The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, November 27, 2006

No, This Post Does Not Want ‘Encore©’ with That

By Andrew Tibbetts

Of Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots, the second one, “Rags to Riches” is the most alien to me. I’m so totally and utterly middle-class. I was born that way and will most likely die that way. Either extreme of the wealth spectrum is foreign terrain.

I don’t know about “rags”- I’ve never missed a meal (except when (crash) dieting or when I’ve stupidly run out of money between pay cheques and have had to blow the dust off the flavour of instant oatmeal I’ve been avoiding eventually deciding to do without rather than endure ‘raisin and spice.’) I’ve never really coveted from the bottom of my heart. I’ve had it easy.

Conversely, I don’t know about “riches”- I don’t own my own home. I don’t go on holidays. Most of my clothes are ripped or stained, not ‘rags’ certainly, but on their way. Like most folks I go from pay cheque to pay cheque. So, I’ve never really basked in opulence.

Even the arc of ‘rags to riches’ is alien to me. I’m in the first Canadian generation whose lifetime earnings will be less that its parents’ and I am a shining example of that phenomenon. My life is less ‘set’ than my dad’s. Not so much that it hurts. Not so much that it screeches in my psyche demanding to be written about.

I don’t think I’ve ever conceived of a story where a character undergoes a financial change. However, if I think back to the earliest stories that resonated with me, it made sense that good characters ended up rich. In fairy tales, Jack goes out to ‘make his fortune’ and ends up with the giant’s gold or the king’s daughter plus half the kingdom, after a suitable show of bravery or cunning of course! It’s not enough for Hansel and Gretel to avoid being eaten by the witch, or even reunited with their papa, or double-even being rid of their nasty step-mother, no, they also must get the witch’s treasure. That’s how you know when the story’s over- when the good guy gets the goods. It’s moral punctuation.

But it’s hard to equate virtue and wealth these days. And it’s become just as corny to equate virtue and poverty. So the point of writing about a character’s bank balance is… what, exactly? I had to think if there was any author I liked whose writing tends to follow a character through a positive financial gain. And then it hit me.

In Can-Lit, the master of this arc is Mordecai Richler. There’s something of a Jack in Duddy Kravitz, for example, a boy who flings himself at the world to prove himself and ‘make his fortune’. There’s a beanstalk that leads to a magical world, and there’s death. And reward. But Richler is a satirical tale-spinner and despite how wealthy his characters end up, the bonanza isn’t undiluted. It’s polluted. His heroes are as likely to demonstrate vice as virtue, and the ‘killing’ is not just of monsters but innocent bystanders too. Think of Virgil, or the victim of the prank phone call. As well, there’s the sad sense that the characters were happier ‘on the hustle’ than ‘in the money’. When an even richer Duddy Kravitz shows up in one of Richler’s later novels, there’s barely a glimmer of the eager, dreamy young man. He still talks non-stop, but he’s fat and tired, and doesn’t really pass for happy.

Usually, the modern ‘rags to riches’ story doesn’t have a happy ending. I think of Lana Turner in “Ziegfield’s Girls”, long shed of her rags, drowning in riches, but lonely, drunk and abandoned by everyone who meant anything to her. In a frenzy, she pulls her furs and jewels into the center of the room, trashing her sumptuous apartment. The help asks her what she’s doing. She says, melodramatically, accompanied by a swoop of violins, “I’m counting my blessings!” Great movie!

Scientists have proven that money can’t buy happiness, but that doesn’t seem to stop us chasing it. Perhaps it’s the chasing that’s the good part anyway. That’s why those old stories always stop with the reallocation of the vanquished one’s treasure. Who wants to see a fat, beery Jack retelling the glory days of his beanstalk climb to a bored, jewel-encrusted mistress? Only a wicked spoil-sport like Richler. Bless his scotch-soaked cigar-smoked heart.

He’s one of the ones I count, when I count my blessings.


Blogger J.A. McDougall said...

Great post Andrew, it brings to mind how much our own experience feeds our imaginations. I often feel too inexperienced to speak from the prespective of a character struggling with an issue foreign to me. How to get beyond these limits?

Mon Nov 27, 03:34:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger MelBell said...

Delicious. One thing's for sure - having money or not having money is no indication whatsoever of a person's character, no matter what those fairytales tried to teach us.

You've made me want to re-read Duddy, though!

Mon Nov 27, 04:38:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

Research, I guess, jen.

I'm rewriting a story right now that I gave up on several years ago because it is written from the p.o.v. of a woman doctor from Hong Kong. I know nothing about being a doctor, being from Hong Kong, or much about being a woman. However the story will not disappear- and I really, really love it. I especially really really love my lead character, Grace Woo. I don't know where she came from but she's lovely.

So I did some research about Hong Kong and came across some blogs from students studying med school here in North America. It's very helpful.

I'm glad I'm back doing the story, because I don't want to just write about people exactly like me, ie, me.

Mon Nov 27, 04:40:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger J.A. McDougall said...

What I was getting at was how it can be difficult to muster the confidence to write about conflict we haven't experienced. Of course you're right, the research is there, the facts are there to be found, but to truly write from the heart...I don't know, I suppose I'm not there yet. I just hope I get there someday. :)

Mon Nov 27, 09:20:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

For me, money has never made me happier, but I'm like most of us = comfortable enough to not worry about it (or anything else). The rich are seldom virtuous, although their kids can sometimes be.

Your comment on the first generation that will be poorer than their parents is an intersting one. I'd like to find out more about that. We all know the depressing stats that point out the eradication of the middle class, and it's happening fast.

I'm rambling...great post, Andrew!

Tue Nov 28, 04:57:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Patricia said...

this is great Andrew, as Mel said, I want to so read this book again, a group of friends and my hubby and I were together over the summer and got into quite a "thing" about whether money can buy you happiness or not, it can't I know that, however, just a bit, I don't need to be rich!!! I'd just like enough to get some stainless steel appliances!!!

I love "Grace Woo" she sounds lovely, we have an asian student living with us, very different, we had two korean girls in the summer, it's been a unique experience to be exposed to these different cultures, loving it, it's alll so different, the children come from quite privledged backgrounds, and school is the MAIN focus, they go to school from 7:30 am till 5:00 p.m.!!! hugely different from our school system in many ways...and yet, they come here, the girl we have now, she's 15, is in awe of Canada, trees!!! and grass!!! and have a yard? it's cool, we are lucky, oh so lucky, thanks for reminding me to count my blessings too..xoxo

Tue Nov 28, 05:15:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Hey, thanks for the informative links and for the thoughtful essay. Rags to riches is such an interesting journey, I imagine, partly because you would never have enough to get over your fear of falling back into a raggedy state. Enjoyed your observations about Richler. He understood quite a few things about changes in fortune, didn't he?

Tue Nov 28, 09:47:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger tamara said...

The rags to riches thing is interesting. Actually, I do reflect a lot on class in some of my stories/scripts. It comes from the fact that my background went the other way from yours, Andrew. From poverty to workig class to middle class. I loved Duddy for this, and Richler in general, for he seems to get that 'happy-ish with what you have, but it could be better' attitude of the social network here in relatively rich Canada.

Great post. Leaves me with lots to think about.

Mon Dec 04, 03:32:00 pm GMT-5  

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