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.

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.

The Dead Key

My wife and I enjoy audiobooks on our long car trips — the hours and miles disappear — so as we prepared for our vacation excursion last month we decided to download the debut novel of someone we actually know.

D.M. Pulley’s 2014 thriller takes place in Cleveland during two different eras. In 1998, a young structural engineer named Iris is assigned to inspect a bank building that’s been abandoned for two decades. As Iris stumbles across secrets that were buried when the bank suddenly closed, we also get the story of Beatrice, an employee of the bank when it closed in 1977. Their timelines converge in a vault of safe deposit boxes, many of them left unopened when the bank shut its door. And as the title indicates, both characters come across a key that could literally unlock the mystery that lead to the bank’s closure.

I’ve been analyzing books with multiple timelines recently, and like the novel I most recently examined, Pulley’s work alternates chapters between the two timelines, and begins each chapter with a date. Each timeline also advances in a linear fashion. Keeping track of the timeliness is relatively easy, which is especially important for an audibook.

This was a great selection for our two-day drive. The story is suspenseful without being melodramatic or scary; Pulley keeps the reader wanting to know what happens next, and both Iris and Beatrice (who admittedly are a little too similar to each other for my tastes) are easy to root for. Cleveland natives will enjoy the local references, yet the book isn’t so provincial that it can’t be enjoyed by readers unfamiliar with the city. The audiobook reading by Emily Sutton-Smith is also engaging. This book made us keep our rest stops short so that we could continue listening, a sure sign you’ve made the right choice.

All the Light We Cannot See

I’m continuing my analysis of novels featuring multiple storylines with Anthony Doerr’s award-winning novel from 2014. This work features a dual narrative structure, with two principal characters living in the same timeline. What’s also interesting is that two separate timelines are maintained for both characters.

The novel is divided into 14 numbered sections, with section Zero serving as a prologue. Through section 11, the even-numbered sections occur in the Nazi-occupied French town of Saint-Malo over a five-day span in August 1944, while the odd-numbered sections begin in 1934 and show the development of the two principal characters (a blind French girl and a radio technician ambivalent about his role in the German army) in their respective countries over the ten years leading up to those five fateful days at the end of World War II. Each section begins with a date, making the transition between the two timelines easy to follow.

While the novel includes several memorable supporting characters, the focus remains consistently on either blind Marie-Laure or the brooding Werner. The chapters are short, most being two or three pages, and rarely does either character feature in two consecutive chapters. The balanced alternating structure highlights the similarities between the two characters, despite their being on opposite sides of the same conflict.

The structure of the novel works because the two principal characters and the dual timelines progress to the same point. Marie-Laure and Werner meet in Saint-Malo as the timelines converge in the eleventh section, with the last three sections showing the aftermath of their meeting. For all its complexity, the novel actually has a fairly straightforward progression.

The lesson on storytelling from this novel is on consistency. Keep the spotlight on the principal characters from the outset, and always let the reader know when the timeline changes. Being consistent allows the author to include a great deal of complexity.

The Divine Comedy

Some books can’t merely be read; they must be studied. Dante’s epic 14th century poem is an amazingly complex work, expertly combining ancient Greek and Roman literature, Christian theology, human psychology, and contemporary politics. If you don’t read the endnotes, you miss a lot of the work’s value.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the approach I took on my recently completed first reading of the text. I used the same approach that’s worked well for my reading of William Shakespeare, James Joyce, and Thomas Malory — download an audiobook and read along to the recital. I chose the Robin Kirkpatrick translation, as Audible had a matching recording. The performance, done by Kirkpatrick and two other readers, is fine, but the experience was unsatisfying because I realized how much I was missing by not stopping the recording and checking the notes.

I can say I’ve finally read the work, but I’m a long way from appreciating it.

Several moments do stand out from this initial reading, one in particular during Canto 24 of Inferno. Dante and his guide Virgil encounter a thief, named Vanni Fucci in Dante’s text but translated by Kirkpatrick as Johnny Fucci. Anglicizing the name makes this character more relatable to readers like myself, and I also appreciate that Kirkpatrick doesn’t attempt to whitewash Johnny’s blasphemous diatribe against God. I did not expect to see an f-bomb, but there it was on line 2 of Canto 25. According to Wikipedia, Vanni Fucci has been used by a couple contemporary writers, and should the situation arise I might use him in one of my own stories.

Should I decide to read Dante again, I’ll take the studious approach I used for Ulysses — do the Great Courses overview, then read a canto or two at a time, flipping back to the notes whenever one’s available. That’s going to be a long project, but I picked up enough of the work’s majesty to know the experience will be worthwhile.

Slaughterhouse-Five

I recently attended a workshop on writing stories with multiple storylines, and five novels were cited as examples. So why not read and analyze each of them?

Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel is an example of a gestalt timeline structure. The narrative follows Billy Pilgrim, who has become “unstuck in time” and experiences his entire life when he is captured in World War II. He jumps ahead a decade, sometimes two or three, goes back to his boyhood on occasion, and is also captured by intergalactic aliens and taken to their homeworld. (Quick aside — this novel is often categorized as science fiction, but I fail to see why. If anything, it’s a parody of science fiction.)

Following a character unstuck in time could be disorienting, but two elements help bring order to the narrative:

A commanding narrative voice. The unnamed narrator is clearly a stand-in for Vonnegut, and his voice guides the reader through the numerous time jumps. The narrator’s tone is conversational (there aren’t a lot of big words in the novel; no need to keep a dictionary nearby) and he often repeats himself. This gives the impression that if you don’t exactly understand everything the first time you hear it, no worries — the narrator will eventually explain it again. Using a different narrative voice for each era in Billy’s life would have been disorienting.

A central timeline. After previewing the events in Billy Pilgrim’s life, the narrator then describes his experience during World War II. The events in this year of his life — training, joining his unit in Europe, becoming a German prisoner of war, surviving the bombing of Dresden while in Schlachthof-fünf, clearing the devastated city, being rescued by the Allies — are told in linear order. Whenever Billy journeys to different moments of his life, including his visit to Tralfamadore, he always returns to this core timeline immediately after the moment he’d become unstuck in time. It’s like being on a highway with multiple entrances and exits; no matter how far you travel down an off road, you have the comfort of knowing you can get back to where you were.

Combining experimental storytelling methods with more conventional techniques seems like an effective strategy. That’s my takeaway from this interesting and fun novel.

The People Could Fly

Virginia Hamilton’s 1985 collection of American Black folktales can be read as children’s literature. Audible certainly does, as it lists the collection in its Children’s Audiobooks section, and Andrew Barnes reads the tales like a grandfather entertaining a pack of toddlers. Yet the book also includes notes about the origin and development of these tales, making it a viable ethnographic study. I was hoping for more of the latter when I downloaded this book, and while I didn’t get what I expected I still found it valuable.

The tales are divided into four thematic chapters. The opening chapter focuses on animal tales, and I found it a bit disappointing, mostly because the stories about talking rabbits, bears, lions, foxes, and alligators reminded me more of Uncle Remus than Zora Neale Hurston. Barnes’ often over-the-top exuberance reinforced the impression that the tales were being told solely for entertainment, without any appreciation for their underlying meaning or significance.

Subsequent chapters, however, left a better impression. Hamilton provides good notes on the origin of the magical and exaggerated reality tales in the second chapter, and Barnes’ reading, while still spirited, no longer dominates the stories — he doesn’t need to alter his voice much to show the scariness of the Hairy Man. The third chapter, supernatural tales, demonstrates the complex role of the devil and forbidden magic, and the final chapter on slave tales of freedom is a triumph, ending in the magnificent title story.

It’s a book more for kids than for scholars. If you can accept that aspect, as well as Barnes’ hyperbolic delivery and the unspectacular bluegrass musical interludes, you’ll find it enjoyable.

The Elixir Magazine

After a lengthy hiatus, I’m ready to resume my series of reviews of literary journals and genre magazines.

The Elixir Magazine is an online literary journal that posts new fiction, poetry, and essays on a regular basis.

What They Say About Themselves: “In the same way that the “Elixir of Life” is meant to increase your time on this planet “The Elixir Magazine” adds years to yours, not in number but in knowledge.

The Elixir Magazine is a new online magazine that launched on January 1st, 2019. We are based in Sana’a, Yemen, but have managed to create an international team of 10 members via twitter. We started in the form of a WordPress blog, but will soon create our own official website.

The Elixir team works to produce and collect material that we hope will live up to the international standards. Our target audience is young adults. Our aim is to become an international magazine available both on paper and the internet.”

Issue Reviewed: Stories available online in the last week

Genre: Literary realism with some speculative elements

One Story I’ll Remember Not to Forget: “I Don’t Expect You to Believe Me,” by Cheryl Caesar. A young environmental activist is visited in her hotel room by two other young women who become notorious for bearing ominous news. Entertaining satire of modern technology with some neat classical references.

Exploding Helicopters: One Explosion. The stories are very short, leaving little opportunity to build suspense.

Profanometer: Gee Willikers. Didn’t find a single profanity or obscenity in any of the stories I read.

Honest Thief

Every once in a while, I’ll read a story or watch a movie and think “on my worst day, I can write something better than this.”

My wife and I decided to unwind this holiday weekend by watching an action movie. We both like Liam Neeson, so we expected his latest thriller would deliver what we were looking for.

We’re now wondering if Neeson was desperate for work last year, because this film was a complete disappointment.

The story begins with an amateurish plot hole — a notorious bank robber contacts the FBI to negotiate a deal for turning himself in, despite having no legal knowledge or representation — and compounds the error by introducing a love interest utterly devoid of agency. Kate Walsh’s character doesn’t get to do too much in the film, and when she does it’s always a poor decision.

The car chases through the streets of Boston were entertaining for the wrong reason. Neeson, under suspicion for murdering an FBI officer, escapes from his pursuers by stealing the delivery van of a bakery. Despite being adept at breaking into and hot-wiring cars, Neeson drives around for fifteen minutes before the cops finally figure out they should be looking for a guy in a bakery van. He eventually flees the vehicle and steals a white pickup which he drives for the last half hour of the film. My wife and I alternated between yelling at Neeson to steal another car and at the police for their inept search.

What bothers me most is that these problems in the script could have been easily fixed. Explain why the fugitive doesn’t like lawyers; give the love interest something to do; steal a few more cars. Give me fifteen minutes and I could make these problems go away.

But muddling through the occasional bad work of fiction is inspiring. Knowing I can do better, even on my worst day, makes me want to work even harder to get my own stories out there.