This month through the crucible is Amal El-Mohtar’s Madeleine. We’ve put El-Mohtar through the Crucible before, and I’m happy to have an excuse to run her through again. That time we looked at her word choice and imagery deployed in the frame story vs. the body of the main story. This time I want to pull apart the structure of the story.
Like And Their With the Sun. this story has nested layers, but they’re not as clearly marked. The action of the story begins with the eponymous character, Madeleine, in therapy and pursuing a mystery. The mystery of what’s happening to her is the opening of the first of several brackets created by the story. The therapist tries repeatedly to insist that this story is about Madeleine’s mother, but Madeleine knows that’s wrong. This story is about Madeleine’s loneliness and the end of it. Losing her mother certainly played into it, but note the absence of childhood friends in Madeleine’s memories. She’s been lonely a long time.
In case the reader is unsure who to believe after this section, El-Mohtar gives us an answer with the following one. She’s grieving, but the emphasis is on how the grief feeds into her loneliness. Her mother isn’t mentioned, except by implication. While her grief is brought to the forefront, I’m skeptical of that as a full explanation of Madeleine’s loneliness. I think I’m meant to be. This is confirmed later with:
It was indecent, so much pain at once, it was unreasonable, and her friends were reasonable people.
Her friends are terrible people. They abandoned her in her time of need. Sticking by her is clearly not unreasonable; Zeinab is first attracted to her because of her grief and manages to stick by her even when she’s just a hallucination. Madeleine begins the story lonely, she ends it with a decent person who will put an end to that. An opening, presented by her problem, and a closing delivered with its solution. The fact that Zeinab’s introduction weaves through the memories of the this story until it crosses into the contemporary action of the story just gives us an easy path to following when looking at the nested layers of the story.
The layers really start piling on when we get to the first on screen episode. It’s a memory of freedom and independence, followed by describing a trip to a memory of shooting marbles where there’s no mention of other children but she’s content and in control. The final memory of the sequence, the one where she finally spots Zeinab, is one where she’s dreaming of the future, longing for other things.
It’s interesting that adult Madeleine doesn’t appear to have ambitions or dreams for the future. She’s grief-stricken, assaulted by memories from the past, and alone. She leave-of-absenced her way out of a job while caring for her mother. She’s in therapy to figure out what’s going on with the episodes, but as symbolic fixations on the past go, it’s a rather literal one. It takes folding her present self into her past self for her to find an ambition for the future rather than a longing for the past. This layering, contemporary Madeleine over remembered Madeleine, is what opens the door to spotting the woman who will be her (irony deliberate) white knight and rescuer.
Their non-courtship takes place in this layered space, too. Both think the other is a figment of their own imagination, but continue to deliberately visit the other. But the layers keep coming all the same. Madeleine stops visiting Clarice, but that enables her to bring a model of Clarice into the episodes with her.
She can hear Clarice explaining, in her reasonable voice, that Madeleine — bereaved twice over, made vulnerable by an experimental drug — has invented a shadow-self to love, and perhaps they should unpack the racism of its manifestation, and didn’t Madeleine have any black friends in real life?
Zeinab isn’t a creation of Madeleine’s imagination, but now Clarice is. And note how this imaginary Clarice is reinforcing the idea of Madeleine’s loneliness. We know the answer to her question: No. Madeleine doesn’t have any black friends in real life because she doesn’t have any friends in real life.
“I love you too,” says Zeinab, and there is something fierce in it, and wondering, and desperate. “I love you too. I’m here. I promise you, I’m here.”
This is where the layers of the story begin to unravel. They’ve been inverted, Zeinab in reality now and Madeleine lost and confused there while confident in her episodes. It’s an answer to the mystery raised by the beginning of the story without being an explanation for it. They were both in the drug trial, but that doesn’t explain why they had the episodes or why they could find each other. That could be a huge flaw in the story, but given the story’s buzz and reception it seems unlikely it comes off as a plot hole or flaw for most readers. Why?
I suspect the answer is that answer-without-explanation. Something is happening to Madeleine inside her head, and over the course of the story it comes to be something that’s happening to her in the real world. The reader doesn’t need an explanation for the starting position because they went on the journey from memory to reality with Madeleine. The shape of the story goes on that journey. Since Madeleine doesn’t need an explanation anymore, and the reader has been led on the same path through her shoes, they don’t anymore, either. It’s a thematic resolution rather than a world-building one, and a successful one.
Coming in May: Today I Am Paul, Martin L. Shoemaker (Clarkesworld)