The Chrysalids

book by John Wyndham

annotation by Philip Barragán

In 1955, John Wyndham wrote The Chrysalids, a post-apocalyptic novel centered around a small, religious village concerned with keeping the purity of the human race in the face of genetic mutations around the world.

The novel is filled with good dialogue, excellent characterizations and a smart plot. Wyndhams’s style is subtle and he does not overwrite the story. The world he creates is believable and set with a balance of reality that pulls the reader into the story. The pacing of the story gently increases as the reader arrives at the end of the novel.

Wyndham wrote The Chrysalids after The Day of the Triffids, a classic science fiction story of the 1950s, but very different in tone. Whereas The Day of the Triffids invokes a typical species of monsters, The Chrysalids examines the prejudiced monster that lives within human beings, and he produces a truly satisfying novel.

There has been much discussion about the end of the novel which has been described as deus ex machine, the God out of the machine. Wyndham introduces a new species that arrives in a flying ship in his agrarian world of the novel. While I didn’t have trouble with this plot twist, several critics have made it very clear that Wyndham destroyed his story with this ending. However, to its credit, The Chrysalids was made into a stage production by playwright David Harrower in 1999. A story about being different in a world of “others” is timeless. And John Wyndham tells it perfectly well.

As a writer, Wyndham demonstrates how good pacing helps the story move along, faster and then slower but always keeping the reader’s interest. Wyndham also minimizes the amount of characters that the reader must get to know, although telling the story in first person helps.

The voice of David Strorm, the protagonist, is realistic and smart without being too juvenile when he is a young boy and then later as a young man in his early twenties. Wyndham uses dry wit to keep a pleasant tone in the novel. He writes smartly and succinctly.

The Chrysalids is an excellent example of mid-twentieth century speculative fiction. It takes the reader into another world but filled with many of the same hopes and fears of “othering,” intolerance, discrimination and what it means to be human—which is always up for debate in our modern world.

The Chrysalids, now over 55 years old, is a great example of the relevance of sci-fi and speculative fiction in our world. It reminds us that the darker side of humanity will never go away and as good fiction does, it makes the same, unchanging ugliness tangible and escapable. Even if for a moment.

Straight Man

STRAIGHT MAN is one of the funniest and most entertaining novels I’ve read. A professor, William Henry “Hank” Devereaux Jr., our straight man, is determined to apply Occam’s Razor (if you have two theories that arrive at the same conclusion, the simpler theory is the best choice) to every situation with hilarious consequences. There is excellent character development and complication of events grounded in a well-written narrative. Below the playfulness are serious considerations about life and missed opportunities. Russo knows the value of enhancing funny with sad, something I now keep in mind.

The novel begins with the literary equivalent of breaking the fourth wall in theater and whenever an author addresses the reader, it is often to achieve the familiarity and conversational tone to draw the reader into a kind of intimacy.

Truth be told, I’m not an easy man. I can be an entertaining one, though it’s been my experience that most people don’t want to be entertained. They want to be comforted. And, of course, my idea of entertaining might not be yours. I’m in complete agreement with all those people who say, regarding movies, “I just want to be entertained.” This populist position is much derided by my academic colleagues as simpleminded and unsophisticated, evidence of questionable analytical and critical acuity. But I agree with the premise, and I too just want to be entertained. That I am almost never entertained by what entertains other people who just want to be entertained doesn’t make us philosophically incompatible. It just means we shouldn’t go to movies together.

Richard Russo exemplifies a compassionate and complex view of humanity in his work and STRAIGHT MAN is no exception. Russo, in addition to David Lodge, taught me that when you put your characters through the wringer, you can maintain the sense that they had opposing dreams and intentions, that they didn’t wish to end up where they did. There is a stronger sense of that dynamic in NOBODY’S FOOL, but it’s here as well with Professor Devereaux. Russo is an excellent example to learn the art of creating very human characters who still are very funny.

This comic novel also illustrates the accessibility of writing like you talk, in this case, like an academic. Richard Russo uses it to great effect with deadpan humor. Because his main character is trying to distill events to the simplest explanation, the author simplifies his language and descriptions to mimic that action. When Professor Devereaux reads the “…cinematically inspired – that is, uninspired…” and repugnant story of his student Leo, he describes the process in a long paragraph that reports the content, concluding,

He wonders if the rape scene is overdone.  And he wants to assure me that the narrative is not finished.  Originally, he’d thought of it as a short story, but now he suspects it may be a novel.  Next to the query concerning the rape scene, I write: ‘Always understate necrophilia.’ Then at the bottom of the final page, ‘Let’s talk.’

The professor has pared down his comments, then Russo uses the professor’s last phrase, ‘Let’s talk’ to segue into the next paragraph, as well as the next action, by having another character answer, “Okay let’s,” thereby paring down the narrative, mirroring his advice to Leo.

Russo uses direct, first-person, present tense that is erudite and often hilarious. The narrative is marked with repetitions of words and phrases such as ‘needless to say’ and ‘indeed’ to achieve the tone of an academic:

Needless to say, we end where we began, unpersuaded. My argument, that comedy and tragedy don’t mix, that they must remain discrete, runs contrary to their experience. Indeed, it may run contrary to my own. These students have watched this very class begin in low comedy and end in something, if not serious, at least no longer funny.

In writing the literary comic novel, Russo includes touching moments in difficult relationships as in Professor Devereaux’ relationship with his father and problems as a father with regard to his daughter’s choices – something I keep in mind in order to add depth to comedy, even slapstick, laugh-out-loud comedy. He creates an entire world and just as you accept that this is a complex novel, Russo has another trick up his sleeve: pointing out just how simple life is. Touché.