Chaos Walking #1: How the Story is Told

Welcome to the HogwartsProfessor Book Club’s first official post! After last month’s fun looking at Mockingjay when it first came out (links to those 30+ posts and threads are gathered here), my fellow Professors and Potter Pundits agreed we should try to do this every month. Our first choice has been the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness, the last of which novels — Monsters of Men — was published in the US just last week. I wrote reading guides for the first book, The Knife of Never Letting Go, and the second book, The Ask and the Answer, in recent weeks to encourage those of you for whom Chaos Walking was something totally different. I hope you’ve managed to find and read copies of all three Chaos Walking novels; everything from this point forward will assume you have read each book (file that under “Spoiler Warning”).

The purpose of these posts is “bringing up subjects for discussion” not “delivering definitive interpretations.” I’ve only read the books through once and quickly, but, as you know if you’ve read them, even that experience is sufficient for understanding that these are novels of significant, deceptive depth and artistry that merit re-reading both for pleasure and for that close attention on second and third readings which reveals the greater meaning only felt the first time. To encourage that second and third look, let’s start with some curiosities in the surface narrative after the jump.

Here are four things I noticed about how these stories were told, in sequence from “curious” to “fascinating,” none of which observations have an explanation that satisfies me yet, several of which may be just mistaken guesses. I look forward to reading what you think!

(1) Novel Narrator(s)

The story teller in The Knife of Never Letting Go (hereafter Knife) is Todd Hewitt and Todd Hewitt, only. We’re inside his noise and we see what he sees and that’s all the story and sight we get. The Ask and the Answer (hereafter Ask) broadens things out a bit by bringing on Viola Eade, a Knife co-star, as a co-narrator. In Book Three, Monsters of Men (hereafter Monsters), there are three narrators, Todd, Viola, and a character with no-name and three different names, namely (sic), 1017/The Return/The Sky.

So, story one has one narrator, story two has two, and story three adds a three-dimensional third. My question for you is “So what?” Is this a meaningful number play about the depth and dimension of the story, an author’s fetish, or a happy accident only OCD readers might pick up?

(2) Story Shape

Knife is the story of Todd and Viola’s escape from Prentisstown to New Prentisstown and their defeat of Aaron the Death Wish. They journey together. Ask tells us their separate stories in two different camps, one with Healer Coyle, the other with Mayor Prentiss, which come together in an explosive finish and another victory over the bad guy. Monsters gives us four points of conflict which come together in a whirlwind resolution with seemingly never ending endings.

My point about shapes is that in the first we have a line – the chase between the bad guys of Point A and the escaping Point B, Todd and Viola. In Act, the line separates and we have two Point A’s and two Point B’s as Mistress Coyle begin a nearly independent story track. In Monsters, adding in The Land and the Settlement Advance Team of Bradley and Simone, we get four sets of antagonists between which our Points B move, something like pinballs in a square.

I hope you have ideas about whether that is intentional and/or meaningful. The story seems to unfold dimensionally book to book — alongside Todd’s grasp of his Noise?

(3) Table of Contents, Section and Chapter Numbers and Titles

Here is a descending progression paralleling the unfolding: we get less and less information about the book’s organization as it becomes more complex.

In Knife, we get the conventional Table of Contents and each of the six Sections of the Book and all of its chapters have numbers and titles. In Ask, we’re not given a Table of Contents but we still have section and chapter numbers and titles. In Monsters, the only book I have in hardback, there is no Table of Contents, no section numbers, and no chapter numbers. The eight sections and all the chapters (I haven’t made an ad hoc TOC yet for my use so I don’t know how many there are) do have word titles.

For a book project that is so intentional about fonts for different character’s noise and for sound effects — making the work seem borderline graphic novel or comic book with meaningful lettering — I doubt this kind of change book to book was accidental or arbitrary (“Whoops! We forgot the Table of Contents! Have to put that together for the second edition, won’t we?”). But what is the message in the progressive omissions?

(4) Ring Composition?

All right, I admit it. I’ve got ring composition on the brain, especially when it ties in with alchemical imagery. But, just as being paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, seeing ring compositions everywhere doesn’t mean this story scaffoilding cannot be here in Chaos Walking.

Think about it.

Knife and Monsters have some pretty strong story echoes. In the finale we get Viola making a missile attack on ridge to save Todd reflecting the Aaron murder, Todd’s thoughts of returning to Prentisstown which would not only complete the circle but repeat their journey between Prentisstowns, there’s a chase to Ocean, a trap there, a bullet in the heart death after seeming victory, and miraculous survival of this bullet to heart which, if you substitute “waterfall” for “ocean” and the person being shot in our Dynamic Duo, is almost exactly what happens in Knife. Act, the story center, puts up a big red flag for mirror-ring composition with its first section being ‘The End’ and the last pages being tagged ‘The Beginning.’

Is the Chaos Walking series a three part Palindrome and Ring composition? My first place to check this out would be by comparing the eight parts of Monsters to see how the last four relate to the first four.

[If you want to try this before I get to it, here are the section titles and the pages they begin: 1 – It Begins p. 3, 2 – Second Chances p. 86, 3 – Control Yerself p. 161 , 4 -Alliance p. 243, 5 – The Envoy p. 313, 6 – Life During Peacetime p. 387, 7 – The End of the World p. 481, 8 – Arrival p. 585.]

What is Monsters story center? Does it echo and reflect the story beginning and ending?

Tomorrow’s post will be thoughts — my Noise? — on The Noise!


  1. I don’t feel much qualified to talk on items 2-4, but “curious” item 1 did catch my attention. One thing I noticed about the narrator is their presence in the book before they get to share their story. We meet Viola in book one, but don’t really know her until book two when she gets to speak. We meet 1017 in book two, but REALLY know nothing about him until book three, when we finally understand the Spackle.

    But beyond that, part of what I think adding the narrators does is up the complexity. There isn’t a good-guy/bad-guy plot at all. At first, we think that all we need to to is get away from bad-guy Aaron/the Mayor to Haven, where Mistress Coyle resides. Once there, the Mayor gets worse, but we find out that Mistress Coyle isn’t exactly a model leader either. And though 1017 reveals to us the complexity of Spackle thought, as well as their essentially good nature, 1017 has “fallen” (allusion intended) with mankind. He has become, in essence, human. And with that humanity comes the brokenness of sin. Like Todd says, “Everybody falls…” Anyway, all that to say we can’t really like anyone. We can see the Mayor through Todd’s eyes, but also through Viola’s. We see through Todd’s eyes, but also see Todd the way that 1017 does: The boy who knows better and sins anyway. That’s a biblical thing to avoid, by the way.

    The layering of narrators is very post-modern to me. Even when the story of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” takes place in the White Witch’s castle with a sympathizing character, the reader knows that Edmund needs saved from her by the powers of Aslan. Like I mentioned on an earlier post, I didn’t want to finish book two because I didn’t like anybody. I didn’t want anybody winning.

    Oh, and I guess a quick thought about ring patterns in book 3. Without having my text at hand to remember, I can at least draw a parallel between second chances and the end of the world. Both sections focus on the Mayor. Section 2 is about his potential for redemption and Todd’s choice to set him free and have him help in the Spackle war. In it, the Mayor begins to respect Todd and see him as a son. Section 7 is about the Mayor’s final fall from grace. In the return of Ben, the Mayor’s jealousy and realization that he might lose the goodness that sort of entered him, he rejects his redemption, says people never change, and sets of to end the world. In section 2, he is released from certain death by Todd. In section 7 (at least I think it’s in section 7 and not in 8, like I said my book isn’t with me), he is faced with certain death by Todd again.

  2. Okay, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to leave another comment like I want to, but I’d just like to point out that 1017 is a girl. In the chapter titled “Pathways’ End” in Monsters, 1017 remembers her one in particular, and after wards, the Sky says, “‘You miss HIM… You loved HIM.'” to which 1017 replies that they “took HIM” from her. this can be found on p 271 in the american version. Anyone else notice that? Or am i missing something here?

  3. I’m with you, Lydia! See Chaos Walking post #2 in the comments boxes for more on this.

  4. I saw that, too. But there’s Ben and Cillian, right? I guess though that I got caught up on Todd thinking that 1017 was male at first. Things aren’t always as they appear…

  5. I don’t think the fact that 1017’s one in particular was a boy automatically makes 1017 a girl. Boys can like other boys. I think it’s pretty heavily implied that Ben and Cillian were lovers, so it’s not like 1017 liking another boy would be out of place.

  6. Well Lydia, it is possible that 1017 might’ve been gay?

    Cillian and Ben were suggested as a couple on page 426- American version when Ben says/ thinks about his one-in-particular is killed.

    I son’t know though, I may have missed something. Todd thought 1017 was a man.

  7. In response to Lydia, before 1017 was made the Sky and was talking to the Sky before him the Sky says “The Sky has never had a son”. The key word there being SON. From this we can clearly see that 1017 is a male. Also 1017 says that he loved his lover who he refers to as him. Ergo 1017 was indeed a gay Spackle, it’s pretty much said out loud. Also with Ben and Cillian as people have already said on page 426 in the American version Ben thinks about his one in particular being killed by Prentiss. Who was killed by Prentiss? Oh yeah Cillian. Also in the first book (Not sure which page) when Ben is helping Todd escape and Cillian is holding them back they “clasp hands for a long moment” and then later on in the second book (again not sure which page) Todd and Viola “clasp hands for a long moment”. Todd and Viola are lovers and so it wouldn’t be a huge stretch of the imagination to assume Ben and Cillian were lovers.

  8. Hey, my name is also Lydia!
    I would also like to point out that Ben also refers to 1017 as “he” while talking to Todd after their reunion in Monsters. I think that Ben, after spending so much time with the Land, would be able to tell male from female. I’m pretty confident that 1017 is male.

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