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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I See Stars – Treehouse

treehouse
I See Stars produced one of the finest metalcore songs in “Ten Thousand Feet”. It was an astonishing achievement. While it wasn’t catchy, it had deep textures using Trap music, a dynamic but focused structure, a beautiful melody and a strong candidate for heaviest breakdown ever. If the song is about a plane crashing, the breakdown at the end is the aural equivalent. There’s a similar, brilliant breakdown here in “Mobbin’ Out”.

They can make good heavy music, but their reliance on heaviness was always their undoing. After transforming into an artistic Trancecore band, the guitars always drowned out the vocals. You kept waiting for a beautiful texture or for a bass drop only to have the guitarist chug all over it with the dude screaming nonsensical lyrics. One song like “Ten Thousand Feet” is enough, but when the dance section of “NZT48” is barely a minute long despite being the band’s finest hour, it’s clear they’re is holding themselves back.

The departure of the screaming vocalist and the guitarist was a blessing. No Trancecore band will benefit more from getting rid of their heavy side. I See Stars’ charm wasn’t in the contrasting between loud noises and electronics. It never was much of a contrast, and their aesthetic put them closer to Celldweller than Issues. Treehouse is an opportunity to expand on their electronic side, but it doesn’t really do that either. This is the band’s most accessible and artistic record. If it was made by another band, it would be acclaimed as Indie Rock’s clever take on Trancecore.

The roots of Trancecore are here, but the approach is completely different. Trancecore/Metalcore is party music. It’s about slamming, having a great chorus and screaming profanities. I See Stars were more sophisticated about this than others, but “Ten Thousand Feet” still relied on the fun of the heaviness. They don’t go full EDM on Treehouse. Rather, they become softer, focusing more on beauty and vulnerability. Considering “Murder Mitten” is one of their best songs, this shouldn’t be surprising.

What is surprising is to hear such tenderness over breakdowns and wobbles. “Break” is the album’s defining moment. The chugging riffs with the wobbles are ready for a DJ set, but the context is different. There’s something so pretty and cute about Devin singing “Did your heart let someone in?” over twinkling electronics. It’s almost like they’re moving towards Midwest Emo. When the guitars hit again, it’s not so much ready for partying as it is the sound of the song’s subject breaking.

Wobbles and dance beats appear, but the departure of the loudest members lets the band experiment with a new kind of electronic. The sounds more warmer, more fragile. It has more in common with Skrillex’s soft work. The album’s obligatory detour into pure electronic territory isn’t a club banger. “Walking on Gravestones” is a slow dance track with chopped vocals. It’s more gloomy than Skrillex’s soft tracks, tackling that sort of nostalgia you feel at the end of a great social event knowing you probably won’t see those people event.

There are some heavy moments here, but now the band is liberated they sound even better. “Mobbin’ Out” is the closest they come to their old style, but even that song is bizarre. It has the fragility of the album, with verses sung over beautiful soundscapes. It all builds up like an EDM track to two different breakdowns with bass wobbles. What’s bizarre is that between those breakdowns, you still get the emotional resonance. In a way, it’s a misstep. It’s too heavy and fun to be beautiful but too beautiful to be in a party playlist. Still, it’s fun enough. “All In” is inspired by Trap without actually containing any Trap beats. At first it’s too much of a tease, but hearing semi-rapping over breakdowns is pretty cool.

In their previous efforts I See Stars forgot about catchy hooks. Their melodies were pretty, but not immediate. This is the same story here, but that’s okay. The melodies may not be immediate but they’re beautiful, especially when Devin lets the gentle side of his voice out. Pretty much every song here has such a moment that sounds so cute – “Light in the Cave”, “White Lies”, “Calm Snow”. They return to the teen atmosphere of The End of the World Party, only now it’s wide-eyed but scared. If that album was about a party full of weird people, this is the aftermath – when relationships fall apart and you sometimes have to say goodbye

Treehouse is a beautiful rock album. For once, the band doesn’t just tease something. It’s no longer a good Metalcore record with some EDM interludes or soundscapes. The band has a different promise this time, and they deliver it. Breakdowns, for a change, aren’t just heavy but add weight to an album full of beautiful melodies and soundscapes. I See Stars aren’t a part of any scene now. They combined their influence with a specific vibe they want and made an original album that anyone who likes guitars will find something to enjoy here. If this was a debut album by a new band, it’d get massive hype.

4 portals out of 5