Narrative Tricks in “Chantelle” – A Reader’s Response

This critique, reprinted by permission, contains spoilers for “Chantelle”
and “Morningsong”. You may want to read those stories first, if you
haven’t already.

My favorite stories of yours at this point are “Chantelle”–which has some
technical problems I’d like to discuss–“Blind” and “Mint in your

I also love the way you use the eroticism of rape in “Chantelle,” but I
a troubling element here. This time, however, the problem for me lies not
the fact that your story can make the rapist intruder, and the knife,
incredibly erotic . . . the problem for me lies in the fact that the
turns the story into a deception on the reader. . . .

Now perhaps I’m reading the story incorrectly–it is a very complex story,
there are a lot of layers–but when I first read this story, the phone
call at
the ending was a complete surprise. This was the first time I saw that
knew the rapist would not do any harm, and that this entire story is a
manipulation of Chantelle, and not a real threat at all. I found this to
be a
manipulation of the reader, or at least me, anyway.

Yes, after re-reading, I find you did drop clues . . . The first line, the
glancing at the watch (when is my delivery boy coming), but in the first-
person, present-tense narrative that drives this story so powerfully, the
narrator comes across as much surprised as Chantelle to find a delivery
with a knife.

Even after careful re-reading, when I find a perhaps more accurate
where the narrator is expecting the intruder, but not the knife, and not
exactly what the “rapist” will do, and that this element of surprise is as
much a part of the game as the forced seduction of Chantelle, I still find
gnawing problem in that the reader is being manipulated unfairly, every
bit as
much as Chantelle.

For me the crux of the problem is illustrated with lines like “I tease the
head with flicking tongue until the growing fever in the eyes I HAVE NOT
GLANCE AWAY FROM [emphasis mine] warns me that teasing will not be
for long. And I suddenly realize that I find this man beautiful after all,
if he hadn’t had a knife to my throat I might have wanted this as much as
did. It is then that I first begin to tremble. . .” These lines should be
addressing the
same moral dilemma addressed in “Mint in your Throat,” (a victim can
experience arousal while being raped, and this only deepens the problem of
recovery) but if the rapist is not really a rapist, then we are faced with
another quandry entirely. Now we are faced with the narrator as the
in the way she has manipulated the situation to have sex with Chantelle,
I guess may also be the point you’re trying to make, and I can respect
but can you make the point without deceiving the reader unfairly?

Nonetheless, though I find the premise is intrinsically flawed, I still
this an incredibly beautiful story. The last two paragraphs (before the
rapist calls and apologizes) when the narrator realizes that this will be
first and only time she can have Chantelle are deeply moving. Have you
considered ending the story here? Does it, in the end, matter that the
was invited by the narrator? Would it make sense to return to the

” . . . The memory of her arching against me. And the chance that
night has changed her mind about what she wants…although it will take
to know for certain. I lay back down against her, realizing that she is
somehow, impossibly, asleep. I am suddenly eager to join her.”


“She still doesn’t know.”


(later mail)

In your response to my discussion of “Chantelle,” you say:

>As for Chantelle — well, I meant to deceive the reader. In some
>I think readers have it too easy most of the time — they assume
>and get crotchety when forced to question those assumptions. See
>”Morningsong” for a simpler example of this. And thematically, the
>deception of the reader echoes the deception of Chantelle — and the
>narrator’s own deception of self.

Well, I have to say that your ability to force readers to question their
assumptions is one of the things I admire most about your writing. You
back away from the tough issues, and you explore sexuality and humanity in
of its delicious complexity. But there’s something about the ending of
“Chantelle” that’s still nagging at me. Even when I accept the deception
the reader as an echo of the deception of Chantelle and the narrator’s
deception of herself. In fact, if the narrator is lying to HERSELF about
is happening, she must, BY NECESSITY in a first person narrative, be lying
the reader. But even when I concede this fact, something’s not quite

And, I must confess, I hadn’t yet read “Morningsong” when I commented on
deception in “Chantelle.” I have read it now, and if the assumption in
“Morningsong” you are referring to has to do with the gender of the
here I don’t have a problem with your handling of the “deception of the
reader.” Here, I find a sneaky, and effective way of trying to explain
attraction one man might feel for another man to a society taught to find
acts repulsive. If a homophobe reads the narrator as a woman, and finds
himself face to face with two gay men at the end of the story, told from
intimate, first person view point of a gay man, he will either be VERY
“crotchety,” and never read M.A. Mohanraj again, or have to suck in his
breath, and take another look at his assumptions about life. THIS in my
is simply good writing. You draw your readers into a sexual experience
after the readers have gone through it with you, you present them with a
reversal that should leave them with a stronger understanding about not
homosexual love, but love and humanity in general. Sex and play and love
are all presented in this story as something as natural and easy as waking
in the morning.

But “Chantelle.” Ah the narrator here, sly seductress, is more
to me. The narrator in “Morningsong” never pretended to be anything other
than who he is to the reader. (And why WOULD he feel it necessary to
his gender? He knows he’s a man, and he knows he’s gay. What’s the
Any deception here is provided by the READER filling in the blanks. But
narrator in Chantelle not only conveniently leaves out her knowledge of
“rapist,” she actively uses deceptive language to lead the reader away
this knowledge. Language, it seems to me, that she wouldn’t use even to
deceive herself.

I can understand a certain amount of lying to herself to keep the
thrill of
danger in the game she is playing with Chantelle . . . When she surrenders
herself as the “victim,” in place of Chantelle, she’s obviously fooling
herself if she thinks she’s truly a hero by saving Chantelle from the
she herself invited to the house. And I suppose this can all be part of
game that the narrator is playing on everyone, including herself. But
still something nagging me about this story. . . . Something I can’t
put my finger on yet.

>I didn’t plan out “Chantelle” — the story evolved as I wrote it. I
>didn’t know what the ending would be when I started it — at least,
>consciously. And in some sense, that may explain why it doesn’t
>work for you — I may just not have gotten the technique quite right.
>knew from the beginning of “Morningsong” that the protagonist was a man
— I
>didn’t know from the beginning of “Chantelle” that the protagonist was
>conscious collaborator. So I suspect there probably are some bare
>in the story, some thin stretchings which could have been better
>been more ‘in the head’ of the protagonist throughout.

>Ah well. It was undoubtedly the best story I wrote back in ’93 in
>ways — or at least the most ambitious. Not so surprising that my
>may have exceeded my grasp a bit…

(later mail)

Not surprising at all. And I STILL think this is one of your best
stories. . . .

And let me confess, in the interest of being fair, I have always had
difficulty with the unreliable narrator. Henry James’ fiction often
missed me
on first reading for this reason. I’m just a gullible reader, what can I
I definitely took this narrator at face value, swallowed down each word as
gospel, until the ending forced me to re-examine my assumptions about the
narrator. Which is what you were aiming at, after all.

So, now let’s take a look at the structure of Chantelle and how the
plays out. We have three characters, two with agendas. The rapist has a
thirst, like most men, for watching lesbian sex, and loves to dominate
The narrator, wants Chantelle, but also may have a bit of an urge to play
role of sex slave, something SHE may not be quite willing to admit yet, as
well as the knight in shining armor rescuing her damsel in distress. And
Chantelle, “She still doesn’t know” what she wants. Have I finally
delineated the motivations of your characters?

Bare spots in the story? I think at this point I am going to have to
ultimately defer to other readers . . . The problem with approaching a
critically, is that it is a bit like trying to explain the punch line of a
joke to someone who didn’t get it. If you don’t get the joke, you will
never laugh, even after someone has explained the point. Especially when
someone has explained the point.

And this is the danger of using an unreliable narrator. But the payoff of
using this technique, when everything is working, is huge. The reader,
into the unfolding saga word by word, reaches the ending and must
turn his or her world inside out in order to understand the story. If
this is
the punchline to a joke, the result is laughter. If this is the climax of
sexual encounter, the result is orgasm. If this is the pivot point of a
parable, the result can be enlightenment.

I must say, that despite all my crotchety bitching and moaning, this is an
intricately woven story, with myriad threads intertwining like
I’m confident it will reveal something new every time I return to it.

— Everett Wilson