Here we are again, friends. Another Flowers in the Attic book has arrived to grace us with its presence, this time at the outset of a global pandemic. Released in the infelicitous month of February 2020, the timing of Out of the Attic was bad. The book itself is worse.
Much, much worse.
Out of the Attic is the follow-up to Beneath the Attic. Both books are set before the events of Garden of Shadows, which itself is set before the events of the very first book of the series, Flowers in the Attic.
However, as it turns out, Out of the Attic isn’t really a prequel (to a prequel). It’s a tie-in.
Historically, tie-ins don’t have the greatest literary reputation; they’re one small step above fan fiction. Come to think of it, technically they are fan fiction, but approved by the original work’s copyright holder and professionally written.
As of September 2020, there are several dozen works of fan fiction (or amateur tie-ins, if you will) based on the Flowers in the Attic universe on Archive of Our Own, and an equal number on fanfiction.net. You may rest assured they were all written with more genuine emotion and creative zeal than Out of the Attic.
Not only is Out of the Attic not a bona fide entry in the Flowers in the Attic series, I believe that it’s not a real novel at all. It’s the world’s longest short story.
For some time now, I’ve been working on a project aimed at identifying the world’s shortest novel. Along the way, I’ve attempted to pin down exactly what makes a novel a novel. To my surprise, there’s no agreement from one literary expert to another, one critic to another, or even one novelist to another as to how we should differentiate novels from short stories. Before you say “Easy! It’s all about length,” take a look at this post.
In order to make the case that Out of the Attic, a 336-page book, is the world’s longest short story, first we must examine the train-wreck that is the plot.
More like this: “What the new Flowers in the Attic book gets completely wrong”
There was a certain poignancy, I felt, to revisiting the themes of being trapped indoors, locked up, unable to leave the house due to external forces beyond one’s control, just like the Dollanganger kids. Weren’t we, too, sunlight-deprived flowers withering in our attics (if we were lucky—some of us were trapped in one-bedroom apartments with dogs and toddlers and Zoom meetings and such)?
Entirely inadvertently, V.C. Andrews’ ghostwriter captured the gray ennui of the early corona virus lock-down in the U.S. Though written, edited, and prepped for publication well before COVID-19 reared its ugly head, the text has the same repetitive Groundhog Day feeling that was present during the early weeks of 2020. Everyday, in Corrine Foxworth’s world as in ours, was silent and gray. Everyday was like Sunday.
I didn’t get around to checking this book out until the summer. It took me five long, dreary weeks to read it. Not because it’s a challenging text, either intellectually or emotionally, but because it’s boring as hell. Like life during lock-down, nothing happens.
Corrine, our astonishingly vain and self-absorbed heroine of Beneath the Attic, is back. It’s five years later and she’s ostensibly trapped in Foxworth Hall, only venturing out to do a bit of shopping or attend a heavily-masked (Halloween) party. Just like us! After such an extended period of social isolation, the author characterizes her as vaguely “depressed,” possibly in the colloquial sense but maybe, just maybe, in the clinical sense. Just like us! It’s unclear how she has spent the thousands of hours that have passed, dripping from the slow-moving hands of the clock as painfully as dead, sticky sap in the dark heart of winter. Just like us!
Are you bored yet? Because that’s the plot.
No, really. That’s the plot.
Oh sure, Corrine putters around the house a bit. That’s something, right? She bickers with her husband. She attempts to avoid, then gets testy with, her annoying young son. She tries, for a minute or two, to uncover the deepest secrets of her spouse’s heart, then lets the issue drop. She vows, again and again and again, that she’s going to make some big changes in her life. She drinks some booze and passes out.
JUST. LIKE. US!!!
Here’s the thing, though. Corrine is an incredibly unreliable narrator. This creates a number of increasingly problematic issues for the reader as the book plods along. Let’s explore them in order of problematicness (practically a real word).
Problematic Item #1
This is one of the whitest books I’ve ever read. There is no excuse for this in a book set in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the 1890s and published in 2020.
Problematic Item #2
Corrine’s son is Baby Hitler.
In 2015, The New York Times Magazine conducted a poll asking a simple question: If you were sent back in time, could you kill Adolf Hitler if he was a baby? An (as yet) innocent little baby?
No, really. Could you kill this? With your own hands?
Before you answer, remember that this little baby is going to be responsible for this.
Kill Baby Hitler, and you save millions of lives. But kill Baby Hitler, and you’ve personally slaughtered an innocent infant.
The fact is, like Hitler, Corrine’s son will grow up to be heinously evil. He’s Malcolm Foxworth, the cruel grandfather who causes the Dollanganger kids to get locked in the attic in the first place. Without him, there is no Flowers in the Attic. There’s Flowers in a Shabby Apartment With Their Widowed Mother: A Tale of Courage and Perseverance. Without Malcolm, there’s no legacy of sin. This dude’s obsession with degrading women who remind him of Corrine, his mother, is what kicks off all the bad stuff in the entire series.
And thus, the reader who is aware of this, and even the reader who is not—the author helpfully frames the four-year-old as a horrid little sociopath—is inclined to root for the destruction of Malcolm. They are induced to cheer when Corrine treats him coldly. Or yells at him. Or punishes him. Or even toys with the idea of sending him away altogether.
But that just makes the reader feel awful. Even if he’s an unsympathetic character, he’s still a small child. One should not gleefully hope for the death of a preschooler. It certainly does not make one feel fabulous.
But, then again, Corrine is our sole source of information about Malcolm’s behavior and internal motives. And, as we noted…
Problematic Item #3
Corrine is an unreliable narrator. That means, as readers, we can’t take anything she conveys as pure truth. Not Malcolm’s shitty, manipulative ways. Not husband Garland’s casual cruelty nor his infidelity. Not her own ravishing beauty nor the way everyone is stunned by her witty commentary. And not the two rapes she endures at the hands of her husband.
That last bit, right there, is 100% problematic, and the author stepped right into it without any awareness of the ugly implications.
Also, limoncello-fueled sexual assault numero dos is one of the few plot-points in the book that comes close to being a moment of genuine conflict. And that brings us to…
Problematic Item #4
Out of the Attic is a book without conflict. It’s a classic Grandpa Simpson story: a series of events with zero narrative conflict to lend them significance. Whenever the narrative seems as if it’s about to veer towards some kind of conflict, the author diffuses it and redirects the protagonist. This is a book of missed opportunities, with so many potentially compelling plot lines allowed to simply fade away, like the days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Let’s briefly consider the biggest missed opportunities for conflict. I promise, it’s all leading up to why Out of the Attic is the world’s longest short story.
Missed Conflict #1
The author reflexively and repeatedly compares Corrine to The Lady of Shalott. Like the golden rod cake of the previous book, our writer does not bother to explain who The Lady of Shalott is or how she is similar to Corrine (spoiler: she’s from a Tennyson poem, she’s a beautiful rich girl, and she spends her days romantically pining away in a grand palace to rival Foxworth Hall.)
Missed Conflict #2
Very early in the book, Corrine gets locked in the attic. Her rotten little brat-son lures her up there, then turns the key in the lock and fucks right off without telling a soul (see? Baby Hitler!) After a few moments of panic, which were truly promising from a storytelling standpoint, Corrine manages to open a window and hail a servant who releases her. And that’s the last we see of the ominous, symbolic attic that haunts the series (apart from a brief moment when she casually pops up there to find herself a Halloween costume).
Corrine should have been stuck in the attic for days. Initially, she should have tried to still her panic and make the best of her entrapment as she waited to be found, like Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. But then, her terror should have overwhelmed her. She should have scoured the attic for a way to escape. She should have plumbed the depths of her shallow psyche. She should have confronted her own mortality, only to emerge half-starved and fully mad days later.
Garland could then threaten to lock her up there once more as their relationship deteriorated, reducing her to Rochester’s deranged wife in Jane Eyre, only letting her out to have her portrait painted. The artist would remark upon her unnaturally pale skin, her eyes dazzled by daylight, the pupils constricting abnormally and making the irises vividly huge and bright, but she would be too mad to tell him the truth.
Or, taking another tack, the author could have had Corrine lock Malcolm up there as an eye-for-an-eye style punishment, thus explaining the boy’s later sociopathic behavior. Garland could even have Corrine lock him in the attic and force her to engage in a creepy re-creation of the time his father imprisoned him up there and his mother snuck him food, the result of which was a peculiar oedipal fetish we’ll discuss in a moment.
Missed Conflict #3
About Garland and his dead mother…the guy has one hell of a weird asexual kink associated with her. Corrine discovers, in the course of her bored house-wanderings, that her spouse likes to have Malcolm’s nanny dress up in the elder Mrs. Foxworth’s clothes, lie on the dead woman’s bed, and let him sort of…cry all over her. I think? Also, maybe the ghost of Garland’s mother inhabits the nanny’s body during these sessions. I don’t really know. It’s very poorly described.
Late in the book, Corrine decides enough is enough. She puts on the dress, lies down on the bed, and waits for Garland. He’s shocked, as anyone would be upon finding someone other than was expected waiting in bed for them, but then he just brushes the whole thing off. Corrine informs him she’ll be his asexual kink partner from now on, he sort of shrugs her a vague negative, and drops the kink altogether. The two never speak of it again.
The author should have dived right into Garland’s mommy issues to show Corrine, as well as the reader, all the sick secrets the man was hiding. And about that ghost. That ghost should have begun to take over Corrine’s personality, her very soul. Definitely.
Missed Conflict #4
Corrine considers becoming the queen bee of the social scene in town. Several times. This is framed as a highly possible endeavor, not a fantasy. She never bothers to follow through.
Missed Conflict #5
Garland has an affair with a widow, off stage, in the course of the book. At one point, she is pointed out to Corrine in a department store. Corrine should have marched up to her and, with a sickly sweet smile, delivered a few of those unwitty quips that the author seems to think are the height of cutting sarcasm. Instead, she just thinks to herself that the woman is pretty, then departs.
Missed Conflict #6
Alright, this is the last one, and it leads directly into the whole “longest short story ever written” thing. During one of the few times Corrine ventures out of the house, she meets a painter at a party. He seems like a smug, smarmy Garland 2.0. Oddly, he knows a little too much about her. Later, Garland informs Corrine that he has eyes and ears all over town, and he knows her every move. And then, who do you suppose should happen to appear when Corrine and Malcolm are on an impromptu day trip to a seaside town? The same artist! She hires him to paint her portrait. He makes a joke about Corrine being a member of the infamous Pinkerton Detective Agency, but you know what?
The artist should have been a private detective! He should have been the one tattling on her to Garland.
Instead, we never discover the spy, the artist paints Corrine, falls for her, and gets her to abscond with him to La France, abandoning both her abusive husband and her soon-to-be even worse son.
This is the one and only narrative conflict to be found in Out of the Attic.
After trying for a solid year to find, or create, a universal definition of what makes a novel a novel and a short story a short story, I think I’ve hit upon it.
A short story has one conflict. A novel has several conflicts that (usually) come together to support or form a larger, unifying conflict.
Note: I said conflict, not plot or subplot. Novels can have just a single plot. Short stories can have subplots.
In a short story, subplots deliver (or inject, if you will) events into the conflict of the narrative. In a novel, on the other hand, subplots isolate (or quarantine, if you will, and you must!) conflicts until it’s time for them to unite with the central conflict.
Out of the Attic is a book of bare events, not conflict. It’s just one young woman’s days spent wandering the house, wandering to the store, wandering through memories from the previous book. But if you squint, you can identify the central conflict of the story: Will Corrine subsume her identity and become a true Foxworth, or will she forge her own destiny, which will drive her far from the nefarious Foxworth legacy?
This conflict is idly picked up and dropped many times throughout the book, with no forward movement, rather like a video game resetting to a previous position. Until the final chapters, it’s essentially functionless.
Had this been a true novel, any of the six Missing Conflicts I outlined above would have been interwoven into the narrative. Or some other conflict—anything, honestly! I would have settled for a struggle to get more limoncello from mobsters up in New York, since the Italo-Ethiopian War probably put a cramp on Garland’s ability to import of his favorite Italian roofie.
But in the end, there is no escaping the conflict-free story. Corrine and the other characters aren’t just trapped in Foxworth Hall, after all, they’re trapped in the narrative construct created more than 40 years ago by V.C. Andrews and unnaturally prolonged by her ghostwriter. The story is stale because there’s no possibility of innovation. There can be no new twists, there can be no alteration to the canon established in the late 1970s. All we can have is a retread of a retread, a prequel of a prequel. Or vague, half-hearted, half-assed tie-ins.
It’s time to allow the flowers, so long entombed in the attic, to finally wither and die.
But, of course, publisher Simon & Schuster won’t let that happen.