Guts and gonads, David Hill

Playing to Win
Fleur Beale
Scholastic, $12.95, ISBN 1 86943 410 2

Lester
Bernard Beckett
Longacre, $14.95, ISBN 1 877135 21 6

The Tiggie Tompson Show
Tessa Duder
Puffin, $15.95, ISBN 0 14 130503 7

Compulsion
Tania Kelly Roxborogh
Scholastic, $12.95, ISBN 1 86943 416 1

One of the more committed critics of New Zealand writing for kids and teenagers spoke on Radio New Zealand’s Bookmarks a while back. She complained that our authors in this area are social-agenda-driven, and that there’s nothing being written here to let young readers explore the fantasy worlds – she quoted C S Lewis and Enid Blyton as examples – that they need for emotional and literary enrichment.

Character and intellect building through reading fantasy? There’s a social-agenda-driven approach for you, and one with which I agree entirely. Kiwi kids are lucky to have such writers as Sherryl Jordan, Jack Lasenby, Vivienne Joseph, James Norcliffe and Margaret Mahy working in and around the genre – though our critic doesn’t seem to have read any of them.

Social-agenda-driven authors? (I think she also called them “politically correct”, which usually translates as “something that presents viewpoints that disturb me”.) I agree with her once again. Pretty well all the children’s/young adult authors I know write mainly because they notice something in the world that provokes them, and that they think is worth telling others about. I imagine that’s why C S Lewis wrote. I’m not so sure about Enid Blyton; I suspect megalomania may have squeezed in there.

Our critic didn’t mean that, of course. She sees NZ writers for young people as force-feeders: ramming ideas and issues (trendy liberal ones, naturally) down throats; sneakily edging the nation’s future towards anarchy, dole-bludging, and the destruction of the nuclear family.

Sorry, lady. It’s a scenario that strokes lots of preconceptions and prejudices. But it’s ludicrously inaccurate, and wildly insulting to young readers.

Kids come equipped with the very latest model of Hemingway’s bullshit detector. When confronted with didactic tracts, they behave just like the family cat facing a plate of gravy beef laced with antibiotic. They approach, sniff, sneer, and turn away. Teachers know this. Publishers and authors know this.

Most of New Zealand’s authors for young readers are producing stories that agree it’s a tricky world out there, and everyone stuffs things up at different times, but people matter, and it’s worth hanging in. The stories acknowledge this, but they seldom push or preach it. Instead, they set it in a context of plot(s), characters and relationships, which are the elements writers really enjoy playing around with. Some books do this consummately. Some do it competently. Try these four.

2

Fleur Beale is a mistress of her trade. Her plots are cleanly-structured and well-paced. Her adolescents are authentic proto-humans, with guts and gonads. Dialogue is crammed and laconic. Beale’s stories look good; she knows she’s writing for a visually-orientated readership; and she makes sure her paragraphs, punctuation and page layout are welcoming.

In Playing To Win, Denny undergoes one of those trivial/traumatic lurches that all kids recognise, personally or vicariously. He moves to a new school. The move is complicated for Denny by the fact that he’s the household’s lead male. He has to buy car, get part-time job, control ricocheting 7-year-old twin sisters, cope with frothy mother. It’s quite a load for a boy in Year 12 (Form 6 in pre-trendy parlance). Is it credible? Mainly.

Denny wants to make his new school’s rugby team. He wants to make Alice from his English class. Mostly and plausibly, he wants to make friends. There’s an excellent evocation of what it’s like to be the outsider when everyone else shares a group history.

The book’s second half isn’t as successful. Denny’s and Alice’s dark secrets are rather stagey. The rugby descriptions show an author who has read about, thought about and talked about the game, but to whom it’s still a bizarre gender-based rite. (As Alice is quick to point out, how true.)

More seriously, the protagonists don’t develop from their promising beginnings. Denny sets into someone too decent and adult; his feelings for Alice become almost antiseptic. His rival Todd is a melodramatic villain: “tall, well-built, good-looking in that dark, brooding way that seems to drive girls crazy.” If Todd had a moustache, he’d undoubtedly twirl it; his final moments in the book are unhappily florid.

The character stagnation is largely due to an excess of telling over showing in the novel’s second half. Denny and Beale lecture or philosophise too often. The reader becomes less absorbed in the book. Perhaps that’s why an annoying number of typos become noticeable.

On its numerous credit sides, Playing To Win is accessible, relevant, mainly brisk and commendably positive. The writing, as always with Fleur Beale, is crisp and uncluttered. You’ll like the matter-of-fact depiction of a muddling, struggling, one-parent household, and you’ll admire the author’s skill in evoking taut-fraught teenage relationships, especially the cockerel contests between young males.

3

Bernard Beckett’s impressive first novel also features a protagonist who’s moved to another town for another start – and, in Michael’s case, another hormonal stimulus in the form of Toni. The course of true lust runs rough, first via a bike-ride over the hills to Castlepoint, then with Toni’s archetypal insistence that it’s great to know a guy who’s just a friend. Things get rougher still when Lester the vagrant rides into town and sets up camp on the Domain. Lester and his ersatz Zen sayings slice through the social niceties in a small town “covered with scabs that just have to be picked at”. Soon a pleasant little place is unpleasantly divided.

Lester is a split-level book. There are the sexual stumblings of Michael, who’s a thoroughly engaging and authentic creation: randy, fierce, self-deprecating, confusedly idealistic. Beckett renders the painstakingly throwaway speech cadences and social posturings of adolescence quite splendidly, along with the rush and rawness of high school life, where hell is “being befriended by … Youth for Christ and invited to join the chess club”. Adult characters are less successfully handled; too many are cartoons and caricatures. Once an author starts dismissing people in his book, he’s dismissing parts of the book as well.

The novel’s other side, a sort of Stepford-Wives-meets-R-H-Morrieson-Gothic (hellfire preacher; old woman in timewarp house; school principal with evil purr; groundsman with sinister stare and late hours; the big, black, heavily-underlined mystery that Lester represents) isn’t so effective. It inflates to an ending where the revelations are set speeches rather than narrative events. The increasingly melodramatic plot forces characters into behaving in ways that become less and less convincing. The climax of Lester could be possible, but it’s not plausible.

The same ambivalence appears in the style. Bernard Beckett writes very well. Sometimes he over-writes very well. He has problems deciding which voice to settle for: the crackly colloquialism of Michael, or a more intrusive semi-authorial tone. “(I) gave voice to the more acceptable of my frustrations” sits unhappily with “dying for a piss”.

Beckett makes a highly creditable job of delivering so much. Next time, he’ll be even better if he aims for a bit less.

4

Given another book (which I hear the author may be contemplating), young Antigone Tompson may grow into a protagonist to rival even Duder’s Alex. The “dumpy boring daughter”, living one of those glowering, fuming, aching inner lives that remind you why misfits make the best protagonists, is a splendid and totally credible first lady.

Shock! Hurrah! Here’s a novel where a teenager confronts an issue. Notice the word order – the issue doesn’t confront the teenager. It is emphatically not a story “about anorexia”; it’s one in which the main character has to watch another, typically image-obsessed adolescent edge towards illness and disintegration.

Tiggie already has problems-plus of her own. Her Mum is a famous (but nearly 40-year-old) TV presenter with cheekbones you could hang jackets on. At her multi-ethnic high school, Tiggie takes photos of others to stop them taking any photos of fat her. She half-joins, half-can’t-escape the School Production, takes acting lessons to save herself from shame, and suddenly finds she’s good. Tiggie isn’t used to being good. When she’s offered a part in a TV soap, set in a city gym, she can’t accept her own worth. Meanwhile her gorgeous, gregarious, designer-waif friend begins to crack apart.

The Tiggie Tompson Show inhabits another of those contemporary, urban, designer-driven, adolescent-crammed New Zild settings that Duder works so hard at: “the huge outdoor concerts in the Domain … nothing but cricket on TV … out on the harbour, all the challengers for the America’s Cup”.

It’s a story where the author enjoys telling us about the trivia and tensions of television and live theatre, though the school production does dwindle as the book grows. A few times, the “bright, clean, fresh, new … artificial world” of TV and its matching executives takes over from the plot, but the trade gossip should fascinate media-happy teenagers.

Tessa Duder has always been a highly proficient big-cast organiser, and Tiggie Tompson has enough extras for a whole soap series. Some, in particular the school personnel, don’t sustain their initial impact. Tiggie’s professionally-fulfilled, personally-meagre parents have a clichéd quality at first, but grow in appeal as they shrink in worldly status.

There’s the intimate immediate present tense, which is such a Duder trademark, and the crackly, profane dialogues/monologues, which give her protagonist so much texture. If Tiggie and her creator can check the former’s habit of telling us absolutely everything she’s thinking, she’ll be a character to welcome back with much enthusiasm.

5

Tania Kelly Roxborogh’s novel comes with sensible, orthodox classroom notes, which expand it as a resource and categorise it as a book. Her Simon is a genuine split-level teenager, who reads comics but can quote Hamlet. He keeps an intermittent journal where he scribbles all-too-authentic adolescent verse. The Form 6 Drama Option lets him brood over significant things in The Crucible. Life is not good to Simon. His girlfriend doesn’t seem interested in being his girlfriend. His Dad has run off with Joanne from work. School sux. It’s enough to drive a guy to drink.

It does. First at a party, then next thing you know, he’s into vodka because it gives him “a quicker high which lasted longer”. Guests get boozed and violent at his birthday bash. He starts taking wine to school in his water-bottle. There’s the obligatory car-crash, where two of his friends are destroyed. A girl ODs at a party. Simon drinks on.

Roxborogh has clearly taken great care to find out the ways teenagers begin drinking, and she’s equally careful to describe it accurately in her story. The trouble is that the carefulness shows. A number of Simon’s alcoholic disasters read as if they’ve been written to fit a text-book formula. Pace and tension give way to the increasingly didactic – and undeniably relevant – message.

Compulsion is a very honest and responsible story, written by an author who knows and cares about her teenage audience. It may help and even save a number of kids. Its events happen drearily often in real life. But the cautionary, moral tone strains both style and structure. Too many flashing lights signal each stage of Simon’s increasing addiction. Though Roxborogh has a good pair of ears for the twang and timbre of 17-year-old speech, she loads the dialogue with too many responsibilities.

As in Lester, the register swings between convincing colloquial (when the narrative dominates) and stilted formal (when the didactic element dominates). The lurches are exacerbated by a tendency for the viewpoint to veer from Simon to the faithful, rather-too-sweet Kelly, and back again. Characters are moved around to reinforce the theme; adults preach a lot of sermons.

A very well-intentioned book with realistic settings and a clear, accessible, unpatronising style. But I hope Tania Kelly Roxborogh’s next novel is one where the matter isn’t so obviously arranged to fit the message.

David Hill’s latest young adult novels are Just Looking, Thanks (Puffin) and Time Out (Mallinson Rendel).

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Posted in Literature, Review, Young adults
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