A.S. King – Please Ignore Vera Dietz

 

verdietz__spanJust a while ago, I read a Young Adult novel that seems to be the positive mirror of this. It was Jennifer Brown’s Hate List. Both novels deal with a tragedy, specifically a girl losing a boy to death and how it affects their lives. The relationship was big. Both happen to be outcasts in a Nowheresville. Relationships with the family is rocky and there is a sexually-active, supposedly hot chick that’s evil involved.

The difference is in how Hate List is darker, but more sympathetic whereas King’s book has more shocking content on the surface but less of the empathy which is truly disturbing. Therefore, at the bottom there isn’t much horror or insight. King lays out at the beginning who are the good guys and who are the bad. Nowhere in the novel do they get a chance to prove otherwise and we don’t get any view of their inner world. Dad figure swings from bad to good, and it’s actually nice to see a parental figure being allowed to be flawed but not a complete asshole. Sadly, this is where the good characterization ends.

I’m all for novels like this. Teenagers need books like these which deal with drugs, sex and death. They experience these things at this age and sometimes what they need isn’t the perspective of an adult, but a lot of perspectives similar to theirs. Books like this mention the important subject, but they offer such a narrow perspective. Perhaps for those for whom death and alcoholism ring close, this book can be some kind of an emotional outlet. For the rest of us, though, it’s too close-minded.

My issue is not with the content and not even that it’s quite wacky, moving away from the gritty-realism authors like this try to imitate. I can take the octagonal treehouse and teenagers burning shit down. I can even take the enigmatic, hot outcast male. Where’s the life in them, though?

Charlie isn’t as bad as Green’s females, but we still get a character with zero personal issues that we’re supposed to adore. He’s a dream boy – wild, untamed, skinny, always doing things, putting a tough exterior but is actually romantic and with some emotional issues. Of course, the romantic side and the emotional baggage is never let out – because men with emotions aren’t sexy. For some reason, too, love interests in these novels are always skinny and this is passed off as if it’s against the beauty ideal.

Eventually he goes to the dark side to be with ‘cool people’. King’s version of the Evil Cool isn’t jocks and football junkies for a change, but a bunch of druggies and a rocker girl. As for her, she happens to have a lot of sex and is nasty to people. Why she’s nasty to people, we never understand. Her sexual nature is also often painted hostile and morally low, but I’m not sure why besides the fact it’s ‘conformist’ – unlike Charlie who is really cool and builds treehouses.

She’s so nasty that she ruins everyone’s lives. I’m sure there are people like this, but if only King gave us a little insight into why she does what she does. Jenny ends up being nothing more than a plot device and someone we could hate. Besides breaking up between the main character and her lover, she has no role.

Many characters in this novel fit a scary template in fiction – characters whose main purpose is that we’ll have something to hate. Such characters contain some qualities that nearly everyone will claim as bad – cruelty, sadism, lack of empathy. On top of that the authors will put something else to make them uncool, like being stupid or doing too many drugs or being too conserative, or maybe just racist. We’ll be expected to really detest this character and hope for their downfall.

The problem is, we often feel this way in real life towards people because it’s all we’ve been exposed to. Sometimes hating people is justified, but what’s wrong is hating them while denying their humanity. Once we draw a too distinct line between us and the evil, we override the purpose of morality. Morality then is not decided by deeds or virtues, but by people. ‘A is just because of X’ becomes ‘A is just because B is unjust’. That type of morality leaves no room for redemption, and so no room for admitting when we’re wrong (since we can’t be – the other side must be wrong!). Once we adopt such a morality, nothing prevents us from becoming what we hate.

Sadly this is what King has to offer us. Jenny and the others remain an enigma – assholes without character. If only King would’ve developed further, maybe she could’ve conjured something more horrifying, more haunting. Evil is at its scariest when we realize we can do it, too. That’s why pictures of serial killers are so frightening. We look at them and see flesh and blood just like us.

Plot doesn’t matter much in novels like these since the psychological development of the character is important. King is better than Brown in creating a main character. The writing is utilitarian and doesn’t add much, but there’s a toughness to the writing, an edge that lets Vera be more than an outcast. She’s a tough person who bottles it all until it comes back out. While King is not the peak of minimalism, she lets just enough edge to let this psyche be expressed in the prose.

It would’ve been better if she didn’t need a big event for the story to revolve on. Considering how Vera has enough depth to carry a story on her own – not much, but just enough – big explosions were unnecessary. All we needed was to see these characters go about their lives, how their worldviews and personalities – Vera’s detachment, will to be responsible and for escapism and Charlie’s adventurous spirit – collide, stray, collide again and eventually fall apart. She does it quite successfully throughout the novel. The relationship is convincing enough with how the characters relate and then go separate ways when puberty hits.

Scattered throughout the novels are other perspectives – the pagoda, the father. King doesn’t have the writing ability to give these a new tone. Don’t look at the heading and you’ll find the father and the daughter are speaking in the same internal voice. Still, it’s a refreshing addition that almost gets close to adding empathy to this story. Sadly, these are tidbits, not a choice of method that re-frames the whole novel. Most likely a young author will be inspired by this but will accidentally credit As I Lay Dying.

It’s quick and to the point, but mostly it’s an insulting collection of stereotypes. We all could use books, like music, that offer us catharsis but this is not a song that will carry on to future years. It’s more like your first local show, where the mere presence of sound and emotion is enough to inspire you to keep digging. You won’t remember precise details about that band, and the same goes for this book.

1.5 rocker girls out of 5

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Jennifer Brown – Hate List

תוצאת תמונה עבור ‪jennifer brown hate list‬‏

Whenever the subject of school shooting rears its head, someone has to point out that it’s a topic for overly-privileged kids. The mere act of talking about privilege in this context is a display of a lack of empathy, not a clever critique of society. It also misses the point, and why school shooting became so iconic. To understand that you have to understand what a terror attack is.

A terror attack isn’t one where people simply get hurt. Killing isn’t even the main objective. Terror is communicative violence, its purpose is to attack an icon and make everyone connect that icon to the event. Notice that the most famous terror attacks are always connected to a major place. The twin towers aren’t just big, but in an iconic place in an iconic city. The purpose was to make us always fear whenever we’re near that ground, and many will be near that ground since it’s so iconic. Terror attacks are meant to devastate us, to cause emotional damage far beyond the initial event.

Jennifer Brown generally takes the well-worn narrative of the school shooting, that of a bullied kid having his revenge on the world. Consciously or unconsciously though, she’s aware of the meaning of a school shooting, its similarity to a terror attack. Her book isn’t so much about bullying but about the devastating effect of a tragedy.

Although written in the typical form of a Young Adult novel – minimalist, first-person, a whole lot of reflection and emotional confession – the book tries to break outside its main character’s head. In the end of the novel Brown wrote this was Valerie’s story, and the structure may fit this but the content doesn’t. She’s a character as much as she is a window for us to witness the effect of tragedy on people.

Thankfully, Brown tries to grasp the complexity and psychology in the fallout of tragedy. Everyone reacts differently. Some stick to their old ways. Others radically change it. Some are angry, others become forgiving because what’s the point? Tragedy doesn’t make us into angelic beings. You actually can’t predict what tragedy will make of us.

Brown doesn’t manage to capture it with enough complexity to have impact. Only in the end there is a truly profound moment, one where the fragility of being human is captured. A short inscription on the grave of the shooter gets it. His grave is pushed aside with a small epitaph because he is the killer after all, but the killer had a mom who loved him after all. It echoes Susan Klebold’s article, or any interview with a parent of a killer. Victims had families who will never be the same again, but the killer also had a family who loved him.

A good chunk of the book is about this, about carrying on knowing the person you loved is a killer. I wish Brown would’ve delved into this dilemma more deeply, but then again this is extremely difficult. The highlights are the moments where Valerie is allowed to reminisce about the good times, and where she’s trying to connect what she knew of Nick to the violence. In these moments, despite the lack of character development, she finds some emotional punch.

Like many a Young Adult novelists, Brown’s characters are driven by emotion, not a psyche that’s unique to them. She has enough empathy that her characters react in various ways. Even the assholes who don’t change, who become more asshole-ish still come off as human being. Their point of view is there in front of us. Sure, it sucks for Valerie, but it also sucks for the father. His character is the most interesting since he’s supposed to be the least sympathetic – the father who abandons his family for a younger woman. His behavior never goes against this archetype, but in subtle moments we’re allowed to understand him and why he’d go after someone younger.

The portrayal is complex because of the variety of reactions. The problem is these are just reactions floating around, not tied to anything. Those few who get developed don’t end up as anything interesting. Nick is a typical sexy outcast – thin, listens to Rock music and can quote Shakespear. Bullying in this novel isn’t quite convincing, since Nick too often plays like a sexy mysterious guy. It’s not overdone, but nothing about him is especially weird. Bullies seek the weirdo, the one who isn’t flamboyent, doesn’t rebel and doesn’t have anything to offer but weirdness.

Likewise, it’s hard to think of what we learned about these characters. They’re human enough, but the complexity is too vague. It’s all outlines which are good enough, but I’m left here constructing their psyche. For once, minimalism betrayed the story. This story needed some inspiration from Dreisser, long slow moments that show who they are beyond the tragedy. Brown focuses so much on the effect of tragedy she creates people who have no lives outside of the tragedy. It’s only half the work.

It’s a shame, because otherwise Brown proves to be more capable than her peers. YA has a lot of talented writers, but they capture the spirit, the energy of youth without enough depth. These are enjoyable books, but mostly as research material before you write your own. Brown does a little better by widening her perspective, and so the novel is not just the story of Valerie but of everyone and how they deal with grief, how they cope with the tragedy. If only we could get a little deeper underneath these reactions, if only we could hear more than just their voices but let us walk in their shoes. I can’t tell if Brown doesn’t try or is just in incapable, but widening her reach is enough to give this novel extra emotional punch.

Hate List is not a total classic in the genre, but it deserves some respect in it. Many authors could learn from Brown’s wide reach, and the topic of school shooting gets a respectful treatment for once. Perhaps Brown is not just good enough to reach those heights, but she knows which mountains to climbs, what to do and so the novel has far more good in it than bad.

3 out of 5

John Green – Paper Towns

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You can trace growth if you follow Green’s novels in the order they came out. In Alaska, he used literature as a way to live his fantasies. On Stars, he used literature to come to terms with a devastating experience. Paper Towns is a direct response to Alaska. If that one was wish-fulfillment, this is about bursting the fantasy.

Only Green can’t completely abandon it. The similar cast isn’t because of a lack of ideas. It’s the same story as before but it’s told differently. This time everyone is more flawed, slightly less quirky. The teenagers are no longer a bunch of outcasts who conquer the world because outcasts are charming. They’re a bunch of losers who know their place and try to break away from it.

It’s more realistic in places. Being an outcast is only fun if you have a huge group of it. You still wish you were one of the popular kids who have more fun than you. You still have the same desires for women and big social events. These desires of wanting to break out add a degree of realism that’s important. Green blurs a little the duality of the Cute Nerds and Asshole Jocks.

Then he completely slides into wish-fulfillment fantasy again. Asshole jocks get their payback, and there’s a little sympathy but mostly sadistic glee. A complete loser whose  one major achievement is blending in with the cool boys somehow wins the heart of a hot girl. Our protagonist, who’s mostly an unpleasant loser too wins the heart of the ultimate girl.

If only Green could see through it all. Margo is better than Alaska, but by not much. The main idea behind her is ripping off the curtian of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Quentin is John Green when he lusted after that girl, only Green now knows that women don’t exist to bring excitement into men’s worlds. They’re supposed to be flawed human beings like us.

How flawed is Margo though? It’s clever how Green rarely shows her good traits. We get them mostly second-hand from Quentin, emphasizing that it’s just his perception. There isn’t enough of the counter story, or the counter story doesn’t match the novel’s concluso.

Margo is a spoiled brat, a horrible person, the sort of person who’ll fall in love with an abusive rock star and justify it. We’re meant to think she’s flawed, but Green is unaware of how terrible she is. She’s an angsty teenager with no reason to be angsty. Her only problem in life is that the world around her is ‘fake’ or some bullshit philosophy like that.

What’s so ‘fake’ about the suburbs, though? Margo actually leads an exciting life in Orlando. She has everyone wanting her. She has the guts to take trips and midnight drives. Her environment doesn’t really confine her, since she could still go through all kinds of adventures while still studying and graduating. Margo’s myth is questioned, but not her desires. Her desires are just every silly teenager’s fantasy.

Only the jocks and the nerds are mature enough to understand you can’t live your life as a constant, glorious adventure. Humans are social animals and you have to be a part of the community even if only for your own good. Green never looks at how ridiculous and self-centered this is. He’s willing to admit women don’t exist for men’s pleasure, but he’s still selling us the fantasy of the Ultimate Girl.

Maybe I could’ve bought it if Margo was genuinaly weird. She’s not. She reminds me a lot of a certain person. It’s the sort of privilege that gives birth into hedonists with expansive vocabulary. Margo may read literature and use big words but in the end all she wants to do is have fun. She’s a kid who refuses to grow up. When her parents express disdain I was told outright how terrible they are. All I really thought was, they’re right. Margo is horrible. There isn’t enough psychology to her to make that horrible-ness interesting, so I just wanted for somthing bad to happen to her

The storytelling is often more convinient than realistic or weird. The characters are quirky in charming ways, not in odd or conflicting ones. There’s a brief rift in the friendship between Ben and Quentin which is the most exciting part of the novel, but it only lasts for a few pages.

During these few pages Green proves he can be a good writer. He can ask questions and not just emotionally manipulate. It’s a fight between friends, the kind that throws in their face the fact they’re changing. Bubbles bursting are always exciting because that’s when our worldview changes, when we’re in an emotional storm. Green just writes it away so quickly.

The novel could’ve easily taken a better route. What if instead of it being about finding Margo, Green made it about growing up and realizing how stupid our teenage dreams are? What if it’s about realizing there’s no Ultimate Girl, that the jocks are people too, that hot girls can have a personality and that we have to live with rejection?

The ending isn’t too happy, but the kissing was forced. There’s no reason for Quentin and Margo to be together. Quentin is an observer protagonist whose main trait is that he’s a self-centered asshole who only cares about his own fantasies (That’s not addressed). I already commented about Margo. I don’t think ‘unpleasantness’ is the sort of trait that makes for romantic relationship. Since when did hedonistic girls like Margo have long crushes on boring, timid guys like Quentin?

Green’s prose is good though. It flows quickly and he has a better tone here. It’s more sombre and reflective which fits with his desires to question his fantasies. The banter remains out of place, though. Only Ben’s wisecracks have anything to do with his personality. Quentin suddenly becomes clever for a second and then goes back to being Shinji Ikari without the psychology.

The theme of suicide also crops up in a few instances, but then it comes back to the hole. Sometimes the novel is on the verge of understanding it. The cliches of how you should never give up don’t appear. Anytime he comes close to saying something interesting he chickens out. He wasn’t ready for this yet.

It’s a decent novel and Green is an expert in manipulating emotions. It’s almost commendable and I’m sure I’d eaten this up if I was in high school. I’m no longer there and I see through my fantasies. There are a lot of good moments and good writing, especially in the middle. Green’s strength in at least capturing how teenagers feel like is here. It’s sad that he uses this mostly to wallow in his own fantasies. He can write insightful. He can write a Young Adult novel that will crack open the genre but this is not it.

2.5 manic pixie dream girls out of 5