Jane and Louisa: Narrative Architecture and the Act of Reading

Kevin Arthur Cryderman

Part 3 of the author's "My Dear Will You Allow Me to Discuss the Politics of Reading and Writing?: An Exploration of Language and Narrative Architecture in Erna Brodber's Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home in the Context of Postmodernism and Postcolonialism." © 2000 Kevin Cryderman.

With special thanks to Dr. Proma Tagore and Jesse Bundon, University of Victoria

The tapestry of the novel's narrative architecture amplifies the protean language with a fragmented and shifting non-linear structure that, like the language in the book, resists essentializing and totalizing narrativization. The medium is the message: the very form of the novel bears a signification of meaning that illuminates Nellie's dissociation of consciousness and her search for identity. Two key aspects of the novel's narrative architecture utilize the tools of post-modernism within a postcolonial context: non-chronological time and disjointed narrative formatting.

First of all, the non-linear time sequence of the novel acts to subvert modernist assumptions about teleological movements of history towards higher states of more 'evolved' being. Under colonialism, regions of the world with 'primitive' cultures were constructed as an Other that is displaced both in geographic space and historical time. Brodber's fragmentation of narrative sequence undercuts the modernist topocosm of progressive history, as well as genre conventions of the bildungsroman in relation to Jamaican literature. In novels such as Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John, and George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin, a personal coming-of-age story acts as a metaphor for a cultural space emerging from the weight of colonial legacy. In Brodber's Jane and Louisa, however, the non-linear narrative sequence problematizes any simple correlation between Nellie's life and the emergence of Jamaican identity. The narrative of the novel skips around between vignettes at various points in Nellie's life, reminiscent of the kind of chaotic and seemingly random time sequences found in post-modern novels such as Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children.

Jane and Louisa is, in many ways, a coming-of-age story and yet the sequences exist within the novel in a non-chronological sequence. In the opening of the novel, in the "Voices" sub-section, Nellie is preparing for her Training College exams (7), while in chapter six of the same section she is sixteen. In chapter Two of the "Tail of the Snail.." section she is eleven and then eight years old in the following chapter. An effect of this temporal fragmentation is not only to disorient the reader but to emphasize that the past is always interacting within oneself in the present moment. Moreover, the time scheme of the novel interrogates linear concepts of 'progress' and 'development,' much like the novel subverts dubious assumptions about the possibility of unifying and totalizing narratives.

Brodber's time scheme undermines Enlightenment notions of history as great narrative of progress towards human freedom and civilization. Brodber subverts Marxist-Hegelian conceptions of teleological history in favor of 'genealogical' analysis favored by Nietzsche and Foucault: Whereas traditional or total history inserts itself into grand explanatory systems and linear processes, celebrates great moments and individuals and seeks to document a point of origin, genealogical analysis attempts to establish and preserve the singularity of events, turns away from the spectacular in favour of the discredited, the neglected and a whole range of phenomena which have been denied a history. (Sarup 59)

The novel's non-linear structure, by breaking up the story of Nellie's life into non-chronological vignettes, invokes the discourse of genealogical analysis. Also like the Nietzschean-Foucaultian genealogical analysis, Nellie's bildungsroman focuses on "local, discontinuous, disqualified, illegitimate knowledges against the claims of a unitary body of theory which would filter, hierarchize and order them in the name of some true knowledge" (Sarup 59). By revealing the "multiplicity of factors behind an even and the fragility of historical forms" (59), Brodber forms a unique sociological methodology that runs counter to totalizing discourse, especially that which is rooted in colonial knowledge-power infrastructures. Sarup notes that Foucault ties knowledge to power and remarks that Foucault views power as an irreducible fact of human existence. Foucault also contends that "conceiving of power as repression, constraint or prohibition is inadequate: power 'produces reality'; it 'produces domains and objects of truth'" (Sarup 74).

The non-linear narrative of Nellie's story undermines the power and knowledge systems of colonial master-narratives and the Hegelian-Marxist teleological view of history. Curiously, perhaps Robin -- who "talks in an unknown tongue. . .words like 'underdevelopment', 'Marx', 'cultural pluralism ­ may symbolize both the hope and the disintegration of grand narratives of history, such as Marxism, Judeo-Christianity, or multiculturalism, that disintegrate in the fire of postmodernity and postcoloniality. Robin, a boyfriend of Nellie's, dies tragically as he gets "caught up in the spirit and burnt to grease like beef suet caught in a dutchie pot" (Brodber 52). Nellie's life, as represented in the novel, perhaps also displays the disjointed manner in which most people experience their lives, caught in a mix of past memories, present events and future hopes and plans. Brodber problematizes the notion of a "new Jamaica" (9) in the future that is coherent and in solidarity. For instance, the song in Chapter two of "My Dear Will You Allow Me?" makes reference to a chorus of people singing together "full and strong and with conviction that having sung, there would be no more leaf spot, that there would be no more soil erosion and that we had built anew" (9). The metaphor of a harmonious chorus situated within a 'progressive' time scheme ironically undercuts false totalizing narratives of Jamaican identity as well as the picture postcard image of Jamaica:

There is a lovely island in the Carribean Sea
An island full of coconuts and fine banana trees
An island where the sugar cane is waving in the breeze
Jamica is its name.
We are out to build a new Jamaica. (9)

The image of Jamaica as a garden is that which feeds the tourist industry. The image also emphasizes the emergence from a paradisal realm that has been corrupted, like the Garden of Eden, but is nonetheless looking towards future expectations of something greater. In the final page of the novel, the narrator notes:

We are cleaning our garden. Mass Nega, wi smell you dinner but wi no want none. We are crawling around your pits and your shelter low on our bellies for we still have bellies, that organ which sheathes and protects but gives forth fruit. Crawling strengthens its muscles and dragging on the ground in time gives it its own camouflage. With luck we will grow feet and stand, then perhaps Baba could come out of the light bulb, Cock Robin could stand up and sing again and the man on the lonely donkey needn't dissipate into smoke. (147)

The primary narrator, Nellie, has incorporated many of the various registers and linguistic structures of the novel­such as non-standard English­into a heterogeneous prose poem that partially unites the polyphony of Jamaican identity into an image of evolution and expectation of being "ready" for "It" to "come" (147). It is unclear what "It" is, and what the fish in the final passage represents. However, Nellie clearly invokes the notion both of birth and transformative mimesis of colonial legacy. The fish in the dream that Nellie is pregnant with is a parrot fish, which becomes a "square gold fish bowl" (147), thereby illustrating the principle of mimicry (such as what parrots do) transmogrified into something that both draws on the tradition of modernism and colonialism in order to form something that both replies to and subverts that legacy, much like the novel itself.

Secondly, the constant shifting between genres and formats in the novel, like the non-linear time structure does, destabilizes any notion of totalizing narrativization and essentializing identity in favor of words, action, and identity as performance. While Nellie is the primary narrator, her consciousness appears dissociated and the cubist (many-angled) narrative scheme of Jane and Louisa fundamentally resists both her and the novel from easily being 'mastered' from any disinterested outside analytical perspective. At the same time, the continuous shifting between points of view, centered in the first person, acknowledges subjectivity but denies the absolute authoritativeness of any one perspective. Decentered subjectivity and open indeterminacy are two hallmarks of postmodern writing. There are also frequent passages of ambiguous direct dialogue in Jane and Louisa that read like a stage play. Not only does this allude to a deep oral culture within Jamaica but the unmediated nature of the prose-poetry takes away from eighteenth- and nineteenth- century narrative techniques, such as Thackeray and Dickens, where one narrator holds the reader by the hand and guides them through the text. Brodber's text appears more "writerly" than "readerly": the reader is required to construct meaning and order. The way the reader is drawn into the text, such as the dramatic devices -- including dialogue set off by dashes (like James Joyce) -- also points to a motif of theatricality.

At one point, Nellie addresses the reader directly: "Watch the scene" (Brodber 27), much like one is about to watch a performance. The theme of identity runs through this passage as the narration shifts from thirds person, "she is walking home from her classes," to a first person narration within the same paragraph, shifting to "I am in a foreign country." The passage highlights the disjunction between urban and rural existence. More importantly, Nellie is not merely aware of how she is seen by others but how she, herself, constructs her own identity by examining her reflection in the looking glass of others' perceptions of her. Nellie self-consciously evokes the terminology of dramatic stage production as she enacts the role of a foreign student as she walks through the streets with a mop: The script was writing itself. Sweater blouse, jeans, cigarette puffing, part of the props even a quarrel with the land-lady. Just right. Foreign students who wear sweater blouses and jeans, smoke and quarrel with their land-ladies and who live in dingy flats are permitted to be lonely. The welcome make company. Enter the male. No need to be discriminating: all the play calls for is a male. (27-8)

Nellie thus self-consciously plays out a role of a 'foreign student' who is living poorly in the urban center, having travelled from a remote, rural community. The text then breaks into polarities of "He" and "She" and no names are given, indicating a certain degree of abstraction and dissociation from the "performance" of the date at the "dark movie house" (Brodber 28). An unnamed Nellie feels the pressure for sexual activity because "he paid the taximan" even though she realizes that she "ought to have kicked this man" out of her room and she "ought to have torn up the script" (28). The syntax breaks down amidst the stress of the episode as Nellie thinks of her mother's face: "Shame. You feel shame and you see your mother's face and you hear her scream and you feel the snail what she see making for your mouth" (28). The word "snail" (28) acts as a multivalent symbol that is phallic, oral, and emblematic of vulnerability. The allusion to oral sex and Nellie's reaction of being "pained with disgust" emphasizes her pressure "to be a woman" who has a "man . . . like everybody else" (28). Nellie feels obliged to "bear it" along with her "label called woman" that is fixed upon her "lapel called normal" (28-9). It appears that she is at a loss to find what is 'normal' amidst the tension between her various heritages and mixed race. The connection of Nellie's sexual experience to "sucking" a sugar cane that is "stripped of its clothes" (28) acts as a tip of an iceberg of exploitation and degradation, including rape of slaves, involved in the colonial history of sugar cane production in Jamaica under Imperialism. As usual, Brodber does not dwell on issues of race or history but mixes them into Nellie's process of identity formation.

These uncertain constructions of adult identity allude to and resonate with the previous chapter's discussion of Nellie's childhood longing for a straw bag like her Aunt Becca, upon which Nellie's "claims to social identity" rest (25). Along with the bag, Nellie receives two dresses for her eighth birthday -- a "day without compare" (26). "I forgot my lines Aunt Becca," adds Nellie, establishing an episode of childhood stage performance that is completed and fulfilled in significance in juxtaposition with the following chapter of the "foreign country" passage as a young adult (discussed above). Moreover, the childhood experience of the straw bag resonates with similar "shame" (26) that seems to accompany emerging sexuality as it is connected to externally-based identity construction: how she sees others seeing her. Indeed, the eight year old Nellie will not wear the bag across her chest and diagonally to the side (25), perhaps because that would bring to much attention to her body. The shame that Nellie perceives as the intention of Aunt Becca sending her the bag is one of "whittl[ing] down [her] world, to stop [her] from enjoying it"(26).

Much like the presentation of dialogue in theatrical fashion, the lack of quotations marks and frequent ambiguity as to who is the speaker of any given passage of dialogue blurs the line between subject and object, thereby undermining Cartesian individualism. It is often difficult to ascertain what is going on in any particular scene as well. Moreover, each part of the novel must be understood in relation to the whole and in the context of Jamaican history or else the narrative simply fractures into incomprehensible pieces. There is no 'art object' that is easily controlled by exegetical means and this subversion of the authority of either the text or any one interpretation. This indistinctness between text and reader resonates with Brodber's intentions for a sociologically-informed analysis that illuminates social dynamics from within a culture rather than outside from an 'objective' empirical perspective. In "Fiction in the Scientific Procedure," Brodber notes that the "native social scientist . . . . is part of the polity examined, and the conceptual framework within which she/he works, as well as the way the data are presented have to take this into consideration" (166). The way Brodber presents the 'data', the physical presentation of text, is the appearance of a linguistic and narrative jigsaw puzzle whose disjointed nature creates a chaotic pattern. Indeed, paradoxically, the apparent randomness of the novel's organization gradually reveals a coherent scheme with pieces of text within larger and larger sets of organization. While the novel does not follow a chronological sequence, its rhythm is often musical and lyrical. The major sections of the novel follow the lines from a children's ring game:

My Dear Will You Allow Me
To Waltz with You
Into This Beautiful Garden
Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home.

Within the major sections, there are smaller thematic clusters that traces certain themes and images. For instance, the last section of the book, "Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home," contains six sub-sections (The One-Sided Drum; The Kumbla; The Spying Glass; The Moving Camera; The Pill; and The Fish) while the first section of the novel, "My Dear Will You Allow Me," contains both sub-sections with titles (Voices; The Tale of the Snail in the Kumbla; Still Life; and Miniatures) as well as smaller numbered fragments within those sub-sections. One effect of the this elaborate narrative architecture is to create patterns within patterns in which one searches for connections both within section and across sections. For example, the motif of the kumbla comes in at the second sub-section of both "My Dear . . . " and "Jane and Louisa." An effect of the numbered sub-sub-sections is to create a counting rhythm, much like if one were waltzing or playing the children's ring game. The elaborate narrative structure also has a disorienting effect that simulates a head rush from a children's ring game that can lead to simultaneous confusion and exuberance within the reader. The reader is implicitly invited to join in the dance, the play of language and form that goes beyond mere modernist experimentation with form for its own sake but the invocation of sociology, psychology and the politics of postcolonialism. Playing is a central thread of the novel and includes the Brodber's play with format and presentation of the text.

The physical presentation of the text involves the random flux of time and space in which Nellie exists as well as the fragility of Enlightenment conceptions about an autonomous, separate, rational Cartesian subject. Indeed, Nellie's characterization via disjointed fragments not only connotes her own personal psychological dissociation but a general postmodern/postcolonial questioning of humanistic ideas of subject and object:

Descartes' declaration that 'I think, therefore I am' confirmed the centrality of the autonomous human individual, a founding precept of humanism, a precept that effectively separated the subject from the object, thought from reality, or the self from other. The individual, autonomous 'I' was one that operated in the world according to its separation and was no longer to be seen as merely operated upon by divine will or cosmic forces. . . .The autonomous human consciousness was seen to be the source of action and meaning rather than their product. This is a position referred to as 'Cartesian individualism', one that tended to overlook or downplay the significance of social relations or the role of language in forming the self. (Ashcroft et al 219-20)

Brodber's text is a medium that is a message about the nature of how individuals interact with their environments and how this changes with the rise of modernism and print media, and how the split between subject and object is questioned by both postcolonialism and postmodernism. One can even blend in Marshall McLuhan, like Paul Gilroy (see above), in a peripheral manner in order to sketch out some of the larger spaces of discourse within which the present discussion is situated:

Environments are not passive wrappings, but are, rather, active processes which are invisible. The groundrules, pervasive structure, and the over-all patterns of environment elude easy perception. Anti-environments, or countersituations made by artists, provide means of direct attention and enable us to see and understand more clearly. The interplay between the old and the new environments creates many problems and confusions. The main obstacle to a clear understanding of the effects of the new media is our deeply embedded habit of regarding all phenomena from a fixed point of view. We speak, for instance, of "gaining perspective." This psychological process derives unconsciously from print technology. (McLuhan 69)

McLuhan's emphasis on the medium of conduction assumes that there is an addresser and an addressee separated by a context, writing, and code that filters anything that is communicated. The very act of writing takes humans out of the boundless acoustic space into an area of social relations that is more defined. However, Brodber draws on orality in order to blur the lines between writing, reading, and speaking. The narrative architecture of Brodber's novel, in addition to its flux of time and space, may also involve an arranger figure behind the scenes, structuring the way in which the reader encounters the text. By destabilizing the smooth relationship between reader and text, Brodber leads into an alternate counter situation to both modernist assumptions about 'art as apolitical ahistorical object' in favor the hybridization of art, politics, psychology, languages, traditions, and sociology. The difficulty in comprehending Brodber's text can either alienate the reader or make him or her reflect on their assumptions about what literature is and how it functions within a tapestry of various sociopolitical discourses.

Indeed, Jane and Louisa reflects an internal sociological perspective that at first keeps the reader at a distance, and yet invites him or her into the discourse of the novel. Because the reader must constantly make exegetical choices, even so far as deciding who is speaking to whom at any given point, the reader naturally reflects on his/her own identity, both in relation to the complex narrative web and to their place in relation to the history of Jamaica. In "Fiction and the Scientific Procedure," Brodber argues that Jane and Louisa "had to incorporate my 'I' and to be presented in such a way that the social workers I was training saw their own 'I' in the work, making this culture-in-personality study a personal and possibly transforming work for the therapists and through them the clients with whom they would work" (166). While the specific target of her book, social workers in Jamaica, seems inherently alienating and exclusionary to the Western audience, the novel can lead the Western reader to rethink his/her own prejudices about simplistic and idealistic Jamaican identity, among other things.

As I, Kevin Cryderman, engage with the text, I not only question my own assumptions about the simplicity of Jamaicans but my own implication into the benefits of the Western world, such as economic and educational, that arose out of colonial exploitation. I also reflect on my benefits from systems of patriarchy that have existed for centuries as well as reassess my empirical and ratiocinative prejudices. I also find myself not being able to coldly analyze the text because the very process of selecting areas of focus within the text, such as language and narratology as they relate to postmodernism and postcolonialism, arise out of my own personal interests. I necessarily self-reflect on how one comes to a text in the first place with certain biases, interests, and assumptions that may be transformed by the experience of reading and appreciating something such as Caribbean fiction. By entering into the play of the text, I become more self-aware of the implications of reading and exegesis. My own forms of knowledge production move into realms of postcolonial discourse and challenge the very position of privilege in which I occupy. Likewise, my reading and interpretation becomes a kind of play a performance of various theoretical actors in a production and perhaps my own identity as a literary critic is merely the sum of my performances. I become for you, the reader, another filtering screen that structures and influences your subjectivity, your construction of meaning in Brodber's text.

  1. Brodber in the Context of Postmodernism and Postcolonialism
  2. Language, Politics, and Identity
  3. Narrative Architecture and the Act of Reading
  4. The Critical Paradigm Revisited

Works Cited

Ashcroft, B., Griffiths, G, and Tiffin, H. Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Brodber, Erna. Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home. London: New Beacon Books, 1980.

McLuhan, Marshall. The Medium is the Massage. N. Y.: Bantam Sociology, 1967.

Sarup, Madan. An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1993.

[Postimperial] Erna Brodber [Postcolonial Theory]