stint in jail awaiting trial. 

At this point it’s become clear that solving the murder mystery isn’t the be-all end-all goal of the narrative, that the real drama of the trial is not to definitively establish Kya’s guilt or innocence, but to understand its deeper relevance for her character, as is elucidated by a conversation she has with her returned brother after her acquittal: 

“Kya, don’t let this horrible thing drive you further from people. It’s been a soul-crushing ordeal, but this seems to be a chance to start over. The verdict is maybe their way of saying they will accept you.”

“Most people don’t have to be acquitted of murder to be accepted.”

“I know, and you have every reason in the world to hate people. I don’t blame you, but . . .”

“That’s what nobody understands about me.” She raised her voice, “I never hated people. They hated me. They laughed at me. They left me. They harassed me. They attacked me. Well, it’s true; I learned to live without them. Without you. Without Ma! Or anybody!”

Kya’s real emotional hurdle is trusting other people after having been repeatedly abandoned by those closest to her. It’s a nice plot twist that Tate losing someone close to him (his father) compels Kya to finally do something about her love for him, thereby hopping her primary emotional hurdle. Another big aspect of Kya’s character is her study of science, which leads her to try to look at the world more rationally than emotionally:

She knew from her studies that males go from one female to the next, so why had she fallen for this man?

So when she gives in to her emotions and lets herself trust Tate again, it feels like a victory.

But then, after Kya dies of natural causes exploring the marsh when she’s sixty-four, Tate discovers some boxes Kya was hiding beneath the shack’s floorboards–the poetry of a woman who frequently published in the local paper who turns out to be Kya herself. The poem Tate pulls out sounds an awful lot like it’s describing her murder of Chase, so that when he discovers in the boxes the definitive piece of evidence tying Kya to the murder–Chase’s shell necklace–he’s not surprised.

Honestly the book might have been better if it never definitively answered the question of whether Kya killed Chase or not. Because of the narrative stance of having chapters in Kya’s point of view, the fact that her guilt is patently withheld from the reader feels like cheating. And it means we don’t get any development of her character re: how is she coping with having killed someone even if he deserved it? It also means she didn’t consider herself close enough to Tate to tell him the truth about it, which undermines her hopping of that emotional hurdle. Saving the big plot development for the very end ends up undermining the character development in a disappointing way.

Aside from Kya, there’s also the character development of the marsh, which is to say that the marsh feels as developed as a character, if not that it actually undergoes the significant development of a change over the course of the narrative. It plays a pivotal role in being the setting that defines Kya’s character, and in also being the site of the murder. The first two paragraphs of the book establish the marsh as a focal point:

Marsh is not swamp. Marsh is a space of light, where grass grows in water, and water flows into the sky. Slow-moving creeks wander, carrying the orb of the sun with them to the sea, and long-legged birds lift with unexpected grace—as though not built to fly—against the roar of a thousand snow geese.

Then within the marsh, here and there, true swamp crawls into low-lying bogs, hidden in clammy forests. Swamp water is still and dark, having swallowed the light in its muddy throat. Even night crawlers are diurnal in this lair. There are sounds, of course, but compared to the marsh, the swamp is quiet because decomposition is cellular work. Life decays and reeks and returns to the rotted duff; a poignant wallow of death begetting life.

The concluding formulation here is a nice setup of the larger conflict of Kya having to kill Chase in order to live.

In these opening paragraphs Owens also uses a trick she’ll use often to establish the character of the marsh–she’ll give it human attributes, as she does by referring to “its muddy throat” above. Elsewhere she’ll refer to the water as “muscular,” or to the sky wearing a “frumpy sweater” of clouds. The character of the marsh is part and parcel of Kya’s character, since it’s a defining trait of hers to see the marsh this way. It makes sense that she would start to formulate it as human since it’s the one companion she can claim that she can trust not to abandon her.

SCR

Bird Box v. Elevation

‘Tis the season to watch movies, if you’re my family, anyway. According to questionable figures uncharacteristically released by Netflix, we were hardly the only ones streaming their new post-apocalyptic thriller Bird Box starring Sandra Bullock. The film is technically split into three timelines but predominantly follows two: the beginning of an epidemic in which people commit suicide when they see some kind of unidentified creature(s), and five years later, when Bullock’s character Malorie is rowing her two small children, all of them necessarily blindfolded, down a river to a survivors’ compound. In classic narrative-hook fashion, the film opens in the latter timeline, with Malorie barking orders at the children that they aren’t to take their blindfolds off, no matter what.

The film is adapted from the 2014 novel by Josh Malerman. I haven’t read the book, but according to its Wikipedia synopsis, major changes in the adaptation would seem to include the third timeline, which, immediately preceding the river-journey timeline, is introduced a bit later in the film. In this thread, Malorie and the children are still with Tom, one of the survivors from the first timeline, who in the book is apparently killed with all the other original survivors at the climactic point of that timeline, when Malorie and one of the other original survivors give birth. There are two reactions one might have to seeing the creatures–instant suicide, or, if you’re already crazy (in what some have pointed out is a problematic depiction of mentally ill people), remaining alive to try to force other people to look at the creatures. In the first timeline, before this distinction has become apparent, the original survivors let a man, Gary, into their house who turns out to be one of these crazy people and kills them all by exposing them to the creatures. In the movie, Tom kills Gary and survives with Malorie, developing a romantic relationship with her, while in the book Gary kills Tom and escapes, leaving Malorie alone with the children–who then apparently that same day gets a call from a rando telling her about the survivors’ compound. The change of keeping Tom alive would definitely seem to increase and contribute to the acute tension, as it’s his eventual death, in the third timeline (which is also, in the movie, when they get the call about the compound) that drives her to take the risk of the river journey, risky not just for navigating a river blindfolded but because she can’t be sure the compound isn’t inhabited by the insane people. Developing a deeper relationship between her and Tom also creates a greater emotional impact when he dies saving her and the children. 

One major aspect of the film reminded me of a new novella, Elevation, that I’d just read by Stephen King, who also happens to have declared himself a fan of Bird Box. Neither of these texts offers an explanation for the mechanics of their central premise: Bird Box never explains what’s caused the shadowy beings that psychologically manipulate people into suicide upon sight to appear at this particular point, and Elevation never explains why its protagonist Scott is undergoing a rapid weight loss that manifests physically (he feels lighter) but not visibly (he doesn’t look lighter). Both texts instead position themselves as more interested in the consequences of these premises than in the literal logistics of them. 

Bird Box pulls off this lack of explanation more effectively than Elevation because it actually provides something in the way of chronic tension for its main character. The first scene in the timeline where the epidemic starts shows us a pregnant Malorie working on a dark painting that she tells her sister is “about people’s inability to connect,” at which point her sister tries to convince her that she will, in fact, be able to have an emotional connection with her own baby, which Malorie doesn’t seem to believe. Interestingly, the closest we get to an explanation of what exactly is going on with the creatures is when one of the original survivors, Charlie, describes (in something of a stilted heavy-handed speech) similar occurrences of such creatures in different mythologies that “take[] on a form of your worst fears or your deepest sadness or your greatest loss,” which include:

…the Surgat from ancient Christian occult beliefs that made pregnant women encounter their unborn children as other creatures such as lobsters or spiders.

Something in the movie that doesn’t seem to be in the book (synopsis) is when Malorie tells the kids on the river that one of them is going to have to look when they get to the rapids if they’re going to be able to navigate them, and that she’ll be the one to choose who looks. We’re set up to think that she might be inclined to choose the child who’s not actually hers to consign to certain death, but when it comes time to choose, she decides that nobody is going to look after all, indicating that she’s forged a comparable maternal connection to both kids. (Maybe this wasn’t in the book because it seems unlikely a four-year-old would have been able to help her navigate rapids blindfolded any better without a blindfold than with one.) 

Via Tom’s death and the call from the survivors’ compound, the movie’s third timeline contributes to the narrative’s acute tension, thus justifying its existence, but it goes further by continuing to develop Malorie’s chronic tension. Before Tom dies, we see a contrast in their approach to parenting the kids: Tom wants to give them hope for a better life, while Malorie wants them to never forget the harshness of their reality. Not only that, she seems to be using the harshness of that reality to forego forging a stronger emotional bond with them herself–why bother when they could lose her at any second or vice versa? This lack of connection is underscored by her not giving them names but instead referring to them as “Boy” and “Girl,” while they call her not “Mom,” but “Malorie.”  

In the climax of the action, their boat is overturned in the rapids, but everyone manages to make it to shore (extremely unlikely, but the general premise has already asked the audience to suspend its disbelief in the unlikely, and by this point we sure as sh*t don’t want those kids to die). Stumbling blindfolded around the woods trying to find the compound, Malorie trips, falls down a hill, and gets separated from the kids. The creatures start calling out to the kids in Malorie’s voice that it’s okay to take their blindfolds off. Malorie gets back to Boy and starts calling for Girl, but Boy tells her that Girl is scared of her, inciting Malorie to call out a litany of all the things she’s done wrong by way of apology, and Girl comes to her before the creatures get her. This is a satisfying climax because the events of the acute tension have led to a moment that forces the protagonist to reevaluate her understanding of the chronic tension–she confronts that her harshness and attempts to forego an emotional connection for the sake of pragmatic rational survival attempts (“Every single decision I’ve made has been for them,” Malorie defiantly declares to Tom. “Every single one.”) have essentially made her as scary as the creatures they’re trying to escape. She has to reckon with the fact that her means of protection have almost cost her the very thing she was trying to protect. In a way, she’s confronted her worst fear without having to actually look at the creatures who were supposed to show it to her.

Contrast this with the plot of Elevation: our protagonist, Scott, is losing weight inexplicably without actually seeming to. The closest thing Scott has to chronic tension is an ex-wife, and while we don’t necessarily need an explanation of the weight-loss phenomenon, we could do with something in the way of an explanation for the breakup—but we don’t get anything there, either. What we get is something that seems to amount to chronic tension for the town where the story is set, Castle Rock, a King standby. A married lesbian couple has opened a restaurant in town, and the predominantly closed-minded conservative population doesn’t like it. Scott himself, who is their neighbor, never has a problem with it, though the lesbians, or one of them, anyway, has a problem with him, seeming to take his mindset for granted as an extension of the rest of the town’s. When this woman, Deirdre, a former pro runner, aims to win the annual Turkey Trot so she’ll have the privilege of lighting the town’s Christmas tree, Scott makes a bet with her that if he wins, Deirdre and her wife will have to have dinner with him, while if she wins, he’ll never bother them again. Since Scott presents externally as overweight and out of shape, Deirdre considers this a safe bet, but, thanks to his condition, he’s able to gain on her in the final yards of the race. When she trips and falls, he helps her up and lets her win. Deirdre and her wife have dinner with him anyway and become his confidants (Deirdre felt the strange phenomenon afflicting him for herself when he helped her up, since part of it is that anything he touches becomes weightless). Scott’s gesture of goodwill, compounded with something of a misleading picture in the local paper, results in the town’s acceptance of the lesbian couple and the unmitigated success of their formerly threatened restaurant. As Scott becomes increasingly lighter, he enjoys the goodwill of his new friends, then, at the end of the book when his weight has dwindled to nothing, lets himself float peacefully away into the atmosphere. 

The New York Times Book Review characterized the book itself as “light” in its subject matter, offering it as something of an anecdote to the heavy times we live in. Which could be another way of saying it lacks any meaningful substance and is essentially designed to manipulate warm feelies, as per so much meaningless mass appeal entertainment. While it tackles “the weight of closed-mindedness and prejudice,” as the Review puts it, this aspect of the book felt more preachy than integrated into a coherent narrative. King’s books often elevate plot over character, but in a book that actually focuses primarily on a single character as opposed to King’s more typical sprawling casts, Scott is woefully lacking in development due to that absent chronic tension. The change Scott undergoes is all surface–his weight. This acute tension cries out for a concurrent chronic change: what has this inexplicable experience of losing weight caused him to confront about himself and/or his past? What deeper change parallels the surface one? Nothing. Without this parallel change arising from the inexplicable circumstance, the lack of explanation of that circumstance becomes more glaring. You can only get away with not explaining such strange circumstances if the reader’s satisfied with the exploration of the consequences of those circumstances, and in this case, there are no meaningful consequences to explore. 

This is not to say that the preachiness of the Elevation’s prejudice aspect might not ultimately do some good for the readers who are satisfied with getting surface rom-com-type warm feelies rather than more substantial character development (and/or who think Stephen King is the second coming of Christ). I happen to be a recently engaged lesbian myself, and over my annual holiday sojourn, a family member suggested I was getting married to “make a statement.” (This was the same family member, incidentally, that I bought Elevation for as a Christmas present and the reason I happened to read it in the first place after seeing how short it was.) So I couldn’t help but be struck by the depiction of the town’s small-mindedness and hope that it might call my family member’s attention to her own small-mindedness: 

“If those women had kept it on the down low they would have been fine, but they didn’t. Now there are people who think they’re trying to make some kind of statement.” 

Lastly, I wanted to note Bird Box‘s use of an objective correlative, the box of birds the movie’s named for. The birds first appear in the movie in the earlier timeline, when a group of survivors makes a run to a grocery store. Why a cage full of birds would be in a grocery store is something else that you’ll have to suspend your disbelief for, but per Robert Boswell’s spandrel rule, the scene in which they’re introduced doesn’t exist solely to introduce them—it makes logical sense that the group would need to make this risky supply run, and we also see an exchange that starts to show us the effect seeing the creatures has on “crazy” people. The birds turn out to be an alarm system for when these crazy people and/or the creatures are around, which is why Malorie takes a box of birds with her on the river trip. She’s also been told to follow the sounds of birds to get to the compound once she gets past the rapids, and has to listen for them over the psychologically manipulative sounds of the creatures. The birds in the box survive being overturned in the rapids (suspend your disbelief again), and make it to the compound with Malorie and the kids, at which point Malorie asks the kids if they should let the birds go be with their friends. The kids agree, and the birds—three of them, not incidentally—fly up out of the box and away. This emotional culmination of the birds’ use as an objective correlative provides the narrative’s resolution: Malorie and the kids have attained their goal of making it to the compound, where it’s implied their quality of life will be vastly improved as they reconnect with other people, and the birds flying out of the box that symbolizes Malorie’s previously circumscribed existence drive that point home—not least because a story Tom tried to tell the kids earlier that Malorie refused to let him finish turned out to end with him climbing a tree to discover a nest of birds that then flew away. And not to mention this is also the point that Malorie finally gives Boy and Girl their real names, Boy after Tom and Girl after her real mother. Cue the waterworks.

I’m by no means claiming that Bird Box is a masterpiece of literary craft–The New Yorker‘s movie critic Richard Brody outlines several reasons that it isn’t, including that its world-building is “thinly and lazily conceived”–but compared to Elevation it’s a much better crafted piece of mass entertainment, predominantly because, to a certain extent, at least, it lets the character carry the plot rather than the other way around. Elevation’s conclusion of the weightless Scott simply drifting away could be read as a literal manifestation of the latter.

-SCR

“A Larger Reality”

Since its inception, the genre of science fiction has been a man’s world, but the most notable exception has been, of course, none other than Ursula K. Le Guin, whom we lost after her immensely prolific career at the beginning of this year. Le Guin received renewed attention for the speech she gave in 2014 when she accepted the National Book Foundation Medal at the National Book Awards ceremony, in which she emphasized the “need [for] writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art.”

Le Guin’s arguably best known work is The Left Hand of Darkness, originally published in 1969. Offering a vision of a species of human that’s transcended gender, the work seems ahead of its time, especially relevant today amid our current state of gender politics and lacking governmental diplomacy. In keeping with Le Guin’s credo that we need writers who are “realists of a larger reality,” Le Guin structures the novel by alternating chapters tracking the ongoing acute tension thread of action with chapters that break from that action to offer other lore from that world that underscores the action thematically while also shedding light on the function of the narratives our culture tells itself, and how these narratives resonate through history. 

1 A Parade in Erhenrang
A visitor from Earth, Genly Ai, visits the nation Karhide on the planet Gethen/Winter. He witnesses a parade culminating in the keystone ceremony where the king, Argaven XV, mortars an archway with (animal) blood. Ai’s guide is the head of Karhide’s parliament, Estraven, who later that night invites Ai to dinner to tell him he can no longer be his patron and won’t be recommending to the king Ai’s mission to “bring about an alliance between Gethen and Ekumen,” since Gethen is at a turning point and Estraven’s found himself falling out of the king’s favor while others who maintain it, like the king’s cousin Tibe, are against Ai’s mission. Ai is mad at himself for being tricked by the self-serving politician. 

2 The Place Inside the Blizzard
A “hearth-tale” from during the reign of Argaven VIII about two brothers who “vowed kemmering” to each other for life even though they weren’t supposed to after one had a child. After the one who had a child committed suicide, the other was driven out as an outlaw and fled into a blizzard, and started to get frostbite until they entered a strange white land where they were healed and met their brother, who said they could stay there forever. But the first one didn’t want to and fled; he was found later after having lost his left hand to frostbite, and died shortly thereafter. 

3 The Mad King
Genly Ai goes to visit King Argaven XV, hearing a report while he’s waiting that Estraven’s been exiled for treason. Argaven tells Ai that he considers him a tool of Estraven’s, and wants to know why he wants Gethen to join the Ekumen’s alliance, which includes 83 worlds and 3000 countries. But Argaven is not swayed by Ai’s argument that the union will advance trade and knowledge, difficult to achieve between worlds so distant from one another. Ai shows him a machine capable of instantaneous communication with other worlds, but Argaven is unimpressed and believes he’s being tricked to be taken advantage of.

4 The Nineteenth Day
An old East Karhidish story about a lord who pays the Foretellers to ask when he will die, and he receives the answer that it will be on the 19th day of the month, but they don’t say what month or year. When a servant goes and asks the Foretellers how long his lord will live; they say longer than the servant. The lord, enraged the servant couldn’t get a better answer, kills the servant and then goes mad and eventually hangs himself on the 19th of the month.  

5 The Domestication of Hunch
Having failed in his mission, Ai heads east with a caravan to gather information from the Foretellers. After a mildly harrowing trip to an isolated outpost in the mountains, he meets the Foretellers and poses them his question: will Gethen be part of the Ekumenical alliance in five years? After a seeming channeling of their collective sexual energy (they’re supposed to be celibate), they answer a straightforward, yes. The Weaver Faxe expounds to Genly about the virtues of uncertainty. 

6 One Way into Orgoreyn
Estraven barely manages to leave Karhide and makes it to Orgoreyn before his three-day limit is up and he would be killed. He works in fisheries for awhile before he becomes secretary to a powerful official there, Yegey, and tells them that he thinks the king’s cousin Tibe has designs to manipulate Argaven and change the face of Karhide, starting with a border dispute over a valley. Estraven believes the only way they’ll be able to maintain their own sovereignty in Orgoreyn is talk to Genly about the Ekumenical alliance. 

7 The Question of Sex
Notes from the first Ekumenical landing on Gethen (forty years before Genly’s arrival) lay out how the sexuality of the androgynous humans on Gethen apparently works: they go through cycles of “somer” and “kemmer”; during the latter the attributes of one gender or the other is adopted and sex and conception will occur (the same individual might be different genders in different periods of kemmer). Vowing “kemmering” is the equivalent of marriage. The note-taker postulates that the lack of gender might be responsible for their lack of war, while conceding that the extreme cold climate might also be responsible. 

8 Another Way Into Orgoreyn
Eventually Genly returns to Karhide, where Tibe begins actively promoting war. A former kemmering of Estraven’s asks Genly to deliver some money to Estraven; Genly agrees and journeys to Orgoreyn, enduring a raid on a small town along the way. He again meets Estraven and delivers the money, suspicious that Estraven orchestrated his arrival. 

9 Estraven the Traitor
A recorded story about Estraven’s line before the reign of Argaven I, a time when Karhide was actually at war because of border disputes and one of Estraven’s ancestors, injured, ended up at the cabin of his enemy, but they discovered their hands were identical and vowed kemmering to each other. The next day more enemies showed up and recognized Estraven’s ancestor as the Lord’s heir and killed him, but later his newborn baby was brought to the Lord and named heir, and his brothers tried to kill him for this but he killed them and, injured, ended up back at the enemy’s cabin. They again recognized they had the same hands, and Estraven vowed peace and gave up half the disputed lands, and for this he was labeled a traitor. 

10 Conversations in Mishnory
Estraven warns Genly in vague terms not to be used by the same faction. Genly is warned there’s a Karhide spy present before he eats with the Orgota people and tells them about his mission, revealing info he didn’t in Karhide about how easily he can be picked up by an orbiting ship. He learns of the existence of SARF, Orgoreyn’s secret police. 

11 Soliloquies in Mishnory
Estraven muses about the politics behind Orgoreyn’s Commensal of Thirty-Three decision about what do about Genly the envoy; the secret police think he’s a Karhide agent and that the alliance he’s promoting is a hoax. The secret police also control all communication in Orgoreyn, unlike in Karhide, and so the public has no idea of Genly’s presence. Some members of the Commensals want him to bring his ship down as proof, but he won’t do so until they’ve announced his presence in a gesture of goodwill. Estraven warns Genly he needs to show his ship as proof before it’s too late.  

12 On Time and Darkness
A myth from North Orgoreyn’s “book of the Yomesh canon” about Meshe the seer who was born at the center of time and does not see darkness, which is part of the support used for the theory of the expanding universe.

13 Down on the Farm
Genly is arrested and taken on a harrowing truck ride with two dozen other prisoners to a “refectory.” He works in a sawmill and is given drugs like the rest of the prisoners to prevent them going into kemmering and other drugs that erase his memory before he’s interrogated; the drugs increasingly physically debilitate him until he can’t work anymore. He makes friends with another old infirm prisoner, Asra, who tells him some myths before he, Asra, dies. 

14 The Escape
Estraven, using forged papers, makes his way to the prison where Genly’s being held and poses as a guard, breaking Genly out and dragging his unconscious form out into the harsh winter forest. Genly eventually wakes and Estraven explains why he did it, because he thinks Genly ended up where he did because Estraven put too much trust in certain members of the Thirty-Three who he hoped would use him to make the alliance and gain power over Karhide, but who ended up selling him out to the SARF. Estraven tries to convince Genly that he’s been working to forge the alliance all along. 

15 To the Ice
They decide on a route back to Karhide that will avoid inspectors and be about 800 miles. Estraven steals provisions and they set off on snowshoes with a loaded sled weighing 300 pounds. Genly gets sick from some meat they eat but they keep going. 

16 Between Drumner and Dremegole
Entries from Estraven’s daily journal about the journey: they’re trying to pass by an erupting volcano, and to find an ascent that’s not too steep to get to the plateau on top of a glacier, which delays their trip because they have to keep moving west to find a way up when they’re trying to go north. They finally make it up. Things get a bit awkward when Estraven goes into kemmer, and they discuss the Terran species of women. They’re getting light on food. 

17 An Orgota Creation Myth
An Orgoreyn creation myth about how the sun melted the ice into “ice-shapes” that then created the rest of the world, including men, though the first man to wake (Edondurath) killed the rest except for one that escaped and eventually came back to mate with him when he was in kemmer to then create the rest of mankind.

18 On the Ice
Ai’s perspective as they continue the ice-trek, which is much colder now that they’re out of range of the volcanoes, making Genly vulnerable to frostbite, but they continue on. We revisit the kemmer conversation they had and Genly concludes they share a platonic love that they tacitly agreed sexual relations would have threatened, though he’s not sure if he’s right about this.  

19 Homecoming
We stay in Ai’s perspective as they continue; their progress is hindered when the snow stops and it becomes overcast, essentially blinding them when there are no shadows cast on the ground for them to detect changes in the terrain. After Estraven’s almost killed falling into a crevasse he decides to change their route, though it will take longer. They have to go several days without food but make it into Karhide and are provided food and shelter by villagers whom they don’t reveal their identity to. They have to go another 150 miles to get to a town with a big enough radio transmitter for Genly to call his ship. An old friend of Estraven’s gets him a false identity and a job so he can stay in Karhide. Genly gets to a transmitter station and sends a signal to his ship. When he returns, Estraven is fleeing because his friend betrayed him to Tibe. He’s shot at the border and dies in Genly’s arms. 

20 A Fool’s Errand
Genly is taken back to Erhenrang and received by the king, who will join the alliance. He’ll wait to revoke the order of exile against Estraven until after the ship arrives. The ship does arrive, and Genly is startled to see it’s now unfamiliar men and women. Months later, after they’re all exploring different parts of the planet, he goes to see Estraven’s father and meets his son to give them Estraven’s journals and tell them what happened. 

The End

The “larger reality” the book seems to reflect is that deception and mistrust in politics are universal–even when the nominal gender categories of “men” and “women” don’t exist. The chapter that explicates how kemmer works postulates that the differences in their sexuality might be responsible for their lack of war but then himself offers a supposition to counter this (it could be the cold weather). The fact that the very next chapter has the character of Tibe actively promoting war further underscores that this society’s sexual characteristics have not made them immune to this seemingly human problem. A later chapter (9) with a past story confirms that war has definitely existed on this planet. The SARF secret police also seem to be a parallel to our CIA, especially when a reference to “the farm” is included–though this is referring to a prison rather than a training facility.

Thus, it’s interesting to consider how much of a role in the plot the androgyny of the Gethenians actually plays. The most direct role it seems to play is when Genly is imprisoned and given drugs to prevent him from going in to kemmering that have adverse effects on him and debilitate him to the point where he’s utterly infirm. It seems Estraven still would have had to rescue him even if he hadn’t been unable to do anything. It also seems like the plot developments don’t occur because of the androgyny, but in spite of it; we do see how Genly’s lack of understanding of the culture impedes his ability to persuade them of the benign motives of his mission, raising the larger thematic question of how sex and gender impact our real-world politics. It’s also interesting that in spite of the Gethenians’ capability to be either gender, Estraven is referred to as “he.” 

The narrative model would seem to be a classic one: the protagonist, Genly Ai (pronounced “eye” or “I”), gets what he wants, but it comes at a cost–his friend’s life. The interesting narrative development within this model is that the person who becomes his friend and helps him with his mission is someone he originally considered an obstacle. 

One narrative tension the androgyny provides is the question of what exactly “kemmer” means; Le Guin offers us a myth in the second chapter of two brothers who have vowed kemmer to each other without giving us an explicit explanation of what this means, which she waits to reveal until a later chapter with a previous scout’s field notes.

One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.

-SCR