Why bother, Anna Jackson

Tomorrow the Dark
Ken Catran
Lothian, $17.95,
ISBN 0734404174

The Thin Line
V K Joseph
Mallinson Rendel, $16.95,
ISBN 090878371X

Right Where It Hurts
David Hill
Mallinson Rendel, $15.95,
ISBN 0908783701

Alchemy
Margaret Mahy
HarperCollins, $14.99,
ISBN 0007131356

I’ve been reading Jonathan Franzen’s collection of essays <How To Be Alone, and it is likely I’ll be quoting him for a while now, always with the dust-jacket photo of him in the back of my mind. (I like his dark-rimmed glasses and I think I can see what he can’t see – that is, why men driving past in utility vehicles feel compelled to yell obscenities at him.) But even before reading his essay ”Why bother”, I’d been thinking that exact thought: why bother about young adult fiction (YA) – largely as a response to the books I am reviewing .

Franzen is writing about the problem of being a writer in an age of television, of writing in an age when people don’t read. He distinguishes two kinds of readers: the modelled-habit readers, who read because their parents read and they have friends who read, and the social-isolates. The social-isolates read out of a sense of isolation; they read from a position of difference, and find in reading a new kind of community. This kind of reader is the kind most likely to grow up into a writer, which creates a bit of a problem for Franzen and his fellow-novelists. With the modelled-habit readers dropping off in numbers, and the social-isolates all producing their own novels, Franzen and co are running
out of readers for their works.

The books I am reviewing, except perhaps for the Mahy, seem not to be written for the social-isolate reader (though stuck in a waiting room or, quite likely, an asylum, he’ll read anything), nor even really for the modelled-habit reader. The extremely impoverished language and basic syntax leads me to suspect that they are written for the non-reader. Two of the books, The Thin Line and Tomorrow the Dark, have boy heroes who seem very clearly non-readers themselves. The other two, Right Where It Hurts and Alchemy, seem to be actively working to model exemplary reading habits – as if modelled-habit readers could be created by the books themselves. Significantly, perhaps, none of the main characters are what you could call social-isolates, unlike the characters that I remember from my own high school reading – Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Holden Caulfield, the kid in I Am the Cheese, even Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar.

2

So, these are not books the writers are writing for themselves nor for today’s socially-isolated readers. Of the four, it is Ken Catran’s Tomorrow the Dark which seems most likely to appeal to a non-reading high school boy. Here, reading couldn’t be more irrelevant. It begins with the hero, Jon, preparing for battle, with his crash helmet, leather clothes, father’s boots, and sword. Every night, he is out fighting the “dry things” – flying monsters with poisoned talons – one scratch and that’s it, you crumble away. The battles are vividly realised with excellent details about things like blood on the visor and crumbling vertebrae.

Jon’s particular skill at fighting the “dry things” leads to his recognition as a potential leader by Ryder, a section head. Jon is recruited into Ryder’s inner circle, a position which benefits not just him but his whole family. The book has got you worried enough about them starving that you really don’t want Jon to do anything that might jeopardise this new supply of bacon and coffee.

This leads to the kind of moral dilemma you’d expect: what happens when Jon begins to doubt Ryder’s leadership and approach, while valuing his friendship, his recognition of his skills, and the benefits the friendship brings his family? All this is interesting – especially as the relationship between Ryder and Jon is portrayed as complex and believable. But it did just seem a bit too predictable that our first clue that Ryder might not be our man is the distrust shown in him by the novel’s love interest. I thought, “Oh, please don’t just make Bronwyn be right, just because she’s a girl with black hair.”

And were this not a novel, it is so obvious that she would be wrong. Bronwyn’s theory is that you should just try and talk to the “dry things”; if you stopped fighting them, they might leave you alone. Talk to them? These alien life-forms with claws that reduce you to rubble with one scratch? Who destroyed most of the population of every city in the first 24 hours after they first arrived “like a death-plague dropping from the dark skies”? The pacifist moral of this book seems wildly out of place.

3

Two of these novels, The Thin Line and Right Where It Hurts, seem to have been written along moral lines right from the start – which at least means the endings aren’t such a disappointment – if you get to the end. The Thin Line explores the notion of responsibility, that you can’t run away from your problems. Kane is running away from the discovery of his girlfriend in the arms of his best mate. Driving under the influence of alcohol, he hits a small child. Thinking the child dead, he runs into the bush where he nearly kills the hunter he hooks up with, and so runs away from him too. The bit of not-running Kane does, when he actually connects with this hunter, is at the heart of the book, and I did find this relationship a little bit moving. But, essentially, Kane’s stupidity is not compelling because it is simply too stupid. Here is Kane on finding his girlfriend with his best mate: “How could she? How could they?” This is as probing as it gets. After this insightful moment, he tends just to think “Shit.” He thinks “shit” often – at least six times in the first couple of chapters. When he hits the child, he thinks “Shit! Shit! Shit!” 

Perhaps Kane is a realistic portrayal of a non-book-reading type, socially isolated only till the resolution of the book sees him back interested in another girl (the child’s mother). David Hill’s Slade Tyson is strikingly unrealistic as a character, but then he performs a different function: his role is to model the habit of reading to the readers reading about him. Slade’s language is similarly crude and unexpressive. “Shit!” is what he thinks when he sees Mallory Garner, the love interest of this story. But Slade wants to be a poet. He’s pretty up front about it, as only someone socially confident could be:

Weird? A guy writing poetry? That’s your problem.

I reckon poetry is one of the toughest things you can try. Finding the exact words … that’s hard, boy.

 

But “finding the right words” is precisely what Slade, as a narrator, never really achieves. And his liking for the poetry of Elizabeth Smither is just so unconvincing. I can believe the I Am the Cheese kid reads Thomas Wolfe, that Holden Caulfield loves The Great Gatsby, that Franny is passionate about The Way of the Pilgrim, because their reading works as a way of defining self (the way other kids define themselves by the albums they listen to), as a way of thinking through ideas and values, as having an impact on their lives. But these are all social-isolate characters whom social-isolate readers might identify with (and borrow booklists from). They are less likely to engage the interest of the non-reader who needs to be modelled to the reading habit.

So, if modelled reading is not likely to draw the young adult non-reader in, what might?

Each of the books reviewed has romance as a central feature. On the whole, it is romance which distinguishes young adult fiction from books for children. According to Rose Lovell-Smith, who lectures and researches in the field of children’s literature at Auckland University, YA fiction emerged as a category around about the 1960s and 1970s – though she suggests that we could see novels like Pride and Prejudice as essentially belonging to this category. A provocative idea. Certainly other Austen novels, like Northanger Abbey, model the habit of reading though there it tends to be young girls, rather than young men, who are portrayed as readers.

But, in addition to romance, the other great preoccupation that emerges as adolescents leave childhood is an interest in abstract ideas (something to do with the pruning of synapses). Which is why a book like Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game is so appealing in adolescence: a novel in which the main character is a game played with beads, manipulating cultural references into abstract patterns.

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The legendary psychologist Bruno Bettelheim is described as teaching by “courting the intelligence of the young person”. In Margaret Mahy’s Alchemy, the two new interests of adolescence, courtship and abstract ideas, are nicely entwined. Alchemy, like the other novels here, centres around a popular kid at school, not at all your social-isolate reader. Roland, however, is a reader, who enjoys his secret association of himself with the Childe Roland who to the dark tower came. Even Jonathan Franzen stops to ask, “Do the team captains and class presidents really not have souls?” Roland’s growing awareness of his soul and his growing awareness of the real social-isolate of this novel, Jess Ferret, comes with a feeling that, in his daily life, “he was really copying his usual self.” Social-isolates know well the feeling new to Roland, that real life is elsewhere than the life you lead – for them it is in books.

In Alchemy, what’s real is what is unreal – the fantasy element of the novel, in which Roland has access to a world of infinite space, Jess can stop time and freeze people, and both he and Jess are being controlled by forces outside their rational understanding. It all works brilliantly as a metaphor for teenage romance and for this new access to levels of thought never before even imagined, but the book also demands to be read with a suspension of disbelief, an acceptance of the fantasy as real within the world of the book. That said, the realistic parts are just as convincing. The courtship between Roland and Jess is particularly appealing; they do in fact court each other’s intelligence. Jess entertains Roland with word-play: “the flattery of being seen” turns into “the battery of fleeing scene”.

Social-isolates have had such a good press for so long that, interestingly, it is now the popular school kid who needs redeeming as a character, whose soul needs to be proved. Are the non-reading team captains and class presidents going to be drawn to these books that have a team captain type as hero, rather than a social-isolate? Might Roland’s interest in Jess encourage team captains to pay attention to the social-isolates in their classrooms?

Alchemy, I think, remains a book for the social-isolate, for the real reader. For a YA book, it begins surprisingly with a scene from Roland’s childhood, and a scene of pure fantasy – young Roland is drawn, for the first time, into infinite space by Quando the magician. Mahy is not, then, trying to reach a new audience with this popular team-captain-type hero. The team captain wouldn’t get past the first chapter. Alchemy is set up for readers already familiar with the fantasy genre, willing to be taken a bit further, willing to stretch the boundaries of the genre, probably already familiar with Mahy as a writer who will not disappoint. Readers are more likely to identify with Jess and to enjoy Roland’s interest
in Jess as the interest the team captain could be feeling in them, if he would only look their way.

Which brings us back to the problem of what to get the non-reader to read. I suggest courting their intelligence, playing on the interest in ideas – which might be extended by science fiction, for example. Philip K Dick isn’t even hard to grasp, and there are abridged versions of classics by H G Wells and Jules Verne and other similar writers available. Penguin Readers offers abridged versions at graded levels of literacy of all sorts of good classics. A shaky level of literacy doesn’t have to doom readers to texts without intellectual sophistication.

Or you could always assign them Jonathan Franzen’s How to Be Alone.

 

Anna Jackson teaches in the School of English, Film and Theatre at Victoria University of Wellington.

 

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Posted in Children, Fiction, Literature, Review and Young adults
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