Adolescence, adolescent relationships, Beckett Bernard, family, Family in Literature, friendship, friendship competence, Friendship in Literature, friendships, identity, information literacy, informed consent, New Zealand authors, New Zealand fiction, New Zealand masculinities, peer culture, peer relations, Power, science in literature, Security, sexual relationships, siblings in literature, social acceptance, social aggression, social connections, social networks, social perception, social relationships, social support, social support seeking, Story and Identity, technology and society, theatre in fiction, twins in literature
Lullaby, Bernard Beckett
Lullaby Book blurb
“Rene’s twin brother Theo lies unconscous in hospital after a freak accident left him with massively disrupted brain function. There is hope, though. An experimental procedure – risky, scientifically exciting and ethically questionable – could allow him to gain a new life.
But what life, and at what cost?
Only Rene can give the required consent. And now he must face that difficult choice.
But first there is the question of Rene’s capacity to make that decision. And this is where the real story begins.
Bernard Beckett’s Lullaby is a confronting story of love, loyalty and identity.”
Ref: Bernard Beckett (2015) Lullaby. Text Publishing: Melbourne
Lullaby First Page
I remember the machine by his bed. It made a sound like sighing. Numbers twitched, unable to settle. A jagged line sawed across the screen. At least it was something to look at. Something that wasn’t him. They’d brushed his hair, as if he were already dead. A song came into my head, I couldn’t chase it away. ‘Girlfriend in a Coma.’ I pretended to smile, pretended to be brave. Twin brother in a coma, I mouthed, I know it’s serious. He would have laughed. He would have been better at this.
‘Maybe you’d like some time alone with him,’ the doctor had said. I knew it would be like this, not knowing what to do or say, stranded. Watching his ventilator fog up every time he exhaled, humming some stupid song our grandfather used to sing.”
NB Text Publishing offer a sneak preview of this book: https://www.textpublishing.com.au/previews/lullaby
Themes in the novel
INFORMED CONSENT; THE ETHICS OF ENGAGING WITH NEW TECHNOLOGY; THE SOCIAL IMPACT OF RAPID TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCE; IDENTITY; THE POWER OF STORY; ADOLESCENCE; FRIENDSHIP; SOCIAL NETWORKS; SCIENCE IN LITERATURE;
Possible directions for study/questions to apply to Lullaby
This novel could be read critically by placing it in a couple of interesting theoretical contexts (which aren’t mutually exclusive, of course). The main contexts for me just now are:
The ethics of informed consent (particularly when engaging with new technology)
In Lullaby, the protagonist Rene must decide whether or not to participate in a novel medical procedure – effectively an identity transplant into his brain-dead brother. This decision provides the main story arc. It also provides the time frame of the novel (ignoring the final section for a moment), which begins with Rene meeting the psychologist employed to deem him fit/unfit to give informed consent for this unprecedented procedure. The time frame is consequently brief (hours, really) because of the constraints on implementing this un-trialed technology once his brother has been determined brain dead. The pressure on Rene to decide – and especially to prove himself capable of deciding – provides much of the narrative tension. It is a pressure that matches that pressure many people feel about technology developing too fast to make informed decisions about its use. Lullaby invites discussion of this ethical challenge.
What is ‘informed consent’ when no information can be given about the consequences of technological innovation?
How can we act ethically when we have no idea what the ramifications of technological advancement will be?
When writing out bullet points to help him make his decision, Rene’s last point is “I cannot imagine it” (p.189). It seems a valid point to include in such a decision. We live in a world of technological advancements we cannot imagine. The ethics of engaging with technology we aren’t familiar with or certain of has proved a hot discussion point over recent decades. I’m put in mind of the challenge of supporting students to engage with technology (like social media) that has social implications we don’t yet comprehend ourselves. Does their participation truly come with informed consent? Supporting them to make ethical decisions is tough because the ethics aren’t clear. Supporting them to make informed decisions is tough because the information isn’t in.
Consider Rene’s aunty; she chose not to look after he and Theo when their parents died because, as Rene understands it, “She was that age, the generation that grew up online and lost their perspective.” (p.24) Really, this aunty is a totally peripheral character, but she provides interesting social context for Rene’s story.
What changes if we rewrite Rene and Theo and make them ten years older, instead of adolescents? It wouldn’t be hard, story-wise, but it would definitely change Rene’s engagement with informed consent… does this novel need an adolescent protagonist to tell the story it tells?
“The stories we use to talk ourselves into existence.” (P.186)
The importance of story to identity is definitely a theme in this novel. The whole novel is made up of storytelling; mostly Rene telling Maggie stories about himself, so she can assess his fitness to give consent, but there are stories within stories, too.
Consider these statements about story:
– Rene’s reaction to telling Maggie about Mrs Struthers’ party: “Telling that story was as excruciating as it had ever been. I don’t understand that, the way the awkward moments never lose their cutting edge.” (p.89)
– or his depiction of Emily telling the bee story: “I got the feeling it wasn’t the first time today she’d told that story. Eulogy turned accusation.” (p.157)
– or the journalist ‘tipping his head close to Rene’s and asking’: “What will be left, Rene? When this is done, what stories shall we tell ourselves?” (p.158)
– telling Maggie about moving home, Rene cuts himself off, noting “All I had left was the end of that sentence. I wasn’t going to give it to her.” (p.126)
– “Stories never come loose cleanly; everything’s always tangled up with something else. You talk about shoes and there, dangling off the end, is a haircut.” (p.27)
– “I remember the tears in his eyes, although I’m not sure I really saw them. It became a story, you see, the sort you use as Christmas decoration, so it’s impossible to know for sure.” (p.28)
– “When you’re a twin, people make too much of the differences, because they’re trying so hard to prove they see you as individuals. Then those differences grow into stories, and the stories start to choke you.” (p.29)
– “I wondered how long she would let me do this: jump from one story bough to the next, hoping to climb high enough that none of the ugliness could reach me. Soon she would have to call me down. We both knew that.
– “The real story had begun. Soon, there would be no stopping it, not until we hit the bottom, or collided with the truth on the way down.” (p.81)
– “Maggie didn’t ask for details, and I wasn’t about to offer them. Some stories work best untold.” (p.124)
– “If my memories survive, so do I.” (p.182) but “All memory contains errors” (p.182) and “How can we be just memories?” (p.183).
- What language do we need to ‘talk ourselves into existence’? Beckett problematises pronouns in the telling of a story more than once (p.6; p.177; p.179). He also problematises tense in the telling of a story: “I could feel myself doing it, slipping back into the present tense. The closer the story got to the interview room, the easier it was to do. Or the harder it was not to.” (p.110) Genre also gets problematised in terms of its purpose; “I’ve always done that, slipped too easily into nostalgia, one small step from bad poetry. But if you can’t be a bad poet at seventeen, with your brother dying just down the corridor, what hope is there for poetry?” (pp.105-106)
Consider also: “It wasn’t what we said, that night, standing on the riverbed with the water dark behind us. It wasn’t the words we chose, but the shape they fell into, the rut of a thousand conversations past. A poem of anxiety, accusation and denial, and the last line always there, but never uttered.” (p.102)
And later: “Thanks, man, he said. Two words, but our whole world was contained within them.” (p.128)
Consider also how Rene describes himself and Theo to maggie: “‘The word teachers used for him was resilient. I craved that word, it took on a magical quality. If only somebody called me resilient, then everything would be all right. I was sure of it.’ ‘But they didn’t?’ ‘No, it was already spoken for.’ ‘What word did they use for you?’ ‘Gifted.’ ‘that’s not so bad,’ Maggie said. ‘No.’ ‘Do you think Theo craved your word in the same way?’
How does language force us into certain shapes?
Relationships and the roles we play in them
- Theatre and acting are pivotal to Rene and Theo’s story. They also have a long history of pretending to be each other. What does this novel say about the performative nature of identity?
- We play different roles in different relationships. Rene highlights this by challenging Maggie when she claims never to have done any acting: “What about when you were getting dressed for work this morning, when you put on those glasses and pulled back your hair and chose those sensible shoes? Didn’t you become somebody else? Isn’t that how it works?” (p.40) The twins also often swapped roles/identities as children. They had done so at the time Theo was electrocuted. How easy is it to adopt another identity, or another role?
- The issue of self-censorship is prominent in this novel. Rene must constantly censor the stories he tells Maggie (because she has the power to decide whether or not he can give informed consent and he wants to control the image she has of him). How do we use self-censorship to shape our relationships? … to shape our identities within different relationships? How might technology help us do this?
- Rene’s relationships (brotherly, romantic, sexual, friendly, with teachers, etc.) are a feature of each of the stories told in this novel. Why? How do these relationships shape his identity (his story)? How do they lead Maggie to decide him able to give informed consent? What is the connection?
- As a character, what does Maggie add to the story? What is the importance of making her a psychologist? What does she add to our experience of Rene’s character that a mother or friend wouldn’t? For example, what if the novel were rewritten as a discussion between Rene and Emily about making this same decision?
- Consider: “[Maggie:] ‘Tell me how your parents died.’ [Rene:] ‘I don’t see how that’s – ‘ ‘It’s an important part of your story.’ ‘I thought this was about my brother.’ Maggie shook her head. ‘It’s about you. You’re his closest living relative. We can’t proceed without informed consent.’ ‘If this was about informed consent,’ I said, ‘you’d be informing me. But you’re not, you’re asking me questions.’ ‘Okay, it’s about more than consent.’ ‘You lied.’ ‘Sure, if you like.’ It didn’t seem to worry her. ‘It’s not about informed consent, it’s about capacity for informed consent. That’s my job, to see if you are capable of knowing what you want.'” (p.12)
- Why make Theo and Rene orphans? What impact does this have? Why make them twins? Why are these characters best able to tell this story? Consider Maggie’s explanation: “We ask about your past because it gives us a sense of how you see yourself. And the more we talk, the less guarded we become. In your case, your parents died suddenly. So this question can give me an idea of how you cope with loss. Essentially, I’m building a picture of you, and comparing it to reference pictures: of people who are suffering but competent, and of others who’ve lost their frame of reference.” (p.14) What frames of reference? How does a person suffer ‘competently’?
- What is the importance of Rene’s sexual relationships to judging him able to give informed consent?
A couple of other thoughts
Minor characters do important work in terms of shaping a story and its storyworld.
- Why include a journalist in the story? What does he bring into the discussion (in terms of ethics, opinion, informed consent, etc.)? Consider his question “don’t you want him to hear [what Emily has to say]?” (p.154) Maggie’s role is to assess Rene on his ability to give informed consent, but, as the journalist points out, the hospital limits the people Rene talks to… I think the journalist, perhaps ironically, highlights the biased flow of information.
- Why include the stories about amputees, like Jennifer’s father (pp.35 and 44-45)?
- What does the doctor add to the story that could not be added through Rene’s discussion with Maggie alone?
“that way adults have of dividing the world up into good and bad” (p.98) is an interesting statement in a book that addresses the ethics of informed consent. I like it and I think it an interesting discussion point.
There are some visceral moments in this story; identity is tied to biology as much as to story. In what ways does physicality move the story forward? Consider, for example, Emily’s cutting of Rene at the end: “Both bodies would remember the blade, but only one would carry the scar.” (p.194) or the importance of “First love, first sex, first glimpse of the possibility that I might be lovable.” (p.125) or “It was a great relief to cry the way I did: deep from the stomach, the sheet on his bed clumped in my fist, wet with my tears. I felt awful, but also, for the first time since I’d arrived in the hospital, human. I no longer saw an accident, a patient, a problem to be solved. Now I saw Theo. My brother. My other half.” (p.72) (See also pp.41-43).
Consider the ideas in this excerpt : “[Maggie:] ‘My job is to help people stay intact, to keep them whole. That’s what I trained for. The first thing you learn about the mind is how delicate it is, how easily it can come apart. When we are well, the world feels solid, there are a thousand different certainties we can call upon to conjure up the self: that our memories are reliable, that [-p.179] our senses do not lie to us, that the world means us no harm, that we are loved, and capable of loving, that other minds share our world, that our words have meaning to them, that we can touch each other. That we exist. But the whole thing is a trick of balance and perspective, and knowing when to look away. The most surprising thing can trigger a crisis. In the old days we would have called it a crisis of faith, now we call it a crisis of being. Lose just one of those certainties, and you will quickly discover how many others it was holding in place.
‘I don’t know if this will destroy you, Rene. Perhaps you are particularly robust in your construction. But that, I have found, is highly unpredictable. If I had to guess, I would guess you will come apart.’
[Rene:] ‘We will come apart’
‘There’s no pronoun for what you will be. That in itself should serve as a warning.’
‘What certainties? What will I lose'” (pp.178-179)
Text Publishing have created a set of teacher’s notes to accompany the text: https://d2wzqffx6hjwip.cloudfront.net/text-publishing/assets/da/bec890e7e911e4819d8f0be937abb5/Beckett_Lullaby_teachingnotes_AustralianCurriculum.pdf
Texts that invite comparison
Attitudes to Science
Science is often a source of humour in Beckett’s novel, Malcolm and Juliet, but is treated much less lightly in Lullaby. Both novels engage with science in different ways; comparing them might be elucidating. As might comparing Lullaby with Genesis. What is our personal relationship with science? How do we engage with science and with technological advancement?
the future of identity (particularly as affected by technological advancements)
There are so many places to start! …a couple of ideas:
The Adoration of Jenna Fox, Mary E Pearson
Lauren DeStefano’s Chemical Garden Trilogy
Beckett’s own Genesis.