Stories That Aren’t, or, Smokescreens for Other Stories

A few months ago I read The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016, edited by Karen Joy Fowler (spoiler alert: I only read the stories by women, fite me), and had the pleasure of encountering Cat Valente’s “Planet Lion” for the first time.  Just now (literally) I had the further pleasure of listening to “Planet Lion” being read aloud on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast (from a few years ago, I know, but I’m a completist and I just started it a week ago).

And even after two exposures to it, I had a hard time following the action completely, which didn’t actually ruin the effect of it because the way that Valente uses words is a pleasure in itself, and she’s the kind of writer that makes you feel confident that she knows where she’s going with it so if you don’t follow completely it’s ok.  It was also a somewhat complicated story because it dealt with narrative not only on multiple levels, but the protagonists of the story were a civilization of marsupial lions able to communicate sort of telepathically with one another.  Marsupial, three-gendered lions, I should be so precise to say.

Anything could have happened, really.

But the second listening and subsequent interview she gave with the podcast got me thinking about how some immensely effective writers can write a story that is ostensibly about one thing, when really it’s about another thing entirely, and I don’t mean metaphorical meaning, but actual narrative meaning.  Valente’s story about marsupial lions on a fictional planet also tells the story of an interstellar war and the people whose brains have been cannibalized to harvest military skills that the combatant planets or governments can use against each other.  It’s the kind of stealthy reveal that you can (case in point) miss if you’re not paying close enough attention.

Thinking about this complicated swirl of storytelling in which Valente has engaged got me pondering another story that makes use of this tactic, which is “How Dogs Came to the New Continent,” from Cat Rambo’s story collection Neither Here Nor There.  The narrator of this story is writing a preface to a study about the proliferation of species from one continent to another, but the story itself is actually about the people who have gone forth to explore and colonize a newly discovered continent in a fictional world, with a poignant twist at the end which reveals much more about the fictional narrator than one would expect to find, and a pointed commentary on colonialism and racial supremacy in our own very real world.

As Rambo says herself in her afternotes, “I love stories that are disguised as other tings, and so this is a story disguised as a scholarly monograph from a Tabatian scholar, whose underlying story is much more interesting than the pedigrees of the dogs he’s discussing.”  Like Valente, Rambo imbues her prose with a richness of meaning and imagery that makes fictional worlds come alive and linger on the palate long after they’ve been consumed.  They are both author’s whose work I will be actively seeking out in the future.

I’ve only really encountered this disguised story gambit in short stories, and I think it would probably be difficult to keep up the conceit in a longer novella or novel-length work.  Be that as it may, it’s certain a conceit I enjoy and hope to run into again.  It brings out a certain attention to detail in world building that provides a solid foundation for plot.  In the case of “Planet Lion,” the fact that we know so much about the lions lets Valente get the ball rolling with the human stories that are intermixed, as the lions become more and more wrapped up in the lives they have absorbed, more and more densely the longer this war over their planet is waged.  It’s almost a surprise the first time, yet as it happens over and over the reader becomes hungry for this secondary narrative, wondering what could be so compelling that the lions can’t help but re-enact it.

“How Dogs Came to the New Continent” is presented by the erstwhile narrator as a dry introduction to a longer, drier tome, yet it’s almost as if the narrator can’t help but tell his own story, as if the entire reason for the long monograph is so that he can unburden himself of the history he’s long kept hidden.  Rambo uses the trope of the dusty scholar to good effect, layering in commentary of those who seek to tell the stories of others with a moving tale of childhood friendship.

These are the kind of stories that get one out of bed in the morning.

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Passive Females, Aggressive Bodies

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about abortion and the constant push by so-called “pro-life” individuals to limit the ability of those with birth-capable bodies to control their reproductive health.  Ok, let’s be honest, I think about this stuff all the time but I read an article not long ago, the second such in the past year or so, that talks about the biology of human reproduction and the ways in which the gestating parent’s body literally fights for control, and survival, with the growing fetus pretty much from the second the thing is implanted.

The article, published on aeon.co, essentially lays out the many ways in which human reproduction is anything but romantic, natural, or, especially, safe for those doing the gestating, and only instilled in me even further the idea that a fetus, until the person carrying it effectively gives it birth and, by so doing life, is nothing more than a parasite that will kill the person carrying it if it can, all in the name of its own survival.  Likely, this is largely–the article goes on to explain–due to evolution, which has caused these conditions to occur over many thousands of years in order to create humans with large brains, brains which require huge amounts of resources during the pregnancy stage in order to properly develop.

Further, the number of pregnancies successfully carried to implantation, and not even to term, is significantly lower than those which end up in the toilet every month, carried away by a menstrual cycle that is guarding the person’s health so rigidly it is literally safer for the person to bleed for 5-7 days than to carry a developing fetus anywhere other than (un)safely attached to the uterine lining where the parent’s body can keep a watchful eye on it.

This isn’t the miracle of life, it’s fucking war.

But the point I’m trying to make is that in a situation where the person’s body is actively trying to starve and stymie a fetus’ access to the parent’s resources, for so-called pro-life individuals to portray abortion as an act and allowing an unwanted fetus to gestate as simply allowing “nature” to take its course is not just hypocrisy but actually quite monstrous.  The act of gestating a child has become so dangerous to the human species that the parent’s body will fight tooth and nail to get rid of it because the alternative is being stripped of health and life one heartbeat at a time until the parent’s body is nothing more than an essenceless husk at the end of it.  I’m put in mind of the scene in Mad Max: Fury Road in which the lifeless fetus is cut out of Angharad’s dying body in order to take possession of a potential male offspring.  So-called pro-life individuals see only the poor dead fetus, so ripe with potential and life, while completely ignoring the life of the woman draining out on the dashboard, robbed of autonomy and made into just a vessel for someone else’s ambitions.

The passivity with which so-called pro-life individuals try to paint themselves is so aggressive, so demeaning to people with pregnancy-capable bodies.  It’s wrapped up in the false premise that pregnancy, the state of being pregnant, is a passive state, and any movement to change that state is an aggression, when, as the article referenced earlier ad nauseum shows, pregnancy is anything but a passive thing.  To end a pregnancy is less violent than the violence being enacted daily between parental body and fetus.  The article poses it as a sort of natural selection, that any embryo not strong enough, not fully implanted, must die in order to protect valuable resources, but when it comes to abortion, shouldn’t it be only the natural progression that the final say over the continued existence of a parasitic embryo lie with the one in whose body said embryo came to be?  And to take it further–because a lot of people are afraid of so-called late-stage abortion because suddenly the even-more-voracious parasite is bigger and has a face–shouldn’t the decision of whether to potentially sacrifice one’s own life in order to bring that squalling parasite into the world lie with the one, the only one, who will forced to give up their life for that to happen?

But this all plays into the idea that pregnancy-capable individuals–generally gendered female–be always passive, accepting of whatever comes to them, never taking what they want or in any way making demands on others, especially on cis males.  Besides being just wrong–not all pregnancy capable bodies are female–it feeds into cultural norms that are designed to privilege the cis male individual, which we can all identify as patriarchy.

In thinking about these juxtapositions of passivity/aggressivity, I’m minded of a novel I read recently (on audiobook, to be specific), by Emma Donoghue.  Her most recent novel, The Wonder portrays the experience of an English nurse, a Nightingale Nurse, to be specific, trained by the redoubtable pioneer of the profession herself, hired by a tiny Irish village to investigate the wondrous little girl in their midst who seems to subsist indefinitely without eating.  Now, this post is soon going to cross over both into the realm of Discussion of Actual Scenes in the Book (aka spoilers) and also pregnancy and sexuality specifically dealing with cis women.  I’ve done my best to keep this post as non-transphobic as I am capable till now, but as the subject matter of the novel specifically deals with cis-coded women, I will generally be talking about women and gendered cultural expectations around being women, so please just know that I’m not unaware of what’s happening, but to avoid complications I’ll use the gendered terms from the novel itself.  (I certainly understand that trans women and trans men are even more pressured to conform to cultural gender expectations and receive even more harassment.)  As to the spoilers, well, reader beware, I guess.  Or stop here and go read the book.

The Wonder deals with the parallel storylines of Lib Wright, a widowed nurse, and Anna O’Donnell, and eight-year-old girl who refuses to eat and has become a source of spiritual tourism for her community.  Lib has been hired to watch Anna and ascertain whether she is in fact eating from some hidden source, or to keep her from eating, or to prove she is a saint, depending on whom Lib meets during her two-week stay in the impoverished village.  Already this is ringing cultural bells–a little girl becomes famous for literally doing nothing, the only acceptable way for a female to gain notoriety.  Lib, on the other hand, is part of possibly the only profession remotely acceptable for a woman to have outside the home–taking care of others, mothering–even though to do it for money is a cultural indicator that Lib is used up, not good enough even to care for her own family, which the reader finds out is far too close to home for her.

Throughout her two-week stay in Ireland, Lib fights the opposing urges to nurture Anna and convince her to eat, and to conduct her watches as a strict experiment, reveling in the moment she foresees herself finding Anna out and proving that there is no such thing as manna from heaven upon which a little girl can sustain herself.  Lib wants science, not superstition, to be proven the authority–something all people who believe in reproductive autonomy can support–and yet for that to happen Lib must completely relegate Anna to the guardianship of people who have something to gain from her continued starvation, which runs completely counter to what Lib’s professional calling.  This internal conflict isn’t helped by the apparent inaction of Anna’s parents, who seem to revel in Anna’s wondrous behavior and treat her as though she were some sort of saint come to earth.  The aggressive passivity of Anna’s mother, in particular, is almost violent in its insistence that Lib, a representative of science and reason, is an enemy to be defeated through Mrs. O’Donnell’s faith alone.  Adding to all this is Lib’s own ignorance of Catholicism and treatment of the Irish she encounters; she looks at all of them as superstitious savages who continue in their poverty and malnutrition out of some perverse desire to follow their backwards religion, when in reality the post-Blight state of Ireland is anything but simple.

Lib’s ability to solve the mystery of Anna’s wonder is primarily the result, though, of her character arc as she meets various members of the community as well as an outsider–a newspaper reporter from Dublin who is both educated and intelligent–and comes to understand their position and why they act the way they do.  Lib grows as a character, is brought to see her own errors, and is then in a position to investigate the true mystery behind Anna’s situation.  Lib is that horror, the intelligent woman capable of thinking for herself and coming to logical conclusions, whom many of the so-called pro-life agenda seek to hobble, or in whom they don’t believe; they harbor such fear of those capable of pregnancy making their own choices about their bodies, and take the–un-asked-for–role of “my sister’s keeper,” seeking to take away choice before a choice can even be made, in case that choice runs counter to the aggressive and broken morality of those who value the unborn over the living.  Of course, as Lib learns, so does the reader.  The reader is exposed, through Lib’s interactions with Anna’s family, and eventually with Anna herself, that Anna’s wonder is a result of sexual abuse and the inaction of those who are supposed to care for her physical and emotional well-being–namely, her parents and her priest.  Anna is starving herself to get her brother into heaven, on the belief that reciting a particular prayer while fasting will release him from purgatory sooner.  The problem is that her dead brother is only in purgatory–or better, hell–because of the sins he committed against her.

Like Lib, Anna’s situation is a direct result of the actions of a male member of her family, but she has been blamed for it.  Nothing Anna could have done could have prevented her brother’s desire to rape her, just as nothing Lib could have done would have saved her newborn child and made it live, and thus her husband’s leaving her because, in his words, there was no reason to stay any longer.  Even when women are passive, they are forced to carry the blame for men’s actions.  Lib went to the Crimea and became a nurse, attempting to care for men injured in imperialist violence; Anna tried to starve herself.  Both were trying to atone for something they didn’t do, and for which they could never be redeemed in the eyes of their respective societies.

The events of The Wonder may not be identical to what happens today, in a modern society that still actively keeps women from exercising autonomy over their own bodies, but it is a stark illustration of the fact that women–and girls–will always be held responsible, will always be culpable for the actions of men, will always be expected to adhere to an enforced–and false–passivity, as long as women are considered second-class or not-the-default.  Being pregnant is not passive; to be and remain pregnant is the violent path, the way of force, the dangerous way to travel.  To end what can turn out to be the most perilous thing a person can do–is the path of least resistance.

Unless, that is, those who would prevent an abortion consider it a personal attack on themselves and their petty, interfering morality, just as Mrs. O’Donnell considered Lib’s attempts to find the cause of Anna’s starvation a personal attack on the righteousness of the entire family, on the Catholic church itself.  Lib only wanted Anna to do what was natural–to eat, to take care of herself, to find a way to live a good and normal life–just as every person capable of bearing a pregnancy should have the ability to make the natural choice about what is right for themselves and their bodies, independent of the self-righteous and holier-than-though guilt being heaped upon them by those who violently persist in confusing intrusiveness with saintliness.

It Takes Two: Radiance and A Stranger in Olondria

So I sat here at my computer, staring at tumblr posts as the scrolled by, and thought to myself that I hadn’t done much writing–of any stripe–in quite a while.  I’ve really fallen off the book reviewing wagon. My reading hasn’t dropped off in any significant way, but I just don’t have the mental energy to write reviews, edit them, and then get them out.

So instead, I thought back to a few things I’ve read–recently and not so recently–and tried to come up with a theme-y feeling, or feelings-ish theme that I find weaving through at least two novels.

And lo, a theme post is born.

Here I’m going to talk about Cat Valente’s Radiance, and Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, both of which I’ve read and reviewed in the past six months. (You can find those reviews here on or my Goodreads page).  I’m probably going to be too lazy to go back and find links for them.

It Takes Two: Stories of Dead Women

Radiance is (spoilers?) the story of Severin Unck’s final days, her final film, her final journey out among the stars of the alt-Solar System discovered in the Victorian period and subsequently settled all the way out to Pluto itself.  In A Stranger in Olondria, the reader is presented with the coming-of-age story of Jevick, and islander who travels to the mainland nation of Olondria chasing stories and the learning he has glimpsed via a foreign tutor, but his quest for self-fulfillment is subsumed by the story, of a sick young woman he met on ship during the crossing, who revisits him as a ghost and haunts him, prodding him to write her story as she tells it in Jevick’s dreams.

What these two novels have in common is not simply the fact that each is concerned with the story of a woman who is now dead, but that each woman’s story is being told, in some way, by another character–or characters.  Severin’s father, the most famous filmmaker in that version of the solar system, is trying not only to recreate her last days from the memories and speculations of those around her, but to find a proper film medium in which to tell this story.  Jevick’s obsession with the written word is whatt draws the young woman’s ghost to him, an unrelenting commandment to put words to paper, to save her story in a way that her body, her life, could not be saved.

Each novel is a heartbreaking and stunning look at the power of art.  Art creates and drives people to create; stories tell more than their text.  Art is also sinister and dangerous, driving people to the edge, further, making them vulnerable to the manipulations of others.  Severin was driven to understand the murky ends of a small town on Venus, the inhabitants of which were divers for one of the companies who harvested milk from the great, semi-sentient beings living in Venus’s warm seas.  With her documentaries, she pushed limits in ways her father never would with the drama and intrigue he ladled into his fictional films.  Having grown up in a house where nothing was ever really real, having all been caught on film, Severin spent her life documenting instead of creating fiction.  In this way, Valente continues to play with notions of the real–as every documentary is still an interpretation, and is informed by the experiences and opinions of the documentarians.

A Stranger in Olondria pulls from the vast tradition of telling stories with other stories.  It is an astounding piece of worldbuilding, creating not only the people and living culture of Jevick’s home, Olondria, and other nations, but also the stories by which those places know themselves.  Jevick is so caught up in what he thinks is his story of discovery and growing up–almost a sort of ironic “noble savage” narrative, on his part–that he fails to see what is right in front of him.  In the same way, Severin’s father is so caught up in turning everything into fiction that in the end he doesn’t really understand his daughter, and is obsessed with crafting the perfect fiction to describe her real, non-fictional life.

The importance of these two narratives dealing with the stories of dead women is twofold.  First, in pushing each story-writer character to craft the story of the dead woman in each–via their different but equal motivations–the authors are not telling how these women died, but how they lived.  Though one is dead at the beginning of the novel and the other dies at an important turning point for the main character, the reader is fully immersed in the very real and vibrant lives of these women.

The second aspect of importance is not simply that these women had lives which are a strong part of the narrative, but that they did something with those lives.  These women had, and throughout their respective novels continue to have, agency and effect over the course of their lives.  Severing took control of a life she’d grown up feeling she had no control over, and went out amongst the planets to give context and reality to other worlds.  The ghost haunting Jevick belongs to a young woman who grew up illiterate, daughter of two worlds in a bizarrely colonial landscape that left her little room to be herself.  She dies from exposure to a disease she had contracted while on an adventure, and even in her sickness she refuses to be treated as a simple invalid.  In death, she is powerful and takes on a new life, part of which is the telling of her youth, and the other a hunger for literacy and immortality in the stories that Jevick prizes so highly.

The glint of immortality shines strongly through each of these novels, hastened by their meta-textual themes–film in Radiance, and writing in A Stranger in Olondria.  Not only do these novels share a similar theme, but they also share a carefully crafted duality that is both satisfying and challenging to read.  Though these novels are different in voice and style, they are well-matched.

Unrelieved Survival: First Person Narrators in the Present Tense

Choosing a narrator and tense are some of the pivotal decisions an author makes when writing a novel.  Many an author has written of changing the narrator, the viewpoint, even the tense while writing or during editing.  The first-person present narrator, while relatively rare as a style, is gaining traction, especially in young adult genres.

The explanation for the strength of the first-person present given most often is that it creates suspense and puts the reader directly in the action with a character they can empathize with.  The Hunger Games is most often used as an example.  The outcome of the story, because of the violent and uncertain nature of the world Collins has created, is in doubt.  It’s entirely possible that Katniss could die.  Katniss herself is almost perversely self-absorbed and unaware of the world around her, to the point that she cannot anticipate anything, even when others seem to have not problem understanding how events are unfolding.   Veronica Roth’s Divergent series is also pointed out as an effective use of the first-person present narrator.  These two series have much in common—dystopian future settings featuring young charismatic but inexperienced protagonists. 

But as Mary Johnson cites Flannery O’Connor in her blog, “She says that, in any story, no matter how colloquial,the narrative voice must be distinct from the voices of the characters. Otherwise, you lower the tone – and you also lose contrast. This is what happens with first person narrative, and most especially with first person, present tense. There is nothing to contrast the protagonist’s voice with – that voice is all the reader has.”  Megan Crewe’s new YA novel, Earth and Sky, follows the pattern of The Hunger Games and Divergent series, with a young woman protagonist experiencing her own story at almost breakneck pace.  The difference between Crewe’s  novels and the latter series, however, is that Earth an Sky features a time travel narrative.  It is my suspicion, indeed, that Crewe writes in the present tense in order to avoid possible confusion in tense and sequence of events related to the amount of jumping about in time that the main character, Sky, does.  Sky describes herself, and hears herself described, as extremely aware of the world around her, to which she owes the reason for her story’s existence.  If Sky hadn’t been this way, she would not be the one Wit chooses to help him accomplish  his mission because her hyper-awareness of the world means she can feel when the past has been changed and subsequently affected the present.  The actual mechanics of this “power” are never really explained, but again, Crewe writes in the present tense and doesn’t allow a lot of time for introspection.  Despite Sky’s supposed constant watchfulness, though, she betrays very little awareness of herself.  She is almost completely absorbed by her pathology.  She doesn’t make connections between the wrongness she feels at certain situations, and other possible incongruities.  Like Katniss, Sky is self-absorbed, but she mistakes her own self-absorption for self-awareness.  

The disappearance of Sky’s brother years before, and her subsequent feelings of bewilderment and the sense that she should have noticed something wrong and somehow kept him from leaving, are what has led her to constantly monitor the world around her.  But in doing so she has retreated from the world into a cave of ritual and fear, and a belief that she must always hide who she is from others.  In her patchy explanations of the events  leading to the present, Sky conflates her becoming world-aware with the necessity of hiding it.  It’s explained almost as if it happened overnight: her brother disappeared, she decided to always be watchful, she begins having panic attacks over situations that feel wrong, she must hide everything in order not to be labelled “crazy.”   The problem with this is that her brother disappeared when she was a child, not self-aware.  The present-tense narration of the story, though, means that Sky brings everything into the present, as though even events that happened years ago are happening now, and can never be moved beyond or looked back on with real objectivity.  Dorrit Cohn describes this situation in his 1968 article “Kafka’s Eternal Present: Narrative Tense in ‘Ein Landarzt’ and Other First-Person Stories” as the narrator’s “eternally present predicament” (150), and as the narrator’s “grammatical signal for their unrelieved survival, a ‘caricature of immortality,’” as though the character, always trapped in the telling of her own story, can never stop telling it.  Sky is forced to constantly tell her story, whether she is a narrator or not, because of the conditions of her past.  In this, Crewe’s choice of first-person present is quite apt.  However the issue comes in turning Sky’s pathology into an equation with a simple solution.  When Wit tells her that if he is successful in destroying the field that allows his people to keep changing history her feelings of wrongness about the world will go away, the story begins to lose traction.  Sky’s narration becomes more erratic, and her ability to empathize with other characters is compromised.  When in the second half of the novel she meets her best friends at a local cafe, the only things she reports are how she she feels in contrast to how they are acting.  Other people are now just a mirror to Sky’s complete self-absorption.  “I… just sit there,” She narrates, “I should be able to jump into the conversation, spin off the joke, offer my own opinion.  But somehow even right there with them I feel slightly out of sync.  As if they’re a few beats ahead of me and I can’t catch up.  My last forkful of pie has turned gluey in my mouth.”  Further, Sky shows a remarkably myopic focus on Win, a person she has known only a matter of hours, and seems to unburden himself on him completely, believing that he will fix all her problems and not questioning his motives at all after her first bout of indecision when she meets him outside her school.  

Contrast this to the beginning of the novel, when Sky interacts with her friends, empathizing with them and interpreting their mannerisms accurately because she knows them.  At the beginning of the story, Sky truly is narrating, but by the second half, her recitation is more of an inner monologue, and the distance between the narrator and the narrated has widened perceptibly.  The “writing ‘I’ is necessarily distinguished from the ‘I’ written about” in any first-person novel, but the temporal distance between narration and events is also extremely important, as illustrated in Gillian Dooley’s 2010 article (135).  The closer that distance, the more likely the reader is to see the narrating character’s true beliefs.  The more Sky narrates, however, the further the reader feels from really understanding her at all.  She seems to be just going through the motions in order to get to the end of the ordeal.  The first-person present narration has gone stale, having the effect of making Sky herself seem washed out and not really present.  She is merely a passenger, more a narrator for Win’s story than her own.

Kafka uses the first-person present inner monologue to tell the reader more about the narrator through an inner monologue, revealing more about the narrator because, speaking to himself, he says things he’d be unlikely to tell anyone else.  Crewe, presumably, could also use this device, however her narrator never slows down, and the voice with which she narrates events is indistinguishable from the voice with which she talks to herself.  As Cohn explains, the narrative present “is merely a ‘metaphor’ for the past tense, a ‘stylistic transposition’ in which events known to be past are to as if  they were present.  In other words, it refers in the present to the speaker’s past” (149).  No matter the narrator, there is always a voice—the author—behind the narrator, who chooses what information to reveal about a character, how, and when.  The fact that Crewe so fears slowing the narrative down at all, even when she reveals details from the narrator’s past, leads to a somewhat mentally unbalanced character.  Why does the narrator reveal details about her past germane to what is about to happen, if she doesn’t know what is going to happen?  If the author feels the need to reveal so many details through monologue rather than them coming up naturally in conversation with other characters, why did she choose present narration?  What, exactly, is Crewe’s insecurity in making the distance between narrator and narration as narrow as possible, unless it is a sense of inadequacy in the writing itself?

Perhaps these are harsh questions to ask, but Earth and Sky is asking the reader to suspend a large amount of disbelief in the course of the story, and the incongruities of the narrative certainly don’t help with that. To add to the trouble, Earth and Sky is the first novel in a trilogy.  It is entirely possible, as I wrote in my review of Earth and Sky, that the point of view or narrational tense could change completely in the second novel.  Suddenly all might be revealed, and the first book turn out to be just a set up for a more omniscient view of the story later on.  But the incongruities in the narrative discussed earlier make it difficult for the reader to parse the implications of the narrative in Earth and Sky, and to separate possibility and foreshadowing from simple awkwardness in the writing.  

Thus the reader is left in a perpetual state of unknowing, much as the narrator is left in a perpetual state of unrelieved survival.

Works Cited

Cohn, Dorrit. “Kafka’s Eternal Present: Narrative Tense in ‘Ein Landarzt’ and Other First-Person Stories.” PMLA. Mar. 1968: 144-150. 

Dooley, Gillian. “Iris Murdoch’s Use of First-Person Narrative in the Black Prince.” English Studies. 85.2 (2010): 134-146.

Johnson, Mary. “Point of view, part 2: The real weakness  of first person, present tense.” Mary Jonson Stories. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.

Divide My Love in Half: The Dangerous Pull of the Dual Narrative Novel

Authors use various narrative devices in their work to achieve particular ends.  Sometimes they are straightforward plot advancers, sometimes they have something to say about life, and sometimes they even have something to say about narrative itself.  I believe that with Kate Mosse’s two novels, Labyrinth and Sepulchre, she uses the dual narrative device to do a little of all three.  But where does the speaking end and the action begin?

In an interview on the blog Women’s Fiction Writers, Kristina McMorris explains that readers enjoy dual-narrative or dual timeline novels because, “Through interwoven timelines, we’re able to witness how the act of one person even decades ago can unknowingly alter the course of another person’s life down the road”.  There is a certain type of suspense that comes from a novel written in two entirely different time periods, but which intertwine throughout the novel.  It’s a feeling of inexorability, a sense that we almost already know what will happen because of what is happening right now, and yet a palpable thrilling sense of mystery multiplied twofold, due to the dual plots, the conflict that each main character is experiencing.  

Readers also get the best of both worlds, in a way, as the earlier narrative is often a historical one, full of the wonderful depictions of another time and place; it’s agreed in historical fiction circles that the biggest pitfall to writing a historical novel is not doing the right research, because just the right detail to perfect the story might be only a book or document away.   Authors of historical novels sometimes perform years of research just to write one novel, and they carefully insert historical facts into the narrative to bring the historical setting to life.   But readers don’t just get the historical narrative; a contemporary narrative complements the historical —two stories for the price of one!

But.

What makes a good historical fiction writer?  What makes a good contemporary fiction writer?  Can the two meet?  In many regards, writing fiction that takes place in the here and now is just like writing historical fiction.  If you write a novel that is supposed to be set in Chicago, but the only aspects of the narrative meant to elicit a sense of place are stereotypes and vague references to how windy it always is, readers are going to be turned off by your story.  Writing contemporary fiction takes a certain amount of introspection, and sometimes even research, to elicit the feel of a place—what it looks like, who lives there, the weather, the sense of place and history.  One would think that for historical fiction writers, adding a second timeline would be relatively simple—same methods, less guessing because you can actually go there right now.

But on a recent foray into historical dual narrative novel-reading, I’ve found that quite the opposite can come true all to easily.  In Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth and Sepulchre, the historical settings and narratives are quite wonderfully researched and brought to life.  The characters who lived in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Carcassonne in the former, and nineteenth-century Paris in the latter, are quite three-dimensional and alive and believable.  The characters who appear in the contemporary timelines in both, however, are less-so.  The novels feature a female protagonist each in the historical and contemporary narratives.  The protagonists from the twenty-first century in each novel are practically interchangeable, and the villain characters and the love interests don’t go much further.  

Labyrinth’s Alice and Sepulchre’s Meredith, even though one is English and the other from the United States, are twenty-something single intellectuals, strong-willed and a little afraid of the world, each looking to uncover some aspect of the past.  Though each has a slightly different motivation, each answers the pull with nearly the same lead-footed hypnosis.  They have to perform these tasks, of course, because otherwise the novel wouldn’t continue—the reader wouldn’t get the historical narrative because there would be no intrinsic reason for it.  I was amazed, at first, when I realized how stark the difference was between the development of characters across the two timelines in each novel, but in a way it makes sense.  

Historical novel-writing, as mentioned above, takes a large amount of effort and research just to get the place right, not to mention the characters.  Authors pore over every detail, making minute cuts here and there, until they practically come to inhabit the lives and worlds of their historical characters.  In her 2006 article “A Theory of Narrative Empathy,” Suzanne Keen describes authors almost as extreme empathizers.  She reports on a study in which fiction writers experience a feeling of their characters having independent agency, and a sense of “eavesdropping…, bargaining with them, and feeling for them” (221).  As Keen puts it, “Though clearly novelists still do exercise their authority by choosing the words that end up on the page, they may experience the creative process as akin to involuntarily empathizing with a person out there, separate from themselves” (221) and further reports that fiction writers as a group scored higher than the general population empathy. 

Putting these two facts together—that historical fiction writers pour themselves into their research and craft, and that fiction writers generally score extremely high on the empathy scale—it’s not surprising that a historical narrative would take precedence, even unwittingly, in a dual narrative novel.  Here McMorris also agrees, stating that it is important “to make sure the stakes are as equal as possible in both story lines.  Otherwise you risk tempting the reader to skim the chapters that in comparison have a lower level of tension.”  A dual narrative novel first inspired by a past event or person is the initial focus of tension and conflict—the author has to work to create the same level of interest and conflict in the contemporary narrative.  For an author already drawn to historical writing and research, it would be understandably difficult to muster the same level of empathy and interest for another, less inspiring time period.  

This is not to say that authors shouldn’t attempt such narrative devices, only that they should be aware of the pitfalls.  Indeed historical fiction is coming to have a broader role in understanding history itself than previously given credit for, and a historical narrative that can converse with the contemporary can be a great addition to a greater narrative about history and what we know about ourselves.  Indeed Margaret Atwood was quoted by Forrest G. Robinson in his 2004 article “We Should Talk: Western History and Wester Literature in Dialogue,” saying, “How do we know we know what we think we know?  And if we find that, after all, we don’t know what it is that we once though we knew, how do we know we are who we think we are, or thought we were yesterday, or thought we were—for instance—a hundred years ago?,” an argument for literature’s place in our historical understanding of ourselves, rather than relying on only an absolutist, modernist version of history.  Alice’s compulsion to uncover the history of twelfth-century Carcassonne, in Labyrinth, stems ultimately from it being her own personal family history, and she comes to an understanding of it through the stories she dreams and hears from other characters.  The Grail itself is meant to provide long life for a person to go forth, to bear witness and tell a truth.  A novel may only reveal one small part of a greater story of a place and time, but after all that is only what history books can do, and they can only tell it from one point of view.  For what is history, if not the story of us, and if histories forget the smaller narratives, what truths do they tell?  

And so we read on.