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

Markus Zusak – The Book Thief

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Do we need another Holocaust story?

The Holocaust was horrible. I doubt anyone will argue otherwise. Even those who claim it was nothing special are redundant. No massacre was as systematic and well-organized as this. The Holocaust comes with built-in emotional appeals, so you can’t blame me for being skeptic about The Book Thief. The fact that it’s for Young Adults, became popular and is narrated by Death makes everything worse. It looks like something that aims for the heart strings. It will manipulate you with tragedy and then give you some easy answer.

Only it’s not what happens. This is more like Fault in Our Stars. It’s a novel that feels like the result of harrowing research. Zusak writes like he’s trying to cope with believing that the Age of Social Catastrophe really happened. It’s not about a Holocaust. It’s about trying to come to terms with how reality shifted since WWII.

It was a nightmare. The Nazis, Pol Pot, the Russian Communism, the War – it sounds like an extinction event. It must’ve shook everyone. How does civilization continue from such a devastating event?

Zusak creates a character whose own story could somehow encompass this mess. His protagonist isn’t a Jew or a slave in the Gulag. This would make his book too specific. She’s also not a person from the highest echelon of society, for whom death was a complete shocker. Liesel is somewhere in the middle. She knows what death is and she knows what happiness is. She doesn’t know what so much death is.

Zusak wants to prod into what grief is. He’s trying to come to terms with it and while the story doesn’t rely on ass-pulled happy endings, it’s less dark than Green’s famous novel about cancer. People die and bad stuff happens, but Zusak’s attempts at staying optimism aren’t convincing. They sound like denial of tragedy rather than confronting it.

Hans’ character is the worst bit. He’s like Atticus, remaining moral and good-willing no matter how terrible things are. We don’t get a reason why he’s like this. He’s an angelic figure at reads more like Zusak convincing himself that there were good Germans,

You don’t need Jew-loving Germans to make us sympathize with them. A bolder move would be to show us the German who either bought into Nazism, or just cared only about his own skin. This would be harder to do, but more insightful. Zusak already chose to tell the story about Germans and not Jews, for a change. Despite all their power, the Nazis were the losers and their story wasn’t heard. The novel reminds us that there was more in that time period besides dying Jews and the assholes who ran the camps.

Hans is better than Atticus, though. Around the middle Zusak lets him fall like he should. In fact, Zusak puts a lot of characters through breakdowns and allows each to have his own way of coping. He doesn’t manage to create a convincing enough psychology. His characters are too quirky. They stick to their quirks rather than reveal new things about their personality. Still, he gives each of them their own way of coping. It’s hard to write a convincing psychology, but an honest attempt gives extra points.

He also avoids the trope of showing a happy life that’s followed by a tragedy. That’s easy to do. Zusak’s Himmel Street isn’t a happy world of quirky people who are happy despite being poor. It’s a world of ups and downs, childish fights, hunger and friendship. It’s often disconnected from the big story of WWII but isn’t that the point? While war goes on, people are trying to live as usual.

It’s also interesting to see a 21st century view of war applied to WWII. There are no heroes and villains in this war. It’s just people doing their job. People are afraid of bombs, but don’t care much who they’re fighting against. War is ugly, regardless of which side you on. Thankfully, Zusak doesn’t take the leap to conclude there’s a grand conspiracy at works. He avoids ranting about fat white men smoking cigars, planning to bomb children for their own amusement.

His take on Hitler though, is a mess. He obscures his view in a children’s book. It’s either a cop-out or a clever way of saying how childish it is to paint Hitler as some senseless bad guy. There are some philosophizing about words, but they don’t lead to anywhere. Books are pretty important, words have power but is war the result of the failure of words? Or can war be caused by and solved by words? Zusak knows that portraying the Nazis as hating books is a straw man. Mein Kampf is their Bible. Where does he draw the line? He raises questions but never explores them enough to help me come to answer of my own. It’s just there.

While the idea of Death narrating the story is pretty cool, it’s also not used to its advantage. Death’s tone is interesting. Current Western society (and a lot of cultures in general) despise death and view it as the most terrible thing. Check the panic around the idea that everyone has the right to die. Death’s tone is not cruel but almost detached. It’s a sad inevitability that we must accept.

There’s not much insight beyond this. Death is a psychopomp, but not much else. It’s not even a new spin. The problem is that death is presented as this general thing. There are various causes of death and we treat each of them differently. It would be better if Zusak used this to make Death more complex. Suicide, war, old age – we react differently to those deaths. Digimon Tamers gave us an original spin by personoficating suicide specifically. Zusak had a chance to portray all kinds of deaths, but instead it’s monolithic.

The stylized prose also doesn’t always work. Zusak knows what he wants. He’s trying to be poetic by creating a rhythm and separaitng paragraphs. His descriptions are sensual and not precise. Cliches still attack him. The weather is always mentioned, which is such a redundant technique that it doesn’t matter how much purpose it has. The poetic style also often leads to more telling than showing. While there are interesting reactions to disaster, in general the characters don’t have enough to do. We’re being told about them, and they end up more quirky than humane.

It would’ve worked if Zusak was more determined what kind of book this was. If the whole thing was supposed to be pseudo-poetic all the way, then the occasional ‘manipulative’ moment could be excused. If your whole story is one large poem, everything will probably be exaggarated and an angelic figure like Hans would be easier to swallow. Too often the poetic stylings cover up the characters instead of revealing them.

It’s an interesting enough book that doesn’t justify the hype, but doesn’t deserve to be lumped as another brain-dead best seller. It resorts to failed tricks as much as it has original ideas. It reads more like an interesting experiment by a writer who has a great book in him, rather than a hack who can only pull the heart strings. Hopefully, the sales will make Zusak take his craft more seriously.

3 stolen books out of 5