Flickr photo, Donkey and Man, Jen vanWijn
January 26, 2012
Protagonist seeks antagonist
The protagonist of this story is Richard Mather. That much is clear. The event that has destabilized his middle class world is the abduction of his son Elgar, an incident which occurred almost a year before the opening episode of The Cosmic Chicken.
When the novel begins the crime of Elgar’s abduction hasn’t been solved. Richard and his wife Kalie have no idea who would have kidnapped their son, and the anonymity of the kidnappers is one of the factors that prevents them from dealing with their grief and resolving the issues between them.
So the story initially at least becomes Rich and Kalie’s search for a protagonist. In the absence of any ‘culprit’ they end up blaming themselves and each other. Rich blames Kalie for having left Elgar unattended in a Mac’s parking lot while she nipped in to get some groceries; Kalie blames Rich for ‘giving up’ on the search for Elgar and proving himself to be weak and ineffectual. She also blames him for blaming her; and he blames her for blaming him; and so on.
So one of the sub-plots will be the increasing tension between Rich and Kalie, their marriage breaking down over the stress of mutual grief and recrimination. So from Rich’s perspective the person he loves most in the world, Kalie, becomes an aspect of the antagonist.
Because there’s little hope of finding Elgar in ‘this world’, Rich finds himself drawn unwittingly into the Gallutian dimension, which he experiences through his shared consciousness with Cosima the Cosmic Chicken. At first he doesn’t know why he’s been drawn into this surreal, imaginary realm. Is it simply a form of escape? Is he going insane?
Now the antagonist is a fear – crystallized in the person of his psychologist – that Rich is going insane. All the forces of reason in the form of his ‘professional help’, and emotion in the form of Kalie’s reaction to his Gallutian ‘obsession’ suggest Rich is delusional. But is he? The reader must ask that question and answer it in his own terms.
At some point in his quest Rich determines he doesn’t want to find his antagonist to seek revenge, or even to change the person or persons responsible for his son’s disappearance. He simply wants a chance to ask: Why? Why did you ruin our lives? Why did you steal away the one person in the world that means more to me and Kalie than anyone else?
I conceive of this as the moment of climax, because by the time Rich consciously formulates this question it refers not only to Elgar, but to any child gone missing. His quest includes the children abducted or killed in war. Children who starve to death in their mother’s arms. Children murdered by vengeful parents. Children blown up by landmines. He’s still looking for his own son, but recognizes his as a plight shared with bereft parents the world over.
The antagonist, it turns out, is not so much a person as a callous state of being that allows child abductors and killers to do what they do – and by extension any thug or murderer who mains anyone’s daughter or son. In adopting this universalist stance Rich hasn’t given up on Elgar so much as broadened the search to a level that will allow him to find a meaningful antagonist at last – a “We have met the enemy and he is us” approach made famous by the comic strip character Pogo.
It goes even farther. Why Gallus? Why this bizarre mind-meld with a chicken in a different dimension? Cosima becomes symbolic of all the beings we degrade in our estimation so that we can abuse and kill them without compunction. Rich’s own estimation of chickens, had he been asked before his Gallution sojourn, could have been summed up in two words: ‘stupid’ and ‘ruthless’. This despiritualized judgement of another being is what allows producers to take an utterly dehumanized approach to raising and slaughtering chickens. The birds have no feelings, no intelligence, therefore it’s okay to treat them as product – the output of an industrial process.
Whoever abducted Elgar must similarly have been unaware of the harm he or she would be doing, or must have been able to rationalize and justify the harm based on his or her greater need. Either that or the culprit would have to be truly evil and intent on causing pain. The antagonist, then, becomes present by his absence; it is the lack of feeling or compassion between one living being and another.
The irony in all this is that humans, more than any other species, are capable of compassion – of pure, disinterested love. Therefore we become culpable when we do not allow love and compassion to guide our behaviour. We cannot be innocent. That, Rich will discover, is the true antagonist: the unfeeling, uncaring human being who either commits or allows an indecency to be committed by one creature against another.