Reader Response: Malaria (Michael Byers)

Michael Byers opens Malaria with a swath of indirect character presentation via exposition through the eyes of the narrator, Orlando. He quickly summarizes himself and his then-girlfriend, Nora Vardon—including what he thinks their outward and inward appearances are like, what they are generally doing in life, who they hang out with, and how they associate with one another. The effect of this information is that we expect a change in their love story (or anti-love story) to unfold in the coming pages and we expect it to include some significant presence of either the Vardon family’s “depressives and schizophrenics” or Orlando’s “bunch of drunks, mainly the men on [his] father’s side.” While the story unfolds with the former, the latter is still of importance. The author has created longevity to the characters; what might yet befall Nora and George, or Orlando, who is poised as the next man in a line of alcoholics, beyond the confines of this story? With that in mind, I find it interesting that the first line of direct dialogue is from Orlando himself, regarding his name saying, “They wanted me to be different.”

While Byers uses summary and indirect dialogue to great effect, from a reader’s perspective there is a clear change in attention when he begins using direct dialogue. There is a lot of thought-provoking banter between Mrs. Vardon, Nora and Orlando that circles around racial identity. The resulting conversation allows a reader to interpret the perceived intellectual levels of the characters, but also brings in some very important ideas about “othering” and “sadness” and “problems,” that interacts with the rest of the text in very peculiar ways considering that son and brother George Vardon is diagnosed with schizophrenia within the story.

There is a skillful manipulation of indirect and direct dialogue throughout this story that allows the reader to draw their own opinions and ideas of and about each character presented, and procure a sense of empathy or sympathy for each one. Because of these direct glimpses we are given of the characters that beacon the story, there is no real need to question Orlando despite the vast amount of exposition that comes from his point of view. I think this allows for a greater connection between Orlando and the reader, which is important because of the nature of what “changes” or “goes wrong” within this story. That slightly sick feeling that Orlando seems to have over George’s long-passed Malaria comment is more easily understood because we were there (through direct dialogue) in the key moments that produced those feelings.

Aside from the use of direct and indirect method, it was an intriguing experience for me to be able to see how mental health issues can seriously affect the people that are surrounded by those who have them. Somehow it stripped away a level of loneliness and perhaps even added a level of bonding that I would not have imagined had I not read this story.

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