Archive for the -May '09 Packet Category

May 2009 Critical Essay

Posted in -May '09 Packet, VCFA Critical Papers (For Jess) on May 31, 2009 by Richard Farrell

***Jess…I was able to include some thoughts on the second story, Anthony Doerr’s, The Caretaker, after working on it today. ***


The immediate effect of taking a character outside his ‘home’ and placing him in a faraway land leads to conflict-laden situations and moods of yearning, loneliness, and despair.  I will look at two stories that deal with this sense of displacement, and how the common theme of forging relationships with outsiders helps the central characters rediscover the essential parts of themselves that have been missing in their respective strange, foreign settings.

In Jess Row’s story, The Secret of Bats, an American teacher struggles to adapt to life in Hong Kong.  Very little is directly known about this narrator.  We never learn his name, and only the faintest sense of where he’s from (Larchmont, NJ) or what preceded his life in China (the only real mention is waterskiing.)  We know only that he has earned a fellowship to teach in Hong Kong and he apparently has no friends.  There are no significant relationships in his life, other than the one with his student, Alice.  We know almost nothing of his past or of his future.  When asked on a bus what America is like, his reply is telling: “Forgive me, aunt, I say.  I forget.”  Yet equally little is shown of Hong Kong.  We apprehend that this culture, this city, is deeply foreign to the narrator, but his descriptions of it are kept to a bare minimum. The absence of setting underscores the distance the narrator feels from the familiar.

 In Anthony Doerr’s longer story, The Caretaker, the main character is Joseph Saleeby, a Liberian man who has led a sheltered, almost pampered life with his mother until civil war strikes his country.  While Joseph begins the story in is home, so much of the familiar becomes quickly foreign as rebels slaughter his neighbors and his country plunges into chaos.  When his mother disappears, Joseph is forced to the streets, where he eventually runs afoul of a rebel group, who force him to prove his loyalty by shooting a captured soldier.  After this scene, Joseph stows away on a ship and ends up on the Oregon coast, where he finds a job as a caretaker on a wealthy American’s estate.  Joseph goes through a progression of exiles, from his home, from his country, and eventually from his new American home.    

Both characters, Row’s narrator and Doerr’s Liberian refugee, are isolated, alone and deprived of connections to their pasts.  Each character will seek and find such a connection in unusual secondary characters, characters that are ‘locals’ geographically but foreigners by temperament.  Both exiled characters are able to find some measure of peace and comfort in the face of isolation through contact with this other person, in which the foreign becomes familiar.

In The Secret of Bats, Alice Leung is a teenage student who blindfolds herself and practices moving around the school by echolocation.  Though Chinese, Alice is clearly on the outside of her world as much as the narrator who befriends her.  We will enter Hong Kong behind the blindfold of Alice, “keening a high C—cheat cheat cheat cheat cheat cheat—never once veering off course, as if drawn by an invisible thread.”  Row keeps us outside the sights and sounds of the city.  He establishes a cold, barren world through sparse and frigid descriptions.  The school is “a five story concrete block, cracked and eroded by dirty rain, shoulder-to-shoulder with the tenements and garment factories of Cheung Sha Wan.   No air-conditioning and no heat…When it rains, mildew spiderwebs across the ceiling of my classroom.”   This is hardly the atmosphere of a travel brochure.  The setting remains dour and muted throughout the story.  But Alice is exotic and strange.  We gain the essence of Hong Kong through her, not through sensory descriptions.  We learn that Alice’s mother has committed suicide, and that in her society, this loss brings with it a certain shame.  Her principal describes ‘superstitions’ associated with suicide:  “Difficult to say in English.  Maybe just that she is unlucky girl.   Chinese people, you understand—some are still afraid of ghosts.”  

In Doerr’s story, the Twyman family leaves their estate for the winter months.  Joseph is tasked to care for the deserted house, but instead falls into a depressive ennui and loneliness.  He’s haunted by his past, both in a longing for the familiar and by guilt over what he’s done.  “In nightmares, Joseph replays the worst things men do to each other.  He sweats through his blankets and wakes throttling his pillow.  His mother, his money, his neat ordered life: all are gone—not finished, but vanished.”  One day, Joseph comes upon five beached whales on the beach near the estate.  He watches dying whales, and decides to take their hearts rather than allowing them to be burned.   This act of burial signifies a departure; he has found a way to reconnect with his past, where nothing is buried. “He thinks: at least I have buried something.”  Soon after this, Joseph loses his job because of his neglect and ends up living on the beach just outside the estate, tending to a garden he has planted on top of the buried hearts.  After a grueling period of near starvation, he sees the Twyman’s daughter, Belle, attempt to drown herself in the ocean.  Joseph rescues her, untying the cement blocks and pulling her to shore.  He discovers she is deaf, and like Alice, an outsider in her life.  She wants to die, or failing that, to runaway to South America.  Joseph, like Row’s narrator, has been connected to his foreign home by an unlikely friend: a strange, isolated teenaged girl.

In both stories, very little time is spent classifying the isolation.  It is felt, sensed by intuition, rather than described.  Both of the teen girls that appear in these stories act as a bridge: they unite the lonely male figure with his past in tangible ways. 

The climax of both stories occurs with these ‘foreign’ girls playing central roles.  Alice takes the narrator, wearing a blindfold to a rooftop, where she insists that, no matter what he hears, he not remove the blindfold.  He hears her feet running to the edge of the high rise roof, he’s certain she is about to go over, but her voice screams out to her dead mother.  The narrator crouches to the ground, blind, terrified.  “There is a long silence, and I stay where I am, the damp concrete soaking through to my knees.  My ears are ringing, and the numbness has blossomed through my head.”  It is in this state of horrified numbness that Alice goes to him, hugging him from behind.  “She puts her arms around me from behind and clasps my chest, pressing her head against my back. I thank you, she says.  She unties the headband.”  The untying signifies the fusion of this character to his world.  He is released from the frigid state of loneliness and dread that has followed him.  He is, in this sense, no longer foreign.  He has connected with Alice and is thereby united to the essential parts of himself.  In The Caretaker, Joseph has been detained and is being held for deportation.  He stops eating, and appears to give up his will to live, until one day, he is told that he has a visitor.  Belle appears in the detention facility.  She has run away from her family, and come to find him, carrying two melons from his secret garden.  “Everything feels very tenuous, just then, and terribly beautiful, as if he is straddling two worlds, the one he came from and the one he is going to.”  Belle, like Alice, has helped deliver the outsider home.

Perhaps this theme implies some sort of universal across cultural lines, the personal isolation much grander than the physical ones.  Both stories seem to point to this theme.  Both protagonists are ‘saved’ only in the act of reaching out to another, a local who does not fit in.  The implication is that there is some sort of deeper connection between people, something that stands astride cultural and social boundaries.