Monday, 7 April 2014

Caring for characters in a novella: Cary Fagan's A Bird’s Eye

A Bird's EyeThe new novel by Cary Fagan, A Bird’s Eye (2013) is a genre-bender. It is not a short story. It is a story bound between two covers and is called “a novel” on the front. Here are some contextualizing numbers. Animal Farm is 29,966 words long; The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is 70,570; and Middlemarch is 310,593. I think most of us would consider these works to be novels. Fagan’s novel is only about 4,000 words shorter than Animal Farm, at about 26,000 words, by my estimate. (This number seems to fit into most commentators’ “novella” category, and not in the novel or short story categories.) And the novel is divided into 40 chapters, the shortest of which is about 140 words, and the longest of which is about 1,600. So, even though this novella is very short, it is not just a long short story. It is really more of a short, short novel. 

Before reading it, I remembered a question that Keith Oatley had asked a few years ago in a post entitled “Love and Character”: “Does a piece of fiction need to be as long as a novel or a television series for a fictional character to become real, to be really loved?” Keith suggests that we might not come to love Chekhov’s characters, for example, because we just don’t see enough of them to grow into loving them.  He notes E.M. Forster’s (1927) distinction between “flat” and “round” characters and suggests that we might add another category, that of “caricatures,” (if only it weren’t for the quite negative connotations associated with that term, Keith notes) between the two to account for those characters who are not flat characters just standing for an idea, but are also not fully depicted by being juxtaposed to other characters or put into interactions with other characters over some length of time. We get enough information to create a mental model of the characters on our own, Keith says, but not enough to really care for them.

So, even though I had read plenty of short stories that I had found immensely moving and substantial, I suspected that I might be embarking here on an adventure that would feel choppy, perhaps inconsistent, self-conscious, and trivial. And likely one in which the characters would feel just like – caricatures. I can’t remember having read a shorter novel, and certainly not one whose author was so audacious as to divide the already short narrative into 40 chapters. Would I be able to feel myself in the presence of the characters long enough to start to love them, or at least to meaningfully empathize with them? 

The main character is a half-Polish, half-Italian boy named Benjamin Kleeman, who lives in downtown Toronto, and narrates his life as a 14-year-old in 1938. His best friend is a black girl named Corinne who is two years older and who has immigrated from Louisiana with her father. Benjamin’s uncle Hayim, aunt Hannah, and father have immigrated from Poland, and his mother from Italy. Benjamin works with a mentor magician named Murenski, and is allowed special library privileges by the sympathetic librarian named Miss Pensler. What we get are snapshots and short conversations by these people, told from Benjamin’s first-person and strangely omniscient point of view. The narrator confesses well into the narrative, when speaking of the conversation between his mother and the boarder that started their affair, “Of course, I did not see all this myself—there is much that I did not see directly. But just as it is possible to guess that a man is thinking of an ace or a heart, or that  a woman in the audience wishing to volunteer will be pliant or troublesome, so it is possible to know what is said and done, what is desired and feared” (69). 

In my experience, the length of the novel and the quick transitions from chapter to chapter did not impede my caring for these characters. I did care for them, particularly for Benjamin, his friend Corinne, and his aunt Hannah. Benjamin’s ardent study of the great magicians by reading books at the library after hours, and his single-minded practicing of his sleights of hand, leave one feeling admiration at his determination to become excellent at his chosen pursuit even in the face of his many obstacles: his mother and father do not love each other; his family is just getting by financially; school bores him. Hannah’s longing to be with her loved ones back in Otwock, Poland, and Benjamin’s feelings when Corinne makes her final decision late in the novel are not muted through the brevity of these short chapter installments.

And yet, somehow, I can’t say that I felt as much for them, as say, for Nicole Krauss’s Leo Gursky in her short story “The Last Words on Earth,” another short story (of 10,100 words) featuring a Jewish male deeply affected by the events in Europe before and during World War II. My guess is that it may not be the length of time readers are in the company of the narrator and characters, but perhaps the length of time the narrator is in the company of himself or herself that allows the reader a deeper fount of caring. Krauss’s narrator is very elderly. He has suffered much, and he has reflected on the past and the future and back and forth between them.Unless I missed it, in Fagan’s novel,  Benjamin never refers to his future self, except obliquely in the passage quoted above, in which the narrator intimates that choosing women from the audience to volunteer in his magic show must be done based on the magician’s gut feelings, and not on any obvious visual cues. This suggests that Benjamin has performed many times and that he knows that moment of choice very well. 

Benjamin’s innocence and fresh-eyed adolescence allow us to feel a certain empathy for him and perhaps to reflect on our own adolescent years. But I suspect that much more emphatically it is the juxtaposition of Benjamin’s normal adolescent day-to-day life with the looming horrific fate of the post-1938 Jewish community in Europe (and particularly knowledge of the utter annihilation of the Jewish population of Otwock by the Nazis) that contributes to our feeling in this novel. In this case, though, our caring depends on how much we know of history. In Krauss’s short story, this juxtaposition happens within the psyche of one person, and I would suggest it is our witnessing of the interweaving of these experiences within one consciousness that somehow allows us to care, even to love, her character. It is Leo Gursky’s depth of feeling and his own insight that engage our feelings of care and empathy, whereas in Fagan’s novel, it is the depth of our extra-narrative knowledge that grants us our depth of feeling. And these are quite different processes.

Fagan, Cary. (2013). A bird’s eye. Toronto: Anansi.

Forster, E. M. (1927). Aspects of the novel. London: Edward Arnold.

Krauss, Nicole. (2004, February 9). The last words on earth. The New Yorker.

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