Tuesday, 27 May 2014

A narrative trick, a real Calamity

Full title: In Calamity's Wake
Author: Natalee Caple
Genre: Fiction, novel
Attributes: 240p, hard cover
Publisher: Bloomsbury (2013)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

In Calamity’s Wake is, narratively speaking, very simple. ‘Straightforward’ is a better word to define it. It tells the story of a daughter in search for a mother she had never known. The protagonist leaves from point A and arrives at point B after having experienced the customary complications that give stories flesh and bone. At point B, she fulfils the wish expressed in the beginning (i.e. she finds her mother), and so, the book comes full circle and the initial target is attained.
Because of this manifest simplicity, it often feels as though the author had taken Vladimir Propp’s narrative theory of characters and actions and used it as a blueprint for her own novel. Characters here are, really, types. There is Miette – Propp’s Hero; and Martha Canary, also known as Calamity Jane (understand the title now?), Miette’s mother, real person recorded in the history of the Wild West – oscillating between the functions of False Hero and Princess (a character sought for throughout the narrative, and who turns out to be different from what she seemed to be in the beginning). Then there is a Dispatcher (Miette’s adoptive father who, on his death bed, makes her promise to start the journey that sets the novel off). There are numerous Donors and Helpers as well. The book is full of them.
In her almost picaresque adventures through the dry, inhospitable Western-American Badlands of the late nineteenth century, which form the setting of the novel, Miette encounters people who have known her mother in one way or other. They move freely in a décor that resembles Alexandro Jorodovsky’s desiccated landscapes in El Topo. The number of minor characters is quite impressive. Many of them pop in and out of the story swiftly, without sufficient time to grow to the size of note-worthy personages. These characters function like nodes in the narrative; they are halting places, where the reader is encouraged to rest and remember the protagonist’s purpose. Every such character gives Miette another jolt forward, and so the story builds and builds.

The real Calamity Jane, in 1895
Source: Wikipedia
When these additional elements are singled out, the story is discovered to be linear. It comprises two major treads: alternating chapters focused on the two figures mentioned above (mother and daughter), as well as some one-off chapters where digressional situations are described in order to add more flesh to the main thread. Of the two major plotlines, the one occupied by Miette (told in the first person singular) is the one carrying most of the weight; it is through the story of the search for the lost mother that the novel builds up, one narrative unit at a time. The parts where Calamity Jane is the prominent figure (told in the third person) serve almost exclusively as characterization. Here, it is as if we are invited to scale the worth of the protagonist’s target. Calamity, a character who also, like her daughter, moves often from one place to another, is a show-woman. She poses for souvenir photographs, has roles in popular theater shows, shoots guns to entertainment audiences – and, on a personal level, loves and loses, drinks too much, supports the Indian’s cause, is soft underneath the tough surface of her appearance. This accumulation of character features and traits of personality serves, undoubtedly, to outline her as the aim of the protagonist’s wanderings. She is the reason why everything in the novel is happening. She is the actual motive, the raison d’être, the organizing principle. She also serves a more practical purpose: she makes sure the story doesn't lean on one side, where Miette is, and where most of the episodes are told through verbs of action. Calamity Jane, a narrative trick in the skin of a historical figure packaged as a character.