Thursday, December 31, 2009

Peter Pan in Scarlet

Brilliant as Geraldine McCaughrean's writing is, there was enough in my memory of J.M Barrie's Peter Pan (amply borne out in my recent rereading of it) that made me put off reading the sequel until now.

But read it I did, managing to squeak it into 2009. Here's what I found:

Wonderfully crafted prose. This is a writer who can intuit voice and deliver it on the page. She's been asked to channel Barrie, and she does so with her usual fine sense of emotional tone and timbre, the things that make the music of a written voice. She's taken the 1911 sensibility of the editorial or involved author's voice and updated it subtly, so it has strength and purpose but it's not as intrusive. In contrast, the voice in Barrie's original often feels downright coy. Peter Pan in Scarlet has terrific momentum, and its through-line with Peter growing more and more like his arch-enemy is quite wonderful. The time-frame's been moved forward but it's still only 1926, so the storyteller's trapped within the viewpoint of another time. I'm saying all this to try and understand one of the storytelling choices.

Those “redskins.” They're still here. For a while it seems as if they're just putting in a sort of collective cameo appearance. Subverted and turned into pirates, but still referred to as "squaws" and "braves," they continue to occupy the awkward niche of a playfully subordinate race. Their innocent savage role plays out to the end, when they all come joyfully back in a veritable storm of "bison and appaloosas and drums and papooses and war-bonnets and peace-pipes and braids and coup sticks and moccasins and bows and arrows that went to make up the Tribes of the Eight Nations."

What? They came back just to be an escort in fancy-dress? To a bunch of white kids, forgive the plainspeak, who treated them like live toys in the first place?

Most reviews didn't make a single mention of the continued manhandling of worn-out American Indian stereotypes. What's wrong with that picture? Sure, in 1926 fake Indianness was writ large in public perception. But the one thing that the narrative voice of an involved author does, and something that this narrative voice in particular does with elegance and grace, is to convey a worldview.

Let me try to say this clearly. The worldview that this book conveys suggests that this fake subordinate war-painted "redskin" flim-flam is OK.

Now before I get accused of playing the PC card, let me say this: most of Geraldine McCaughrean's sequel is masterfully crafted. In places the prose is practically incandescent. Even the mothering thread, that at first feels stretched a bit thin, gets somewhat redeemed by the presence of Tootles's father. But oh boy, those Tribes, I just can't explain them away. I mean, given the period in which he wrote, Barrie could just as easily have chosen another kind of Indian, the kind they were drumming into the Empire's army just a couple of years after the play was turned into a novel. Had he done that, we'd have had sadhus and fakirs and cobras and elephants and Taj Mahals and turbans and dancing-bells all galloping across the plain, right into the 21st century.

Nostalgia for the good old colonial days dies hard. Hardest of all, I think, in the world of children's books.

Welcome, 2010!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Revisiting A Pack of Lies by Geraldine McCaughrean

I'm late to the Peter Pan in Scarlet conversation or debate or whatever it was. But that's all right, because I could really be speaking to myself about this, for all the attention anyone's going to give my thoughts in the matter.

Rereading the original Peter Pan by J.M.Barrie after many years (I managed to get my hands on the 100th anniversary edition) I find the narrative voice has an arch tone to it, the precise tone that has perhaps made writers veer away from omniscient storyteller viewpoints for almost a century. What a very involved author this is, frequently inserting commentary into the text, and tacitly endorsing the world of the story.

Not to upset those who have waited for years to return to Neverland, but I find that tacit endorsement a tad worrying, because both the racist and sexist overtones (the “redskins” and Wendy’s "motherly" role) are quite frankly hair-raising. I understand that 1911, the year of the first novelization of the play, Peter Pan and Wendy, was also the year of the Imperial Delhi Durbar—things were different back then. Yet this book in its 100th anniversary edition, is available to children today without a word of explanation about that shift in thinking that we’re supposed to have made. No contextual footnotes, no afterword, no explanation at all. I'm not saying we should yank it off the shelf. But a little context would be good, no? Something to suggest that we've moved on?

Unless of course we haven't.

Before I get to the sequel, I'm finding myself returning to another book by Geraldine McCaughrean. I first read A Pack of Lies twelve years ago, nearly a decade after its publication. It's a brilliant work, with its stories nested within the frame tale of mildly discontented Ailsa and her mother, struggling to keep an antiques store afloat. The iconic MCC Berkshire shows up and throws their lives into turmoil, spinning stories about objects he sells for (and sometimes despite) Ailsa and Mrs. Povey. The deft twist at the end offers a subtle commentary on the nature of fiction and truth, and throws into disarray all that we've come to believe about this bookstore world. McCaughrean's liquid prose ebbs and flows, carrying me along. I'm not even reading it so much as slip-sliding over it to an inevitable destination that makes me want to turn back to page 1 and repeat the experience all over again.

So now I'm reading it again, and taking a closer look in particular at the story that interests me most, "The Writing Box: The Story of a Liar." The customer is their neighbor Mr. Singh. Okay, so he's a bit stiff, speaks without contractions (that's getting to be my pet peeve about South Asian voices transcribed by writers who aren't from the region). What? We never use contractions? None of us? Ever?

I decide I like Mr. Singh anyway. He sounds a bit like my father's colleagues from his days in the Government of India, a motley assortment of philosopher-bureaucrats I remember from my youth. I keep going. The India part of the story channels The Secret Garden, definitely, with mysterious natives and snakes and whatnot. The land itself is more than a little Orientalist, a strange and unnerving ocean on which the English girl Grace has been cast adrift. But there the story takes a giant sweeping turn away from a Victorian worldview and into a post-colonial present, by inverting the old trope of the untrustworthy native and the helpless European. It's Grace who has lied her way through life until she meets her match in the land where her people are both served and hated. And in the end Mr. Singh naturally buys the box and book that spark the story, and his "arms closed around them as the arms of India once closed around her sweet Independence." It's all about voice and viewpoint and in this case McCaughrean slides to a nice finish on both.

Next up, Peter Pan in Scarlet.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Haroun Sequel in 2010

Speaking of books and pages, an inside reference comprehensible to those who have read Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I am thrilled to hear that there is going to be a sequel! I don’t care what a boatload of learned critics might say, I happen to think that Haroun is Sir S’s best book bar none. I also believe that’s because writing for young readers allows no room for self-indulgent cleverness. The story carries its own force and you have to attend to that force and give it its due. As Rushdie said in an interview with James Fenton back when Haroun came out, "If the engine of the book is that the world goes wrong when the mother leaves, the only happy ending that means anything at all is that the thing that was unmade is remade. The thing that was broken is mended. Healing—you know—healing is the only happy ending."

I was annoyed when Haroun was marketed in the US largely as an adult novel or at least not as one intended particularly for young readers. Rushdie made some snarky remarks about the children’s publishing industry in response, I wish I could remember where. The gripe had to do with categories and age groups in children's publishing, and sort of missed the point. In contrast, the present crossover designation of Luka and the Fire of Life sounds promising.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Student News: Looking at Art with Anjali Raghbeer

Over the years the Internet has blurred our geographical boundaries, so that even though Anjali Raghbeer lives in Delhi and I don't, I was able to see some of these interesting and thoughtful picture books when they were in very early draft form. The "Looking at Art" series uses the tools of narrative and fiction to examine the lives of four major artists from India from the 19th century to the present.

The artists featured in the books are:
  • Ravi Varma, who painted classical mythic Indian images in the 19th century, using European-style oil and canvas
  • Amrita Sher-Gil born of Hungarian and Sikh parentage whose works have been declared National Art Treasures by the Government of India.
  • Jamini Roy, trained in formal European painting, whose work straddled two centuries and who abandoned that training in favor of rich, evocative and completely original art that was close to his Bengali roots
  • M.F.Husain whose art career began when he painted film billboards in the 1930's and whose paintings include horses, mythological figures--and umbrellas!
In three of the books Anjali uses a fictional storyline to explore these lives--characters step out of paintings, a forger is caught, and reality and art become intertwines. The Sher-Gil story is told in a crafted first person voice that includes selected text from the artist's own journal. The Looking at Art series is published by Tulika Books, and will launch December 24 in Chennai at 5 pm. Anjali will read and sign at Ashvita, No 11, 2nd Street, R.K.Salai, Mylapore, Chennai 600004 (opposite Domino’s). Congratulations!

Nearing the End of 2009: a Few Common Threads

Continuing an extended conversation on race, publishing, writing, Laura Atkins speaks to Zetta Elliott.

Segbookgation? More on Galleycat. Bernice McFadden raises the question of whose voice is perceived to carry credibility. It's sort of like calling a certain kind of story a "Cinderella" story. Just by employing that label we place the European tale at the center of the discussion and all the others become, well, others.

On PaperTigers, an interview with Maya Ajmera of the Global Fund for Children, and a call for more books by writers of color.

Katia Novet Saint-Lot writes about the beauty of weaving together the strands of many religious traditions and beliefs. Love the notion of Ganesha at the Nativity scene!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

How is Plot like a Rube Goldberg Machine?

Kersten Hamilton poses this question on her Unblog. Her comparison of plot to Rube Goldberg machines could not have come along in a more timely manner.

I just got back from India via Singapore, Tokyo and LA. At LA International Airport, the layover was too long and diversions for the stranded too few. An art exhibit with moving parts drew much attention. It was mounted on a board and placed on the landing on the way to the (closed at 11 pm) food court. Several people, including toddlers, teenagers, and a few gray-haired birds like me, stopped for long periods of time to gape at metal spheres dropping down plastic chutes and setting off pinging bells. Parts moved seemingly at random, but in fact their movement was dependent on the lifting or falling of flaps and lids farther back along the continuum. One section of the maze got stuck sometime close to midnight. This caused the spheres to pile up. It also caused an exhausted child to throw a screaming fit, until a couple of guys in airport maintenance uniforms came along, turned the whole thing off, and fixed the jam.

The machine (wish I'd taken a picture) both attracted and demanded attention. Plot attracts attention from a reader. The events of plot engage us in the story at its most immediate but they should ideally lead us into more introspective terrain, allow us to link cause and effect, invite us to engage with the characters. Plot also demands attention from the writer. You have to take care of it, or it will come back later to bite you and make you scream. Better you than the reader.

The machine at LAX was Goldberg-like in that it was over-engineered. It employed way more pulleys and shafts and gears and pinging bells than were really needed to make those metal spheres drop into their shutes. Those of us who worry about our plotting abilities also often tend to over-engineer our story lines. Too many characters end up serving the same purpose. Too many story turns lead nowhere. Speaking for myself, I always have to plant too many of these superficial events in an early draft. In draft form, redundancy is actually a note to myself--Hey U! Pay attention to this and figure out what it means! When I'm ready for this next layer of story, I can think about which events are really needed, and which ones ought to be cut.

The machine was all at the same distance from the viewer. This is not true of all Rube Goldberg devices, some of which can be elaborately three-dimensional, but it was true of this one. Plot, unless it's backed up by sufficient depth of character, can be flat, all at the same distance from the reader. Plot with insufficient motivation can be simply puzzling. You see a lot happening but you have no idea why.

The guys in uniforms who came along to fix the machine served the same function as the live animals in Rube Goldberg's drawings--a pencil sharpener for example involves a squirrel popping out of its hole and a bird pecking away. The reader serves this function with reference to plot. As writers we must refrain from making every last connection explicit on the page. We avoid didacticism when we trust that the reader is intelligent enough to get the point.

Rube's drawings were absurd in nature, and it's their absurdity that provokes laughter. One genre that bends the conventions of plot, laughs at them and invites the reader to do likewise is humor. In humorous writing, the links can be twisted, shaped, and reshaped. Absurdity can be taken to fantastic levels. Form itself can be re-engineered and employed to comic effect, with the reader invited to be part of the joke.

So Kersten, here's your answer. Indirection is probably the biggest lesson a fiction writer can learn from Rube. Plotting can be fun if you come at it slantwise.