Symbolically Stalin

Human language is, of course, symbolic in nature. A word is a symbol.  Those instruments at the end of your arms you call hands, if you’re an English speaker. That’s not what a person born and raised in Beijing or Finland or Somalia calls them. Different symbols representing the same things.

Metaphor [1. See examples of metaphor at]  (building on the understanding of one thing to understand another)  is intrinsic to language and thus, the workings of the human mind.  Symbolism is such a fundamental characteristic of communication that  it spans disciplines from psychology and neuroscience to art history to linguistics and, (this was where we were headed the whole time) literature and storytelling.

Once in a while an author will want to tell one story, but can’t for personal or political reasons. Or, more practically, a writer understands that the story they want to tell just won’t capture the imagination of the audience. If you are interested in Stalinism and how it came to be, how and why it evolved, you might go study history and Russian culture and politics and then take twenty years to write the definitive historical treatise on that very large subject. A well written history will not have much symbolism in it, although there will be an attempt to analyze metaphors that were relevant to Stalin and his time. So then, you can’t get away from it, even in a history.

So okay, we’re going to write a novel now. We want to tell the story of Stalinism, we want to draw people in and make them really understand totalitarianism, to feel it in the gut. How many hundreds and thousands of ways could this be approached? We sit down and discuss those possibilities at length and decide that nope, none of that will do. Not clear enough for our purposes. Boring, to be blunt. We need some construct that will bypass people’s preconceived notions and show them the truth before they realize what’s coming.

Hey. What if we forget about Soviet Russia completely and set the story…. in a farmyard?

Animal Farm is an allegory: a narrative built out of a great big steaming pile of symbolism and metaphor.  And it works for a simple reason: it’s easier to get people to read a slim novel about farmyard animals with revolutionary ideas that go sour than it is to get them to read a six hundred page historical treatise.

You can approach your story by means of allegory, if you’re skilled enough. In the end, if the allegory is well enough written, if you manage to really get the attention of your readers and make them think, a few of them will go off and read the history on their own. And then your job is done.

Orwell’s Animal Farm is an extreme case of an author consciously using metaphor and allegory to tell a story. There are many, many examples of this out there. Dare I mention The Crucible? Well there, I did it. An excellent example of an allegory, in which Arthur Miller tells one story on the surface but another one just below.  In A.S. Byatt’s Angels and Insects, the main characters have a Victorian fascination with insects, They spend a lot of time studying the behavior of red and white ants, which turn out to mirror their own society just about perfectly.

An author can set out to use symbolism in a conscious way to tell a particular story, but mostly? Writers do not set aside part of their writing time to work out symbolism and tuck it into the corners. That doesn’t mean there isn’t any symbolism, because the subconscious has a lot to do with writing fiction, and the subconscious is all about metaphor. That’s really where dreams come from, after all.

Many authors are surprised when a critic points out a metaphor they weren’t working toward and didn’t see for themselves. Sometimes the observation is not welcome. There are authors who have been publically peevish about this subject. J. R. Tolkien was very put out by the suggestion that Lord of the Rings was an allegory for WWII. In fact, he denied allegory completely:

“As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical… It was written long before the foreshadow of 1939 had yet become a threat of inevitable disaster, and from that point the story would have developed along essentially the same lines, if that disaster had been averted.” source

But I would argue that the use of symbolism in fiction functions mostly at the subconscious level. When an author has to reach for it, it’s likely to feel strained; when it comes without conscious thought, it works best. This is my generalization, but I’m guessing it’s pretty close to the mark.

If Wallace Stegner were still alive, I would like to ask him about his narrator in Angle of Repose. This is a man with a degenerative bone disease, wheelchair bound, who can’t turn his head to the left or right. He’s got a kind of tunnel vision. Why did Stegner give him these disabilities? Did he mean us to see a physical manifestation of the historian’s inability to take in the whole picture? My guess is that after the fact, Stegner would have said, oh look at that, that works out neatly.

Do you have to notice the narrator’s limited field of vision to appreciate the story? Of course not. Do you feel nudged by the author into recognizing the symbol and what it’s supposed to represent? Does it make you feel unobservant to have it pointed out to you?

If you answered that last question with a yes, let me just suggest something. Most authors know that every reader will take away from a story just what they need and want. Do I hope that my readers notice subtle connections and underlying motivations? Of course. If they don’t, my first assumption is that I could have done a better job. But then there’s always the possibility that the reader was tired, or just didn’t like my style, or for some other reason didn’t connect to the story. Or it could be both things: my fault, and the reader’s. But none of that matters. I write the best story I can. Symbolism will sneak in there, small and large. Sometimes readers will see symbolism where I don’t. It doesn’t matter if I agree with them or not; it’s their reading. I’m happy to know that that person was interested enough to sit down and turn the pages.

Now, as a reader myself, I can get irritated with a writer who is too heavy handed, with a certain sentence structure or metaphor or dialog tag. But in most cases we’re talking here about personal preference, and nothing more than that.

In closing, I like a good allegory now and then. It’s like finding an easter egg in a dvd, a small surprise that makes you think a little differently about the story, look at it from another angle. Or not.

Mentioned here:

Byatt, A. S. (2003). Angels & insects: Two novellas. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Miller, A. (2016). The crucible: A play in four acts. NY: Penguin.

Orwell, G. (2010). Animal farm. NY: Rupa.

Stegner, W. E. (2006). Angle of repose. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Tolkien, J. R. (2005). The lord of the rings. MA: Mariner Books.

Martin Amis on a Slow Train

Eudaemonia has a very thoughtful post up about what she looks for in a novel, in which she first considers  what a few other people have said about their preferences before she explains her own. As I was reading the post — which is beautifully put together and worth the effort — I was thinking about Martin Amis.

Most specifically I half remembered an interview with  Amis on Salon. And lo and behold, I found it right where I left it.

Here’s one relevant quote:

Discussing his fiction in an interview with the Paris Review, [Martin Amis] dismissed “story, plot, characterization, psychological insight and form” as merely “secondary interests” compared to a novelist’s prose, little more than the apparatus on which to hang some bitchin’ sentences. So it hardly seems an insult to say that his specialty is not substance, but style.

From “Terror and Loathing” by Laura Miller, Salon 1 April 2008

Then I went back to Lisa’s post and read the comments, and I came across Steve (who writes a weblog called on the slow train).  I’m going to quote an excerpt from his comment  on Eudaemonia because he has expressed something I have been trying (and failing) to say about  the literary genre (as it is represented by Amis)  for ages:

I’m afraid modern literary fiction is going the way of orchestral music in the twentieth century–aiming toward such a specialized audience that it alienates virtually everyone else. Just about anyone can enjoy Beethoven or the Beatles, but few can appreciate Alban Berg without years of study. And even then, it can be an ordeal.

I think Steve has hit it on the head, and some evidence of that is provided by Amis himself (passively, I admit). He  is a very large presence in the literary genre, but I always wonder how well known he is outside those confines. If you asked ten people at random if they recognized his name, what kind of return would you get?  And why this perverse pride in honing his art to a point that it alienates the majority of readers?

In any case, if you are interested  you can read more about Amis in a lot of places. For example: the review of his London Fields in the New York Times (calling Amis “fiction’s angriest writer”) and a biography of sorts at The Guardian.

Finally, I repeat my mantra: literary fiction is is just another genre with a self-defined readership and a set of arbitrary conventions. That is, it is not intrinsically better or worse than any other genre. No matter what Amis may think.

it happened one night x 4

Next October there’s an anthology coming out called It Happened One Night, written by Stephanie Laurens, Candice Hern, Jacquie D’Alessandro, Mary Balogh.

The reason this really caught my attention was the was they went about setting up this project. The idea started with Mary Balogh:

It has always been my theory that if a number of authors were given exactly the same plot premise, they would proceed to write stories quite different from one another. That is what the four of us have done in this anthology. We agreed upon certain plot elements–a man and a woman who have not seen each other for ten years find themselves at the same inn for twenty-four hours.

I love this kind of thing, comparing approaches and mindsets and tones. Am I being a geek, or a connoisseur?

Cage of Stars- Jacquelyn Mitchard

[asa book]0446578754[/asa]There’s a fiction subgenre that doesn’t really have a name, or at least, not one that’s used consistently. The kind of novel I’m talking about isn’t about romance or romantic love in the first line, though that may be one of the subplots. These are novels that examine the way families work, or fail to work, in the face of crisis. And I mean crisis in the bigger sense of the word. Divorce would be the least of the problems in this kind of book. We’re talking accidental deaths, fatal illness, rape, murder, permanent disability, kidnapping, felony arrests. You get the picture. The term domestic drama is sometimes used.

Some of the authors who are active in this genre (which is sometimes called domestic drama, a term I dislike because it feels dismissive) are Jacquelyn Mitchard (The Deep End of the Ocean, A Theory of Relativity), Jodi Picoult (My Sister’s Keeper, Vanishing Acts), Judith Guest (Ordinary People), Elizabeth Berg (Range of Motion,We Are All Welcome Here), and Elizabeth Strout (Abide with Me).

Somehow this subgenre — though it is written primarily (or maybe even exclusively) by women — has mostly been spared trivialization or undue snark from the litcriterati. A few of these novels have received both high critical praise and popular success.Ordinary People is the best example of that, and it is also the novel that sets the standard for this genre. And of course, not all attempts at this kind of family in crisis novel are equally successful or well written.

Before I talk about Cage of Stars, I wanted to ask you what other novelists or novels you think might fit into this category.

So now, Mitchard. She’s best known forThe Deep End of the Ocean, which was an early Oprah pick. It was her first novel, and it catapulted her into the best seller list. Publisher’s Weekly said: “One of the most remarkable things about this rich, moving and altogether stunning first novel is Mitchard’s assured command of narrative structure and stylistic resources. Her story about a child’s kidnapping and its enduring effects upon his parents, siblings and extended family is a blockbuster read.”

I’ve read most but not all of Mitchard’s novels since her first. The second one,The Most Wanted [asa book]0451196856[/asa] probably made the biggest impression on me. Publisher’s Weekly wasn’t so happy with it: “Despite portentous foreshadowing, Mitchard second novel never achieves the dramatic momentum and the emotional immediacy of her acclaimed fiction debut,The Deep End of the Ocean. But her depiction of two female protagonists is so large-hearted and wise that readers undoubtedly will be engrossed in their story.”

Side note: Beware the review — especially the PW review– that starts with the word despite. I speak from personal experience here. Another note: I think they’re wrong.

I read Mitchard’s newest about two weeks ago, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Of course that’s a good thing, a story that stays with you. But in this case there was something off, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. One thing that jumped out at me was how much her style has changed, or maybe just her approach to this story is a departure. Not necessarily a bad departure, but I was strongly reminded of Jodi Picoult in a way that Mitchard probably wasn’t aiming for.

Cage of Stars is about a small, healthy, close knit Mormon family that lives in a tiny rural community where people generally get along and take care of each other. In the course of the novel you learn a good amount about the LDSaints, all provided in a matter of fact way. You get this information through the main character, Veronica Swan (Ronnie to family and friends), who is twelve years old when the novel opens with a very powerful image: “At the moment when Scott Early killed Becky and Ruthie, I was hiding in the shed.”

This is a story not so much about the murder of two little girls as it is about the way violence is embedded into the heart of their twelve year old sister. Scott Early, who commits this crime, does so in the grip of a psychotic break. It’s his first, and with it, his history as a good guy, a man loyal to family and scrupulously honest, is null and void. He is not convicted of the double murder of the Swan girls, but is sent off to a hospital for the criminally insane for treatment.

Ronnie spends the rest of her adolescence nurturing her anger, while her parents work to overcome their despondency and sorrow after the little sisters are buried. Eventually they meet with Scott Early in the hospital and they forgive him. Which only makes Ronnie more determined to extract justice.

Most of the novel deals with how she does that. Her plan, which is elaborate and well thought out, eventually takes her to California where she inserts herself into the lives of the now released, medicated and stable Scott Early and his wife and infant daughter. This sounds like a retelling of The Babysitter, no? But it’s more complex than that, and we’re in Ronnie’s head for the whole time, watching her thoughts as they evolve.

And here’s the cause of my discomfort: This is another case where I’m unhappy about a first person teenage narrator. And I freely admit that this is a matter of my own quirk, my need for a broader narrative scope and a dislike of the restrictions Mitchard puts on her readers by keeping them in Ronnie’s head.

So is this a good story? Yes. Is it worth reading? You will like it, if you aren’t as sensitive to the narrative voice issues as I am. If you are getting started with fiction writing yourself, this is a novel that might be instructive in terms of approach and structure. It’s one of the few cases where a prologue felt off to me (I generally like prologues; which you probably knew if you’ve ready any of my novels).

At any rate, I continue to be a great fan of Mitchard’s work and look forward to the next novel.