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 realized 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, help 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. 

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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

“The Cost of Dehaunting” Write Up by Laura Mercado

In “The Cost of Dehaunting,” by Dominica Phetteplace, Petra is at a job in a super expensive condo, hired to dehaunt it. There’s nothing wrong with the house, though, just a crooked floor, so she walks around to waste time. We move onto her next job, a house that will soon be demolished but the owner wants it dehaunted to fetch a higher price for the land. There are ghost cats in the kitchen so Petra puts them in a bag instead of passing them over into the ghost world. Petra gets a third call, to go dehaunt some apartments. Turns out there’s no actual ghost and it’s a ruse to evict the people living there. She wants to connect with the tenants but is rusty in her Spanish. She has flashbacks to her relationship with her friend Corazon, which she kind of relates to, her and her mother, which she minimally relates to. Then, she goes to her therapist Joanna’s office. She talks about being a Latina but mostly talks about the other country, which her therapist doesn’t fully believe. Petra lets the cats out and the therapist kind of starts to believe, but not fully until Petra pulls a ritual to out the cats away that doesn’t work as well as it should because she uses a simpler, rusty technique. The cats cause maybe but finally get absorbs in a gem of Petra’s. Joanna finally fully accepts Petra’s story and sits down for Petra to tell her tales.

Petra is technically Latina. She’s Morena and her name is as Spanish as it gets; anyone can tell by looking at her she has a Hispanic background. Petra’s sphere she works in, however, is majority millionaire of Anglo descent. The only recognizable part of Petra to her customers is designer Mansur Gavriel bag, and she catches a realtor, Wendy, “eyeing the bag” as she performs ghost rituals. It’s the only part about her appearance and her rituals the Anglo clientele can immediately relate to. There are two main worlds in this story: this dimension, and a magical other world she refers to as “the other country”. It is from this other country she gets her wealth from, though she must reside in this dimension. Similarly, there are two cultural spheres Petra alternates between: her Mexican background, and her American present. Petra looks right at home in her Mexican background, but her core- the culture she knows best and was surrounded by her whole life- is that of her American present. She lives in a state of in-between, never able to completely cross over into one culture or the other. Some of the ghosts we see her deal with in this piece, primarily the cat spirits, live in a similar state of not quite passing over. Petra affords the high-class life she leads only due to the gems she gathered from the other country; additionally, she is only able to successfully complete the ghost rituals through a mix of Mexican rituals. Both of these instances show that Petra would not be who she is today without her backgrounds, both in culture and in the “other country”. It shows that the magical land of the “other country” is a physical manifestation of her Mexican culture, which Petra prefers to reside in but must pay the price of isolation. Petra attempts to get over this feeling of isolation by talking to her second generation Latina therapist, Joanna. She talks to Joanna about things she cannot talk to her mother or her friend Corazon about: her adventures in the other country. Joanna’s mother, fully Latina, cannot understand the struggles of juggling two cultures. Corazon, being mega rich, of light skin, and living solely in this American culture cannot understand Petra’s struggle. Joanna the therapist is the only person in Petra’s life with some form of connection to both cultures, although even she does not fully understand Petra’s struggle (Joanna is also of light skin, has a totally American last name, and has a first name that can be pronounced in both Spanish and English, depending on the situation. She is able to seamlessly cross over cultures). Petra feels anger upon Joanna’s attempts to relate her struggles of identifying as a Latina to her own, due to the privilege of having a transferable name and genetics that allow for a smoother cultural transitioning; she internally explodes in a similar way the spirit cats do when Petra attempts to gather them from Joanna’s office in a non-traditional manner. The cats are Petra; Petra is the cats. Ironically, it is the ghost cats’ anger that finally leads to Joanna accepting Petra’s struggles in fitting in from the other country, or other culture, to this one; it is once the cats almost destroy all that Petra finally has her struggles listened to and fully understood by someone, what she wanted all along.

I want to copy how deeply the metaphor of the ghosts and cats represented Petra’s conflict with living in two cultures. The chronic tension is incredibly intertwined with the acute, and in a literal manifestation.

Exercise: Pick an object and write a scene with it. Put that paper away. Pull out new paper. Pick a character and write a scene with them having an internal conflict. Then cut up each line from both pieces of paper and collage them together, making a new story with the object intertwined with the internal conflict. Then take this idea and write a more fluent, cohesive scene with it.

Questions:

  • Was there a villain/ bad guy in this story? Who was the bad guy to y’all?
  • Thoughts on writing two cultures in one piece? Was they way the author switched between them confusing to anyone?
  • Satisfied with the ending? Did it feel like a cop-out or was it wholesome?

I’m a Believer (of Writing)

Summary Part 1: Erin

The story starts off by telling us how to live our life. It says to try at something and fail so you can write haikus about loss. The story goes on to say your mother will pay you no mind and tell you to do the dishes. When you do you’ll break a glass. In school, you write villanelles and sonnets about your teacher. You try writing a fiction story and turn it into your teacher, who says there’s no plot. It tells you to take babysitting jobs and tell your stories to the kids. You decide to take a child psychology major and sign up for a bird class. You find out the bird class is creative writing and you decide to stay there because sometimes mistakes happen for a reason.

Summary Part 2: Alessa

Francie decides she likes college life, meeting all kinds of people with different levels of intelligence and different points of view.

The assignment that week in creative writing is to narrate a violent happening. The teacher tells her she has no sense of plot when he hands back her writing piece. She writes another story with six paragraphs and reads it out loud in class, someone later coming up to her to ask if she’s crazy.

Francie eventually decides that she should probably stick to comedies and starts dating someone funny. She writes down all his jokes without his knowledge and gives her socially handicapped characters the name of his old girlfriend. Francie’s psychology advisor tells her to focus more on her major. Francie says she understands.

For the next two years, she continues going to creative writing seminars and watches as her class looks through her writing for some plot. Francie gets depressed and finally switches majors when she realizes how happy she is while writing.

Her writing professor asks for altered realistic stories created through the power of imagination. When Francie tells her roommate about her idea, the roommate suggests going out for a big beer. The creative writing seminar doesn’t like her idea-turned-story.

The next semester, the writing professor asks for stories about personal experience, but only three things have happened to her in the past three years; losing her virginity, her parents getting divorced, and her brother returning home from the war with only half a thigh. She writes the first two stories with ease, but no words can be found for the last.

Summary part 3: Meghana

Francie is at an undergraduate cocktail party where her roommate says that all she writes about is her boyfriend, but Francie insists she likes to count the syllables. She is having trouble thinking of things to write about, and when her mom visits her, giving her a business book and a baby naming book, her mom doubts her writing will succeed. Her writing continues to disappoint those around her, and she attempts law school but backs out. Instead, she works small jobs, takes writing classes, and breaks up with her boyfriend. The story ends with Francie, still failing at her writing, with an unencouraging date.

The chronic tension is that Francie didn’t get any support for her writing from her family. The acute tension is that in her creative writing college course, she got a lot of harsh criticism for her stories.

Analysis Part 1: Erin

POV

The first thing that I tracked in this story was the Point of View. The story is in second-person POV, evident from the way the author uses ‘you, you’re, and your’ as a way of talking to the audience. In this perspective, the story of ‘you’ is narrated. This way of writing is often used in instructions or directions, and in this case, it may be correct with the title of the story being ‘How to Become a Writer.’ The main character’s name is also a gender-neutral name, Francie can be the shortened form of Francis (male) or Frances (female). This can lead to the assumption that this is a how-to guide of how to become a writer told as if you’re the main character.

In your high school English class look only at Mr. Killian’s face.

This is the first time that ‘you’ is used in the story. It’s assuming every aspect of your life, to the name of the teacher and what you’ll be doing in class. It’s telling you, the reader exactly what to think and feel at each stage of life.

When you are home, in the privacy of your own room, faintly scrawl in pencil beneath his black-inked comments: “Plots are for dead people, pore-face.”

This line of the story is reinforcing the idea of what to think and what to do in every situation. It’s almost as if the story is told from personal experience like this is the author retelling her story of how she became a writer. A lot of details like this are very specific and interesting to think of a deeper meaning for.

Try to smile proudly.

Apply to college as a child psychology major.

Here’s the author detailing your life again. Because you are good with kids you try out for a child psychology major. Throughout the story, it always thrusts the reader to think certain ways. Because of the lack of a concrete main character, it relies on the reader’s personal experiences to fill in the blanks. This story has a lot of elements in it. It contains lots of writing styles like haikus, sonnets, villanelles, and fiction. It also is chock-full of personal experiences, the mother, the brother in the war, the boyfriend, how ‘you’ like birds, creative writing, the book of baby names for characters, and so much more. All of the story is chock-full of different narrative experiences. I think this is done because the story is supposed to be in ‘your’ point of view. It has a lot of experiences because it’s trying to connect to the reader. The reader is probably going to have experienced at least something similar to the main character in the story. This means a lot of people can see themselves in the role of the ‘you’ that’s prominent of the story. Especially writers, who can connect to the creative writing part of the story as well as all of the writing types.

You will continue, unfortunately, to view the world in exactly these terms for the rest of your life.

This will also connect to a multitude of people. We all have a way of seeing the world, and this is explored here. We all think of the world in certain terms, a place to live, a place ruined by the older generations, a place ruined by an incompetent president, or just as a rock floating in space. No matter what your view is you’re set on a core belief of how the world works.

Why write? Where does writing come from? These are questions to ask yourself.

Here’s a line that also connects to plenty of people. I’m sure we’ve all fallen into creative slumps where we ask ourselves ‘why write’ or ‘what do I want to achieve with my writing’ or, the dreaded, ‘will I be able to make a living off of my writing?’

Later on in life you learn that writers are merely open, helpless texts with no real understanding of what they have written and therefore must half-believe anything and everything that is said of them.

This is also true for a lot of writers. It’s giving us foreshadowing for careers in writing. The half-believing what’s said of them also cuts deep. It’s like saying to take constructive criticism with a grain of salt, something young writers who, according to the author, won’t’ learn this until later in life because they’re taught that each criticism is something to be taken seriously.

 …the same way you said it when someone in the fourth grade accused you of really liking oboe lessons and your parents weren’t really just making you take them.

This is another specific detail that was, in my opinion, put in to connect to certain and specific people. It’s symbolic of not wanting to do something and insisting you hate it just to win an argument, even if you actually like it. I myself can think of plenty of examples of myself doing just that.

Perhaps you go to graduate school. Perhaps you work odd jobs and take writing courses at night. Perhaps you are working on a novel and writing down all the clever remarks and intimate personal confessions you hear during the day. Perhaps you are losing your pals, your acquaintances, your balance.

The repeated use of ‘perhaps’ here is what caught my attention. When a word is repeated, be it fiction or poetry, it’s always to put stress on a specific point or draw attention to something the author thinks is important. Here the thing that’s important is that the story has a very set form of this is exactly what’s going to happen in your life from the names of your teachers to what you write about.’ Here is the story saying that this is perhaps what you’ll do instead of this is what you’ll do. It’s giving the reader creative liberty of the story, taking you out of the cookie-cutter form and giving flexibility.

“You Are Here,” says the red star on the back of the menu.

This is one of the last lines of the story. It’s when you’re an adult, out of school, ready to make a name for yourself now that you’re on your own. The story has layed all the groundwork out for you on ‘how to become a writer.’ And now you are here, your training is complete, and now the story is saying, go off, be your own person, I’ve given you the steps now make use of them.

Characterization

I’m going to contradict myself here and go with the assumption that Francie is a real person and the story is being told through her eyes.

Show it to your mom. She is tough and practical. She has a son in Vietnam and a husband who may be having an affair. She believes in wearing brown because it hides spots. She’ll look briefly at your writing, then back at you with a face blank as a donut. She’ll say: “How about emptying the dishwasher?”

This is one of the first insights into Francie’s character. She immediately dismissed Francie’s writing and suggests something for Francie to do that will only benefit her. The mom doesn’t show interest in her kid’s hobby and doesn’t compliment her for doing something creative, seemingly seeing it as a waste of time.

Decide faces are important. Write a villanelle about pores. Struggle.

This gives us knowledge of the beginning of Francie’s writing life. Through the story, we always get a front row seat to what’s going on in Francie’s life, including her thoughts. The beginning of the story is literally the beginning of her story, starting with what she first writes about and her struggles.

 You start to get up to leave and then don’t. The lines at the registrar this week are huge. Perhaps you should stick with this mistake.

This is what jumpstarts Francie’s life as a writer. It’s where she gets critiques when she explores what she can do with writing, where she finds her calling. It’s the start of her career as a writer, the baby steps to the life she’s about to lead.

You have, however, a ludicrous notion of plot.

This is her first critique in a real creative writing class. The plot in her stories is something that Francie can never seem to overcome. It’s like her terrible crystal, her class always picks apart her stories for not having any plot, and regardless her stories seem to never change.

Start dating someone who is funny, someone who has what in high school you called a “really great sense of humor” and what now your creative writing class calls “self-contempt giving rise to comic form.” Write down all of his jokes, but don’t tell him you are doing this.

This shows Francie’s manipulative relationship with her boyfriend. She dates him, perhaps because she likes him but also because he helps her stories. She’s always ridiculed by her class for having no notion of a plot so she tries something different. The fact that she writes down all his jokes without telling him is a big teller that she’s also using him to get better at writing.

On days when it is your turn, you look at the class hopefully as the scour your mimeographs for a plot. They look back up at you, drag deeply, and then smile in a sweet sort of way.

Despite her attempts, her class still doesn’t like her writing. They smile in pity and still don’t think much of her writing. It’s frustrating for her, even as she keeps writing and writing people always say her images are great but lack plot.

Say to your roommate: “Mopey Dick, get it?” Your roommate looks at you, her face blank as a large Kleenex. She comes up to you, like a buddy, and puts an arm around your burdened shoulders. “Listen, Francie,” she says, slow as speech therapy. “Let’s go out and get a big beer.”

Here is Francie coming up with an idea on her own. She finds it witty and funny and presents it to her roommate because she likes it and seems to be seeking confirmation from her friend. She’s repaid with her roommate giving her a blank stare and, without commenting on her story idea, suggests they go out for beer. This is, without a doubt, probably very frustrating for Francie. Now not only is her plot being criticized but her friend seemingly shoots down her idea without so much as batting an eye.

Insist you are not very interested in any one subject at all, that you are interested in the music of language, that you are interested in in syllables, because they are the atoms of poetry, the cells of the mind, the breath of the soul. Begin to feel woozy. Stare into your plastic wine cup.

This is Francie when confronted with the prospect of writing as a major fiercely denying it. When trying to say a different interest it still loops back to writing. This is because of all of the criticism her writing has gotten. Throughout her life- her mother and roommate turning a blind eye to her writing, her teacher and classmates always telling her she has no plot, she is unsure of her path now. The idea of writing as a profession scares her because she’s not sure she can pull it off at this point.

From here on in, many things can happen. But the main one will be this: you decide not to go to law school after all, and, instead, you spend a good, big chunk of your adult life telling people how you decided not to go to law school after all. Somehow you end up writing again. Perhaps you go to graduate school. Perhaps you work odd jobs and take writing courses at night. Perhaps you are working on a novel and writing down all the clever remarks and intimate personal confessions you hear during the day. Perhaps you are losing your pals, your acquaintances, your balance.

This is Francie’s adult life being described in a nutshell. Like a lot of her life, it’s hard and she’s losing a lot to achieve what she wants. She still wants to be a writer, working incredibly hard to make her dream a reality. It shows the life a lot of aspiring writers lead and the harsh reality of making it big as a writer.

Possible plot? A woman gets on a bus.

This is one of the last things in the story. It’s Francie, after working incredibly hard, finally taking all of her criticism to heart. She’s growing and considering how to become better. She’s starting to do plot and writing down plot ideas. It’s a small step, but it will mean a lot in the long run.

Discussion Questions

  1. How do you think the story would have differed is Francie’s mother had been supportive of her efforts to become a writer?
  2. Do you think this story was created with the intent of connecting to writers or telling the story of Francie?

 

Analysis Part 2: Alessa

The craft elements that I tracked were conflicts and literary devices.

One of the many conflicts is when the main character discovers that the computer has made an error in her schedule when she shows up to the wrong class. Aside from that, the most commonly mentioned one in this story was how the main character had “a ludicrous notion of plot…outrageous and incompetent.” After reading one of her stories out loud in class, someone later approached her afterward to ask her if she was crazy. Later on in the story, Frankie, the main character, gets into an obsessive/depressive state (spent too much time slouched, demoralized, self-mutilating and losing weight) but continues writing nonetheless. Later on, Frankie realizes how deep her love for creative writing runs and decides to switch majors which means she has “fallen in with a bad crowd.”

Now, moving on to literary devices. It is commonly used throughout the story, especially lines that mention blank faces (which is followed further on Meghana’s analysis). Metaphors and similes are the most commonly used such as: “…she says, slow as speech therapy…” and “…writers are merely open, helpless texts…”

Conflict:

  • Some of your images are quite nice, but you have no sense of plot.
  • You have, however, a ludicrous notion of plot.
  • They say your sense of plot is outrageous and incompetent.
  • After class someone asks you if you are crazy.
  • You spend too much time slouched and demoralized.
  • You are said to be self-mutilating and losing weight, but you continue writing.
  • You have, as your mother would say, fallen in with a bad crowd.

Literary Devices:  

  • It is a pond, a cherry blossom, a wind brushing against sparrow wing leaving for mountain.
  • These are questions that you keep in your wallet, like calling cards.
  • let your imagination sail, to let it grow big-bellied in the wind
  • she says, slow as speech therapy
  • a permanent smirk nestled into one corner of his mouth.
  • Your type-writer hums.
  • writers are merely open, helpless texts
  • Now you have time like warts in your hands.
  • Consider how it looks like the soggy confetti of a map

Discussion Questions:

  1.      What was the main conflict of the story?
  2.      What is the significance of dialogue in the story?

Analysis Part 3: Meghana

I first tracked the repeating phrase of “face as blank as.” In the story, the writer uses the phrase to make the reader pay attention to a significant change to Francie’s mindset and emotional state. The first time it is used, it says, “She’ll look briefly at your writing, then back up at you with a face blank as a donut.” This shows that from the very start, Francie had little support from any parental figure in her life. After this, her mother tells Francie to do the dishes, which she does angrily. This was the first sign in her life that she wanted to write, so it is understandable for her to be upset. This creates an unstable emotional base to build the rest of her writing career off of. She says that this is “a required pain and suffering”, meaning that this lack of encouragement contributed to her writing. She also doesn’t get the support she needs from her teacher who says that she has no sense of plot. Her frustration is again shown by her scratching out the comments and writing “plots are for dead people, pore-face.”

The next time the phrase is used, it says,

‘Excuse me, isn’t this Birdwatching One-oh-one?’ The class stops and turns to look at you. They seem to all have one face – giant and blank as a vandalized clock. Someone with a beard booms out, ‘No. this is Creative Writing.’

This begins her college experience where she continuously feels isolated and left out. She is already not supposed to be in the class, so Francie feels alienated. She sees herself in the middle of everyone else, which is apparent in the lines,

Some are smarter than you. And some, you notice, are dumber than you. You will continue, unfortunately, to view the world in exactly these terms for the rest of your life.

People in her class even ask her if she’s crazy. She is different and feels as if there is no place for her.

The phrase is used again in the lines,

Your roommate looks at you, her face blank as a large Kleenex. She comes up to you, like a buddy, and puts an arm around your burdened shoulders. ‘Listen, Francie,’ she says, slow as speech therapy. ‘Let’s go out and get a big beer.’

She is being treated like a child and dehumanized because everyone close to her is acting as if her writing is making her insane. At a cocktail party when asked if her writing is all about her boyfriend, she says

you stiffen and say, ‘I do not,’ the same way you said it when someone in the fourth grade accused you of really liking oboe lessons and your parents really weren’t just making you take them.

In this part, it shows her trying to be more like everyone else. She feels uncomfortable and stiffens up when she is singled out. She also compares herself to a fourth grader, someone younger than her. This line is highlighting the fact that her roommate was babying her.  When speaking to her mom, Francie says that she enjoys writing, and her mom says sarcastically, “Sure you like to write. Of course.” The fact that her mother won’t outright tell her that she doesn’t like that Francie is writing may make her feel like her mom isn’t treating her like an adult. Other people also ask Francie if writing was some kind of fantasy of hers, which says that it’ll never be a reality. They have no faith in her abilities, but they’re trying to cover it up to sound polite. This makes Francie feel alone because no one will truthfully talk to her anymore.

The last time the phrase is used, it is to describe a date she is on where the man’s face is as blank as a sheet of paper. While she is talking, the man begins smoothing all his arm hair in one direction. He is clearly uncomfortable in the conversation about her writing and distracts himself. He seems to see Francie as a crazy artist who has no real talent, so the world’s perception of her hasn’t changed since the beginning of the story. While tracking the phrase “as blank as”, you can see Francie’s progression of her reactions to the lack of support. She is used to no one believing in her by the end. I would like to incorporate a repeating phrase in my fiction to see how it keeps the reader’s attention.

The second craft element I followed was theme. I believe the theme is her confusion with her own identity. The very first words from the story are “First, try to be something, anything, else” which sounds like she isn’t very confident in what she is doing now. This confusion continues into her college life when she thinks her placement in creative writing class was fate. If you believe in fate, it is like you have no control over your own life because it’s been planned out for you. Francie may feel like everything in her life, including her being a writer, is simply happening to her without her being able to affect it. Francie also has a hard time committing to one thing. She tries comedies and attempts to focus on the syllables in writing. She also switches majors. Her inability to stick to one thing is because she isn’t sure who she wants to be yet. Her teachers also confuse her. The first professor is “stressing the Power of Imagination. Which means he doesn’t want long descriptive stories about your camping trip last July” but then her second professor wants personal experiences and camping trips. These two conflicting people in her writing career could’ve only confused her.

The lines “Begin to wonder what you do write about. Or if you have anything to say. Or if there even is such a thing as a thing to say. Limit these thoughts to no more than ten minutes a day; like sit-ups, they can make you thin” are very important to the theme. Francie starts to question whether her writing is saying anything since she doesn’t know what she wants to say. Her uncertainty about her identity is overwhelming and stressful, which is why she says she must limit the thoughts or else she’ll become thin. Writing can help you find out more about yourself. Francie isn’t ready to figure out who she is yet, so she feels safe in her other classes. Also, at the end when she compares writing to polio, this is saying that writing is hurting her. Throughout the story, we see that Francie does hurt herself to get through her writing. This shows that she doesn’t understand herself yet. At the very end of the story when she is looking at coleslaw on a menu, she says how it looks like “the soggy confetti of a map: where you’ve been, where you’re going- “You are Here,” says the red star on the back of the menu.” Francie is obviously lost about her individuality. She is trying to figure it out by looking back at her past and where she plans to go next, but she finds herself on the back of the menu, which is kind of nowhere. This reflects the theme throughout the whole story.

Discussion Questions

  1.       How did the writer portray Francie’s feelings toward her own writing and how did it grow throughout the story?
  2.       How does the mother add to the theme?

“Paper Pills” Write Up by Edward Clarke

Paper Pills” by Sherwood Anderson tells the tale of the Doctor Reefy and his young wife, both prominent residents of the small and rural town of Winesburg, Ohio. He is a lonely man, very set in his ways and she has been left with dozens of suitors after her parents died, leaving her a vast fortune of land and capitol. After becoming pregnant by one of these suitors, she goes to see Doctor Reefy who, instead of giving her medical attention, takes her on a ride through the country. They quickly fall in love but she dies but a year after their marriage.

I’ve never read a story in which the sense of touch is so monumentally important. One of the things I highlighted were the dozens of references to hard, rounded objects, and both the sicknesses and beauties that lay within them. In the paper pills, there lie the thoughts of the good Doctor Reefy, in the belly of the tall dark girl there lies an unwanted child. In the gnarled apples, there is a tender lump of sweet flesh and in the jeweler’s cold eyes there is a lurking lust. The repetition of this symbol creates a very interesting impression on the reader’s thoughts surrounding Doctor Reefy. To the outside world, he is cold and “jaded”, as is his horse, but to the tall dark girl he falls in love with, he seems to be a warm “summer afternoon”.

I also think it’s interesting to examine how stories such as this one function when removed from the context of their larger collection. “Paper Pills” is a short chapter from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio which chronicles the comings and goings of a small town much in the same fashion as John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row or Carsen Jensen’s We, the Drowned. In my opinion, this story does stand up to being removed from its kin dually through its incredible description and its grip on the narrative. I don’t usually like stories with basic hooks like “Within a year after the marriage she died”. Lines like that are supposed to make you wonder whether or not the rich lady was married for her money and murdered for her land and the tactic is somewhat cliché, I think. But this story does something really interesting with it. It leaves the question totally open but hints, again and again, as to a lurking evil within both the doctor and the setting itself. The text is ripe with “twisted apples”, “dripping” jaws, and blood running “down on [a] woman’s white dress”. Each of these is dark because it takes something sweet and turns it rancid; the sweetest apples are trapped within the deformed skins, the kisses of a lover are turned into bloody and bruised bite marks, and the pregnancy of young woman is contrasted with an old lady roaring as her teeth are pulled, raw and wet, from her jaw. This lurking contrast serves to cast a rather horrible and uncertain light on the marriage of Doctor Reefy and his tall dark bride. Was their loving marriage ended so suddenly by foul play? It is this nagging question that keeps the reader invested in the story despite the lack of it’s collection.

I also highlighted indirect characterization because I think it’s a really interesting tactic in fiction that I’m still working on getting down. The perfection of Anderson’s indirect characterization is that there’s no question about it. You know immediately that the horse Doctor Reefy drives to and from the town is not the jaded one, but him. His wife wasn’t merely left fertile land, but left alone and rich in her child-bearing years. It is obvious and yet incredibly elegant and nonchalant.

EXCERCISES-

  1. Write a story in which the ending is revealed in the very beginning.
  2. Pick a story you’ve already written and choose an unimportant character. Write that character a story.

QUESTIONS-

  1. Did it bother you that this story was from a larger work? Did you know it was?
  2. This story functions almost inversely from “Backpack”. In that story, the truth is revealed only at the end, while in this story the ending is revealed at the beginning and the truth is never truly revealed. Which worked better? Did this one feel more like a “gotcha hook”?
  3. How did y’all interpret the repletion of the hard objects?

Daddy Issues

Summary Part 1: Liv

This story, titled, Gondwana, by Steve Almond, begins with the narrator, Myristica, riding the bus to her father’s house while absorbing the dreadfulness and misery of the people around her. Once she reaches her destination, she begins to recite to her father how living with him wasn’t working and she wanted to release herself from the father-daughter bonds that she was currently in. Her father, a television pundit, responded to Myristica’s statement by calling in one of his servants, whom Myristica named Niblet because of her perfect niblets for teeth, and began to discuss with her on whether or not she loved her father. Naturally, Niblet says that she does love her father but after she exits to go fetch a Diet Pepsi for Myristica father, he fires her. After Niblet was fired, Myristica begins to explain that she wants to move into her friend Twig’s basement, also providing her father with the legal documents to prove her desire to divorce him but her father is resistant, even though Myristica has provided a argument that has got her father stuck in a corner. As her father is thinking through the complications of the divorce, Myristica flashes back to previous conversations that she had had with her friend Twig about her father and their relationship.

Summary Part 2: Carson

Pages 6 – 9 starts out with meg and her dad continuing to argue. The dad insults twig and says he has never met her when he has many many times. Meg doesnt correct him noting that you cant correct her dad and says that whatever is his record becomes the record. Meg makes it clear she will not hurt his political career and ambitions. She then reveals that her dad is an orphan too. His parents killed each other but he covered it up with a story they slid on ice while driving to a civil rights protest. The only way she knows this is because she caught him crying after a gossip site was going to expose the truth. Her dads assistant tells her everything and then makes her sign a nondisclosure form. She apologizes but is cut off when her dad keeps getting business phone calls. The dad calls a new, terrified assistant in the room and tells her he needs to be downstairs and proceeds to rename her. Meg tells her what he means and then thinks about gondwana where you didnt have a name but a song people sang to call you. She then thinks of when her dad would come home when she was going to school after drinking and he would start singing classic rock to her.

Summary Part 3: Elise

The father’s new assistant, Janice, greets Meg before getting an order from the father. Meg wonders about what her name might have been had she lived in Gondwana, and what life would be like there. Her reminiscing turns to her father, who she remembers used to sing to her back in his “boozing days.”

She snaps back to reality when the assistant leaves, and her father asks her to not divorce him. Meg is reminded of the time her father took her to New Guinea on her thirteenth birthday, during which she attempted to jump out of his helicopter. They had found out that the orphanage that was her first home was destroyed, and the only person they could find to speak to was an ancient woman who hissed and spat and eventually left when they tried to talk to her.

Meg found out later that night that the woman had said that she did not belong to them, that she was not a slave. And Meg agreed with that, returning to reality with the thought that maybe that was the problem after all. She then notices that her dad has forgotten she is there, and is now focused on his phone, lamenting to himself.

The chronic tension within, Gondwana, is that the narrator was adopted as a publicity stunt for her father.

 

The acute tension within, Gondwana, is the fact that the narrator wants to divorce her father.

 

 

Analysis Part 1: Liv

The two craft elements that I pinpointed within the story, Gondwana, by Steve Almond, are conflict and point of view. The conflict of this story is Myristica’s struggle in her relationship with her father and this can bee seen very clearly whenever she states that she no longer wants to be in his custody. The point of view of this story is from the first person and through the eyes of Myristica, the narrator. Because the point of view is in the first person we are able to see not only how she views herself, but also how she views her father and the life he lives.

Starting with conflict, we first see the relationship first ignites whenever Myristica climbs over out of the bus she had ridden to her father’s house and tells him that she doesn’t think their relationship was working.

And then I was standing there in front of him saying (just like I’d rehearsed), I’m really sorry to interrupt your busy day and all, Dad, but its not working for me.

Here we can see that Myristica not only does not think that their relationship is falling apart, but she has thought that for enough of a while to be able to recite those lines for memory. In this story, Myristica was an orphan from Papua New Guinea who had been adopted almost as a publicity stunt for her father who is a television pundit. Because of her adoption and her doubt that her father truly loves her, Myristica begins to question whether or not she should remain in her father’s custody.

‘[Brought] her home to Laurel fucking Canyon and [tucked] her in each night-’

‘You didn’t tuck me in,’ I said.

‘I did too, Dad said.

‘You had staff do it.’

Hand-picked staff,’ Dad roared.

In the quote above, we see Myristica’s doubt of her father’s love and also the tension that arises whenever her father tries to prove his worth. Another instance wherever conflict appears is whenever Myristica claims that she wants to live with her friend Twig instead of living with her father.

‘Do you know what Yasser Arafat once told me?’ he said.

I told him that I didn’t care and that… I just wanted to move into my friend Twig’s basement and lead a normal life.

‘He said to me,’ Dad said, meaning Yasser Arafat, ‘that God gives us daughters to toughen our hearts.’

In this quote, we see that the conflict comes not only from the father’s stubborn personality but also from the carelessness/rudeness of Myristica. The father was intentionally ignoring his daughter’s confession of what she wanted to do with her life, and whenever she had finished he made a comment to try to fire her up and get a reaction out of her. Although the father seems reasonably annoying, Myristica was responding to her father in ways that many children should not: she not only said she no longer wanted to live with him, but with a friend, but whenever he began speaking to her, she seemed to ignore what he had to say as well. The conflict in this story seems very one-sided to both characters, but to the reader, both the father and Myristica are in the wrong.

The conflict throughout this story travels back and forth from the father being rude and Myristica getting upset because of his actions to Myristica’s internal insults and anger bubbling with only a fraction of it showing. Whenever Myristica first announces to her father that she wants to leave him, he questions one of his servants on whether or not she loves her father. This small act on the father’s part, comparing the servant’s love of her father to his daughter’s love of him, was especially petty and rude and starts the story out with the knowledge that this father-daughter relationship was going down hill.

‘Do you have a father?’ Dad said to Niblet. She nodded.

‘Do you love him?’ Dad said…

‘Of course I love him,’ she said. Dad glanced at me.

Within the story, there are many types of conflict, Myristica’s internal conflict of not fitting in, the father’s conflict of trying to keep his daughter home without ruining his campaign, and finally both of their conflicts of living with each other and rubbing against one another’s skins.

The second craft element that I will cover is point of view. The point of view is in the first person, through Myristica’s eyes, and because of this, we are able to see how she views the world and the people around her. We first see that the story is in the first person whenever Myristica addresses her self as I, letting us know that it will be from her point of view. One of the people that she thinks most about is her father, and as she tries to divorce him, a lot of thoughts flood her mind, giving us a taste of how she views him.

I wanted dad to have a long and happy life, while also wanting him to die instantly.

In the quote above, Myristica’s thoughts clearly show us that she wants her dad to be happy, but also wants him to die as well. Because this story is in the first person, we get all of our information of the father through the eyes of Myristica, providing a slightly distorted view of the father: we know that he can be annoying, but with Myristica’s thoughts, we see him as much worse than that, hence the way she thinks about her desire for her father’s death. Another way Myristica sees her father is with longing.

Where is that Dad, I wonder, who was bad but meant good? Who sang off-key but at least sang?

The father becomes very distant as his political life overwhelms his family life and even though Myristica becomes very annoyed and angry at her father, she longs for the family man he used to be. Through Myristica’s eyes, we get not only the negative sides to characters, but also the positive sides, making a realistic three dimensional setting, but with this, there also other points throughout the story whenever Myristica’s thoughts about her father are neither negative or positive, they just are.

[My father had] already stared into the camera with the  bulging grief-stricken eyes of  a saint and implored The Almighty to tell him what had gone wrong in America.

In this quote, the way she thinks of how her father stares into the camera is not a positive description, but it doesn’t seem to be negative either, giving Myristica some undecided thoughts about her father.

With first person, we are able to see how Myristica views herself as someone who does not fit in or belong in the world she lives in and also how she can have a bit of low self esteem.

I stood there, as I so often do, feeling misplaced.

In this quote, we are able to see the isolation that Myristica finds herself in wherever she is in her father’s wealthy white world and how that provides tension within her whenever she feels like she does not belong. The second instance mentioned above was whenever Myristica sees herself with low self esteem.

At night, [my dad] would steal into my room and leave lavish gifts. In the mourning, he would lurk behind the door and wait for me to express astonishment. It was like being courted by a vampire Santa Claus. Oh, God, [I thought], I’m probably making myself sound like a poor little rich girl.

In the last sentence, Myristica thinks poorly of herself for thinking it awkward for her father to behave in such a way, in a sense blaming herself and her emotions for the strange choices her father make. The point of view in this story proved to be a useful a tool in depicting an image of the world and the people in it through the eyes of Myristica.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How would have the story differed if Steve Almond showed Myristica succeed in divorcing her father?
  2. Why was Twig a necessary character in this story?

 

 

Anaysis Part 2: Carson

Setting: the setting in this story is revealed through small details that are easy to miss. We know that theyre talking in Megs dads huge, luxury apartment-possible-penthouse but we dont know where until it is revealed in page 5 as being in los angeles. This is important because megs dad works as a part time dentist (i believe) and los angeles is a very cosmetic driven city. He also has a presidential campaign going and being from such a huge city could definitely benefit him. Not to mention how expensive it is to live in california especially los angeles. This adds to just how wealthy megs dad is. Another large setting in the story is Gondwana, Megs home country that she was “rescued” from by her Dad. From what we gather Gondwana is a very war stricken place which is the original reason Meg was taken away. Gondwana is described as being just how they describe in movies: hot, humid, no technology, simpler life, and remote. However, do not be mistaken to think the habiting people are less intelligent as the old woman they spoke to saw right through their shallow intentions and rightfully disregarded them. Another small setting is Twigs basement where Meg is planning to move to. This is important because it shows how adament meg is about getting away from her father, willing to leave her luxurious, comfortable life to live in a basement.

Plot: the plot in this story is pretty unusual where it doesnt really have a climax or resolution because we never actually see Meg leaving or the court. Instead, we get a lot of rising action and tension that slowly morphs into a conclusion of sorts. The small details and stories of Megs neglect and emotional abuse pile on top of eachother until the reader has no choice but to side with Meg on moving out. It almost sounds like a persuasive essay for the jury told in narrative format than a story. I feel as though if Meg shared this story with the court itd be a solid argument to have her legally cut ties with her adopted father.

Discussion Questions:

Do you think you that Meg was justified in leaving her dad or was she just being bratty?

Does Megs dad have any redeemable qualities or is he just a one noted awful person?

 

Analysis Part 3: Elise

Gondwana depends on flashbacks to tell its story- without them, you wouldn’t know why Meg wants to divorce her father. These flashbacks help us to know the dad’s true intentions- that, really, Meg was just a publicity stunt. After mentioning her father’s campaign, Meg says that

..it was going to be worse for me because a decade ago, as a mere regional cable curiosity, Dad had given an interview to a small radio station in Winston-Salem, on the occasion of Martin Luther Kings birthday. As some of you know; he’d said, I have a daughter. A little five-year-old. She is a pure-blooded Papua New Guinean and I love her for that. I m proud she’s racially pure, that she’ll grow up knowing who she is…

Meg provides the reader with a mere glimpse into the past, within which deeper meaning can be found. The fact that is talking this way about his five-year-old daughter on a radio show says a lot about his motives. He is using the child to make a political statement. And he contradicts himself in another flashback.

One night after dinner, I asked Dad whether he was going to take me back to Gondwana, which I understood to be the place of my birth.

To where, he said, God-what-ah?

Gondwana, I said.

You come from Los Angeles, he said quietly. Eat your sundae.

He said that she would grow up knowing who she was. And yet, here he is, telling her that she comes from Los Angeles. While she did grow up there, the father doesn’t even know where she came from- how was she supposed to?

The father’s actions aren’t commented on by Meg- she’s just stating what happened. It’s up to us, the readers, to characterize the father through what he does. It’s judging someone based on what somebody’s told you- we may not have the full story, but we like to think that we don’t need it. From these beginning flashbacks, we get the image of a bad man, an evil man, who cares more about publicity than his own child. And, even when he shows vulnerability, it’s due to a threat to his publicity,

The only reason I know the truth is because I caught Dad weeping in his Media Strategy Room a few years ago. A Web site devoted to humiliating the famous had obtained his mother’s court records; the story was about to break.

The inclusion of this indicates that he isn’t found weeping often- a fact that wouldn’t be hard to believe given his stardom. But the reason that he is crying adds to the image of a publicity-crazed person- he’s crying because a website found out that his parents killed each other, and that would absolutely ruin his career if somebody found out. Meg admits that he wasn’t always like this.

Dad himself used to sing to me, back in his boozing days. He’d come home right around the time I was getting up for school and stumble into my room and bellow classic rock staples, while Elba, the German… I guess you’d call her a governess… attempted to shoo him away. He looked awful, a dark wing of hair pasted to his brow, a ghostly halo of pancake makeup rimming his jowls…

She reminisces of the old dad, the one who “was bad but meant good” and who was happy to find her in the house. Here, now, is a hint at some sort of good in the father- at least in the past. Although he is selfish and terrible now, Meg has seen him in another light before. But that dad is gone, and that’s why she wants to divorce the one she has now.

Near the end of the story is the longest flashback, that of her trip to Papua New Guinea when she was thirteen.

I know why my father hired you, I said.

Moss smiled. I’m not sure what you mean.

That old woman was supposed to recognize me or hug me or whatever. I’m not dumb, you know.”

This is the point that Meg referenced in the beginning of the text, when she mentioned to Twig that her dad was going to take her to Papua New Guinea again. The first time was a publicity stunt- unsurprising, given the character of the father- that went wrong, and Meg is fully aware that he is going to try again if she doesn’t divorce him. The fact that he’d take her again despite the failure of the first trip emphasizes the lack of concern the father has for Meg’s feelings and well-being.

Discussion Questions:

Why do you think Almond included the action of the father firing “Niblet?” How does this contribute to the characterization of the father?

How might the story have been affected if the flashback of the trip to Papua New Guinea wasn’t included?