Monday, December 11, 2006

Jennifer Crusie - Hot Toy

As Eric and I are working on the novels of Jennifer Crusie we've inevitably mentioned her rather a lot on the blog, to the extent that one blogger described Teach Me Tonight like this: 'If you think of witty, insightful romance writer and academic Jennifer Crusie as the site's spiritual patron saint and foremother, you'll have an idea of its feel'. I'll take that as a compliment! And, as it's Christmas and our 'patron saint' has a newly released Christmas short story, it seemed like the right time to post about Hot Toy. There's a long excerpt available here, and reviews here and here. As usual, this isn't a review, and I will be including spoilers (though I try not to reveal too much).

First of all, Jenny is well known for giving advice and support to other writers. She's written essays on writing and publishing, set up a site where writers can support each other and compare their experiences of the writing life (though there are also some areas for readers) and in the New Year she and Bob Mayer will begin an online 'year-long workshop, updated twice weekly, on the craft of writing a novel'. So it maybe shouldn't come as a surprise that Hot Toy teaches us about one method of creating a plot, namely the use of the 'MacGuffin':
A MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or Maguffin) is a plot device that motivates the characters and advances the story, but has little other relevance to the story.

The director and producer Alfred Hitchcock popularized both the term "MacGuffin" and the technique. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Hitchcock explained the term in a 1939 lecture at Columbia University: "[W]e have a name in the studio, and we call it the 'MacGuffin.' It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is always the necklace and in spy stories it is always the papers." [...]

The element that distinguishes a MacGuffin from other types of plot devices is that it is not important what object the MacGuffin specifically is. Anything that serves as a motivation will do. A true MacGuffin is essentially interchangeable. Its importance will generally be accepted completely by the story's characters, with minimal explanation. From the audience's perspective, the MacGuffin is not the point of the story. (Wikipedia)
The explict reference to a MacGuffin was a source of great amusement to many of those who commented on this review of the novella. However, although this MacGuffin may begin the story like any other MacGuffin, it ends up rather differently.

At the heart of the novella is the theme of belief, particularly a woman's almost lost belief in the possibility of a happy ending for romantic relationships and a child's belief in Santa. Trudy is determined that her nephew, Leroy, is still 'going to believe in Santa, since he can't believe in men or nannies' (2006: 62). For me the fact that the child's belief was so important invited comparisons with other texts about and for children. Because of what happens to it the MacGuffin, despite being a 'homicidal doll that spit toxic waste' (2006: 8), reminds me of Margery Williams' The Velveteen Rabbit, which begins 'On Christmas morning'. Here's the part where one toy talks to another:
"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."
As the Horse admits, love is about pain, as well as pleasure, but for those who love you unconditionally 'you can't be ugly'. Love and the process of becoming worn, faded and shapeless make the Velveteen Rabbit real*, and the object which begins the story as a MacGuffin (in fact it's a 'Major MacGuffin' both literally (it's a military toy) and in terms of the storyline) ends up becoming more real: 'He looked nicer now, she thought, all ripped up and eviscerated and dirty. More vulnerable' (2006: 108). Another character in The Velveteen Rabbit is a fairy, and the central theme of Hot Toy, namely faith/belief in something which all the evidence suggests is not true, reminds me of the scene 'When Peter Pan asks audiences to affirm their belief in fairies in order to revive Tinker Bell, this can be interpreted as an affirmation of the willing suspension of disbelief thought to be an essential condition of theatrical spectating' (Davis 2005). Incidentally, for those who'd like some proof of the existence of fairies, there's a website all about the urban fairies of Ann Arbor, Michigan who create tiny doors in the most unexpected locations, including Ann Arbor District Library.

Another children's story that came to mind when reading Hot Toy was that of Hansel and Gretel, and not just because of the gingerbread houses which Trudy's sister is constructing.** In a reversal of the fairytale it's Leroy's father (Trudy's brother-in-law) who has run off to Cancún with Leroy's nanny, leaving behind Leroy and Courtney, whereas in the fairytale it's usually a stepmother who convinces the father to abandon his family responsibilities by removing the children from the family home (in some versions she's simply called 'the mother', and the extent of the father's guilt and weakness also varies, depending on which version one reads). Of course, Courtney's not a child, but Trudy's planning to buy her 'the doll my little sister never got' (2006: 19) . A further story of fatherly betrayal is that of The Little Match Girl, to which Trudy alludes after she's emerged from the toyshop,
her feet aching as the cold from the concrete permeated the thin soles of her boots [...].
It started to snow.
If I had some matches, I could strike them all and bask in the glow, Trudy thought. (2006: 39)
Just before she dies of hypothermia the match girl 'struck the whole bundle of matches [...]. And the matches burned with such a glow that it became brighter than daylight'. The little match girl's father is far worse than Trudy's, who is only guilty of absent-minded neglect, and would not, as in the fairytale 'surely beat her' for failing to sell some matches, but clearly his shortcomings as a father have deeply hurt Trudy and negatively affected her relationships with men.

Another strand of the story is about consumerism and its relationship (or lack of one) to the real meaning of Christmas:
Above her, Madonna cooed “Santa Baby,” the ancient store speakers making the carol to sex and greed sound a little tinny. Whatever had happened to “The Little Drummer Boy”? That had been annoying, too, but in a traditional way, like fruitcake. She’d be happy to hear a “rumpa-pa-pum” again, anything that didn’t make Christmas sound like it was about getting stuff.
Especially since she was desperate to get some stuff. (2006: 8)
Later, while 'Gimme, gimme, gimme' (2006: 55) plays in the background we're very briefly, and in a very quirky way, reminded that Christmas is about Jesus' birthday (2006: 54). And then, with a drumroll as the action really begins to get underway, Trudy gets her wish and 'There was a radio somewhere blaring "The Little Drummer Boy." '"Rum-pa-pum-pum," Trudy said, not at all reassured' (2006: 57).

In the context of the rather worrying traces of the radioactive substance polonium-210 discovered at various locations in London, Hamburg and Moscow and the death of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, plots based on international espionage leave me less than reassured too. Fortunately, none of the characters in Hot Toy end up either dead or radioactive.

So, should we adopt Trudy's New Year's resolution: 'My resolution for 2007 is to start believing in people again' (2006: 64)? Or are we wiser, and safer, if we remain on our guard? Do we have to have faith in something in order to be happy, or does that just set us up for disappointment? And do you believe in Santa, fairies or romantic relationships?
  • Crusie, Jennifer, 2006. 'Hot Toy', in Santa Baby (New York: St. Martin's Paperbacks), pp. 1-111.
  • Davis, Tracy, 2005. 'Do You Believe in Fairies?: The Hiss of Dramatic License', Theatre Journal, 57.1: 57-81. [My quotation was from the abstract.]
* 'the little Rabbit grew very old and shabby, but the Boy loved him just as much. He loved him so hard that he loved all his whiskers off, and the pink lining to his ears turned grey, and his brown spots faded. He even began to lose his shape, and he scarcely looked like a rabbit any more, except to the Boy. To him he was always beautiful'.
** Gingerbread houses/Lebkuchenhäuschen are not common in the UK, and I've never seen one, but I assume they're part of the Christmas traditions in many German and American families.

And one final note: we had a chicken in the Elizabeth Bevarly novel I've looked at, chooks in Marion Lennox's Christmas novella and here there's a toy cow lobbying for the rest of us to eat more poultry: ' "It says, 'Eat chicken,' when you pull its string."' (2006: 46). I'm sure this has absolutely no significance at all.


  1. Hello Laura. Happy Christmas.

  2. Happy Christmas to you too, Phillipa! I hope it will be. Did I sound very cynical in my comments? I think it might be because really I prefer New Year - there seems to be less pressure to be jolly at New Year, and no worries about buying or being given the wrong present.

  3. Laura - no, you weren't cynical. Hoever, having being brought up on Alternative Comedy and irony (from Jane Autsen to Mitchell & Webb), I adore a bit of cynicism. Have you seen the Bridget Jones films and the way they deal with Christmas? Or Love Actually? Or the BBC series, the Vicar of Dibley? Wonderful stuff. Oddly enough, I do enjoy intense emotional romance as well as comedy but as for writing it myself, I just couldn't do it.

  4. I've not seen any of those. I don't have a TV, and as I don't understand the hype about Colin Firth as Mr Darcy and never warmed to Hugh Grant's acting, I avoided the others. I prefer books to films. I was loaned some DVDs of romantic comedies recently, and I was disappointed by how little dialogue and character development there was compared to what you can find in almost every romance novel.

    Oh dear, and now I probably just sound grumpy, rather than cynical ;-)

  5. Re: the cow toy. There is an American fast food franchise called Chick-Fil-A (all chicken sandwiches and tenders) that has a cow as a mascot and the slogan "Eat more chicken." I think "chicken" is intentionally misspelled, but I'm not sure.

    Is fast food being referenced in the story when the toy is mentioned? It strikes me as an odd toy to have, unless it was some sort of "give away" in a fast food meal.

  6. No, there was nothing about fast food. I assume Trudy bought it in the toy shop, or in one of the shops she'd been to before the toy shop. The cow dies nobly:

    "With your shield or on it, cow," he said, and tossed it over the shelves.
    The string unwound itself before the cow cleared the top, and it mooed, "Eat chicken" as a fusillade rang out.
    (2006: 79)