Catherine Savage Brosman’s “Plums”: An Analysis

Published by Louisiana State University Press in 2007, Range of Light is a collection of poetry by Catherine Savage Brosman that is largely dedicated to the art of landscape, casting the American Southwest as a land both treacherous and awe-inspiring. This makes “Plums” something of an outlier in the book. While it deals with a variety of fruit popular in the American Southwest, the poem is not a landscape but a still life. At just twelve lines, it’s also easily the shortest poem in the book. And yet, perhaps because of how much it sticks out in Range of Light, it’s my favorite piece in the collection, and the one I’d like to talk about.

Brosman begins the poem with a mimetic description of Santa Rosa plums, and what immediately pops out to me is just how lush her description is. Read through the first stanza, and take note of all the modifiers that Brosman uses:

They’re Santa Rosas, crimson, touched by blue,
with slightly mottled skin and amber flesh,
transparently proposing by their hue
the splendor of an August morning, fresh

Catherine Savage Brosman, “Plums,” lines 1-4 (emphasis added)

Even excluding the adjectives that function more like subject complements than modifiers (e.g., “crimson,” “fresh”), that’s five modifiers in the span of four lines, one of which (“slightly”) modifies another modifier. This is perhaps surprising to see from an accomplished poet. When we first start writing poetry, we are taught to write with nouns and verbs, to use adjectives and adverbs sparingly lest we allow our verse to be wordy and imprecise. Why say someone “ran quickly,” we are told, when saying they “sprinted” is both more concise and more evocative?

Yet Brosman’s heavy use of modifiers seems appropriate for her subject. First, the speaker draws attention to the multifaceted nature of the plums’ appearance. They are, as Gerard Manley Hopkins might call them, “dappled things”: bright “amber flesh” beneath dark “crimson” skin, which itself is “mottled” and “touched by blue.” The interplay of colors defies a compressed description. The closest Brosman comes to that ideal is by likening the plums to “the splendor of an August morning,” and it is true that the colors listed would be found in a summer sunrise. But importantly, the plums call to mind the splendor of that scene, not just the scene itself. They promise decadence, and the poem delivers on it.

Brosman’s language is not the only decadent element of the poem. Formally, “Plums” is written in heroic quatrains: four-line stanzas of iambic pentameter rhyming ABAB. The form has a stately rhythm to it, and it tends to suit grand and grave subjects. We see it used, for example, in John Dryden’s “Annus Mirabilis” and in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” The form is a little rich when describing plums, but then again, so is likening their appearance to the great expanse. One senses that the speaker wishes to capture the subjective experience of these plums: that they’re brilliant, and probably delicious.

However, things are not always as they seem, and in the second stanza the picture of these plums gets more complicated. That initial “but” in line 5 carries a lot of weight here. True, Brosman has given the plums contrasting qualities prior to this point, but those qualities have been in harmony rather than conflict: both the dark skin and bright flesh are necessary to suggest an August morning. Here, though, we’re told the plums are “fresh // but ruddy, ripening toward fall” (4-5). Now they’re described as having incongruous elements, as though freshness and ruddiness shouldn’t go together, and the season shifts from summer to autumn. Where there was once clarity, now there is doubt.

As it happens, line 5 also suggests uncertainty in how it wavers from the poem’s metrical contract. Whereas the first stanza is written in strict iambic pentameter—no weak endings, no substitutions—line 5 does not scan so easily. The only ways to read the line as five iambs are 1) to pronounce “toward” as two syllables, with an unnatural stress on the first syllable, or 2) to pronounce “ripening” as three syllables and argue that “ing” should be stressed instead of “toward,” neither of which is appealing. A better way to scan the line is with a double iamb (a pyrrhic–spondee combination: u u | / /): “but rud | dy, ripe | ning to | ward fall.— | “So sweet“. Even scanned this way, the line is unusual for a poem in iambic pentameter; more often one sees a double iamb at the beginning of a line rather than the middle. The effect of this line’s rhythm is to put a sour taste in the reader’s mouth, even as it ends on the word “sweet”.

But of course, that’s the point: despite appearances, the plums are not sweet. When the speaker bites into one, she discovers that it’s “tart” (6). She says that the plum has a “sunny glow perfected in deceit” (7), with the rhyme reinforcing the false promise of a sweet treat. To the speaker, it’s as if the plum’s objective is to trick people into eating it, and so she finds a new appearance within it: the “emulation of a cunning heart” (8). This bitterness is a far cry from the painterly calm of that first stanza.

I find the reference in the second stanza to William Carlos Williams’s poem “This Is Just To Say” rather fitting. “This Is Just To Say” is a deceptively simple poem in which the speaker apologizes for eating the plums that the addressee has been saving. Specifically, Brosman quotes from the poem’s final stanza:

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

William Carlos Williams, “This Is Just To Say,” lines 9-12

One could read this final stanza as the speaker simply explaining why he ate the plums: they were just so hard to resist. But more than that, I get the sense that the speaker is rubbing his transgression in the addressee’s face, reminding them of just how wonderful those plums would have been—”so cold,” indeed. (This is one of the reasons why “This Is Just To Say” has endured as parody fodder. It became a popular meme on Twitter in 2017, and Kenneth Koch’s “Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams” spoofed the concept all the way back in 1962.)

If that second reading is correct, that the speaker of “This Is Just To Say” is teasing the addressee instead of apologizing, then it seems that the poor soul who lived with Williams isn’t his only victim. The speaker in Brosman’s poem is aware of Williams’s work, of how he presents plums as these irresistibly refreshing snacks. “This Is Just To Say” isn’t even the only famous poem where Williams sings the praises of plums; he does much the same in “To a Poor Old Woman.” But to the speaker in Brosman’s poem, Williams has not been fully honest, as this Santa Rosa plum has been anything but refreshing.

To recap thus far: “Plums” begins as an ode to the beauty of Santa Rosa plums, a celebration of their complex appearance, but the second stanza reveals that this particular plum does not taste nearly as good as it looks. We may well expect the poem to end there, and I think a lesser writer would do just that. In this hypothetical version of “Plums,” the meaning could be reduced to a variation on “all that glisters is not gold.” That’s hardly a novel sentiment, but if presented in a skilled fashion even clichés still have value.

But the speaker literally refuses to stop there. “I eat it anyway,” she says, “until the pit / alone remains, with scattered drops of juice” (9-10). She neither succumbs to disappointment nor denies it. Instead, she acknowledges the tartness and powers through it. That willingness to proceed despite the sour taste allows her to uncover a more nuanced truth than “appearances deceive,” for the remnants of the plum are “such sour trophies proving nature’s wit: / appearances and real in fragile truce” (11-12). According to this last line, it’s not the case that the tartness is the plum’s true nature, and that the beautiful appearance is a falsehood. Rather, the two coexist, not in pure harmony or pure contrast, but as two parties in “fragile truce.”

In a sense, then, “Plums” is a poem whose ending circles right back to its beginning. The plums really are dappled things—just in a way that’s trickier to unpack.


Thanks for reading! If this analysis has piqued your interest in Brosman’s poetry, then you should check out Range of Light, which is available through the LSU Press website or through Amazon. If, on the other hand, this made you want to read more about William Carlos Williams, then you should check out my analysis of “[The crowd at the ball game].”

The Art of Losing Isn’t Hard to Master: Suffering in Games

Existential Comics is a weekly webcomic created by Corey Mohler that has been running since late 2013, with each strip humorously exploring a different aspect of philosophy. Generally, a strip places a number of famous philosophers in some contrived situation, one that will cause each philosopher to bring forth their signature arguments as part of the discussion. Such is the case for the strip published on October 12, 2015, entitled “Sorry! And the Nature of Suffering”.

The strip is one of many in the series that takes place during game night. Four philosophers—Friedrich Nietzsche, Epictetus, Buddha, and Arthur Schopenhauer—have gathered to play Sorry!, and through their discussion over the game the reader learns the basics of each philosopher’s approach to the question of suffering. Nietzsche attempts to exert his will on the board, Epictetus accepts that the punishments of the game are beyond his control, Buddha argues that the desire to win is the source of suffering, and Schopenhauer…well, to skip right to the punchline:

Schopenhauer: "We suffer because we were born."

Nietzsche: "What made you like this, Schopenhauer? You ruin the vibe at every game night."

Epictetus: "I've been imagining that he would the ruin the vibe this whole time."

As a vehicle for exploring approaches to suffering, I think Sorry! is an inspired choice. The game is a variation on the ancient Indian game pachisi, from which Parcheesi and Ludo also derive. All these games feature the mechanic of sending opponents’ pieces back to the starting position, but Sorry! is unique in that the name positions that mechanic (rather than, say, the race itself or the role of chance) as the game’s defining feature. In the supplemental text in which he expands on the concepts presented in the strip, Mohler writes that while in Sorry! “the goal is technically to get all your pieces to the ‘home’ area…most of the enjoyment comes from inflicting suffering on your opponents by knocking them back to the start at the last possible moment.” Of course, for every time someone like Nietzsche gloats at the chance to shout a sarcastic “Sorry!” there’s some like Epictetus suffering the indignity of restarting their journey.

One may wonder, given the likelihood that players will suffer at some point or another, why anyone would wish to play—not just Sorry!, but any game at all. Other games don’t necessarily make suffering as central to the experience as Sorry! does, but in theory the four philosophers of the comic strip could have had their discussion while playing innumerably many different games. Failure and frustration are features of just about any game that you can think of: being forced to pay rent in Monopoly, allowing the other team score a touchdown in American football, losing a life in Pac-Man, etc. We can expect to experience pain while playing all these games, yet we gladly keep playing them for pleasure. In fact, if these games never inflicted pain on us, we’d likely lose interest in them. That seems at least a little counterintuitive, right?

That apparent contradiction is the subject of Jesper Juul’s 2013 book The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games, published as part of MIT Press’s Playful Thinking series. Juul is interested in what is called the paradox of failure, a specific instance of the paradox of painful art. In the same way that the better known paradox of tragedy captures the oddity of us seeking out works of art that cause us sadness, the paradox of failure encapsulates the weird reality of us playing games when they bring us suffering. Juul lays out the paradox as follows:

1. We generally avoid failure.

2. We experience failure when playing games.

3. We seek out games, although we will experience something that we normally avoid.

Jesper Juul, The Art of Failure, p. 2

Juul does not find a resolution to this paradox by the end of the book, which is hardly a strike against him. The paradox of painful art has puzzled philosophers from Aristotle to David Hume all the way up to the present day; I found myself running up against it when I wrote about how I find murder mysteries relaxing. Rather than seeking a definitive answer, Juul instead approaches the paradox through the lens of different fields, from philosophy to psychology to game design, to uncover what each field can tell us about the paradox.

Those discussions are all interesting in their own right, even if Juul goes about them with a rather repetitive prose style. But what really struck me while reading The Art of Failure is something Juul only gets at indirectly: the importance of a player’s attitude toward failure when playing a game. This comes up a bit whenever notions of sportsmanship enter the discussion; few things are less enjoyable during a game than dealing with a sore loser. But thinking more broadly, games seem to present us with unusual sets of social expectations. Early on in the book, Juul draws a contrast between two scenarios, an unhelpful guest at dinner and an unhelpful opponent in a board game:

Imagine that you are dining with some people you have just met. You reach for the saltshaker, but suddenly one of the other guests, let’s call him Joe, looks at you sullenly, then snatches the salt away and puts it out of your reach. Later, when you are leaving the restaurant, Joe dashes ahead of you and blocks the exit door from the outside. Joe is being rude—when you understand what another person is trying to do, it is offensive, or at least confrontational, to prevent that person from doing it.

However, if you were meeting the same people to play the board game Settlers, it would be completely acceptable for the same Joe to prevent you from winning the game. In the restaurant as well as in the game, Joe is aware of your intention, and Joe prevents you from doing what you are trying to do. At the restaurant, this is rude. In the game, this is expected and acceptable behavior. Apparently, games give us a license to engage in conflicts, to prevent others from achieving their goals. When playing a game, a number of actions that would regularly be awkward and rude are recast as pleasant and sociable (as long as we are not poor losers, of course).

Jesper Juul, The Art of Failure, p. 10 (footnote omitted)

We can see this contrast at work in the comic strip mentioned earlier. In the first panel, when Nietzsche draws a Sorry! card and sends Epictetus’s piece back to the start, there’s nothing malicious about the act. Mohler even draws Nietzsche with a playful expression to show that the punishment here is all in good fun. It’s not until the subsequent panels that Nietzsche’s actions go from “pleasant and sociable” to “awkward and rude”: throwing Epictetus’s piece against the board, calling him an idiot, etc. In both phases, Nietzsche intends to inflict pain on his opponent, but only in the second phase do his actions read as unacceptable.

Now, saying that actions that cause suffering in games are acceptable is not the same as saying that they are desirable. We might think that Epictetus tolerates the punishment of returning to the start because it accompanies a fun night with friends or a stimulating challenge, but that he would prefer a hypothetical version of the game that did not include that mechanic. Indeed, a later panel reveals that Epictetus has been playing the game in a way that minimizes the suffering central to Sorry!

Epictetus: The only thing you can control is your own virtue, and the most virtuous thing to do is fulfill your civic responsibilities, which is why I select moves that best help all the players.

Nietzsche: You were doing that on purpose?! I thought you were just an idiot.

We might think that Nietzsche’s response is another example of his being a jerk, but I think his frustration with Epictetus is understandable here. Epictetus confesses that he has not been playing the game in the proper spirit. Even though such a cooperative approach to Sorry! is not exactly prohibited by the rules, it’s also clearly not what the game’s designers consider to be optimal play (again, the game is called Sorry!). Epictetus’s subversive approach is an extreme case, but it does remind me of one passage from The Art of Failure in which Juul discusses how designers often need to push players toward failure:

The contribution of failure [to growth] becomes even more clearly visible when it is absent. It is not that growth cannot happen without failure, but that failure concretely pushes us toward personal improvement, and players often need to be pushed because they, as game designer David Jaffe has said, are fundamentally lazy. Designer Soren Johnson of the Civilization series describes it as a general problem that players seek out the optimal path to play a game but stick to it even when they find it fundamentally uninteresting.

Jesper Juul, The Art of Failure, p. 59 (footnotes omitted, emphasis in original)

That optimal path that Johnson mentions is designed to avoid the prospects of failure and suffering; players who take that path are likely to succeed in an absolute sense but rob themselves of the game’s actual pleasures in the process. In the case of a round of Civilization played against computer-controlled opponents, perhaps such players will only inconvenience themselves. But when other human players are involved, we may expect something like Nietzsche’s frustration to emerge.

To draw an example from my own experience: I was once invited to play a board game that simulated air combat maneuvering, with each player having the goal of shooting down their opponents’ fighter planes. My friends approached the game in the intended fashion, looking for opportunities to engage their foes in a dog fight. I, on the other hand, did no such thing. Instead, I simply circled my planes around the fray, avoiding combat at all costs because I did not want to risk getting fired upon. You might think that I was aiming to win the game by just waiting out the madness, as though I were Foxface during the Hunger Games. But really, I was just worried about the possibility of failure, and so I found a strategy that eliminated that possibility.

The friend who had invited me was not amused. “If you don’t start fighting,” he told me, “I’m going to find you derelict of duty.” I then realized that my strategy for avoiding suffering violated the social contract of the game; it deprived my opponents of opportunities to fight and therefore made the game less enjoyable for everyone. Whether it’s my friends and I pretending to have dog fights or four philosophers arguing over Sorry!, the only way for us to have fun while playing a game is to embrace the suffering that comes our way.


That seems like as good a place as any to leave off. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this whole discussion. Do you have a preferred way of resolving the paradox of failure? Can you think of any games that don’t involve failure? Let me know in the comments!

I’d like to tip my cap to Chris Franklin of Errant Signal, whose video on Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy introduced me to Juul’s book. I think it’s one of Franklin’s best, and you can watch it below.

Similes and Emotion in S. E. Grove’s “The Waning Age”

The premise of S. E. Grove’s most recent novel, The Waning Age (Viking-Penguin Random House, 2019)—a world in which people lose their capacity to feel emotion during adolescence—presents the author with a challenge regarding the tone of the prose: how to narrate the story without conveying emotion? One might expect that Grove would employ a detached third-person point-of-view, the sort of fly-on-the-wall narration that one associates with Ernest Hemingway. Certainly that would be the advice I would give to a student who wished to write such a story.

But that is not the strategy on display here. Instead, Grove uses a first-person narrator, telling the story through the voice of her protagonist, Natalia Peña. Writing in first-person may well be expected for a young adult novel, but it undoubtedly makes Grove’s task more difficult. Natalia may not have emotion, but she does have subjectivity; to experience the world through her eyes must feel like something. Grove must somehow craft a narrative voice that conveys subjectivity while excluding emotion—no easy feat.

In this post, I’d like to examine one technique that Grove uses to achieve the required narrative voice, the simile. The use of similes in The Waning Age accomplishes two things regarding emotion. First, similes remind the reader that whatever emotions that characters who have waned are expressing are simulations of emotions rather than genuinely felt experiences. The act of simulating emotion is a constant in the novel, and the simile is the literary device best suited to highlighting that fact. Second, in specifically emulating the style of Raymond Chandler, the similes in The Waning Age make humor a central feature of Natalia’s voice and suggest that her subjective experiences are more complicated than her ostensibly emotionless society would have one believe.

The Art of Simulating Emotion

Although the world of The Waning Age is defined by the loss of the capacity to feel emotion, it is not the case that emotion—or at least the appearance of it—is absent from society. What we might call “true” or “natural” emotion may wane around the age of ten, but the characters have various methods for simulating emotion when the occasion calls for it or when the desire strikes them. Foremost among these methods are synthetic affects, or as everyone calls them, “synaffs”: chemicals that allow one to experience emotions, particularly the physiological effects that accompany them. Pharmaceutical companies like RealCorp earn immense profits from manufacturing synaffs, which only the wealthy can afford with any regularity. Indeed, RealCorp’s presence in this field instigates the plot: it kidnaps Natalia’s ten-year-old brother Calvino, who shows no signs of waning, so it can conduct experiments on his brain.

For those in the lower classes, however, one must simulate emotion from within. Body language and gestures are a go-to device. For example, one of Natalia’s foster parents, Tabby, is an actress who does not use synaffs for performances; Natalia calls her “one of those purists who thinks it’s about remembering emotion and cultivating that memory, then channeling it when you act” and says that “she is very good at feigning emotions when she wants to” (p. 39). Conversely, Natalia is adept reading other people’s body language, even if she thinks that it’s “a major drag…having to the study the angle of a person’s nostril to figure out what they’re feeling” (p. 15). Such a skill is especially useful living with someone as emotional as Calvino, for it allows Natalia to respond in a manner appropriate to the situation, even without experiencing the attendant emotion.

One might then expect that Grove would lean into Natalia’s perception of body language, peppering the narration with small details about the other characters. And it’s true, Grove does exactly that, and on occasion effectively so. There’s something very uncanny in how the receptionist at RealCorp abruptly switches from looking “briefly crestfallen” to giving a “reassuring smile” (p. 64), and her inability to interpret the mix of signals from Dr. Glout during the boardroom confrontation (“Knotted eyebrows, tight lips. His papery skin was blotchy; his arms rested unnaturally on the table as if he had to hold himself in place” [p. 286]) does well in creating a tense atmosphere. But Grove tends to rely on the same handful of gestures, such as eye rolls and raised eyebrows, so those details gradually lose distinctiveness and, therefore, effectiveness.

This is where Grove’s use of similes comes into play. Whereas her examples of body language get repeated to the point of meaninglessness, her similes consistently find fresh material to work with. Figurative language is already a vital tool for describing emotion, as it can link an abstract, subjective experience to a concrete vehicle. Furthermore, one can account for nuances in the tenor by changing the vehicle. There is a difference, for example, between saying that something is “as white as snow” (which makes it sound soft) and that it is “as white as salt” (which makes it sound harsh). The more specific the vehicle, the more nuanced the reader’s understanding of the tenor.

To see an example of how Grove uses similes, consider this early example in which Natalia describes how children look when they’re in the midst of waning: “Almost all of [Calvino’s] classmates are looking the way I did at that age, dull and kind of mystified, like they can’t figure out who stole all the Halloween candy” (p. 13). There are a number of emotions and attitudes at work here. A kid who “can’t figure out who stole all the Halloween candy” would be confused, certainly, but in a way that suggests sadness and innocence; it’s different from how someone seems when they can’t solve a crossword puzzle, or when they can’t find their car keys. This particular simile also suggests that Natalia sees them with a sympathetic eye, or at least knows that one ought to; she has, after all, been in that same situation.

Let’s look at one more example. This one concerns Hoffman, who is a preacher and Calvino’s birth father. When he sees Natalia for the first time, she realizes that he has mistaken her for her mother; when he recognizes his mistake, she says that “he crumpled like a sheet falling from a clothesline” (p. 226). This is a sudden shift in perception, rather than a gradual dawning; otherwise he may have been likened to a deflating bouncy castle. And while Hoffman is obviously disheartened, he’s not angry about it, or else Natalia may have compared him to a collapsing wall. Coupled with the strong verb “crumpled,” and one gets the sense of exaggerated disappointment that the author is going for. All that is contained within the image of the falling sheet.

Based on this discussion, one may think about figurative language in the same way that Tabby thinks about acting: one searches through their history and their knowledge for the proper experience, then channels that experience when they write. Also like acting: it is always a simulation, never a reality. The vehicle may share important qualities with the tenor, but it is not identical to it. This is why I think that Grove’s preference for similes over other forms of figurative language, such as metaphor or personification, is so appropriate. Similes make explicit both the act of comparison and the artificial nature of that comparison. In a simile, A is like B, but not B itself. In most contexts, this distancing makes similes weaker than metaphor, but in The Waning Age, their use reinforces the novel’s world building: people experience something like emotion, but not emotion itself.

The Influence of Raymond Chandler

The first simile in The Waning Age that caught my attention occurs in the first paragraph of the novel, wherein Natalia describes the hotel where she works a cleaner: “Inside, the walls are white marble, the lobby chairs are rose damask, and the carpet looks like the polar bear population of the Arctic, scythed and steamrolled” (p .1) The nature of that simile—on the surface incongruous but upon reflection deadly accurate—immediately calls to mind the style of Raymond Chandler, whose writing is famous for bizarre and witty similes. Chandler will say that someone is “about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food” or has “a face like a collapsed lung,” and one will simultaneously laugh at the joke and marvel at the precision of the image. In The Waning Age, Grove tries to give Natalia the same sort of voice found in Chandler’s novels.

Just in case one thinks that this is speculation, I would note that Natalia explicitly models herself on Chandler’s most famous protagonist, Philip Marlowe. She believes that Marlowe demonstrates how one can get by in an increasingly emotionless society:

[Marlowe] comes as close as I’ve seen to our emotionless future. Maybe Chandler had a nightmare, and Marlowe’s world was in it, or maybe, prophet-like, he could see the slow decline approaching in the cold hearts and callous faces of 1930s Los Angeles. However it happened, his Marlowe does it—even in a world still premised on the availability and influence of emotion, Marlowe moves through it, calm and unflappable, making it seem plausible that one might survive in a hard, sordid, unfair world without the soaring ecstasies and raptures of triumph and true loves that seem to carry every other character ever written.

S. E. Grove, The Waning Age, p. 37

Natalia does not merely admire Marlowe’s cool affect in the face of an unfeeling world; she puts that influence into practice. Indeed, she later remarks that latching onto a fictional character as a sort of life guide is quite common in her society:

Lots of us witty people do it. Books and old screen dramas are like disorganized bargain stores where you hunt for an angle; someone memorable, someone to imitate, someone who gives you a usable script. Someone behaving with emotional coherence so that you can follow along, seeming both emotional and coherent without being either.

S. E. Grove, The Waning Age, p. 118

In addition to borrowing survival tactics from Chandler’s novels, she also borrows their language, their penchant for similes, as a way of understanding the world around her. For instance, in observing how a liberal arts education fails to instill a sense of morality in children who have waned, she reasons that “nowadays serving up Shakespeare to a bunch of untrained adolescents is like handing a serial killer a pack of gum” (p. 78). It may distract them for a moment, but it will not get to the root of the problem: their incapacity for true empathy. It is that particular simile that allows Natalia to see the flaw in that system.

Going into the paratext of Chandler work, one may discover another way in which Grove’s similes are Chandler-esque: they show a speaker grappling with a language they are not fully fluent in. This is a point that Stephen L. Tanner brings up in his article “The Function of Simile in Raymond Chandler’s Novels” (paywalled), in discussing the relationship between Chandler, who grew up in England, and American vernacular:

Chandler once said, “I had to learn American just like a foreign language.” And in learning it, he fell in love with it. “I’m an intellectual snob who happens to have a fondness for the American vernacular,” he wrote in a letter, “largely because I grew up on Latin and Greek. As a result, when I use slang, solecisms, colloquialisms, snide talk or any kind of off-beat language, I do it deliberately.” Elsewhere he said, “If I hadn’t grown up on Latin and Greek, I doubt if I would know so well how to draw the line between what I call a vernacular style and what I should call an illiterate or faux naif style. That’s a hell of a lot of difference to my mind.” Chandler thought of himself primarily as a stylist, and his distance from American English allowed him to do what he did with it. In this respect, as Frederic Jameson has remarked, his situation was similar to that of Nabokov: “the writer of an adopted language is already a kind of stylist by force of circumstance.”

Stephen L. Tanner, “The Function of Simile in Raymond Chandler’s Novels,” Studies in American Humor, vol. 3, no. 4, 1984, p. 340 (internal citations omitted)

Whereas Chandler uses humorous similes to approach the language of another country, Natalia uses the same technique to approach the language of emotion. Unavoidably, every instance of figurative language will carry some connotation, some emotional charge, that colors how one views the situation. Even if Natalia cannot access a feeling through direct experience, she can still be conversant in emotion, as it were, by adopting this humorous style.

Granted, according to the internal logic of The Waning Age, humor is not exactly an emotion. In one of the essays that Calvino writes as part of Dr. Glout’s testing regimen, he presents the case that humor is not an emotion but rather an instinct. “Humor,” he writes, “is achieved by the intellect, which is part of reason. If you laugh at a joke it is not the same as laughing because you are happy. Just as crying because you are sad is not the same as crying because someone broke your leg” (p. 71). (It may be odd to treat a ten-year-old boy as an authority, especially when he is is talking to an actual academic, but as the only major character who still experiences natural emotion Calvino has more firsthand knowledge on the subject that anyone else.) But because they share some behaviors, one could say that humor is adjacent to emotion, in the way that Chandler’s classically educated perspective on American vernacular is adjacent to the genuine article.

Indeed, as Tanner goes on to suggest, humor can be useful in concealing emotion, in addition to approaching it. He says that Chandler’s similes “often consist of a self-deflating wit that disguises the sentimental note in Marlowe and his knight-
errantry” (p. 343). Natalia is well aware of this tendency: “I know he’s not actually emotionless. Sometimes his face gets red. Sometimes he even gets mad” (p. 37). Might I suggest, given the reveal near the end of the novel that Natalia is regaining the capacity to feel emotion, that the similes in Grove’s book achieve a similar effect? Might I suggest that we’re not wrong in inferring sadness from child without Halloween candy, or disappointment from the crumpled sheet? Natalia has always been capable, physically, of having true emotion; she merely lacked the awareness to process her thoughts as such.

A Brief Concluding Note

At this point, we seem to have reached two contradictory conclusions. In the first part, we found that Grove use similes because Natalia cannot feel true emotion, while in the second part we found that Grove uses similes because Natalia secretly can feel true emotion. So which is it? Surely it can’t be both—that would be a contradiction, right?

In a certain sense, yes, this is a contradiction in the novel, one which is never resolved. But this appears to be a contradiction that the novel is fine with—encourages, even. On multiple occasions, Calvino questions Dr. Glout when the researcher appears to express remorse regarding the the child’s situation (e.g., “I’m afraid [Natalia] can’t be here right now” [p. 73], “Sorry, I’m trying to keep things calm in there for you, and having people go in and out wouldn’t help” [p. 101]). After all, Calvino reasons, if Dr. Glout has waned, then he can’t be afraid of or sorry about anything. Dr. Glout explains that he’s using figures of speech, but Calvino is right to point out the oddity of using the language of emotional for emotionless purposes.

I feel that Grove is inviting the reader to take on the role of Calvino while reading The Waning Age, to question whether anything in the novel is truly without emotion. I will admit that at times, this posture feels like an escape hatch for the author, a way to preemptively brush aside any critique of the world-building: “Oh, that there? That’s an intentional inconsistency. You’re supposed to find that fishy.” But I’ll also admit that such moments got me to reflect on what I thought counted as emotion, and to consider those preconceptions more critically. Perhaps that’s worth some internal inconsistency.


I’ve said a lot more on this book than I’d predicted when I started, but I’d still love to hear your thoughts on The Waning Age. How do you think it handles writing an emotionless perspective in a first-person voice? Are there any techniques that you think exemplify its success or failure in that regard? Let me know in the comments!

Special thanks to Krysta of Pages Unbound, whose review of The Waning Age brought it to my attention. I can’t say that enjoyed it quite as much as she did; I found that beyond its main themes and this particular literary technique that the book seemed rather rote. But I did enjoy thinking and writing about it, which I do believe is more important.

And, as always, thanks for your time!

A Top 5 List: Books Under 300 Pages

It’s time for another list game, this one courtesy of Shanah, a.k.a. the Bionic Book Worm: top 5 books under 300 pages. In theory, this should be a very easy list for me to compile. I read a lot of poetry collections and dramatic works, both formats where even 100 pages would be considered on the long side. But I feel that to include those sorts of books would be violating the spirit of the theme: books whose short lengths are noteworthy. As such, I’m going to restrict myself to works of nondramatic prose, i.e., works of fiction and nonfiction.

That still leaves us with a wide variety of books to examine, and I hope the list is eclectic enough that at least one book here will sound appealing. We’ll be looking at experimental essays and straightforward criticism, postmodern literature and classic fantasy. Should be a fun diversion. So, without further delay: the list.

5) The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon (152 pages)

Let’s begin with a book I would described less as “short” than as “truncated.” The Crying of Lot 49 follows Oedipa Maas, who has been tasked with managing the estate of her ex-boyfriend. In the process of untangling his complicated assortment of assets, she stumbles upon evidence of an age-old conflict between two rival mail delivery services: Thurn und Taxis, the established corporate giant, and Trystero, the underground competitor. At least, she thinks she’s found evidence of such a conflict. For while she keeps running into signs of Trystero’s existence, Oedipa is never certain that she’s not hallucinating the whole conspiracy.

This book has all the makings of an engaging thriller, albeit one with some idiosyncratic cultural references—a working knowledge of Jacobean drama is helpful for understanding the plot, for example. But what makes The Crying of Lot 49 interesting (or, if you’re less charitable, infuriating) is that Oedipa never even comes close to uncovering the truth. Instead, it abruptly ends before the title “crying,” an auction of rare postage stamps that Oedipa believes might lead her closer to confirming Trystero’s existence. Imagine a mystery show that ended right as the detectives made their first breakthrough, and you have a good idea of how The Crying of Lot 49 operates. It’s not to everyone’s taste, of course, but if you like characters with rising, unrelieved paranoia, then this is the story for you. (Alternatively, if you like A Series of Unfortunate Events, which is clearly inspired by this book.)

4) Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, by Carl Wilson (176 pages)

This is music critic Carl Wilson’s contribution to 33 1/3, a series in which writers analyze one album in great depth. This book is ostensibly about Let’s Talk About Love, the 1997 Céline Dion album featuring “My Heart Will Go On,” but Wilson has much broader ambitions here. He’s interested in how an artist like Dion can be so critically loathed yet so popular and beloved, and he will not be satisfied with so simple an answer as, “People have bad taste.” Wilson spends a year immersed in all things Céline, and in doing so questions the prejudices of the critical establishment.

Books in the 33 1/3 series are pocket-sized by design, and in his book Wilson doesn’t waste a single sentence. He places Dion’s work in the context of Quebecois music history, considers critics’ traditional distaste for schmaltz and sentimentality, interviews fans of Dion from all over the world—it’s a veritable greatest hits album of sociological analysis. I enjoyed Let’s Talk About Love in much the same way that I enjoyed Andy Greenwald’s exploration of emo subculture, Nothing Feels Good, in that it’s a sympathetic but still critical account of a genre of music I have little personal taste for. It’s less important that readers and critics come away thinking someone like Dion is a great artist than that they understand what others hear in her work.

3) Chroma, by Derek Jarman (160 pages)

I said at the top that I deliberately excluded poetry collections from consideration, but that doesn’t mean I can’t sneak some lyrical prose onto the list. Derek Jarman is a towering figure in the history of queer cinema, with films such as Sebastiane and his adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II addressing queer themes in an era of heavy social stigma. But he also wrote several books, the last of which was Chroma, a series of freewheeling essays on color. Jarman, with a tight yet expressive prose style, explores all possible avenues into the concept of color: scientific, historical, cultural, and personal.

Indeed, while Jarman’s writing often resembles the fragmentary style of pre-Socratic philosophers, Chroma is an intensely personal work for Jarman: he began writing these essays on color as he was going blind from AIDS-related complications. There’s a sense of both urgency and resignation behind all of these essays, for he must enjoy the sensation of color while he can, while still accepting the inevitable with dignity. These themes come to a head in the essay “Into the Blue,” which includes a tender tribute to his past lovers who have lost their lives to AIDS, and which served as the basis for the narration in Jarman’s final film, Blue. In part because it’s the most obscure book on this list, Chroma is the book I most recommend.

2) The Tombs of Atuan, by Ursula K. Le Guin (146 pages)

So far, the books I’ve included on this list have have been dense affairs, compressing a lot of themes, motifs, and ideas into a small package. The Tombs of Atuan, the sequel to Ursula K. Le Guin’s fantasy classic A Wizard of Earthsea, goes in the opposite direction. It tells the story of Tenar, a girl who was taken from her family at young age to serve as a priestess to dark gods in the Tombs of Atuan. When Ged, the protagonist from the first book, breaks into the tombs to steal a piece of a magical amulet, Tenar traps him in the underground labyrinth and contemplates how best to dispose of him. But slowly, she forges a personal connection with Ged, which allows her to start recovering her past identity.

The Tombs of Atuan is such a pleasant swerve as a sequel. Whereas A Wizard of Earthsea takes Ged across countless islands across Le Guin’s fictional world, The Tombs of Atuan almost completely confines itself to one location. And that setting suits the novel perfectly, as Le Guin is aiming for a work of great psychological insight. The cavernous, intricate layout of the tombs is symbolic of Tenar’s journey of self-realization, and on a logistical level it works well in literally trapping two characters in conflict together. The Tombs of Atuan also holds the distinction of being the only novel I can remember reading in one sitting, so if that’s not an endorsement, I don’t know what is.

1) Silas Marner, by George Eliot (230 pages)

Let’s close this list with a real classic, shall we? Like The Tombs of Atuan, this is another story of intense personal transformation. The title figure of George Eliot’s Silas Marner is a miserly old weaver living in rural England. He has little contact with broader society until two life-changing events happen in quick succession. First, someone steals all the gold he’s been hoarding; second, a blond-haired infant wanders into his little cabin. Silas resolves to raise the child himself, and in doing so slowly finds happiness greater than all his lost wealth.

In one sense, Silar Marner is a proudly unsubtle story: the connection between Silas’s gold and Eppie (as he names the girl) is so obvious that Silas literally mistakes Eppie for the gold when she first crawls into his hut. But there’s actually lot going on underneath the surface here. Eliot uses this fable-like story to explore a number of social themes relevant to Victorian England, from the vagaries of religion to the effects of industrialization of rural English life to the public and private foibles of the aristocracy. In short order, Silar Marner stirs up the sentiments, then spurs one into thought—exactly what one is looking for in a book by Eliot. It’s almost like reading Middlemarch in miniature.


Thus endeth the list. What are your thoughts on these picks? Anything that sounds especially enticing, or am I completely off-base with these? Let me know in the comments! If you’re still looking for book recommendations, then check out my response to the Literary Fiction Book Tag.

And, as always, thanks for your time.

Recent Publication: Third Coast

I happy to announce that I have a poem in the most recent issue of Third Coast, the literary magazine housed at Western Michigan University. It’s called “Retaliation,” and it’s a poem that I’ve been particularly excited about, because of how it channels a whole bunch of my personal obsessions into a single work. Perhaps you’ll indulge me if I elaborate for a little bit. (That, and since the poem is in print I feel bad about not having anything to link to.)

First, there’s the subject matter. “Retaliation” is addressed to Todd Bertuzzi, a former hockey player who was the assailant in one of the most brazen instances of in-game violence that I can remember. On March 8, 2004, in the third period of lopsided game between the Vancouver Canucks and the Colorado Avalanche, Bertuzzi grabbed Colorado center Steve Moore from behind, punched him in the back of the head, and drove him head-first onto the ice, breaking several of Moore’s neck vertebrae. Moore would never play hockey again, and Bertuzzi faced criminal charges for his actions.

The incident has stuck with ever since, largely because I saw a lot of replays of Bertuzzi’s sucker punch while watching SportsCenter; the footage became by version of the Zapruder film. But I was also haunted by the reactions of the broadcasters and the crowd. If you watch the footage of the incident, the moment that Bertuzzi punches Moore you’ll hear the play-by-play announcer’s voice perk up excitedly and the crowd begin to cheer. It takes good while for everyone involved to realize the extent of Moore’s injuries, and then the mood shifts drastically; the whole game, as it were, crashes into a wall.

That brings me to the thematic content of the poem, which revolves around the concept of the magic circle. “Magic circle” is a term appropriated from Johan Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture to describe the constructed world in which a game takes place, where the rules of the everyday world are set aside and in-game actions are, by and large, metaphorical. While this notion of the magic circle goes back to the work of game designers Eric Zimmerman, Frank Lantz, and Katie Salen, I first became aware of it from an episode of the YouTube series Errant Signal discussing a video game called, appropriately, The Magic Circle.

Now, everyone agrees that, if games exist within a magic circle, the boundary between the game world and the everyday world is very porous. But Bertuzzi’s actions did not merely represent a crossing of that boundary; it came close to erasing that boundary completely. All play came to a halt, spectators became eyewitnesses, and both men would enter a years-long legal process as a direct result. This was no longer a game; it was a current event and a moral crisis.

Lastly, we come to the form. I’d had this basic idea for a poem—tying the Bertuzzi incident to the magic circle concept—stuck in my head for a good while, but I could never get it down on paper in a way that remotely satisfied me. That is, until I decided to show my students “Lake Sonnet” by Anne Marie Rooney (which you can read here) as an example of how poets play with the sonnet form. In this poem, and several other by Rooney, she follows a Petrarchan rhyme scheme but only uses “identical rhymes” (i.e., rhyming words with themselves or with homophones). It works especially well in “Lake Sonnet,” as the repetition of end words highlights the speaker’s monotonous sexual encounters: “I,” “men,” “our,” “breaks”.

I had personally done imitation exercises based on Rooney’s poems in the past, but it was only after teaching it that I realized that this structure—an identically rhymed sonnet—might be a good fit for the poem I’d been trying to write. Hearing the same words over and over again could be used to trap the poem in a particular moment, and there’s something wonderfully “circular” about all this repetition. A few hours later I had a draft; a few months worth of tweaks later and I had the poem in its current shape.

At time of writing there is no link to purchase the latest issue of Third Coast, but hopefully that will change in the near future. In the meantime, you can purchase back issues of Third Coast via their website.

What an Episode of “Father Brown” Can Teach Us About Literature

Hannah Moxley describing the plot of new novel to Father Brown

Last year, when I wrote about the oddly soothing aspects of the murder mystery genre, I mentioned that I had another post about the show Father Brown that I wanted to write. Well, over a year later, I’ve finally gotten around to doing just that.

For those who aren’t aware, Father Brown is an amateur detective show loosely based on the short stories of G. K. Chesterton. The show follows the title priest (played by Mark Williams) as he solves various crimes—usually murder—around the fictional English town of Kembleford in the post-WWII period. Father Brown is joined by a group of supporting characters, including parish secretary Mrs McCarthy (Sorcha Cusack) and local noblewoman Lady Felicia (Nancy Carroll), and he often butts heads with an ever-changing line of police detectives, such as Inspector Sullivan (Tom Chambers), who rather begrudgingly tolerate the priest’s side hobby of sleuthing.

The episode I would like to look at in particular is “The Kembleford Boggart,” the seventh episode of the show’s third series. This is one of my favorite episodes of the show, not because of the mystery itself, but because of what the episode has to say about writing and about our reactions to it. I’m going to break this little investigation into three parts. In Part I, we’ll talk about the central figure of the episode and her concerns about how her writing will be received. In Part II, we’ll move onto the murder and how it instructs us on the way the artistic process actually works. Finally, in Part III, we’ll unravel the mystery and discuss the audience’s relationship with the author of a work.

Oh, before we begin—normally I find our age’s spoiler-phobia to be pretty obnoxious and a serious impediment to discussing art critically, but since this is a mystery we’re talking about, where half the fun is trying to piece the clues together yourself, consider this a spoiler warning: we’re going to reveal all the twists in this episode, because otherwise the themes are impossible to fully talk about. So, with that out of the way….

I: The Author

At the center of “The Kembleford Boggart”—aside from Father Brown, of course—is Hannah Moxley (Nathalie Buscombe), a 22-year-old woman who seems to be rather nervous about where her life stands. Some of her anxieties are professional. Hannah is a rising star of the British literary world; her debut novel, The Darkest Rose, was something of a sensation in the recent past, and she’s about to read an excerpt from her current manuscript at the home of Lady Felicia. For a writer that young, she could hardly ask for better. Still, she’s not certain that her new novel will find a publisher, even though Father Brown assures her that, from what he hears, “the literary establishment is waiting with bated breath.”

Of course, such anticipation can be its own form of pressure. Every writer who attains even the tiniest bit of artistic success fears that they’ll never be able to recreate that magic, that they’ve spent all their creativity on past works. But Hannah has an additional reason to worry about how her new novel will be received: it’s a significant departure from her previous work. We the audience aren’t told much about The Darkest Rose, but from other characters’ descriptions we glean that it’s an “uplifting” tale filled with “high jinks and espionage”. By contrast, her new book is an atmospheric horror story about a woman terrorized by a boggart. She’s completely shifted genres, and there’s no guarantee that her audience will follow her muse with her.

Judging by the response she gets at the reading, her concerns might not be unfounded. There’s a noticeable silence after Hannah finishes reading the excerpt from her work, before Lady Felicia hurriedly spurs the crowd into applause. Her story has certainly had an effect on Mrs McCarthy; she’s so shocked during the reading that she almost spills her sherry. But she’s more repulsed than enraptured by it, saying afterwards, “If that’s what passes for modern literature, I’ll stick with the Woman’s Weekly.” This is a small sample size, but it at least suggests that’s right to be worried.

It was a minor miracle, however, that Hannah was able to give a reading at all, which brings us to her second source of worry: her father, Jeremiah (Simon Williams). Although Hannah is an adult already, Jeremiah Moxley exercises a great deal of control over his daughter’s life. He won’t allow her to manage her own finances, and he doesn’t allow her to read the fan mail that she’s received from around the world. Had Father Brown not offered to act as chaperone, Jeremiah would not have let Hannah read at Lady Felicia’s, lest she start socializing with the wrong sort of people. Even then, he expects that she will not leave Father Brown’s sight and that she’ll return home by eight o’clock sharp. Hannah, for her part, does her best to comply with her father’s various restrictions, but when alone with Father Brown she vents about how unreasonable her current situation is.

Indeed, a close look at the first scene after the cold open reveals how her different worries tie into each other. It would appear that her father’s overbearing nature has done a number on Hannah’s confidence as a storyteller. We first see Hannah describing the plot of her new book to Father Brown, who looks a bit puzzled by it. She assumes that he doesn’t like the story, but in fact he’s merely unsure of what a boggart is. Her face lights up at the chance to explain this bit of folklore, but alas Jeremiah enters the room and cuts her off with his own explanation. He then dismisses his daughter’s penchant for such stories right in front of her. “Forgive my daughter,” he says to Father Brown. “She has a fine talent, I’m assured, but her fantasies are a little far-fetched for my taste.” One expects that a writer’s parents would be her biggest cheerleaders; if they’re not on board with the project, why would anyone else be?

Hannah’s got quite a bit on her plate—and we haven’t even gotten to the murder yet.

II: The Mystery

Why don’t hear a little bit of Hannah’s latest? Here’s the excerpt from her new book that so shocked the crowd at Lady Felicia’s:

Mrs Mallory lay stiff and bloated at Clarissa’s feet. Across her throat a tidy, fine slash, the stinging mark of a whip sharp tail. And all around the room, she saw the messy trail of an uninvited guest. A fresh fall of soot blanketed the hearth, and the floor was marked by jagged claws. As she rushed to the empty cot, she saw the boggart’s promise had been fulfilled. The housekeeper was dead and the baby was gone.

Hannah Moxley, unpublished manuscript, page numbers TBD

This being a murder mystery show, it’s only natural that this excerpt turns into the blueprint for an actual crime. The cinematic language makes it clear that Jeremiah will be the victim, as Hannah starts her reading over footage of her father opening her fan mail. After the reading, Father Brown loses track of Hannah, so he and Mrs McCarthy hustle over to the Moxley house in hopes of meeting her there. When they arrive, they find the door already open, and after some investigation they discover Jeremiah on the floor of an attic room, killed by his letter opener. It’s then that Mrs McCarthy notices that the room is full of soot and the floor all scratched up, just like the room described in Hannah’s novel.

Father Brown jokes that the perpetrator was the boggart from the story, but no one actually buys into that notion. Mrs McCarthy immediately suspects Alfons (Philip McGinley), an Irish Traveller who got into a spat with Jeremiah that morning, while Inspector Sullivan considers the possibility that this was a burglary gone wrong. Father Brown, however, does think that the secret to the murder lies in Hannah’s story, as he spends all night reading over her manuscript. His initial thought, understandably, is the prospect that someone has re-enacted the scene from the novel, or more disturbing, that the novel is a preemptive confession from a beleaguered daughter. It’s not until later on that Father Brown realizes that he’s gotten the whole thing backwards.

See, we have often think of creativity in limited ways. We imagine inspiration as a sort of epiphany, a sudden blast of the divine. This view has a certain romantic aura to it, but it tends to render the process of creation completely inscrutable and unknowable; one either has the spark, or one doesn’t. More often that not, however, inspiration comes from the synthesis of small details that we experience. It’s not necessarily a veiled autobiography or a confession, but it does come from the world of the concrete, either senses or emotions. It’s only when Father Brown remembers that fact that the mystery starts clarifying itself.

After finishing Hannah’s new book, he takes Mrs McCarthy back to the Moxley house for what he calls “a lesson in perspective.” This is Father Brown’s big lecture for the episode, the step-by-step explanation of what’s been going on. But it’s not an explanation of how the murder happened; he’s not sure who did it at this point. No, it’s an explanation of why the room resembles the one in Hannah’s story:

[N]either of us had ever been in this attic room before. So how would we know that what we saw was unusual? Perhaps it wasn’t unusual. What if soot fell from that chimney every day? For instance, when somebody retrieved something from it…For example [reaches into the hearth and pulls something out], a key. And what if a badly hung door made marks on the floor every time it is opened, makes the scratches of deadly talons. Not life imitating art, Mrs McCarthy, art imitating life. It wasn’t until I finished Hannah’s manuscript that I realised the most significant image of all: the missing child.

Father Brown then unlocks the door, revealing a hidden nursery, where Hannah’s baby is asleep. The implication is clear: Hannah’s novel, the whole story about the boggart and the missing child, comes from her own experiences of having to hide her baby from the world, and the atmospheric details come from the steps she has to take to see him.

This little lecture from Father Brown not only advances the plot, but also further clarifies why Hannah seems especially nervous about her new novel. While on the surface it seems more fantastical than The Darkest Rose, it is in fact far more personal than her first novel. She’s transformed a source of shame into art, and now plans on sharing it with the world. But we’ve still got one mystery left: whodunit?

III: The Killer

As I mentioned in the first section, Hannah’s gotten quite a few fans off the back of The Darkest Rose, and it’s obvious that a number of them have formed parasocial relationships with her. In what might be Jeremiah’s one instance of genuine insight, he notes that the men writing fan letters to Hannah “have not got literature on their minds,” and that the volume and the passion of the fan mail increased after Hannah’s photograph was included in Modern Profile magazine. His daughter has become the object of affection—or obsession—for a great number of men, and that’s not necessarily the sort of attention that a young woman wants.

As it happens, we meet one of Hannah’s admirers at the reading at Lady Felicia’s, a journalist named Harry Grandage (Ben Deery). His work takes him all around the globe, where he seems to cover one tragedy after another. This is why, he tells Father Brown, Hannah’s work means so much to him:

I’ve only just got back from Brussels. I spent two months there before traveling down to Antwerp. I was covering the damage from the North Sea floods…My work always seems to bring me to people in times of grief. It takes its toll. So, when I read The Darkest Rose, I was so happy to lose myself to it. It’s a modern masterpiece.

Naturally, Harry is very excited to meet Hannah in person, but if you pay close attention to his tone and his facial expressions you’ll realize that he’s more than a little perplexed that Hannah’s not already familiar with him. Even worse, when Hannah signs his copy of The Darkest Rose, she makes it out to “Larry”. He laughs it off, saying that it’s “charming”, but he’s clearly a bit stung by their interaction.

It’s sometimes tempting to think that we can know a person through their art and that, by extension, we can form an actual relationship with them through it. We will excitedly praise a work for understanding us in a time of confusion or crisis, even if we know, intellectually, that the work emerged independently of our struggles and that the author wouldn’t know us from Adam. These parasocial bonds that we form with artists can be helpful in certain ways; for example, they can give us the knowledge that we are not alone in our difficulties. But where Harry appears to go wrong is in thinking that this grants him knowledge of the actual person behind the work.

One word that Harry uses a lot when describing Hannah’s writing is “escape”. After Jeremiah’s death, he explains to Father Brown why he’s staying in Kembleford to comfort Hannah: “When I first read her book, I was in the Republic of Korea covering the war, a taste of hell. Her work offered me the chance to escape then, and now I can do the same for her.” It’s clear that Harry needed some way to escape his troubles as a journalist, but note how he’s made the assumption that Hannah needs the same thing. It’s true that by strict definition Harry’s relationship with Hannah is no longer parasocial, but it’s by no means intimate, either. Harry sees himself as a companion, but by any objective measure, he’s just a passing acquaintance.

This being a murder mystery, Harry’s relationship with Hannah turns out to be a bit more complicated than that. Father Brown realizes that Harry’s one of the men who’s been writing fan mail to Hannah, not knowing that her father doesn’t allow her to read such letters. Instead, Jeremiah has been corresponding with Harry, posing as his daughter for the purposes of arranging a marriage. Hence Harry’s confusion at the reading: he’s been duped. Long story short: he confronts Jeremiah at the house and tries to leave to tell Hannah the truth; Jeremiah attacks him the letter opener and in the struggle Harry accidentally stabs him with it. The whole killing was accident, the result of a tragic misunderstanding.

But even after all that comes out, even after Harry realizes his whole relationship with Hannah was a sham, he still can’t let go of the image of her that he’s created in his head. Father Brown meets Harry in the woods, where he’s planning on leaving Kembleford with Hannah in tow. “She’s desperately in need of escape,” he tells Father Brown, still insisting that his needs are hers as well. Once Hannah arrives on the scene and the whole truth comes out, though, she takes Harry to task for his assumptions:

Harry: All I wanted was to take you away to escape with you. Isn’t that what you wanted?

Hannah: No! You’re no better than [my father] was. You want to control me. Well, I won’t let you. I’ve spent too long locked away. I want a free life. I owe that much to him.

To be clear: Harry is correct in thinking that Hannah would like to escape her current circumstances—we’ve established that much in the build-up to this—but that in no way implies that she wants to escape with him. That’s a major, nigh unresolvable problem with trying to read an artist through the works we enjoy: even if we’re completely accurate in our diagnoses, it’s pure narcissism to think we have anything to do with them.

For the record, Hannah’s actual love, Alfons, also got to know her through her writings: she would head down to the camp of Irish Travellers when they stopped by and read her stories to them. But the context there is completely different than it was for Harry, as Alfons got the chance to know Hannah as a person, not just as a name on a front cover and a photograph in a magazine profile. There were no assumptions to be made, just life to experience.


That was quite a bit from me, but what’s your take on all this? Are there any other films or TV shows that deal with literature in this way? Do have a favorite episode of Father Brown that you’d like to share? Sound off in the comments.

While your here, perhaps you’d like to read more about our relationship with art and our tendency to form parasocial relationships with artists. In that case, check on my post called “On Angst Music,” which might be my favorite blog post that I’ve written here.

And as always, thanks for your time.

Literary Fiction Book Tag

I haven’t done one of those book tags that make the rounds in a good long while, have I? (I haven’t done much of anything on this blog in a good long while, but that’s another story.) Today I’d like to fix that with a post inspired by the YouTube channel Jasmine’s Reads. Jasmine is one of my favorite presenters in the BookTube community, and seeing how she’s just unveiled her first book tag, I thought I’d do my (undoubtedly minuscule) part in spreading it.

It’s called the Literary Fiction Book Tag, and it’s precisely that: eight questions on the subject of literary fiction. I recommend watching the original video below if you’d like to get a sense of the tag’s purpose before diving in.

One confession before getting started: the prompts below all refer to “literary fiction novels,” but for some of my answers I’ve used high-concept short story collections instead, both because short stories could always use more love and because, after reflection, it turns out I read a lot fewer novels of recent vintage than I’d figured. With that out of the way…

#1: How do you define literary fiction?

I have two ways of defining “literary fiction,” and I shift back and forth between them depending on how cynical I happen to be feeling. The more cynical approach is to say that literary fiction is purely a marketing term, that it says nothing about the content of the work and everything about the sort of person that the publishing and book-selling industries think is likely to buy it. You can probably conjure the stereotype of someone who reads these sorts of books: college-educated, financially well-off, probably subscribes to the New York Times and supports their local NPR affiliate. In this view of the term, “literary fiction” is a signal to this demographic that they ought to read this particular book.

I think there’s a lot of truth to this perspective, especially in a world where books are commodities and not just works of aesthetic appreciation. But I can’t deny that, when I hear a book described as “literary fiction,” I do make certain assumptions about the book’s content. As I tend to think of genres as sets of audience expectations about a given work, it would be fair to say that literary fiction is a broad genre, one that’s closer to “young adult” than it is to “western” in terms of specificity. In her video, Jasmine lists off just about every element I’d anticipate: “social, political, or human commentary; introspective character exploration; not being focused or driven by plot; and also, a large focus on language.” So long as a work meets some of those criteria, one has grounds to place it into the genre of literary fiction.

You’ll note that these two definitions are not contradictory, and in fact may support each other. It could be the case that the supply of literary fiction creates its own demand, which in turn reinforces the industry’s decision to market books in such a way. Nothing wrong with shifting back and forth between definitions when they can coexist.

#2: Name a literary fiction novel with a brilliant character study.

Wonderful, Wonderful Times by Elfriede Jelinek

Wonderful, Wonderful Times follows four young adults in post-WWII Austria who are, by any objective account, monstrous. Their adolescent thrill-seeking takes the form of gratuitous violence, whether that means assaulting people in the park late at night or attempting to drown a cat to reenact a scene from Sartre. But while Jelinek is unrelenting in her depictions of moral rot, she still her has empathy for her creations. I’ve written about these characters before, so I won’t belabor the point here, but the longer the novel goes on, the more that Jelinek pricks at the façade that each of the young adults has constructed. We see, for instance, how Rainer’s obsession with existentialism covers for his own naivete, or how Sepp’s upbringing in a Communist household contextualizes his humiliating and combustible relationship with the aristocratic Sophie. The characters of Wonderful, Wonderful Times may be reprehensible at every turn, but their humanity still glows through all the grime.

#3: Name a literary fiction novel that has experimental or unique writing.

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue

The short version: this book is about a tennis match, in which the Spanish poet Quevedo and the Italian painter Caravaggio trade points in what turns out to be a literal fight to the death. But reading this book bears no resemblance to reading a newspaper write-up of Wimbledon. In Sudden Death, Álvaro Enrigue intersperses his descriptions of rallies with histories of colonialism in the New World, excerpts from historical documents about tennis (both real and fictional), correspondence with his frustrated editor—just about everything that he can serve up. The result is a narrative that is, admittedly, very difficult to follow at times, but the whiplash between sections works surprisingly well in simulating the experience of playing tennis. Sudden Death also has a taste for the bizarre that keeps the novel from getting too self-serious; for instance, the ball that Quevedo and Caravaggio are playing with is made from Anne Boleyn’s hair, and how that ball came to be is a significant early through-line in the novel. This book may not be to everyone’s (anyone’s?) taste, but oh, am I glad that this sort of thing exists.

#4: Name a literary fiction novel with an interesting structure.

Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith

Public Library and Other Stories is really two books, which it alternates between. The one book is a fairly convention contemporary short story collection, albeit one with a notable fixation on literary history. The other book, though, is what makes this collection interesting to me. Ali Smith assembled this collection in response to the defunding and closing of libraries in the United Kingdom, and she includes numerous testimonials about the importance of libraries as community institutions. The testimonials not only work to justify public support for libraries, but also work to justify the rest of the collection. Remove all those heartfelt letters and Public Library and Other Stories looks like so much inside baseball, like an author flaunting their deep knowledge of the canon. With those letters, though, it becomes clear why all her literary references are so necessary: literature is embedded deeply into our lives. A world that devalues our storehouses of humanity’s literature must devalue humanity itself. Absent the structure that Smith uses here, I’m not sure the message would come across quite as well.

#5: Name a literary fiction novel that explores social themes.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

Through 600+ pages of first-rate prose, Michael Chabon reveals the Golden Age of Comic Books to be fertile thematic ground for a novel. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay follows the title duo of comic book creators across about fifteen years of inspiration and turmoil, touching on a number of social and political questions along the way. What is the value of escapist art in times of crisis? To what extent do capitalist enterprises enable the spread of political works, and to what extent to they stifle it? How do people with marginalized identities maintain their dignity in a world that deems them to be of lesser value? Read the book for the thrilling conclusion! (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) In addition to all these macro-level issues, Kavalier & Clay also finds time to explore more personal quandaries, from Clay’s relationship with his absent father to Kavalier’s devotion to a family facing certain death in Nazi-dominated Europe. This was one of the best books I read last year, and it gets richer and richer the more I think about it.

#6: Name a literary fiction novel that explores the human condition.

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Virgin Suicides is the story of two tragedies: one extraordinary, the other distressingly common. At the center of the novel are the Lisbon sisters, five isolated girls in suburban Michigan who all take their lives in the span of about a year. That’s the extraordinary tragedy. The distressingly common one comes through in the novel’s narration. In a style reminiscent of William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” The Virgin Suicides is told in a first-person plural POV, in the collective voice of the neighborhood boys who were obsessed with the Lisbon sisters. But for as authoritative as that POV sounds on the page, for as much information and documentation that the men marshal forth about the girls, it becomes clear by the novel’s end that they never actually understood them. Jeffrey Eugenides casts the narrators as so trapped in their own subjectivities, so caught up on their own perceptions of those mysterious Lisbon sisters, that they were incapable of providing what the girls most needed: somebody who would actually listen. The boys are the perfect embodiment of one of humanity’s most frustrating failures.

#7: Name a brilliant literary-hybrid genre novel.

The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child by Francisco Jiménez

A short story cycle based on Francisco Jiménez’s childhood, The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child follows Panchito, a fictionalized version of the author, as his family of migrant farmers from Mexico moves from town to town in California in search of work. The Circuit is the only book I know of that blurs the line between literary fiction and children’s literature. Jiménez’s language is unadorned and has repetitive quality that suggests a story told both about and by a child, yet the struggles Panchito’s family goes through are relayed with the quiet subtlety that one would expect in a work written for adults. This duality is reflected in the institutions that sell this book. The Circuit is published by the University of New Mexico Press, suggesting an academic audience, but it’s also available through Scholastic, the foremost publisher of children’s books in the United States. It’s designed to teach children empathy for people in Panchito’s position, but especially in today’s political context, this book has value for readers of any age.

#8: What genre do you wish was mixed with literary fiction more?

I’m going to co-sign Jasmine’s answer from the video above and say that literary fiction and fantasy could do with some more co-mingling, if only so I could have a go-to fantasy author not named Ursula K. Le Guin. In particular, I think that the two genres are simpatico in terms of finding language inherently pleasurable, rather than it just being a vehicle for telling the story. I’d love a literary fiction novel that is a fun to read, and to read aloud, as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is in Middle English, with its wild alliterative meter and wildly complicated chivalric rituals. The challenge, of course, would come from reconciling fantasy’s emphasis on plot and lore with literary fiction’s indifference to those elements.


That wraps things up for me! If you’d like to jump in on this little survey and share your recommendations in literary fiction, then consider this an invitation. Thanks to Jasmine for concocting this tag, and thanks to you for time in reading this. Take care!