Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Shannon Hale: Book of a Thousand Days

            In this young adult novel, Shannon Hale tells the classic princess in a tower story first by setting it in a version of medieval Mongolia, and then by inverting everything about it. The princess, Saren, is a beautiful but terrified, traumatized, and probably mentally ill daughter of gentry, completely unable even to comb her own hair. The real star of the story is Dashti, a “mucker” girl, a nomadic herder who was put out of her clan along with her mother when times got tough, who then after her mother died, gave up her freedom to get a place working for the gentry, Saren’s father. In other words, the story is about one character who has everything except capability, and one who has nothing but capability. The two get bricked into a tower together for seven years by Saren’s father when Saren refuses to marry a nightmarish and animalistic lord, Lord Khasar, having formed an attachment to another lord, Khan Tegus, whom she met when they were both children and, crucially, has not seen since.
            Our heroine, Dashti, is appealing from the very beginning because when she is bricked into the tower, she is delighted to be practically on vacation, with all the food in the world provided, and only one spoiled and helpless girl to look after. She has led an incredibly hard life so far, going hungry, working to exhaustion, living on practically nothing, but she had the benefit Saren did not of a mother who loved her. Dashti’s mother also taught her the healing songs that get Dashti her job with the gentry in the first place. Unlike Saren, who does not know what to do with herself, Dashti is able to fill her days with cooking, cleaning, caring for the princess, singing, drawing, and writing in her diary. When Khan Tegus comes to visit, Saren insists that Dashti pretend to be her and speak with him through their tiny window, such that Tegus and Dashti actually end up falling in love without ever seeing each other.
            I was interested in reading this novel as part of the series of books about transformative spaces that I’ve been covering this semester. Getting bricked into the tower does not really transform either girl, however. I’m reminded of Joss Whedon’s complaint about the lack of character arc with many heroes, which I can’t find online (it was in a Firefly DVD commentary track, if I remember correctly) but I would paraphrase it this way: “He’s a brave and heroic man who under pressure is…brave and heroic!” Dashti remains the pragmatic one who eventually figures a way out of the tower, when the monstrous lord threatens to burn them out of it. Saren remains terrified and hopeless and incapable, even afraid of leaving the tower and facing the blue sky when she is freed. I find it very interesting that Saren’s one piece of strength lies in refusing Lord Khasar and making Dashti take her place in speaking with Khan Tegus. In other words, she adamantly opposes any interaction with these potential suitors, even when she does nothing else.
            There is major character development, but it doesn’t come from the tower. The two girls make their way to the city where Khan Tegus is the lord and get work in the kitchens there. Saren eventually gets some sense smacked into her by the no nonsense kitchen staff and learns to do some work, earning herself some self-respect, while Dashti’s healing skills take her to Khan Tegus himself when he is injured. Although Dashti tells Khan Tegus she is a mucker maid, he soon realizes from her voice that she is the person he fell in love with in the tower, upon which Saren insists that Dashti lie and say she is actually Saren.
            Complications ensue, but finally Dashti manages to defeat the evil Lord Khasar, takes her own identity again, and marries Khan Tegus. It’s a fairy tale ending but Dashti gets there through extreme physical danger, personal bravery, and a tremendous life-threatening conflict between her duty to obedience to Saren as gentry versus her obedience to the laws. Ultimately the two girls exchange their places in the world, a deeply satisfying conclusion given Dashti’s constant fight for survival and Saren’s weedy, spineless nature that made me want to slap her for about nine tenths of the novel.
            I wondered throughout: could this novel have played out purely in the tower? Once someone is locked in a tower, escape looms pretty large on the narrative landscape. I don’t think there’s a way to tell a compelling tower story without escape being on the horizon somewhere, any more than you can tell a good generation ship story without having the ship land somewhere eventually. I keep coming back to The Count of Monte Cristo and his imprisonment, and of course The Shawshank Redemption, another terrific story of unjust imprisonment and escape. It’s an archetypal story, really, one which must always end in true justice being served, like in The Walls Around Us. Again and again I keep trying to think of ways for the story to play out just inside the tower. It’s nagging at me! Shouldn’t escape be the end of the story? Shouldn’t the people locked in the tower only be able to escape by overcoming whatever internal obstacles are embodied by their external obstacles?
            What is the connection between the gothic novel’s scary houses and these stories of imprisonment and escape? I will have to explore this much more in my essay semester. I wrote my dissertation on the stories written as inspiration for medieval anchoresses who walled themselves into tiny cells, come to think of it. As a committed claustrophobe who can get a panic attack from a sports bra, I might be opening a disturbing can of worms here. Is there any other kind, though? Who puts worms in cans? Speaking of claustrophobic situations.
            Ultimately, Book of a Thousand Days is about transformation through sympathy and empathy with another. Dashti can’t escape her own caste upbringing without learning to see the gentry as real people, not the exalted magical beings she imagines them to be at the beginning. Saren can’t escape her own learned helplessness until she sees the work of regular people as something that anyone can do, instead of something that is part of the workers’ nature. Both girls have to come to grips with Lord Khasar’s actual animal nature, as well as Khan Tegus’s real responsibilities to the laws of the land. In the end it’s Dashti who saves them physically, but it’s Saren who figures out a loophole in the laws and customs that allows Dashti to escape execution for presumption of rank.
            I find this an incredibly satisfying novel, but it’s not really about the two girls being locked into a tower. It’s about two girls who are locked into their strict social roles and have to free themselves from those.

Terry Pratchett: The Shepherd's Crown

            This is the final novel in a shorter series set within Pratchett’s larger Discworld fantasy series. These novels focus on a young witch named Tiffany Aching who starts out as a child, just discovering her magical power, and end with Tiffany finally taking full control of her power and owning her place in the world.
            I wanted to study this novel despite its weaknesses because Tiffany’s story is built on houses. Her story really begins with the death of her grandmother, a shepherd and unacknowledged witch who lived up on the downs in a shepherd’s hut. Granny Aching’s hut is burned after her death, leaving only the axles and wheels and a pot-belled iron stove. For her education, Tiffany leaves her parents’ home and goes to study with other witches, living in their houses and working for them. But this novel begins with Tiffany’s mentor, Granny Weatherwax, also dying, and leaving her house—and the associated work of taking care of the villagers around it—to Tiffany.
            Splitting her time between Granny Weatherwax’s workload and Tiffany’s home workload overwhelms and exhausts Tiffany, so a great deal of the novel involves her running back and forth and trying to be everywhere at once. The ending has Tiffany finally choosing and deciding to give away Granny Weatherwax’s house and going back up to the downs where her own Granny Aching lived, building herself a new shepherd’s hut using Granny Aching’s old hut’s wheels, and settling down there.
            What is a house? In this world, a witch’s house isn’t just a place to live. It carries a weight of obligation to all the people around it. It’s a job and a responsibility. Granny Weatherwax’s house includes her bees, her garden, and even her old boots, so that someone stepping into Granny’s place really is trying to fill her shoes. Granny’s place is also a tremendous honor, since she’s the de facto leader of all the witches. By willing her house and her position to Tiffany, Granny Weatherwax also gives Tiffany a tremendous compliment.
            This book is the last chapter we’re ever going to get in the Discworld series, since the author died even before its publication. The conclusion feels especially portentous because of it. Tiffany unites her two divergent strands of history by coming back home and taking over the location that has always belonged to her grandmother, who is actually buried right there. By building her own shepherd’s hut, Tiffany refuses to live in anyone else’s house, even the house of the most powerful witch, even when that house comes with great respect.
            I’m still thinking a lot about houses in fiction, houses that make us into who we are, houses that confine, protect, express, and tie down. I can’t think of another instance in fiction where someone rejects a house they were given. I’m sure my own circumstances, and the book I’m working on right now, are affecting how I see houses in general, but it’s interesting to think about how difficult it must be to look a gift house in the mouth. We don’t inherit houses as a rule, these days. People die and their houses are sold, so that we aren’t pulled into that cycle of tradition and obligation. Instead, we go out and choose the house we want to live in. Houses are choices embodied. As a renter, it’s easy (and extremely fun) to look at an available house and imagine myself living there, mentally arrange all of my furniture around the place, consider the direction of sunlight and the logistics of groceries and snow plowing. But it’s almost like trying on clothes in a store. If it doesn’t fit, no big deal. A renter isn’t committed. Apartments are the same, a space that by definition is impermanent. A motel room can be perfectly suitable for overnight, but it would be impossible to imagine living there happily long term.
            As someone slightly obsessed with houses, I’ve read a lot lately about the “tiny house” movement: hand made mobile, self-contained homes on wheels. What a bizarre but fascinating movement! The aesthetic appeal is clear, with the custom woodwork and design features, and of course Tiffany’s shepherd hut is well represented in the tiny house movement, where actual shepherd’s huts like hers appear. The other main point of appeal is that these houses are on wheels and movable. Someone can own a house, but without the dictates of land and the limitations of location. These houses are built on trailers to get around local ordinances about minimum size for permanent housing, but also so that the owners can take them on the road. Looking at the interiors is an exercise in mentally getting rid of accumulated stuff, something that always leads me to think: “This would be great if it were ten times the size and built on an actual foundation, with bookshelves, storage space, plumbing, electricity, cable internet, a washer, a dryer, and a yard.” In other words, an actual house. I admire these exquisitely designed and compact living spaces, and then remember a) I moved in a 26 foot truck the last time (though I asked for 22—they were out), which is much bigger than any tiny house, an insuperable mathematical difficulty to be sure, and b) I’m incredibly claustrophobic. Tiny houses sell the dream of having only the essentials, living a compact and low impact life, being frugal and careful and minimalist. Nothing makes me more aware of my maximalist tendencies.
            Tiny houses are dollhouses for people. They’re miniaturized and idealized versions of real places to live, and as such, more of a way of thinking about our lives than realistic places to live. Fiction works the same way, especially this kind of fiction, set in a fantasy world. And within fiction, fictional houses express the shape of the world as it fits around us. The gothic novel sees the world fitting around us in terrifying ways, constricting, endangering, or confining us. These fantasy novels see the world fitting around us in ways that express obligation and responsibility, as well as history and tradition. What is a house? For this novel, a house carries all of that, including expectation and plans for the future. I’m very glad that Tiffany Aching finally got a house of her own, after bouncing from place to place for six novels, but I’m also glad that it’s on wheels.

Alice Sebold: The Lovely Bones

            What a gorgeous novel! But structurally, it was a bowl of pudding. Worse, the novel starts with a completely unnecessary rape scene. Honestly, we don’t see the murder and dismemberment and we are plenty horrified by that, so why do we need to see the rape? We absolutely don’t. People need to stop writing gratuitous rape scenes, I am serious. Cut it out! The point of Susie’s character is that she’s dead, not that she was raped. In fact, her grieving family *has no idea that she was raped,* nobody ever knows, nobody ever finds her body--so why is that even part of the story? Writers really need to get a grip on this and only write rape when it’s actually part of the story. Jeebus. Reader rage!
            The only thing that ever ties back to the rape is the unintentionally horrifying scene near the end when Susie somehow comes down from heaven and takes over the body of her lesbian friend in order to have sex with the boy she used to like when she was alive. Her lesbian friend! What on earth is going on here? That reads like rape all over again to me. I get that it’s supposed to be nice good loving sex to make up for the rape, but did she ask her friend if she could borrow her body for sex with a man? Does her friend know about it? What the hell is going on in this book? Who would think that is okay? Why write Ruth’s character as a lesbian if not to make this invasion double extra awful and rapey?
            Otherwise, it’s a lovely story about a family and their friends putting their lives back together after Susie gets murdered at the age of fourteen. They found only her elbow, which did not make sense to me just on an anatomical level, unless the murderer diced her up randomly. Not to be graphic, but arms bend, and bodies come apart best at the joints. I realize that the elbow sounds funniest, and carries the least burden of imagery (less than a foot, or a hand, for example) but there’s just something impractical about the whole thing. The police found all the blood, so they knew Susie was dead, but did not find the underground lair? Where did she get carved up, then? I’m not squeamish about this at all—I’m halfway through rewatching eleven seasons of Bones, which positively relishes blood and goop and dismemberment—so maybe that’s why the practicalities are bothering me so much. Why on earth wouldn’t the murderer just leave Susie’s body in the underground lair and fill it in? It’s already a grave.  
            The author really lost me with the gratuitous rape, and then lost me even more with the whimsical elbow. But the book was gorgeous otherwise, full of wonderful character development. As far as the structure that drives the story, we have both something we want, in that we want the family to be okay, and something we don’t want, in that we really don’t want the murderer, George Harvey, to hurt anyone else, particularly not Lindsey or Ruth or any of the other characters we come to know. As I’m studying structure, the things we push for and push against seem to be tremendously powerful, like the accelerator and the brake pedal in a car. I wouldn’t want to go without either. (Maybe transitions are the clutch, in that case.) When we care about a character, we want them to get what they want, and we dread seeing bad things happen to them, specific bad things, the very bad things that are in the air around them.
            The frustrating thing about the novel is that these things we hope for and hope against are a broken promise. Susie says early on, “I could not have what I wanted most: Mr. Harvey dead and me living. Heaven wasn’t perfect. But I came to believe that if I watched closely, and desired, I might change the lives of those I loved on Earth” (20). The thing is, though, she can’t. She doesn’t change a thing. She simply watches. I wonder whether the author intended this but then did not carry it out, or simply set up this impossibility that mirrors the way we read, where we can hope and want things for the characters, but can never change what’s written on the pages to come. Susie feels like someone written out of a story, and in fact the story is really not about her at all, but about her murder, her loss, her absence. Susie is nowhere in the story once she’s dead, can’t even tell anyone where to look or move a leaf. The best she can do is appear as a wisp of a figure to those who choose to believe she’s there. Even her appearance changes nothing, though. Susie is pure observer, until she takes over Ruth for a night with Ray.
            Sebold’s genius lies in evoking all of the moments of life. She got every detail of 1970s Pennsylvania exactly right, jolting me with each new mention of Wanamaker’s or a cornfield that of course would be named for a Stoltzfus, because central and southeastern Pennsylvania is solid with Amish Stoltzfus families. I must know three or four dozen Stoltzfeet myself. Sebold takes me right back there, the smells and the sounds and the feed corn and the handknitted acrylic hats.
            In a lot of ways, the structure of the novel is a pond with a pebble dropped in the middle. We watch all the ripples through the community through the eyes of the most omniscient of all narrators, who knows what everyone is thinking and can see anything she wants. Although I found myself constantly wanting there to be a plot of some kind, more than just wanting everyone to be okay, and hoping the murderer wouldn’t hurt anyone else, the ultimate goal of the pebble in the pond story is to watch until all of the ripples cease. Susie’s father has the hardest time letting go, but even he gradually comes to grips with his loss. Our narrator wants everyone to be okay. When they all really are okay, in the end, the story is over. Inserting herself back into the narrative like a bolt from heaven makes not the slightest bit of narrative sense, unfortunately.
            How odd to read two books in a row with that same bizarre body swap right near the end. In The Walls Around Us, Violet and Ori switch lives somehow so that the innocent person gets to have the life that the guilty one had stolen from her. It’s nonsensical, because Ori died, but then she gets to wake up with Violet’s life. This jump from heaven of Susie’s is just as nonsensical. I kind of can’t get over the fact that two otherwise wonderful novels fell into such a terrible narrative trap, giving their characters some kind of closure and justice that could not happen in the novels up to that point. In other words, they created these worlds, they laid out all the rules, they set the limits, and then in order to get what the authors wanted—because both instances absolutely reek of writer—they threw all that away. I think the moral of the story is to plan for a satisfying ending to a story so that you don’t have to make one up at the last minute that contradicts absolutely everything that came before. Oh, boy, does that ever make me mad as a reader. As writers, we’re in charge of everything! Go back and make it so that these things actually fit! Add in whatever you need to build these things into the story organically!
            But the most important thing I learned from this book is the gas pedal and brake pedal analogy, driving a narrative with the things we want to happen and the things we don’t want to happen. That is a tremendously powerful way to think about writing a story. It reminds me of the Hitchcock movie opening where someone puts a bomb in the trunk of a car, and then someone else unwittingly drives the car through a lot of crowded city spaces. It’s the classic illustration of tension in film. Another image that keeps coming to mind lately is one that a friend told me about, where she was visiting the Empire State Building and this father put his toddler up on the railing between the bars, where she could easily have slipped and fallen the entire way to the ground below. Both my friend and I practically get panic attacks every time we think about this scene. She had to take a Xanax last time we talked about it. It’s just like the bomb in the trunk of the car. We can imagine so clearly and vividly just how wrong things could go and there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it. That’s a powerful tool in writing, something I have to remember to use.