#49 – The Tracey Fragments, by Maureen Medved

I admit to buying this book for the sole reason that it was made into a film starring Ellen Page. After seeing her performances in Hard Candy and Juno, as well as interviews with her, I simply could not resist. She’s far more intelligent and dedicated to her craft than most people her age in any field, and light years beyond your average actor or actress. While I was reading I noticed a full page ad in the back of the book for “reading guides” that Anansi makes available for download. I think they’re intended to help book groups with discussion, and I find the idea fascinating. The guide won’t really tell you anything about the level of discussion found in your average book group (and The Tracey Fragments doesn’t seem like the kind of choice your average book group would make), but rather what Anansi thinks the level of discussion is or should be. So instead of doing a proper review, I’m going to answer the questions found in the two-page reading guide.

1) Does the fragmented style of Tracey’s narrative make it a difficult book for the

Yes and no. I’m an experienced reader of a variety of fictional forms, so I’m used to deliberately fragmented narratives. All it really takes to put together a reasonable picture of what’s going on is patience and attention to the material. It helps that the book isn’t very long. What’s most difficult, I think, is how thoroughly Tracey’s perceptions have deteriorated, and how unwilling she is to face the truth, not only of what has happened, but of how she’s dealing with it. I am disappointed that Medved chose mania as the form for Tracey’s mental instability. Mania is a hugely clichéd form for mental illness in literature and drama, and for teenage girls in particular. To put mania together with a fragmented narrative (especially with a female narrator) is almost de rigeur for experimental fiction.

2) How does this narrative form reflect the story itself?

I think I’ve already addressed that, but just to be clear: Tracey Berkowitz is falling apart after a series of traumatic events, and therefore so is the narrative.

3) Tracey’s therapist asks her “Are you happy?” and “Do you think you’re creative?”
Are these useful questions for getting to the root of Tracey’s problem? Do you
think the therapist has any idea what the root of Tracey’s problem is?

The two questions should be addressed separately. “Do you think you’re creative?” is certainly not useful at all, but it comes from Tracey herself. Dr. Heker can only ask questions based on what Tracey tells her, and if Tracey is being honest with us (not a given at all), then it was a logical question to ask given what she was revealing about her parents’ attitudes. Certain ways of looking at the world, particularly artistic ones, are unacceptable to Tracey’s parents, as she has presented them to Dr. Heker, and so the question is designed to determine if Tracey feels accepted by her parents, or if she’s a target for their disapproval.

The question “Are you happy?” is certainly an excellent first step in determining whether or not Tracey even needs to be in therapy. It’s clear by the end of the novel that Tracey does belong in therapy, but whether or not that was true before she experienced the three traumatic events (or two events, depending on how much you trust Tracey) is up for debate. Tracey’s mother clearly believes that she should be happy, but she’s also out of touch with her daughter and the impact her own behaviour has on the happiness and mental health of her household.

4) “Dinnertime … People stuck inside with their families, killing each other.” Do
people always hurt the ones they love? Does Tracey really love anyone but

I’m not going to bother with the first question (of course they do). I’m not sure that Tracey really understands what love is; she loves her brother, of course, but she also thinks she loves Billy Speed when it’s far more likely that she’s confusing physical intimacy and romantic longing for love. Tracey can be incredibly crass, talking almost exclusively about “fucking” when she means “sex”, but that could be a way of hiding from her own naiveté and its consequences. Her first real sexual encounter isn’t rape (she gets into the car knowing what’s going to happen, and she never actually says no or tells him to stop) but it’s not very far off, and it’s understandable that she would want to distance herself from the emotional impact of the experience. Feigning greater experience and a more cavalier attitude to sex seems like an obvious but effective way of hiding her pain, from herself if not from the reader.

5) What are the attractions for Sonny of being a dog instead of being a boy?

If Tracey’s account of her home life is genuine, and I’m not at all convinced that it is, then Sonny would be attracted to any way of being that would take him out of that situation. Dogs have no real awareness of their situations and therefore no responsibility to act or react to them; if Sonny is a dog, then he is not only insulated from the reality of his home life, but excused from the responsibility of eventually confronting the situation (at ten years old it isn’t required of him quite yet). It’s worth noting that Tracey is the one who convinces him to adopt the dog persona; the structure of the family makes her Sonny’s de facto caretaker, and she may be trying to lift a responsibility that she simply can’t cope with.

6) Tracey mentions that her problems began in her DNA. How much of our
personality and character is formed by nature and how much by nurture?

For real? Well, Tracey mentions that her problem is DNA because her parents’ disapproval of her grandmother allows her to create an elaborate back story of sexual promiscuity (and sexual assault) for the woman that will let her explain away her own confusion over having sex with Billy Speed in the back of his car. Tracey presents her grandmother as both a rape victim and a prostitute, with many of her sexual encounters being willing and unwilling at the same time. Rape becomes consensual, and consensual sex becomes rape to the point where Tracey has difficulty imagining a distinction. If Tracey can explain not only her confusion about sex but also her behaviour away as the result of genetic predetermination then it not only absolves her of responsibility for what happened, it also keeps Billy Speed, whom she believes she loves even though he spurns her, from having to be the cruel bastard that he really is. He can become instead an instrument of fate.

7) Tracey describes herself, her mother, and her grandmother as “Three generations
caught inside each other like Russian dolls.” What is the role of the grandmother
in the story? What influence did she have on Tracey? What parallels are there
between Baba’s and Tracey’s lives?

I should really start reading ahead; I think I answered this question already. Tracey’s mother retreats into a stilted suburban lifestyle in an effort to escape the life her grandmother lives (or lived in Tracey’s mind; I don’t believe a word of her account), but Tracey believes that she is trapped by both her mother’s fear and her grandmother’s genes, the combination of which forces her into repeating her grandmother’s (alleged) promiscuity in the form of a single ill-conceived encounter in the back of a car.

8) Tracey says, “I go on these little vacations in my head.” Baba and Tracey both
dream of escape. What sorts of escapes does life offer?

Tracey dreams of escape, certainly, but as I’ve said above, I don’t believe for a minute that she’s telling the truth about Baba’s life, so I don’t think it’s a legitimate comparison in the way this questions implies. As for what sort of escapes life offers, I think the answer lies in Tracey’s fragments: life offers no escapes at all. Her every effort at getting outside her life has disastrous consequences for both her and Sonny, from running away to the park with Sonny and having sex with Billy Speed, to running away from the consequences of losing Sonny into the blizzard, which she then tries to escape by going with Lance and then riding on city buses. Tracey falls apart because there is no escape. Dr. Hekel may have offered some brief respite, or at least an ally, but Tracey never takes therapy seriously enough for it help her (or when she does take it seriously, she takes it as an assault).

9) “My mother won’t talk to me. She’s too busy. She smokes three packs a day and
getting her away from the TV is a surgical procedure.” How have Tracey’s parents
become so dysfunctional? What force holds Tracey’s parents together? What
force repels their children?

It’s never quite clear why Tracey’s parents are dysfunctional. Tracey blames it on her grandmother’s death and her parents’ fear, but those are just as likely to be fictions as her romantic descriptions of Billy Speed and her grandmother’s life as a prostitute. It’s most likely that Tracey’s parents have disappointments in their own lives and suffer from the same suburban malaise that affects so many others, and they are moved solely by their inertia, having long ago been broken, or have broken each other. It’s no surprise that this repels their children; Tracey’s parents seem to have little or no concern for their well-being, using them instead as outlets for their paranoia and frustrations. As I’ve said, though, Tracey is a very unreliable narrator, and how much of this is real and how much of this is Tracey making excuses in order to avoid taking responsibility for how she lives her life is unclear.

10) Why does Tracey refer to herself as “It”?

Tracey has very low self-esteem and often has difficulty seeing herself as human, a situation that is not helped by how her parents, her peers, and even the romanticized Billy Speed behave towards her. Despite how close she is (or was) to Sonny, she is lonely and feels quite alienated. Describing herself as “It” is also a way for her to distance herself from the pain of her situation. The painful parts of her life can happen to “It”, a thing, leaving “I”, a person, safe from genuine harm.

11) Why does Tracey identify so strongly with the crow?

The crow is an outsider, immobilized by curiosity and by the warmth of Lance inviting it in, just as Tracey is an outsider immobilized by Billy Speed, but the crow found Lance’s invitation to be a trap that ultimately killed it, just as the back of Billy Speed’s car wasn’t the magical thing Tracey hoped it would be, and her willingness to be with Billy instead of look after her brother had disastrous consequences for her family.

12) The sexual impulse is one of the strongest human drives. What factors push it
out of control, as it was in Tracey’s case?

Tracey’s disconnection from her peers, combined with no real affection from her parents or clear models for healthy relationships and the raging hormones of adolescence most likely make sex and other forms of physical affection feel like the only “real” positive feelings available to her. As a result she is more than willing to sacrifice her well-being, such as it is, to experience it. That it is revealed as an illusion isn’t really a surprise to her, but it is enough to push her beyond her limits.

13) Are people’s life stories made up of fragments or does a narrative thread run through them? How do lives unravel and tangle up like a yo-yo string?

They don’t ask for much, these questions. Of course people’s lives are made up of fragments. No person stands alone; each of us intersects in ways we don’t understand with other people and the events of their lives, playing roles in their lives that we cannot entirely see, just as they play roles in our lives that they don’t always see. Life is repetitive and messy, with people coming and going, themes entering and leaving unresolved, events having dramatic and undramatic impacts. At no point does anyone have all the facts, nor can we always fully trust those facts we do have; the narrative of The Tracey Fragments works in much the same way.

14) “When things happen to people they radiate a light.” What does Tracey mean by
this? How is this true?

I supposed it could mean that people carry with them obvious signs of the course their lives have taken, like scars almost, though that implies injury and “light” doesn’t necessarily indicate that. To be honest when I read the passage in question it seemed like an easy metaphor, a pretty image that wouldn’t stand up to close inspection.

5) Tracey circles around and around her “problem” but the narrative eventually
spirals down to a nugget of truth. Does the truth set Tracey free?

No, not at all. Tracey has only taken the first step towards healing the obviously significant emotional damage inflicted on her (and by her), and that she has exacerbated by her actions. Admitting the truth to herself, or even just a part of it, is not the same as accepting it or her role in it, even though it’s clear that guilt was a big factor in her hiding it to begin with. Most of what Tracey will have to do in order to “be free” are the sort of messy things that happen after novels end. She will have to return to her parents, re-enter therapy, and learn to live on a daily basis with the absence of her brother and the heightened disapproval of her peers. Not an easy thing by any means, and no single act, no matter how revelatory, can act as a “magic bullet”.

The Tracey Fragments was my fourth selection for the Second Canadian Book Challenge. Next up is Degrees of Nakedness, by Lisa Moore.


Writer. Editor. Critic.

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