- Claiming the Treasures:Patricia MacLachlan's Organic Postmodernism
Patricia MacLachlan's novels display a variety of postmodern characteristics which appear to stem naturally from the topics about which she writes.1 She seems especially interested in how individuals come to perceive themselves as "subjects," that is, as the actors of their own agency. Her novels define subject-formation—the creation of "subjectivity"—as a matter of process: individuals continually (re)shape themselves and are (re)shaped as a result of interactions with other people.2 Moreover, MacLachlan employs paradox, metafictionality, and intertextuality to encode her texts with premises that assume the reader's agency. Finally, MacLachlan affirms the process of subjectivity by using narrative structures that parallel her thematic interest in the life cycle. Especially prominent in Arthur, for the Very First Time, Unclaimed Treasures, and Journey, these postmodern traits inform MacLachlan's texts in particularly interesting ways.
From the start of her career in publishing for children, MacLachlan has been subtly incorporating the tendencies of postmodernism into her stories. Even her first novel, Arthur, for the Very First Time, displays several postmodern characteristics. Most noticeable is the book's focus on the subject-creation of the protagonist, Arthur. He is a ten-year-old boy whose mother is going to have a baby. His parents send him to spend the summer at his Great-Aunt Elda and Great-Uncle Wrisby's farm, and while he is there, he explores his own identity. Arthur has long perceived himself only in the "object" position, as the recipient of other people's agency: "For Arthur, everything happened one way or another, either the way it should or the way it shouldn't with no help on his part" (64). Arthur's playmate, Moira, reinforces his passive self-perception by refusing to call him anything but "Mouse" because she doesn't think he takes action or "really see[s] what's going on around" him (38, 53).
The motif of "seeing" things that runs through the book demonstrates one way that Arthur learns to take agency in his life. His Uncle Wrisby sometimes looks through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars because that way "you see just as well. . . . Sometimes better" (15). Arthur experiments with the binoculars and eventually begins to internalize the alternating perspectives of seeing things as either closer or farther away. Once, "his binocular eyes turned inward on himself: a small boy, sitting on a hay mound with a russet chicken" (30). Later, he recognizes his parents' sending him away as a way of "getting close . . . but only so close," like looking through "the far away end" of the binoculars (54). Another time he "lets his eyes unfocus" to gain a new perspective on his uncle's garden (61). The binoculars provide the boy with a metaphorical way for putting himself both in the subject and the object position; when he recognizes that he has the ability to put his vision of himself into a wider perspective, he is acting as the subject of the action of gazing and as the object of that gaze.
The idea of perspective also ties closely to the book's formulation of art as a means for the individual's creation of self. Aunt Elda reads Randall Jarrell's poem "The Mockingbird" to Arthur. He is fascinated by the dual vision of the poem: "Look one way and the sun is going down, / Look the other and the moon is rising" (qtd. 22). The poem describes how the mockingbird imitates everything around him so well that it ultimately becomes impossible to distinguish the mockingbird from the world. Arthur intuits the meaning of the poem: looked at one way the bird is imitating the natural world in the creation of art; looked at another way, the bird's art is the natural world. From one perspective, the bird is a creating subject; from another, since his song is indistinguishable from his identity, he is himself the object of his own creation.
Having made this connection, Arthur turns to the creation of music. He buys a recorder, and when he shows Moira, she comments, "Why, Mouse. . . . You are really doing...