Monday, November 06, 2006


I've gotten involved in serial writing lately. I suppose one could consider it a resurgence. Among my first chapter books, beloved for years, were the Bunnicula books by James Howe. I read the Baby-Sitters Club books voraciously from approximately ages eight to twelve, with other tween serials (Sweet Valley Twins, Friends 4-Ever, Sleepover Friends, Animal Inn) taking a secondary role in my library habits. As I worked my way into young adult books, I read some novels and their sequels, in particular Caroline B. Cooney's The Face on the Milk Carton and Whatever Happened to Janie? Then at age thirteen I moved on to adult novels, rejecting childlike reading habits as vociferously as I could in public, and my favorite books have been for years books that don't allow sequels. But I've once more grown attached. Some of the serials I've read have been adult books, but I've also started to read young adult serials again, including Cooney's two follow-ups to the aformentioned novels. Spoilers today are those books, Cynthia Voigt's Tillerman cycle, Frank McCourt's three personal narratives (Angela's Ashes, 'Tis, and Teacher Man), J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series and the Xenogenesis and Parable serials by Octavia E. Butler.

In film, the sequel is more often than not a marketing tool. If an idea sold well enough the first time around, and there's more money for it, go forth. There are exceptions—the original Star Wars trilogy leaps to mind as an example, and I know Connor's going to push Pirates of the Caribbean, though I'm not sure I agree—but In particular sets of children's books, as well, smaller-scale empires have been built on unnecessary sequels (what, exactly, is the difference between giving a moose a muffin, giving a pig a pancake, and giving a mouse a cookie?); a series of books tends more towards demonstrating that a life is not made of a single journey, but being invested enough in a character or set of characters to chronicle several journeys through time.

Why do we need that? To examine the concept, I should look first at the most popular serial around, Harry Potter. Certainly, the books have flaws in abundance: stupid jokes, a completely male power structure (McGonagall and Hermione aren't the same: the plot movers and shakers, those who wield genuine power in the books and embody extremes of good and evil, are male), unwavering acceptance of the capitalist system in the magical world, an excess of adverbs (I know I'm guilty of this sin as well, but Rowling takes the cake), the convenient ability of climactic events to occur consistently at the end of the school year. And there's the fact that the arc of the series overall, as we await the seventh book with bated breath, is focused on a singular climactic event, everything else in some way just waiting or preparing for it. I mean, we know Harry will cause Voldemort's demise, if with some sort of twist that, Rowling being who she is, I'm not prepared to anticipate. But nevertheless, this event, however climactic and obvious, requires Harry's maturity, and requires the reader's investment in Harry's maturity over time. While some of Harry's character traits seem to be constants—honor, courage and the like—he's a kid and a teenager who makes stupid kid/teenager mistakes that change his life, and that he's able to take into his life. Each book requires the previous book, not simply for exposition but for the cumulative experience of its characters. We see the changes even in minor characters over time, see how peripheral events can become more central and important as the characters age. The Harry Potter books work because a changed Harry changes the way that events transpire; thus, even though they all conveniently occur at the end of the school year, every battle is not the same.

That last is ultimately the failing of Cooney's extended serial. Cooney's first two books, for example, accomplish this skillfully; whatever we think of her often-overblown voice, she creates two distinct journeys—first Janie's discovery of her past and decision about how to confront it, then her loss of her old family and forced acceptance of the new, and how she reacts to that—and we see a character grow up and change through both of them. She unfortunately loses this skill in her two follow-ups, The Voice on the Radio and What Janie Found; while certainly some minor characters are a bit more developed, the latter two books ask the same fundamental question as Whatever Happened to Janie? and offer the exact same answer. We're examining the same characters too much in too short a period of time, and they seem stuck on repeat. It's true, Janie cannot find Hannah, who kidnapped her and delivered her to Hannah's own unknowing parents, who raised the child they thought was Hannah's as their own; it's true that no one can ever be completely happy with the results of this peculiar situation; it's true they'll have to make peace with the confusion. Seriously, we got it after Whatever Happened to Janie?

Frank McCourt's 'Tis has almost the opposite problem—spanning too much time without enough specificity. In spite of its overblown introductory paragraphs and occasional preciousness, Angela's Ashes has been for years and will remain one of my favorite books ever, in the universe, ever. Even having travelled to Ireland and having seen conflicts in the country's literati (far less exclusive than here, as I understand it) around the book, the belief that McCourt attempted to render his misery cutesy and marketable, to pastoralize poverty, I'm still the ninth-grader assigned to read it as part of her school production of O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars, and suddenly felt herself transported and overwhelmed by the beauty and wisdom. I wanted to be Irish for at least a year based on that experience. That romanticization, of course, might be exactly what the Irish literati object to, but then again I was prone to romanticizing suffering on my own then. Anyway, it's strange for me to consider what Angela's Ashes has that 'Tis hasn't, because both of them span equal amounts of time—the former McCourt's childhood until the age of nineteen, when he left Ireland for America, the latter McCourt's adulthood, from his arrival until his burgeoning teaching career. I believe what Angela's Ashes has is the use of memory, the use of form. It doesn't attempt to create a coherent, storylike arc, it's a collection of memories and remembered times, each of which, or strings of which, contain traditional story arcs. 'Tis attempts to make adulthood into a journey towards one thing, and what that thing is I'm not even sure of. But then again, McCourt's first book can rely upon the standard formula of coming-of-age, which is itself an established journey. We're much less experienced, in our culture, at writing and reading journeys through adulthood, particularly when the journey does not stop at marriage and leave the assumption of happily ever after. Teacher Man, McCourt's third book, while another autobiographical work focuses on one very specific journey: the journey to being happy with the job of teaching. McCourt's personal life, so combed over in 'Tis, takes a backseat to his stories of teaching and its impact on him in the world. You require Angela's Ashes to understand or care about 'Tis; there's no such requirement for Teacher Man. If you read it first, you might wonder what it would be like to hear more about this miserable childhood he tells his students about; you could then find Angela's Ashes and say "Oh! Wow!" 'Tis, however, is not a particularly interesting story unless you know it's the story of the boy in Angela's Ashes.

That, then, presents an interesting contradiction: that books in a serial must both exist on their own, as independent works of art, and be useful to one another. Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis and Parable serials, I think, reach this balance. I say this in part because I read Parable of the Talents long before I read the first book, Parable of the Sower, but overall Xenogenesis (published now as Lilith's Brood) stands as the better example. Each of the three books takes a different central character: Dawn is the story of Lilith, the first human chosen to made with the ever-evolving alien Oankali; Adulthood Rites follows Akin, one of Lilith's first children, in his desire to help some humans, even on the postapocalyptic Earth, remain untouched by interbreeding with the Oankali; Imago is the story of Jodahs, the first "construct" (part-human, part-Oankali) to become ooloi, the Oankali's third sex. Each of these characters is developed, each story substantiated. Certainly there's some uniformity to Butler's characters, some traits she's incapable of telling a story without—stubbornness, imprudent curiosity, conviction—but the stories stand on their own. Lilith's story informs Akin's, but it's his own; the exposition is both thorough and subtle enough to make each book its own world, but the events of a later book, as with Harry Potter would not be able to happen without the events of the earlier.

There is a distinction to be made between serials that all work from the point of view of one character and those that work from a group, people surrounding a person, family, or event. The Xenogenesis is the latter, the McCourt and Rowling books the former. Cynthia Voigt's Tillerman Cycle lies somewhere between the two. The first type has one natural advantage: a writer by nature invested in character development can depend on the information from previous books coming through as the character changes. And yet McCourt doesn't succeed here, and Butler, who takes the latter on admirably in the Xenogenesis books, doesn't quite pull off the former in the Parable novels. While it's true that the character of Asha has many uses other than exposition—she's the first, and really the only, credible character to call Lauren Olamina into question in either book—Butler exploits her to that end, not trusting that the information about Earthseed can really spring from Olamina herself. Most of the kid and teen serials tend to fall into the latter category—as I recall, all of the early Sleepover Friends books were narrated by Lauren, but Susan Saunders eventually saw the error of her ways and turned the first-person narration in some books over to Kate, Stephanie and Patti. The advantage of the second type of serial is evident there: you're not repeating information when each character has a different take on said information. All the kid serials sound uniform after they've reached a certain critical mass, the individual voices fading—who could distinguish one character's Chapter 2 or 3 in a Baby-Sitters Club book from another's?—but a serial with multiple perspectives allows more generous, and more useful, repetition of the same event.

Voigt's series, then, strikes an interesting balance. The first two books of the seven, Homecoming and Dicey's Song, are written in the third-person limited (the serial never uses first person) voice of Dicey Tillerman, who at thirteen (in Homecoming) leads herself and her three younger siblings on a journey to find their new home when their mentally ill mother abandons them, and once they have found that home (in Dicey's Song) has to figure herself and her ability to love out in a new world. While the Tillermans and their friends age through the novels, the next four books take on characters connected to Dicey in some way—her boyfriend Jeff in A Solitary Blue, examining the life that led him to his unshakable love for Dicey and how he becomes himself before and after this love; her uncle Bullet, who died in Vietnam shortly after Dicey was born, in The Runner, showing what his life and that of his mother (Dicey's Gram) under his father's harsh discipline and lifestyle; Mina Smiths, Dicey's best friend, in Come a Stranger, learning to accept the reality of racial prejudice directed against her as an African American and learning to harness and use the power of her love and intelligence; and Dicey's brothers, James and Sammy, searching for their elusive father and learning to see each other in Sons from Afar—but it is not until we have met and learned to understand the perspectives of all these characters that we return to the enigmatic Dicey in the last book, Seventeen Against the Dealer. Each novel stands on its own, though Seventeen Against the Dealer has the most difficult time doing so. While it does tell a story, of the quick failure of Dicey's boatbuilding business, its real point is that even Dicey's endlessly demonstrated competence and confidence, even the love and support of the wonderful, complex people we have met in the other novels, cannot make living and aging and learning at all avoidable. It may make it easier, but it will still come at you. Without having known the younger Dicey—or, for that matter, the younger Jeff, who also figures prominently in the last book—this conclusion doesn't mean nearly as much.

So again we hit a weird balance. The story of each book must itself matter and be able to stand on its own as a work of art, or it's just not very good work in the first place. But at the same time, the books need their connection to one another, or they wouldn't be a serial. A & E's Biography series (a TV series is a whole other matter in some ways, not so in others) claims that "Every life has a story." What a good serial demonstrates is that, as we traditionally define "story," a journey with a beginning, middle, and an end, every life has thousands. While the stories of my family life will always reflect on me as an individual, I can meet and have a relationship with you without having you know my entire familial narrative. Still that narrative, within me, will play a role in dictating how I behave. It's that contradiction that exists in a serial and, really, as a reader and a human, a pretty nifty thing to know, embrace, and try to understand.


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