Aesthetics and Style: 7
Audience Assumptions: No familiarity
The Motherless Oven
Part One: Graphic Novels and the Surreal
I like weird things in my stories. You may have noticed this already if you’ve read my other reviews. However, something can’t just be strange or peculiar just for the sake of being so. While it’s nice as an atmosphere, if it’s even the focus or main gimmick of a story, the weirdness needs to go further than that. It needs to mean something for the story.
Of course, when you pick up a book or start playing a game, the oddness doesn’t always communicate its deeper meaning at first. In fact, I’d say it’s rare for a decidedly odd story to do that. Rationality and meaning seem to contradict the initial response to the surreal, grounding dream-like elements in reality before they can fully flourish. A weird story needs to surprise and confuse first. Only once it’s done that can it convey what it wants.
Graphic novels are a beautiful format for this sort of narrative. The visual nature makes it easy to show the audience something bizarre and draw them in through the mystery of the strange. Sometimes we fear that which we do not understand — but it also excites us. Why is this happening? What on earth is that? The fuck is happening? We’re naturally drawn to turn the page, and the non-linear reveal of a book allows the audience to spend as long as they want on the bizarre aspects of a story. The audience plays a much larger hand in controlling the pace than they would in, say, a film, and the end result is that revelations are arguably more impactful. They come when the audience most needs them.
The Motherless Oven is a bizarre little stand-alone graphic novel (I realize it’s intended to be a trilogy, but the first book still stands on its own) that I came upon by chance. I was drawn in by its title alone and knew nothing else before I read it, and while I wouldn’t call the book brilliant, it’s certainly something of a hidden gem. It’s not really that odd in its structure; the story is about a boy, Scarper, who is destined to die soon, and how his impending death affects the way he and those around them think of the world. His father runs away, too distraught to deal with the grief of losing the boy, and Scarper is even more depressed as his so-called deathday approaches. Encouraged by an odd girl in his class to do something about it, Scarper sets off with her and another student to go find his father. They follow the trail, pursued by police and criminals alike, and at the end of it all, they fail. They make it to the forest on the edge of their civilization and Scarper’s friends make it across, but he’s captured to await his designated death.
It’s a grim book, but not excessively so. It has action and violence — a fair bit of violence, actually — but the atmosphere is melancholy more than childishly gritty. The surreal elements are worked into the fabric of the world as though it’s a fantasy story, but they’re unique and unrelated, originating from the dreamscape of the author’s mind. Instead of rain, knives fall from the sky. Parents are mechanical automatons and each one looks different. Children create their parents. People don’t have an officially recorded birthday, they have a deathday. Gods live in households as everyday appliances like egg timers, clocks, and toasters.
It would be easy to say that this world is just the reverse of our own in some ways, but it’s not that simple. The household gods are worked into the plot like seamless elements of a fantasy world, but although they hold significance, it’s not so obvious as to be distracting. When the characters repair a household god to get information from it, it’s not a grand statement on religion or faith. Not really. This isn’t that sort of story. The act serves the plot and has several symbolic interpretations, but it’s also insignificant in the grand scheme of the book. Sometimes healing a god is just the same as fixing a music box. It’s there for the atmosphere above all else.
Part 2: Some Notes on Symbolism
The particular visual choices in this book make it easy to distinguish the points the narrative wants to draw attention to, yet they simultaneously make the world much odder than if it had been entirely fantastical. The characters live in a nonsensical society where parents are born from children and everything is rigid yet almost whimsical in its logic. The world of The Motherless Oven is a curious blend of light dystopia, steampunk, and a fever dream. It creates boundaries, yet they seem arbitrary and perplexing. Knives rain from the sky and stick into buildings. The world is crafted in such a way that parts of the notable surreal elements are acknowledged in their peculiarity and more than just window dressing. While pursued, for instance, the main characters take shelter and a sudden knife storm blows in and destroys their aggressors.
Whenever a story brings certain fantastical elements to light in a way as distinct at this one does, those elements hold symbolic significance. However, whether the reader buys into the symbolism is up to them. Symbols that don’t hold up as anything else serve little purpose to the story, much like unfamiliar references and allusions.
I have mixed feelings of symbolism. As a concept, it’s functional and difficult to evade even if one is persistent. Symbols are a part of daily life to the point where they often go unnoticed. However, in narratives, symbols are rarely accidental (those rarities are a treat, by the way), and because of this, they can easily become heavy-handed. Yes, we get it, the smiley-faces in Watchmen are ironic. You know, because it’s such a dark story and the Comedian is an asshole?
This is especially true of symbols lifted directly from other pieces. At this point, Jesus imagery is more of a running joke than anything meaningful in most stories. Symbolism overuse frequently has little to do with the quality of the symbol in question; on the contrary, religious symbols are used because they manage to convey concise and poignant meaning in a short span of time. Their popularity, however, tends to lead to stagnation, especially when the elements they represent only communicate the bare bones of what that symbol can mean (often vague concepts like hope, faith, freedom, parenthood), without exploring them further. When used in fiction, symbols have to adopt their own identity befitting the plot, even if they’re used elsewhere.
That’s why I kind of like the metatextual narrative of The Motherless Oven — it’s not based on any one thing. I’m sure someone more familiar with philosophical doctrines and classic literature could pin down a precise interpretation of the text as allegorical to one piece or concept, but as with most complex pieces of fiction, that viewpoint is just one of many. It’s not necessary to have a doctorate-level understanding of totalitarianism or magical realism to understand that when very real knives are falling from the sky, they’re not just literal knives.
It’s worth looking at the surreal elements in this story for their most parsimonious interpretations. While these are far from the only interpretations, they adopt a few common themes mirrored elsewhere in the narrative.
The knives, for instance, are sharp and dangerous, a very real threat that keep people indoors. When Vera, one of the two side characters along with Castro, arrives at Scarper’s door in the midst of a knife storm, that communicates a great deal about her character. She’s foolhardy, but not necessarily foolish; she’s brought a metal umbrella and is determined to get to know Scarper better. The knives are not invincible; in fact, they’re predictable, measured parts of the characters’ lives that only become dangerous when they stray far from how and grow distracted. Vera offers a solution to both problems posed by the knives — that they’re dangerous unless you’re protected and that protection is generally immobile. However, even she doesn’t risk braving the knives herself, and despite their seemingly obvious unnatural occurrence, none of the characters ever questions the knives.
Magic and supernatural lore is an insignificant part of most of the narrative, yet it’s still there as part of the atmosphere. The household gods throw you for a loop the first time you hear of them. They seem to be prominent in every household as appliances, but like the knives, their origins are never explored. They have some sentience to them, many of them being able to speak and even bleed, but that’s as far as their autonomy goes. Are they meant to be actual gods grown so insignificant they’re practically furniture? Are the household gods representations of more powerful beings? Do the roles they each adopt reflect some significance to their introduction in the story, like how Scarper’s father falls asleep to the singing god at night right up until the point where he slits its throat and runs away? Perhaps. Perhaps calling the things gods is meant to show the insignificance of fate, free will, and any sort of sanctity in this world.
The parents themselves are probably the most emblematic components of the story, and the reason for the title. The Motherless Oven is the place where human children, at an age too young to remember, craft their mechanical parents. The parents tend to fulfill very traditional parent roles, caring for and raising the children who built them in family structures reminiscent of the 1960s. The mothers cook, and while the fathers don’t work, they’re associated with transport and raucous activities like fighting. When the children grow up, they become teachers and officers and the like, unless their deathday is slated while they’re still young.
The idea of children crafting their parents blurs the cultural lines that are often so distinct between parent and offspring. The parents occasionally act childish, needing to be watched over, cared for, and comforted by their children. The children likewise act very much dependent on their parents, going to school and coming home to have them tend to the house and all of the children’s needs. The story suggests a codependent relationship that forces people into fairly rigid boundaries of their own accord. The roles set out for the automatons, the mothers being very much house companions and the fathers being glorified cars, is questioned by the automatons themselves, especially when their children are imperiled. These boundaries are not set in stone, even for entities created to fill them. The automaton parents might be seen as a child’s interpretation of what their parents are or should be like. Even then, though, they elude clear definition.
Part 3: The Double-Edged Sword of Fate
One of the more compelling aspects of the story is that, beyond merely being dark, it holds a candle to the grim normalcy of dying. The main character has no particular conniptions about his deathday — he’s not looking forward to it, but he’s known people who have passed away before him and he’s known it was coming for some time. Those around him, other than his parents, don’t really react much. They distance themselves slightly, though this seems hardly a change from the previous state of things. The idea of the protagonist dying at a set time as a child for seemingly arbitrary reasons has a dystopian hue to it, but only when the character challenges it. In the first third of the story, this morose element is played as mundane.
The book opens by telling us that the main character will die. In stories about futuristic totalitarian regimes and mystical curses with comparable elements, this is often set up as a challenge. Even if the character does die, they’ll go out with a bang. Sometimes their goal is to find a cure or resist those that proclaim them walking dead, but more frequently, a ticking clock prompts characters to action.
In The Motherless Oven, Scarper’s impending death isn’t a fire underfoot that kicks off the plot, but a weight that hangs over him and the other characters. While Scarper dying is assumed to be the ultimate reason his father leaves, the characters never get any confirmation. The inciting incident is that Scarper’s father runs off unexpectedly; that part of the story is unrelated to Scarper’s deathday. The deathday isn’t even really cause for concern among the characters as far as the plot is concerned; most of the story takes place with over a week to spare before Scarper actually dies, so it doesn’t create much urgency on its own. The insistent personality of Vera drives the plot far more than Scarper’s death.
When the story brings up the short time Scarper has to live, it’s trying to dampen the mood. On its surface, this choice is one of the most pretentious in a book that’s already pretty out there, but I think it works pretty effectively as you begin to empathize with the characters. The analogy of a chronic lethal illness bears context to Scarper’s character; he’s lonely, obsessive, and he has pride in a few things but rarely shows it. The “normal” kids as school don’t pay him much attention, and why would they? He’s going to die soon, so why waste their time on a friend who’s inevitably going to break their heart? Isolation feeds into Scarper’s introverted personality and the two form a cycle that’s difficult to break. When Vera and Castro haphazardly disrupt that cycle and become Scarper’s fast friends, the story begins to explore how his oncoming death weighs on them as well. At times, the characters are optimistic, like Vera when she suggests Scarper outrun his fate. She proposes going after his father partly to give Scarper one last good memory with him, but also because she seems to think his fate is self-driven. Scarper knows he’s going to die, and doesn’t care to do anything about it.
Scarper doesn’t come to terms with his own death — he was already more of less at that stage. Going on the adventure that is the bulk of the story gives him something new in the form of friends and drive. He appreciates his newfound chance to live, and realizes what he’s missed out on by resigning himself to his fate. That’s what makes it all the more heartbreaking when, at the end of the story, Vera and Castro make it to the edge of the fence and escape while Scarper is captured and essentially put to sleep until his deathday.
I’ll admit, I love the cruel irony of a story like this. We’ve all been in a situation at some point or another where we received something wonderful only to have it snatched away just as we knew to appreciate it. It could be a big thing, like a wonderful person, or something small, like a sliver of hope. The question that comes to mind after such an event speaks to the way humans work: Is the gain of something good worth the pain of losing that thing later? Alfred Tennyson thinks so, but for most of us, the answer is less clear. Yes, it depends on the circumstances, but generally, people like excitement in principle, but stability in practice.
The inclusion of fatal ambiguity within the story compounds the issue with even more uncertainty. The story implies that the deathday is not set in stone, or at least the state-sanctioned version of it isn’t. In most stories, a character who escapes a grim fate finds themself empowered and in a better place because of their freedom. While stories like that have plenty of merit in their optimism, they reflect only the brighter half of a neutral dichotomy. Freedom from a pre-destined fate means you can go further than that fate predicts, but it also means you don’t have a lifeline if you fail. In The Motherless Oven, that means that you don’t have to die on your deathday; you can die sooner, too.
The book ends on a downer and will likely be disappointing to many readers. However, I don’t think it’s pessimistic. Sometimes you need stories with sad endings because the world comes in many flavors and quite a few of them aren’t so tasteful. Grim stories shouldn’t dictate our media, and they’re of little value if they’re dark for no reason, but a cold dose of reality has its benefits. Knowing when we’re comfortable taking something good in the short term even if it leads to heartbreak later help us to identify the arguably more critical situations where that risk isn’t worth it.
There’s another benefit to upsetting story endings that I don’t often hear mentioned, but I think it’s important. We contextualize our world based on contrast, so when all of the films we see as children end happily, those that differ stand out. It’s not that the stories where a beloved character dies are better written necessarily, but if they’re outside the norm, they challenge us more. It’s not healthy to make yourself uncomfortable all of the time, but I think that if you test the limits of what you can endure narratively every once in a while, you can often find something to gain. Beyond any merit you may find in a well-written, challenging story, you’ll always have the return trip to look forward to.
Pessimism defines optimism, and vice-versa. If you were disquieted by a favorite character’s death in a film, it means that much more when a favorite character survives in a different one.