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Bewildering Stories

Challenge 394 Response

“Gooseberry” and “Angel”

by Oonah V. Joslin

[In “Gooseberry”] Neville’s dithering is carefully described as pointless. Won’t DJ put in his appearance no matter which pot of jam Neville opens?

If all of DJ’s clients’ choice of jam is predetermined, are their wishes irrelevant? Or is the matter of predestined choice a red herring?

Well, when I was writing this I had an idea that the Djinn, being supernatural beings would have certain powers. I think you have to buy into that with fantasy — I mean the Star Trek transporter system is scientifically impossible.

Recently I was asked about another story I wrote to change the toad into a frog because toads are not amphibian. My reply was that little girls can’t breathe under water either, so in a way you buy it or you don’t.

How do you feel about Walter Giersbach’s “Angel in My Coffee Cup”:
  1. So true! All we have to do is accept guardian angels.
  2. Maybe Morgan is on to something. How does she know about guardian angels?
  3. A sweet fairy tale.
  4. Morgan and her grandfather are hallucinating.
  5. The mended coffee cup proves that only angels matter and people are irrelevant.

I think the same is true here. You can buy into angels or not. Morgan is clearly correct when she points out that she can believe whatever she likes. Her Gandfather is in a way, her angel. But isn’t it often the case that the angel by our side goes unnoticed and unappreciated whilst we touch wood and throw salt about and thank our lucky stars?

Sometimes you just need something to believe, and in a sense Morgan’s recognition of that is central to the story.

A sweet fairy tale, this may well be but it says so much more about fear and family and the ‘generation gap’. It’s a nicely drawn study of how people cope with bereavement too. Very nice, Walter!

Anyway, back to the jam thing. For what it’s worth, DJ has to put in a number of contractual appearances and so he’s on the lookout for people opening the ‘flavour of the day’. In this case the flavour of the day is gooseberry.

Neville has the choice of several jams, but DJ is able to get there a bit early and hang around in unresolved state awaiting the opening of the jar — because, as he told Jamsie (in “Spongy Strawberry”) he doesn’t actually come out of the jam. Since DJ has chosen gooseberry, so will Neville. So Neville thinks he is choosing but in reality he has no choice. It has to be gooseberry. If he chooses another jam, the Genie will not appear.

Of course at the quantum level, it could be any jam — every jam. But I’d have to get DJ to explain that to you and even then... He didn’t do so well at school ;)


Copyright © 2010 by Oonah V. Joslin

Thank you for the kind and informative response, Oonah!

These particular Challenge questions were intended to address the stories’ internal logic. Let’s see how they play out.

You’ve made strong arguments for suspension of disbelief in fantasy stories. That’s all well and good, and I agree with most of what you say about it. But the extent to which readers suspend disbelief is not at issue; I’m talking about the consequences.

Readers immerse themselves in the worlds of “Gooseberry” and “Angel” even though we all know that genies don’t jump out when a jar of jam is opened, no matter what the flavor, and that coffee cups do not get magically mended. Nor, for that matter, do we mind that, in Danielle L. Parker’s “Shallalu,” Captain Blunt’s lady love Estee is an alien being. The important thing is that we understand why the story needs her to be a space alien.

Let’s take “Angel” first. You’re right to emphasize that the center of the story is the relationship between Morgan and her grandfather. Readers’ reactions to it will differ. Some may agree with you that the two are very endearing and uplifting; others will see the girl as smug, almost a sister of “smart-ass” Sonny in Michael D. Brooks’ flash-fiction series. Take your pick.

Readers’ personal reactions are a separate topic; let’s talk about what we have in common, the stories themselves. “Angel” could have been structured as a morality play. If the grandfather accepted Morgan’s mending the coffee cup, the cup would be a fitting symbol of healing and forgiveness. As it is, though, the cup might never have been broken, and it’s not clear to me what that could mean.

Further, could a reader talk to Morgan if she were a real person? She is, as you say, entitled to her own beliefs. But that’s where it ends; she is not entitled to her own facts. She insists her guardian angels are as real as she is. Consequently their magic transforms the story into a miracle play.

A medieval audience would have no problem at all with the concept: parishioners watching the play in front of a cathedral eight or nine hundred years ago would know that the miracles depict the kind of thing God wants to see take place in the world. And as far as those audiences knew, such miracles might actually happen — to someone other than themselves.

Modern audiences react very differently, for two reasons. First, they accept the morality, but they see a supernatural substitution for cause and effect as chaotic. Second, they look at the story from the characters’ point of view. Hence they conclude: “If an angel does everything, what does it matter what Morgan and her grandfather think or do? Where do they fit into all this?”

A Genie in a Jam doesn’t have that problem. DJ does not resemble Morgan’s guardian angel, quite the contrary. True, DJ magically fulfills his clients’ wishes, but that’s a dramatic device that allows each episode to reach a conclusion. If DJ did not or could not grant the wishes, the story would change in tone but nonetheless remain intact.

Like all superheroes, DJ is a day laborer: the wishes are his clients’, not his. He doesn’t tell his clients what’s good for them or make the wishes for them; for good or ill, they must decide for themselves. Angel or djinn, DJ’s role could hardly have a more solidly orthodox basis in theology.

Further, DJ appears more or less when and where he’s supposed to. The question is: what’s his cue? If I understand correctly, Neville — or any of DJ’s clients — must choose one lucky pot of jam from, say, a set of three, otherwise DJ won’t appear. If that’s so, we have a paradox: the odds are 2-1 that DJ will be left twiddling his thumbs and we’ll have no story at all. Hey, I like DJ, and I’d feel sad if that happened!

I suppose it’s possible to debate whether Neville has free will or only seems to. But that sounds too much like philosophy to me. And I’m fond of kidding philosophers that they’re forever telling us why our questions — including the one about free will — can’t be answered.

I think it’s simplest to say it doesn’t matter which flavor of jam Neville chooses; DJ happens to be assigned to the set of jams delivered to Neville and Georgia. When Neville opens one, out DJ pops — from wherever — and that’s when the fun begins.


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