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Human growth, Maurice Gee, Des Hunt and Marcelo Birmajer

May 16, 2011

Somewhere – and I’ll find it later – Maurice Gee says (or someone – Brian Boyd? – says of Gee) that his writing revolves around human growth, its desirability at any cost, as well as the human habit of assessing others.
These themes connect Gee’s children’s writing with Des Hunt’s (and also, incidentally with El alma al diablo, by Marcelo Birmajer)… thinking in terms of The Fat Man and Where Cuckoos Call, for example, what else connects them? … a brief brainstorm:

– the tension between family and individuality (in all three books the family is a site of both insecurity and love…also in each book, the community beyond the family home is characterised enough to provide a logical setting for this tension to exist and also to be unpicked by the protagonist)

– what support structures are in place for these protagonists? Adults? Peers? Knowledges? Social, material, internal, inherent resources?  Are they sufficient for the protagonist to overcome the crisis?

– How much choice do these protagonists have in life?

– What is threatened in these novels?

does the individual (in the form of the young protagonist) stand against the community in these books?

– all three books have young boys on the cusp of adolescence as their protagonists.  Each protagonist encounters the darker side of human nature… and shows his capacity to empathise with this darkness during the course of his story (in fact, in each case, this empathy is an important part of the story told).  In El alma and The Fat Man, the adults are even the ones who originally ostracised the villain – and proved incapable of empathising.  In Where Cuckoos Call, the villains do not seem to bother the significant adults in the protagonist’s life…

Does character drive the narrative?

– is there a theme of needing to ‘know one’s past to grow up and take one’s place in society’?

what is the cost of growth in these novels? to the protagonist? to his family? to his relationship with his parents? to his community?  Indeed, is there a cost to the community??!!

in what way do humans assess each other in these novels?

who are the villains? How villainous/how ‘human’ are they? (My sense is that each of the villains is explained away as fallible, misguided, etc.)

– with respect to Roberta Seelinger Trites’s assertion that in YA lit, the protagonist’s growth is in terms of learning how society curtails the individual’s power… how does society do this in each of these novels? Is this strongly connected to the story told about the community? (the ecological position of the community in Where Cuckoos Call; the Jewish position of the community in El alma al diablo; the ?financial/superficial? position of the community in The Fat Man?).  What are the power relations that construct the individual?

Who has authority?

What is the crisis?

– What happens in terms of character development?

– in each of these books, there is ‘a moment’ when the world changes (for the protagonist at least).  How is that moment constructed? How does this moment connect to ‘the way the world works’ (and shouldn’t?)? Is the community changed? Or just the individual?

– back to Maurice Gee, and his ‘obsession with evil‘ (as ‘something that exists in a pure state’?) (again, references will have to come later…).   He says somewhere, that ‘the act of standing against it is worth something, even if you’re defeated.‘  Do these protagonists stand against something ‘evil’? What? How is it defined? Do they defeat it?  

– my feeling is that the villains in these books are not ‘essentially’ evil, but, rather, ‘socially messed up’ – ie the community made them that way… so how is the villain constructed? against what ideologies is he opposed through the narrative (moral perfection, physical perfection, individual/social perfection?)?  How do these imperfections work with the resolution of the narrative? What does the villain/imperfect character offer in terms of resolution to the protagonist/the community as a whole? Is the conflict resolved in part through the imperfection of the villain? (ie do his weaknesses lead to the discovery of strengths?)

– How is the conflict/the imperfection of the character connected to the social capital required by the protagonist to resolve the crisis at the heart of the novel?

– What does the reader empathise with? why?

– is the villainous/imperfect character an example of social criticism or of social Othering?

– Does this imperfect/villainous character serve some cultural function?

– Does this character offer alternatives in terms of conflict resolution? Do they suggest that difference from ‘the norm‘ is an acceptable path through adversity?

What is the conflict?

What is the resolution?

– What story is told? What story is not told?

– What narrative traditions are being followed? Undone? What conventions? What ideologies?

– What ending do these novelists choose?

– Is happiness an endpoint? …or is it on a continuum of some sort?

Why this protagonist to tell this story? What social meaning is offered by such a protagonist?  Where does the narrator stand in relation to this protagonist? Why?

– What do these protagonists offer? How is the protagonist characterised?

– Note: Plumb p253 “When morality triumphs, nasty things happen.”

– What place do family values, civil liberties, national interests have in these novels?

– Consider how the narrative structure determines what is/what is not relevant to the story being told (ie autobiography vs detective fiction vs…).  What are the criteria of relevance? What is the teleology (eg. an autobiographical teleology might be the description of one’s conversion, or the ‘finding’ of oneself, or ‘making it’ – and might include ‘turning points’/awakenings from self-sealing narratives)?

– particular narratives express their own conceptual presuppositions (fate/tragedy, etc.). Is there a shared conceptual framework which determines what shall count as experience for the communicants (text, reader, author, etc.)?

– what are the elementary beliefs/premises that enter into the narratives about ‘human plights‘?

– do these fictions change their narrative stance at all?

– Note: ‘How we construe our lives is subject to our intentions, to the interpretive conventions available to us, and to the meanings imposed upon us by the usages of our culture and language’ (Bruner’s Narrative Construal of Reality?)

– What are these books about? How do they work?

– “What is incident but the illustration of character?” (Out of introduction to “The Art of the Novel, prefaces by Henry James…”)

– “Narrative actions imply intentional states” (Bruner, Narrative Construal of Reality, 136);

the ‘narrative reality’ of the world is either canonical or is seen as a deviation from some implied canonicity” (Bruner, NCR 137);

“stories pivot on breached norms” (Bruner, NCR 142);

“turning points, pivotal events in time when the ‘new’ replaces the ‘old'” (Bruner, NCR 144)

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