Bewildering Stories

The Critics’ Corner

C. Meton and Tomi Shaw write about...

D. A. Madigan’s “Positive

“Positive” has attracted a lot of attention, perhaps even controversy. “Perhaps” because the points may all be valid and not mutually exclusive. First, C. Meton observes that “Positive” is worth studying as an exercise in a difficult style.

Cool story. I’m working on one that has a ten-year old girl as one of the main characters. I taught Sunday School for ten-year-olds, but I still struggle to get the kid character to think and act like a kid. So I appreciate your success at telling this from the child’s viewpoint.

Copyright © 2005 by C. Meton

Agreed, C. The story communicates Maria’s perceptions and thoughts in a way that makes her sound like a child while being comprehensible to adults. That’s no easy feat.

On the other hand, Tomi Shaw looks at the story from a completely different angle and makes two points: Maria’s reaction is implausible, and the story does not go far enough:

D. A. Madigan’s story telling is hampered by the childish and static POV. In essence the piece is a ‘revelation’ story to the reader since there is no character growth/awareness/choice in the protagonist, a vignette. [...] It’s as if the story got to the “knot” but didn’t work through it, forgetting to take the reader along on the unravelling, denying them access to the ultimate realization of each character’s horror as they face the undeniable truth: they’re going to die, and they are going to die young, especially Maria. Sure I can fill in the blanks, use my own imagination to tell the rest of the story, but I think Madigan missed a good opportunity to explore here.

Keeping Maria unaware throughout underestimates her ability to bring something insightful to the horror and ultimately to the reader. Most children have startling insight, insight that as adults we too often forget or overlook for its innocence, simplicity and sincerity. There needs to be more reason, IMO, to set up the child as the protagnist POV than to use her to bounce our automatic emotional reaction off of.

It isn’t that I want the the story to do anything but fulfill [...] the potential Madigan created in establishing Maria as the POV and protagonist. [...] Seven-year old kids are typically more in tune that adults give them credit for, and Madigan missed the opportunity to illuminate that fact. With her mother crying, Carlos crying... I just cannot completely buy the fact that Maria hasn’t connected some dots that there is something pretty dire going on.

Kids are blunt. After having figured out something was up, Maria painfully would have addressed it, asked forthrightly, and what she does with the knowledge could have expanded the situation, illustrated her character more and taken something that as is rests solely on the reader’s identification with tragedy (the sins of the father visited upon the child) and turned it into something sublime, something that speaks to our collective conscious and adds another facet to it.

I [...] think that her awareness should have started with the woman on the bus over the exchanged look between her and Carlos, added to Maria’s visits to her father in the sick ward, then again when the other prisoner speaks to Carlos.

Copyright © 2005 by Tomi Shaw

The story might have been written title first; it’s based on dramatic irony: the reader knows — but Maria does not — that the word “positive” can have very different meanings. Agreed, it seems implausible that the story would not go beyond that misunderstanding: Maria is not stupid, but she has to be incredibly dense not to realize that something has gone very wrong.

Under the circumstances, would a child’s initial reaction not be fearful curiosity? One might argue that Maria is in a state of denial, but I’d have a lot of trouble with that: she doesn’t know yet what there is to deny.

It’s not uncommon that a story raises a theme that a reader wishes the author had explored more deeply or in another way. If anyone would like a multiple-viewpoint story involving a parent-child relationship as well as death, a fine example can be found in Ian Donnell Arbuckle’s Made It Way Up, a novel that began back in issue 89.

Tomi outlines an opportunity that is also a formidable challenge. Children of Maria’s age fear parental absence, but death is not yet part of their world view. Is Maria old enough to address death and the horror of “positive” as her parents mean it? Almost certainly not: rather, she would have to turn the adults’ knowledge into something sublime without becoming an adult, herself; that is, she would have to speak or display the wisdom and insight Tomi calls for, but only the adults could take it as such.

Finally, how can the story be expanded beyond our automatic reaction? As Tomi says, the adults would have to be affected by something Maria says or does. In the end, though, such a story may well reach the same conclusion: Maria’s paper flowers may be the best that she — or anyone — can offer to the “positive.”

Copyright © 2005 by Don Webb

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