Stopping for a Spell, Diana Wynne Jones

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Here’s a confession: as a rule, I don’t like short stories much. (And I’m in SFF! I knoooow.) Cynthia Ozick has said some interesting things about short stories that feel like they’re extracts from a larger world versus short stories that feel complete in and of themselves, and I tend to like the former better, but with some notable exceptions this is not my preferred mode to read or to write in (I’m with Bakhtin on the dialogic novel all the way). This is a little disingenuous to say given that I do read and write a metric ton of fanfic and that fanfic mostly falls into this category, but fanfic is sort of the ultimate case of ‘extracts from a larger world’, even if the narrative shape of a given piece of fanfiction is very ‘short story’ in its form. Thus I think the rules bend around it.

Stopping for a Spell contains three short stories pitched at a younger audience than Diana Wynne Jones normally writes for. I feel more inclined to bullet points than paragraphs today, so that’s what we’re getting. These are stories I feel you could say a lot about, but which I didn’t really love. Is that my mood, the medium, or the stories themselves? Let’s go with ‘all’.

 

Chair Person (originally published 1989)

* Once again DWJ’s flair for immediate, Dickensian characterization is on show. Here we have intense physical awkwardness and Heepish humility that really, deeply isn’t.

* I wonder if DWJ is trying to say something specific about this family’s class or lifestyle, or if it’s merely a time-jump between their era and mine, but: the food this family eats is weird. Spaghetti from a can, cake mixes for a slightly socially-anxious charity-do (cake mixes aren’t even popular in the UK like they are in the US! Did they used to have a better range of these?), lemon squash, (frozen?) pizzas and (frozen?) chips. I’ve had Spaghetti-Os a couple times in my life, but they’re not really in fashion and I wouldn’t call them ‘spaghetti’ per se. The mom doesn’t work, either, so it’s not a ‘pressed career mother’ sort of thing. I know I’m in a post Great British Bake Off cultural moment, but while in the US ten years ago I might have made a cake mix for a school function for children, I can’t really imagine relying on one for this kind of adult gathering in the UK now? At a children’s party, there are “jellies, cakes, crisps and big bottles of coke”. Jellies (aka Jello)? :/ Whatever floats your boat.

Aisha assures me that this basically represents the children’s party spreads of her youth though, JELLIES AND ALL, so it’s confirmed for India/UK normal.

Yet I remain unsure why there would be Jello at a party. Not as a single, unimportant element of a family bbq or pot luck spread, just like–in and of itself. In a bowl. Like potato chips would be. Not even Jello JIGGLERS. Just Jello!

* DWJ might be trying to say something about television and knowledge, in passing, with Chair Person’s absorptive faux-information and his way of broadcasting it back at people. If she’s making a passing ‘books are better’/’fuck the nascent information age’ swipe, or even just drawing on those feelings in a more subterranean way, she could possibly have developed that idea more.

* Even in this short story we still get a ‘wtf’ DWJ non-ending. Classic. Here the plot derails around some business with the wand and the disappearing box, and the characters themselves admit the resolution was unclear. The siblings’ mum is spared the further intervention of their telescopic philanthropist of a neighborhood busy-body, which I guess is the true resolution, because that and the Chair’s inconvenient personhood were the real narrative conflicts.

* Really nonchalant magic this time, little to no ‘what does this mean’ing or sense of a break from the mundane.

* I’m a little uncomfortable with this story, which is about inconvenience: inconvenient commitments, objects and people. There’s some bleed-through between the neighborhood busy-body’s obnoxious way of going about securing help with her various charitable projects and what she wants to do in and of itself. Are her projects for helping people equally officious and meddling, or is this a kind of complacent, conservative story about the bother of being asked to care? It’s difficult to say: we don’t exactly hear that her help isn’t useful or necessary. Such ‘leave well enough alone’ impulses aren’t very DWJ, really, but then the core problem of the plot is ‘we tried to get rid of an inconvenient old thing that’s been in our house ages, it gained sentience and was a bother, how do we unperson it?’

And no matter how annoying, repulsive and destructive Chair Person is (The story does some good work making you feel the cringing awkwardness of the family’s responses to this ‘new’ guest–the nasty tenor of the way they feel sorry for it. This is a Paddington narrative, but the newcomer is awkward and gross rather than cute.), it’s still hard to hear things like “it’s the only language they understand” from the shopkeeper when he screams at Chair Person and orders it about. That feels, in the context of the characters’ discussions about how maybe Chair Person will learn to be a proper person in time, and how it feels new, and their diminishing sympathy for it, raced? Or perhaps it sits on another axis of Othering–someone suggests their mother’s ‘eccentric old Uncle’ would be happier in a home.

This isn’t to say that DWJ ‘can’t’ or shouldn’t handle such content, or that I don’t think there’s value in being asked to think and feel difficult things about difficult subjects. But these undercurrents just sit in the story, hanging out and making the whole seem kind of cruel rather than opening the story onto deeper considerations. If your response to that is ‘but it’s just a short comedy story for quite young kids!’, well, I’m not sure that matters? It doesn’t make the underlying mechanics creep me out less.

* Another thing about these ‘short stories’ is that they’re structured like little novels, with content pulled out.

* This story also wants to say something about officiousness, but it doesn’t quite coalesce.

 

The Four Grannies (originally published 1980)

*   This is less uncomfortable than chair person, and has a few very fun lines. However that makes me realize that, compared to Jones’ usual high standards here, these protagonists aren’t very characterized (fair enough, in such a short space) and these stories aren’t that funny (which I think is more a function of the age range she’s trying to hit than their length).

* The magic is really scattershot in this one. Granny 3’s transformation into the sort of person who’d visit and bring things is never really explained, I don’t think. Nor is Emily’s ‘conversion’?

* These children’s ages are super vague.

* Do people really eat sardines so often or copiously that they need a special sardine tin opener? Is that different from just a can opener?

* There’s a lot of Incident Business in this one.

* Again, super mundane magic. Clearly a rupture from the ordinary, but not Wondrous.

 

Who Got Rid of Angus Flint? (originally published 1975)

* Kind of interesting epistolary style. Only one of the three stories in this volume in first person. Female narrator, where the previous two had brother and sister teams. Narrator strangely distant from the piece though–you’d be forgiven for missing her gender. This is curious as I sort of thought it took Jones a while to work into writing female narrators. I’d have to go back to the bibliography and see what gave me that idea, but if it’s at all true, then this is a very early example.

* This, I wouldn’t remarket for children. The titular annoying house guest foists himself upon this family because he’s getting a divorce. He’s getting a divorce because he seems to have beat the shit out of his wife. This is Bad, in the narrative, but not in a monumental way, and the parents (who aren’t portrayed as total shits) still leave this guy alone with their kids, even after he (very early on in his stay!) seems to feel free to painfully physically discipline them.

* This is the earliest of the three stories, but it’s also the best, probably because Jones is operating in something like her usual register rather than laboriously positioning herself for younger children. Again, though it’s the best it’s not something I’d have repackaged in 1996 (that’s when this copy was issued, or re-issued) with no comment.

* Interesting that she had three thematically-similar short stories to bundle. DWJ does have a core body of themes that I could have expected to provide such through-lines, but these aren’t quite them—we don’t get a textually admitted example of Bad Mother Figures or anything classically Jones. I don’t really think of DWJ as a short story writer, but then perhaps I’m wrong and she’s got mountains of them around back. I’d almost think an SFF writer of her era would have had more, due to the shape of the SFF market then. Perhaps it was a little different for her, given her typical focus on non-adult characters and readers?

* Fun ending. Honestly works for me. A DWJ ending! I know! Triumphant (insurrection of magical furniture, brought on by narrator’s enjoining them to respond to unfair insults against them) and then sweet.

* Same treatment of magic as last time, really, but with no Inciting Magical Object. All three of these feel different from DWJ’s varied other treatments of magic. Here magic is more just–plot matter, quotidian.

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