The Dollhouse

This is my fifth and final analysis of novels with multiple storylines. The works I’ve examined so far featured a gestalt timeline structure, dual narrative structure, linked novella structure, and dual timeline structure. Fiona Davis’ 2016 novel has a combination dual narrative/dual timeline structure, with two different protagonists in two different timelines. 

In 2016, Rose Lewin is forced out of her companion’s condo in New York’s historic Barbizon building when he decides to reunite with his ex-wife. In 1952, Darby McLaughlin moves from rural Ohio to New York and rents a room in the Barbizon, which at the time was a hotel for professional women. Both timelines progress linearly, with occasional brief flashbacks, in alternating short chapters, making it very easy for the reader to pick up a storyline from where it last paused.

Three elements make the dual storyline structure work. The first is the linear structure of both stories, a common theme I’ve identified in my analysis of these five works; if you’re going to ask your reader to keep track of more than one narrative, make sure those narratives don’t jump around in time. Second, the Barbizon serves the common setting for both storylines, and the building functions almost like a character in the novel. Lastly, both protagonists struggle with independence and recognition, and this common arc provides the dual narrative/dual timeline structure with a satisfying storytelling logic.

***

The principal lesson I’ve learned from analyzing these five novels is that unconventional narrative structures need to be combined with more traditional storytelling techniques. Use linear timelines to ground the reader; maintain consistent foci on the protagonists; short chapters are a huge benefit when switching between two protagonists or timelines, but longer chapters are more effective after making a large leap in a timeline; identify the time and central characters at the outset of each chapter; establish clear connections between the protagonists/timelines/narratives. These are techniques I’ll keep in mind when I resume work on my own book-length works.

Carry-out

PHOTO PROMPT © Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

“Mind if I sit, Dad?”

The old man nodded without looking up from his lemonade. By sending his son rather than either daughter, the family was sending a message. “I’m not ready,” he muttered.

The son sat at the other end of the small rectangular diner table. Condiments were arranged at that end as if the son were about to have a meal of ketchup, salt, and pepper. “Time to come home,” he said.

“I just ordered dinner.”

“We’ll do carry-out.”

“I’ll never sign.” The old man looked up. “Never.”

“No documents tonight, Dad. But we need you home.”

Friday Fictioneers is a weekly flash fiction challenge.

The Ticket

PHOTO PROMPT © Brenda Cox

The public square was cordoned Monday, the carousel erected the following day, operational by mid-week. On Thursday, Audrey decided to visit the impromptu amusement.

She’d witnessed the carousel’s construction while riding the metro every morning to her well-paying but draining job. Leaving for an early lunch break, she walked the block towards the square.

Audrey heard music as she passed the concrete barriers for the metro. Funiculì, Funiculà. Her favorite childhood song.

“Greetings.” Audrey hadn’t seen the speaker, yet somehow knew she was being addressed. She turned and saw a man in a motely suit, smiling and bearing a ticket.

Friday Fictioneers is a weekly flash fiction challenge.

The Girls

Emma Cline’s 2016 novel is the fourth in my series of reviews for novels with multiple storylines. So far I’ve analyzed novels with a gestalt timeline structure, dual narrative structure, and linked novella structure. Cline’s novel features a dual timeline structure, with one protagonist in two different eras separated by almost half a century.

Given what happened to the the protagonist, Evie, when she was 14, it’s hardly surprising it would take her several decades to reflect on it. In 1969, months before entering a boarding school which she wants no part of, Evie joins a cult that is evidently based on the Charles Manson family. It’s an interesting study of how an otherwise level-headed person could become involved in a community so twisted and eventually murderous. Decades later she works as a caretaker for an absent homeowner and befriends a young woman, Sasha, who reminds Evie of her younger self. Sasha asks Evie about her involvement with the cult (she had narrowly missed taking part in its homicidal rampage). Evie reflects on that time as she attempts to guide Sasha away from a disastrous relationship.

Unlike the dual narratives in “All the Light We Cannot See,” the two timelines here are not evenly distributed. The novel is divided into four parts, with Evie and Sasha’s timeline serving as the brief introduction to each part. After the introduction, the novel progresses with numbered chapters that span the four parts. This structure, combined with the fact that both timelines are linear progressions, makes timeline confusion nearly impossible. While the 1969 storyline is the bulk of the novel, the latter storyline is needed to show the lasting impact of those years on Evie.

What I found most interesting is that the outcome of the 1969 timeline — the violent murders committed by the cult — is known from almost the beginning. Given the close parallels to the Manson family, it also seems horrifyingly logical. The reader also knows early on that Evie wasn’t involved in the killings. The suspense lies in finding out how close Evie comes to taking part, and how she was able to avoid it. When those revelations come towards the end of the novel, both are satisfying.

Of the four novels I’ve read for this series, this was the most enjoyable. Cline has a gift for metaphors, many of which are spectacular and only a few misfiring. A sample from page 26: “I’d always liked her in a way I never had to think about, like the fact of my own hands.” The novel has been in development for a Hulu miniseries, but with little progress for several years. I hope the project does get completed, because I think that with a talented director and cast this could be a compelling show.

Pensive

After an even lengthier hiatus — need to recover my enthusiasm for this project — here’s another of my reviews of literary journals and genre magazines.

Pensive is an online literary journal published by the Northeastern University Center for Spirituality, Dialogue, and Service.

What They Say About Themselves: “Founded in 2020, Pensive is published online biannually by the Center for Spirituality, Dialogue, and Service (CSDS) at Northeastern University, and showcases work that deepens the inward life; expresses a range of religious/spiritual/humanist experiences and perspectives; envisions a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world; advances dialogue across difference; and challenges structural oppression in all its forms.”

Issue Reviewed: Issue 2 (Spring 2021)

Genre: Literary realism with spiritual elements

One Story I’ll Remember Not to Forget: “Entwined,” by Laine Cunningham. Regina, a single woman in an uninspiring job, takes in a stray cat who keeps showing up at her door. When Regina is stuck with cancer, the cat takes on a larger role in her life. What I found interesting here was the absence of dialogue; the story is all third-person limited omniscient narrative, but it works.

Exploding Helicopters: One Explosion. Not very much action in the stories.

Profanometer: Dammit. A few f-bombs here and there, but noting gratuitous.

Curious

PHOTO PROMPT © Krista Strutz

Karl hadn’t seen an eagle perched this close to the ground. He’d seen them lurking high in trees near the shore and soaring over the lake, descending with deadly grace to snatch fish from the water.

He was suddenly curious how close it would allow him to approach before flying off.

As if understanding the human’s intent, the eagle locked its predatory eyes on Karl before he completed his first stroke. Thirty feet, twenty… ten…

Karl was close enough to see the the sharpness of the beast’s ebony talons.

He paddled in reverse slowly, the eagle glaring at his retreat.

Friday Fictioneers is a weekly flash fiction contest.

Day 551

On Tuesday, I returned to one of my old workplaces for the first time since March 5 of last year.

Since 2019 I’ve worked as a tutor in the Writing Center for a local community college. The job pays well, and I enjoy interacting with students and other tutors. Some day I’ll write about “Son of Sam the Poetry Man,” but that’s for another time.

The COVID-19 lockdowns began when the college was on spring break. The college extended the break an additional week, then moved entirely to remote instruction at the end of March. With the campus effectively closed, the Writing Center resumed as a remote service through email, phone, or online conferencing.

While continuing our work has been a relief, tutors agree that the experience isn’t the same. We’ve learned to read the messages students convey in their bodies and faces while we work with them, and this unspoken communication is often very helpful. We also consult with each other when working with a student, and when there’s no students around we enjoy each other’s company. Of course, none of that happens when working remote. We’ve also found that we spend more time on student essays when there’s no one sitting across a table from us. Our work days are longer, and not as much fun.

The campus has reopened this fall semester. Masks are required of everyone, but in-person classes and services have resumed. The Writing Center has also reopened, and this week I walked into that office for the first time in 558 days.

And I was the only one there.

The Writing Center us a glass-walled office located inside the college’s tutoring center. In the days before the pandemic, I would usually see a dozen to 20 people sitting around tables in the tutoring center, with between three and six people in the Writing Center.

On Tuesday, there were three people in tutoring — all staff, no students. There were no other tutors in the Writing Center, and not one student stopped in during my four hours there.

Since the semester’s just started, the lack of “foot traffic,” as we call it, isn’t surprising. The pace should pick up in the coming weeks. I hope so, because the “I Am Legend” feel of the other day was kinda creepy.

I’m a little apprehensive about spending more time in close contact with other people, but working in the Writing Center will be no riskier than my grocery store job. And the increased risk is far outweighed by the benefit of knowing there’s one more thing I’ve taken back from this damn pandemic.

A Visit from the Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan’s 2010 novel is the third in a series of works I’m reading with multiple storylines. Instead of a gestalt structure or dual narrative, the novel features a linked novella structure, with each chapter focusing on a different character, place, and time. There is also a great deal of variation among the storytelling methods — some chapters are in first person, others in third, one in second, and one chapter is composed entirely of presentation slides.

Each chapter can be read as its own novella (most are too long to qualify as short stories). This is a sharp contrast to Anthony Doerr’s dual narrative, which uses very short chapters. Because Egan uses many more characters and the chapters progress in a non-linear fashion, using lengthier chapters grounds the reader — you won’t have any idea where the story will go in the next chapter, but within each chapter you know exactly who is the focus and when the events take place. There are glimpses of characters or storylines developed in later chapters, but within each chapter the focus is very limited — no in-chapter time leaps, no changes in storytelling method, no shifts in principal character. Each character and the story’s plots are also associated in some way with two characters (a cynical record producer and his assistant), who serve as structural links between the chapters.

The primary benefit of this structure is that it allows for focusing on a theme. The plot of each chapter shows its central character coping with aging and decay; time, the ultimate goon, visits everyone. The diversity of narrative perspectives underscores the universality of time’s effects.

The lessons on storytelling from this novel:

Show connections. If chapter two takes place twenty years before chapter one, allude to what happened in the past during the opening chapter. If you introduce a new character in a chapter, identify his or her association with characters established from previous chapters. If a chapter takes place in a new city or country, allude to that location in earlier chapters. A reader too preoccupied with figuring out who these people are, when the story’s taking place, or how anyone wound up here is less likely to see the themes your developing.

Writing is not juggling. You can bounce back-and-forth between two characters and/or timelines, but more than two requires a different approach. In a structure that links multiple story elements, it’s best to stay in one place for a while. Go with longer chapters, exploring that character or setting or era in depth, before moving on to a different story.

Day 543

I took a COVID-19 test on Sunday, and was notified today that it came back negative. I’m free of the coronavirus — for now, anyway.

***

For my tech writing job, I took a tour of a wastewater treatment plant last Thursday. Most of the tour was outside, and both my guide and I had been vaccinated.

About 24 hours later, my throat began feeling sore. My sinuses began congesting a few hours later. When I woke up the following morning, I had a headache in addition to the earlier symptoms.

No fever, no muscle or joint aches, no swelling. None of the notorious COVID symptoms — the toasted English muffin covered in blueberry jam smelled wonderful and tasted even better. Eighteen months ago, I would’ve resigned myself to battling a nasty cold for the next few days.

But… didn’t I meet other plant workers during that tour? didn’t I talk to some of them? didn’t some of those conversations take place indoors? I hadn’t asked whether other workers at the plant had been vaccinated. And I hadn’t always remembered to put my mask back on when we entered a building after being outside.

All minor faults. But too many for this anxious time.

***

Many pharmacies and other sites in our area offer COVID testing. Not paying for the test takes a little creativity, though.

I didn’t find any walk-in testing sites, of the here I am come stick a swab up my nose variety. The tests I found required online registration, along with a series of questions to determine if I was eligible for free testing. Ordered by your employer or doctor to be tested? Been in contact with someone with a confirmed COVID infection? Severe symptoms (fever, diarrhea, loss of smell or taste)? Upcoming plane trip to destination requiring a negative test? I chose the three symptoms I exhibited, all under the “Minor Symptoms” category, and after clicking Next found out that I could schedule a COVID test — for a fee of $125.

So I hit the Back button, selected every check box under “Minor Symptoms,” and clicked Next again. Free test!

After the scheduling screen showed no available appointments for the next four days, I registered on another site, selecting all symptoms that wouldn’t generate additional questions — so who is that person with the confirmed infection? The scheduling tab showed one appointment available Sunday afternoon. Haven’t clicked an icon that quickly.

***

As instructed, I entered the pharmacies drive-up window ten minutes before the appointment time. After giving my name and date of birth (without being asked for identification or insurance card), the pharmacist behind the large window printed my paperwork and inserted it into a baggie with the testing supplies. She then pushed the baggie out to me, and walked me through the test:

  • Rip open the disinfecting wipe and clean my hands
  • Open the swab
  • Insert into one nostril, swirl around, hold for fifteen seconds
  • Repeat for the other nostril
  • Open the sample tube without spilling the contents
  • Insert the swab and break it at the perforation
  • Close the sample tube and put it in the baggie
  • Close the baggie and place it in the deposit box at the end of the drive-thru
  • Have a nice day

***

Taking the test on a Sunday afternoon before a national holiday delayed the testing results — instead of one to two days, it was three. But just as my irritation began approaching an unhealthy level, I got the email confirming my hypothesis.

Inhaling the fumes at the wastewater plant likely overloaded my sinuses. Mowing the lawn after coming home that afternoon probably didn’t help.

Could I be more diligent with masking? Certainly. Should I be bothered at exaggerating my symptoms to qualify for a free test? Please.

***

At some point in the future, I’m going to get COVID or one of its cousins. This virus and its mutations is too contagious, this country’s commitment to public health is too effed-up to contain it, and I’m not perfect.

But I don’t have it today, and that’s going to have to be good enough for now.

Day 537

I’ve made some changes in response to the Delta variant, yet I’ve resisted other changes so far.

Knowing there are members of my fencing club who haven’t been vaccinated (I don’t know who exactly, but the club owner has confirmed there are unvaccinated members), I don’t feel safe there. It’s my favorite exercise activity, and I enjoy the people there; being apart from the club is difficult. But the ventilation isn’t great, and there’s a lot of heavy breathing; it’s time to stay away.

Yet I do continue going once a week to the gym in my local community center. I go on weekday mornings between 10 and noon, between the early-morning and lunch break crowds. There’s maybe a dozen people in the workout area, which is on the second floor of the center with high ceilings and balconies overlooking the first floor — ventilation is great. I wish I wasn’t the only one wearing a mask, but I feel reasonably safe at the times I go there.

I’ve told my monthly writing group that I won’t be attending meetings in person until the public health environment improves. We meet in a library conference room for two hours — everyone’s vaccinated, but being so close for so long when an infectious variant is circulating, and infecting some of the vaccinated, doesn’t seem right. I’ll use email to make comments on submissions, so this activity isn’t going away completely. I’m actually avoiding the library except to check out books I’ve reserved. All public libraries are requiring masks for everyone (which makes me wonder why they continue making conference rooms available); it’s a sound policy, but I’d rather stay home and write rather than wear a mask.

Then there’s my job at the grocery store. All employees are required to wear masks, and I’ve been happy to see that most are actually wearing them correctly now, i.e., covering both nose and mouth. Mask wearing for customers is “strongly encouraged;” we have a worker at the entrance who offers a mask to anyone entering who isn’t wearing one. No action is taken against refusers; just wave ’em in. I don’t see the point of this exercise, but knowing I spend very little time around any one customer makes this threat seem small.