Archive for August, 2008

Griffin, Adele.  Where I Want to Be.  2005.  New York: Speak/Penguin, 2007.

This book is strangely similar to Marci Dermansky’s Twins:  two sisters, (close in age but not in this case actually twins) are in many ways opposites: one is considered attractive, the other not so much; one is sociable and well-liked, the other isolated; one is a version of the “normal” teen, the other not only strangely imaginative but in fact diagnosed as mentally ill and on (and then off) meds; one is growing up, the other refusing with all her will to leave childhood  The less popular one has depended on her sister as her only friend, and when the other sister makes other relationships outside the family and gets a boyfriend, the less normal sister feels deserted and acts strangely as a result–much as in Twins, although here everyone is aware of a diagnosed illness and thinks of it as such, and so it seems less melodramatic and horror-movie-like, as if in between driving each other mad in Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford had visits from a sensible public health nurse who prescribes valium and walks in the park.

The focus, as in Twins, is on how the sisters have to learn to move on beyond their claustrophobic relationship.  The major difference  is that in this case, one of the sisters is already dead.  She died in a car crash some months earlier, but she appears nevertheless in chapters alternating with her sister, as we hear of her ghostly attempts to cling to the visceral world and the past.  She clearly needs to move on (isn’t that always the case with ghosts, poor dears?), and it seems she has by the end.  But her sister also has been pulled back into the relationship she was moving beyond by her sister’s death–she has become fixed and isolated herself, refusing to go out and seeing only her boyfriend, refusing to think about the future in favour of holding on to the past,  fearing the movingo n will mean she is guilty ofr deserting her sister.  So she too has to start moving again, and give up the ghost.  At the end, the living sister goes to where her grandparents used to live, where readers already know the ghostly sister has fixated herself, and suddenly knows that her sister has given her permission to move on–and so both sisters are freed.

In addition to the binaries I listed above, there is the key one of the dead and the living.   It seems to underlie all the others.  Thus, the living sister’s narratives are in the first-person present, providing her with an immediacy at least in contrast to the ghostly one, whose thoughts are described in the third person past.   And while there is a parallel resistance in the earlier parts of the story to moving forward into the present, that gradually changes as it become clear that the ghostly sister is reliving the same idealized events of her past every day over and over again, whereas the living one begins haltingly to engage herself back into the present and on to the future.  The past/present narrative pattern supports a past/presen thematic concern.  And the major thrust is of the deadening weight of the past and madness and stultifying eccentricity, the freeing lightness of a focus on what is to come and is sane and normal and open to change.

The living sister is not actually aware of her sibling–but it turns out that her boyfriend, a boy who became different after an accident that affected his brain, apparently is.  And he’s the one who brings the living sister to finally meet the dead one.  He has become the living sister’s only real support, and she clings to him exactly as her sister has clung to her–so there’s a kind of echo effect here, a variation of the same situation (alternating narratives, once more, as variational in their relationship to each other).   It becomes clear to the living sister that she is holding her boyfriend back more or less as her sister is holding her back–she has to be better so that he can move on also.

One thing that intrigues me about all this is that the happy ending therefore involves the separation of all the characters from each other.  In giving each other freedom, they also all imply that family in the life of a young person–indeed, everything you know and do already–is a sort of stultifying trap.  You can only mature and be happy if you move beyond the comfort of those who already love you into independence and individuality and openness to change.   The idea that maturity and true selfhood is post-familial and inherently fluid seems very ideological and very American, and distressingly dismissive of family ties and indeed all lasting ties to others.  (I realize I’m overstating this in terms of this book, which at least pays lip service to the living girl’s ongoing love of her parents and her boyfriend–but the overall effect is that these ongoingness of such relationship is never anything anyone should count on or value more than one’s freedom and right to change.  And ideas of this sort seem to underly the vast majority of contemporary children’s and YA fiction.)

Why the alternating narratives?  Since that’s the main focus of my interest in all these books, I always have to ask that question.   The answer here, I think, is that readers get to see how the two apparently opposite sisters are sharing versions of the same central problem, that the difference also contains a similarity, one that supports the book’s central concerns.  Indeed, this novel is an excellent example of how structure supports and communicates thematic concerns.  No less important, readers as always in these situations get clues from one narrative that allow them to understand more than characters in the other narrative do, and to know solutions to mysteries before characters do.   just be giving different viewpoints on the same basic situation, this sort of structure invites and encourages an attention to details that encourages readers to become mystery solvers.   And finally, there’s a feeling of the binary that emerges–this and then that, one thing and then the other and opposite–that helps to my mind to identify this as a book written for young people.  Children’s literature seems, yet once more, inherently binary.

Swift, Graham. Out of This World.  New York et al: Poseidon Press, 1988.

More or less contemporaneously, Harry, in England, reminisces about his life with his bomb-manufacturing father while, in alternating sections, his estranged daughter Sophie, in New York, tells a psychoanalyst about her life, also often involving her grandfather, Harry’s father.  The two have parallel problems–an obsessive concern with how their relationship with their father shaped and even blighted their lives, and how their fatherrs have driven them away and apart.

Harry has responded to his father’s heroic activities as a solder in WWI and then as prominent owner of the family munitions factory by refusing to be heroic, and refusing to be next in line as munitions-maker.  Rather than making bombs and blowing people up, he has become a famous photographer of trouble, a visitor to and recorder of dangerous spots everywhere.  (The book is centrally concerned with photography and observation, and with the distancing effects of observation generally.  Harry’s choice of witnessing rather than doing is said to be an example of a contemporary malaise, a way we all live now–and the book questions if it is indeed morally purer, or in fact just another way of letting bad things happen.) Harry is generally depicted as someone who avoids contact with the real, then–although he’s always there watching and recording it.  It’s interesting that Swift here seems to be duplicating a playing around with metaphors of cameras and guns, triggers and capturing images and such, that permeates a lot of Canadian writing in the decades before this British novel was published–as in Ondaatje’s Collected Works of Billy the Kid and often in Atwood (The Edible Woman, for instance, and a number of poems.

In a somewhat parallel way, Sophie is convinced her life has been shaped, and not well, by her father’s distance, his lack of involvement in her life as a child  (where his role as father has been taken over by his father, at least as Sophie sees it).  She has retreated from his apparent lack of concern for her, which has come to exist because his fear of involvement with reality at first hand has spread from his father’s business to his relationship with Sophie and her mother.  And while she has loved her grandfather and married a man who is warm and to whom she seems emotionally close, there’s a sense that she, too is keeping herself distant, somehow–not just distant from her father, but distancing her real sensibility from her husband and children.  She is more than they know.   So she is more her father’s daughter than she seems willing to admit.  And she, like him with his father, has moved far away–out of his world.

And he is more his father’s son than he seems willing to admit.  The key incident in the book is the moment at which Harry’s father is blown up by terrorists–the bombmaker hoist on his own petard.  Sophie’s alienation form her father seems summed up when she runs to see the disaster and catches her father on a balcony upstairs taking photographs of it.  He is always going up and above, in airplanes, especially, flying over the awful events he records–out of this world, as the title suggests.  But here and elsewhere, going out effects those still in.  He had destroyed his relationship with his daughter by trying to protect himself from involvement with others.

The device of the plot here is that Harry is gradually now being brought down to earth through a relationship with a woman younger than his daughter–he is re-engaging in the world he has been afraid to enter.   And one aspect of that is an invitation to Sophie to come to his wedding.  She clearly wants the contact, and at the end, is flying back to England for a reconciliation that hasn’t yet taken place.

That it doesn’t take place–that these two isolates remain disconnected from each other at the end despite the promise of connection to come–is one way this adult version of alternating narrative varies from what typically happens in children’s novels.  These two are not characters divided and different simply so that they can become together and the same.  There’s a strong sense that neither really understands him or herself well enough to be totally whole–and so how can they be that together?  At the heart of all this is a subjectivity that is never totally understood by any subject–a sense that people are always infinitely complex, and always more complex than they even know themselves. That seems quite different from the subjectivity most often on view in children’s fiction, where even complex characters seem to be open to eventual understanding.

There’s also a very complex and subtle kind of counterpointing going on throughout this book.  Harry heads off to Nuremberg after the war to record the trials, and finds there the Greek women he marries, Sophie’s mother–a surprising contact merging from his distancing profession, something positive in the midst of horror.  Sophie later heads off to Greece to explore her now dead mother’s past, and find the man she marries, not an exuberant life-affrirming Greek but an affable safe Englishman.  There’s something sort of parallel and sort of not-so-parallel about all that.  And there are similar resonances between the two narratives throughout.  I suspect I could spent a lot of time working more closely with this text to learn a lot more about its complexities.  Indeed, I just might do that, because it seems from what I know now as if it would repay attentiveness.  Among other things, the various events that Harry and Sophie remember in each of their sections seem to have variational or contrapuntal relationships to what happens in the other’s sections immediately preceding or following them.  Both Sophie and her mother, for instance, have sexual encounters with other men, driven to it by Harry’s lack of contact?

Another way in which this novel differs from your typical children’s novel with alternating narratives:  while the vast bulk of the book is Harry alternating with Sophie, there are two other characters who get exactly one section each: Joe, Sophie’s husband, and then, two sections later Anna, Harry’s wife and Sophie’s mom.  We are now seeing, for just this once each, how the spouses of these two characters understand the events they’ve taken part in as described by their partners elsewhere.  The placement of these sections near each after and immediately afters ones by their spouses suggests that this, too, is part of an elaborate counterpoint.  But it’s the refusal to be held to a tight recognizable pattern that most strikes me: a children’s fiction editor would be upset that the rhythm the novel had established was being interrupted in this way.–it’s too surprising, perhaps.  But I have to assume the adult novelist knows what he’s doing in deserting his binary structure–or rather, not deserting it, but suddenly and surprisingly complicating it.

Doyle, Roddy.  Wilderness.  New York: Arthur Levine-Scholastic, 2007.

The father of an Irish family has been married twice; the first wife left years ago and went to America, leaving a young daughter behind who is now a teenager, and has not seen her mother since she left.   The second wife is the mother of two rambunctious young boys.  The teenage girl has become rebellious and difficult, her mother is planning to visit for the first time, and there is so much tension in the house that the mother of the boys decides to take them on a dog-sledding trip in Finland to get them and her out of the way and make the situation less complicated.

Throughout, named but unnumbered sections mainly from the girl’s point of view alternate with numbered but unnamed sections describing what happens to the boys–usually from one or the other of their points of view but sometimes from others they interact with also.  So it’s really a case of alternating story focalizations rather than specifically alternating character focalizations–the events with the girls at the centre and then the events with the boys at the centre.  And once the trip begins, the boys and their sister are in two different places and interact with quite different sets of characters, so that, except for the family connection, which really on the surface doesn’t seem to be all that important, it’s almost like two quite different stories.  The family reunited happily a  the end, but not on account of any interaction once the two parts of it have separated.

But then there is still the family connection, and for readers (like me) with the habit of trying to figure out how everything in a novel all fits together, the obvious question arises about what these two apparently distinct stories have to do with each other.  I might have expected that somehow, the mother in Finland might need to return, or offer her stepdaughter help by phone, or that the father and the girl would realize their true allegiances and head off to Finland also, thus uniting the family and the two stories; but in fact that doesn’t happen.  The family reunites at the end, but only, it seems, because each of its separate halves have arrived at separate ways of solving their separate problems and can thus live together again.  So instead, the answer seems to lie in thinking about the two stories as variations–different ways of exploring the same or similar themes and situations.

Both plots involved children dealing with mother problems–but almost opposite problems.  The girl has has no connection with her mother, the boys live happily with theirs.  The girl stays home and has the adventure of her mothers return; the boys go away and have an adventure.  Their adventure involves their mother getting lost on a dogsled in the dark cold wilderness night, and their apparently frivolous and childish but, it turns out, very wise, decision to head out on another dogsled to find her and rescue her–which they manage to do.

So first of all, these two separate plots represent in one book the two most clichéd stories we like to tell for children: the girl’s story of staying at home and having adventures there, often involving new people in their lives, and the traditional boy’s story of going away to somewhere wild and triumphing over the wilderness and its denizens–Anne of Green Gables vs. Treasure Island. (I’m intrigued that that seems to duplicate the intentions N.M. Browne says she had for her Shadow Web in a comment to an earlier entry on this blog:  “I like alternating narratives for fairly practical reasons – I like to write books that appeal to both boys and girls so generally have a viewpoint character of each gender”  (see comment on “Shadow Web,”  July 11, 2008).  But Browne doesn’t give her boy and girl characters different sorts of stories that relate to gender stereotypes, as happens here.

Then, structurally and thematically, there stories operate variationally by offering intriguingly related reversals: the solitary and alienated girl as opposed to the always together (albeit competitive) and mostly happy boys; the mother who returns as opposed to the one who goes away and gets lost; the mother who wants to be allowed back in vs. the mom who wants to be back in but can’t manage it herself.  And in both cases, the children perform the rescue–find the mother or find the strength to accept the mother.  (That also suggests another variation:  one lost and isolated female gets rescued by children who comers for her, another gets rescued by (? or rescues?) a mother who comes for her. )

In addition, there are symbolic variational effects–the boys in the wilderness (and using “Wilderness” as a triumphal call) as opposed to the girl gone wild, become a kind of wild “terrorist” herself.  The social or communal or familial and the wild are a significant binary here. Also, the girl feels her aloneness as a matter of being cold (102)–her own private emotional form of the wilderness the boy’s’ mother enters.

The adventure story here, the boys’ story, focuses on action, and so seems simpler; the girl’s story told mostly in briefer sections, focus on feelings.  That also seems to confirm certain kinds of gender stereotypes and the conventions of writing for boys and for girls.  But it also might suggest that the boys more readily understandable story acts as a guide or a template for the more complex issues of the girl’s story–that telling a similar story twice might be a way of allowing inexperienced readers access to the more complex story?  That would make Wilderness an educational text–teaching young readers how to read and understand more.  But of course,  that would work better if the boys’ story were told first and the girl’s story after, as happens to the two stories told consecutively in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (see my article “Text as Teacher: The Beginning of Charlotte’s Web.”  Children’s Literature 13 (1985): 109-27).  So it’s probably safer just to say that the two stories interact with and throw light on each other.

Park, Linda Sue, David Almond, Eoin Colfer, Deborah Ellis, Nick Hornby, Roddy Doyle, Tim Wynne-Jones, Ruth Ozeki, Margo Lanagan, and Gregory Maguire. Click.  New York: Scholastic, 2007.

Ten authors each write a story that connects in some way to the other nine stories–but the ways are many and diverse.  It happened, according to a Booklist review this way; “After author Roddy Doyle suggested a collaborative novel to support Amnesty International, editor Arthur Levine sent a concept manuscript to 10 of his favorite authors, leaving the rest up to them.”  I’m not sure I understand what a “concept manuscript” is, and I’d like to know just how detailed the concept was.  In an NPR interview of some of the authors, Linda Sue Park says she made up the first chapter before the others knew what would be happening, and the others responded to that–but that chapter was much vetted by Arthur Levine as editor; and apparently some details were changed in earlier drafts so that the stories would match up.

Anyway, the stories are intriguingly diverse.  For much of the book, they all seem to share a realistic world–but then, in Nick Hornby’s story (number five in the series), something weirder happens:  it turns out that Gee, the character who has appeared and will appear in one way or another in all the stories, and whose American granddaughter and grandson have figured prominently earlier (and will again later), also (or alternately) has another alternate family in an alternate life in France.  This is left more or less unexplained, except for the American granddaughter deciding that it’s okay if she and members of the French family each believe in their own version of Gee (100).  But then, later in a story by Margaret Lanagan,  an Australian girl who meets the young girl of the first story as an older woman is capable of producing (imagining?) versions of herself, or parts of herself, into reality, so that they separate themselves from her and go off and live their own lives in the neighbourhood, sometimes meeting up uncomfortably and comparing notes.  And there’s a sense that this somehow works as an explanation for what happens to Gee and his two alternate families earlier, so that one author offers an explanation for something described in another story by another author.

On top of all that, the stories take place back then, in Gee’s life, or now, or later on, in an imagined future some decades from now.–and in every kind of place from postwar Japan to a Russian prison to an Australian beach.  But all are somehow tied in to Gee and his family.

This suggests something of the weird and inventive nature of the connections being made here–a sort of jazz-improvisaitonal quality emerges, as the authors seem to be riffing on what each other has produced and trying to find the most ingenious ways possible to undermine it or amplify it or change it.  All this suggests the ways in which books alternating sections by more than one author have the potential for being a game: consider how the two authors of Sorcery and Cecilia (Wrede and Stevermer) try to back each other into corners–and I remember that Carol Matas and certainly did something similar in the process of composing  the Minds series we wrote together.  Also, not surprisingly, the books that emerge seem to operate often as puzzles for their readers–a game of puzzle-solving, as readers are invited to notice (without, often its being explicitly pointed out) how a minor detail in one story becomes major somewhere else, or how objects taken for granted later become problematic and central, etc.  and often, because of information from earlier stories, readers know more than focalizing characters do about strangers who come into their lives–and so can read resonances into the situations being described beyond what the characters themselves are aware of.

The more general device operating is something like this: Gee, a world-famous photographer noted for being in trouble spots in troublesome times, has died, and has left gifts for his grandchildren.  The girl gets a box of shells from all the oceans of the world, and instructions to return them back to where they came from–and so stories emerge of how Gee first collected them, or about what happens when his granddaughter returns them, throughout her life and into the future in the last story, where she is an old lady close to death in an sf future.  The boy gets a camera, and a career as a photographer, and we hear about his meetings with various characters in some of the stories, also–so that the shells, the box that contained them, the camera, the meetings of others with Gee and/or his grandchildren, become the connectors that tie the various stories to each other.

All of this is done to benefit Amnesty International, and so I have to think about why this set of strange stories might relate to the values of that organization.  Most obviously, the book establishes, in its weird and inventive way, a complex version of the cliché that we all live in the same planet, are all connected with each other, all have or can have an effect on the lives of others quite different form us living different lives elsewhere.  That’s not surprising—what is surprising is just how strange and inventive a version of that cliché the book ends up being.

Here’s a book trailer for my new book, The Hidden Adult: Defining Children’s Literature, out soon from Johns Hopkins University Press.

The book presents close readings of six stories in order to try to develop  a clear definition of children’s literature as a distinct literary form. I begin by considering the plots, themes, and structures of six works: “The Purple Jar,” Alice in Wonderland, Dr. Doolittle, Henry Huggins, The Snowy Day, and Plain City—all written for young people of varying ages in different times and places—to identify shared characteristics. I point out markers in each work that allow the adult reader to understand it as a children’s story, in order to shed light on ingrained adult assumptions and reveal the ways in which adult knowledge and experience remain hidden in apparently simple and innocent texts. I then engage a wide range of views of children’s literature from authors, literary critics, cultural theorists, and specialists in education and information sciences, in order to develop a theory of children’s literature, exploring its commonalities and shared themes.

You can find out more about the book on the John Hopkins website, and order it from the Amazon websites in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and elsewhere.

Clark, Judith.  One Whole and Perfect Day.  Crows Nest NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2006

As seems to be generally the case with books constructed in this way, this book uses multiple alternating narratives to describe how a bunch of apparently isolated characters manages to actually be connected in ways they’re not (in this case, yet) aware of, so that readers get to know connections they don’t–which of course allows for a soap-operish feeling (the effect you get as a watcher of soap opers when you know things from other scenes that certain characters aren’t aware of, that “Oh, if only he knew that she knew,” etc. ,etc.).   So such a book seems almost inevitably to come out of a wish for community  (although, outside of children’s lit, it might be used for just the opposite purpose, to show how people really are isolated, really don’t understand each other even when they think they do, etc.–Virginia Woolf, for instance, in Mrs. Dalloway, seems to focus on how characters meet without understanding or awareness of each other’s thoughts and lives?  The major purpose then would be ironic juxtaposition and a sense of how isolated people really and truly are, and how little they understand or connect with each other)  But in children’s lit, it seems opposite: it’s almost always about people being connected even if they think they aren’t.  (Fleischman’s Seedfolk is a good example.)
This book is a sort of hyper version of that: through a series of completely incredible coincidences, a bunch of people, some of whom didn’t even know they were connected to each other, end up at the same party at the same time, all the things that have been pulling various of them away from each other momentarily or permanently forgotten.  It is the essence of wish-fulfilment fantasy.  The n’er-do-well young man whose grandfather has given up on him meets a girl who turns out to be the daughter of a friend the grandfather has made independently and very strangely, etc, etc.  And even a long forgotten friend from the past turns up, too.  It ought to be annoying, but somehow it does work, as a sort of fairy tale of what ought to be.  Everyone acts on their best instincts rather than in terms of the other characters’ worst fears for them, and so all works out well.

But clearly, this question of individual and community, isolation and connection is key, to the whole concept of alternating narratives, and children’s writers are intriguingly drawn to the community side of things.  Are there exceptions?

Koss, Amy Goldman.  The Cheat. 2003.  New York: Scholastic, 2004.

A boy gives a girl the supposed answers to a test, she passes them on to some friends–and the principal finds out. The situation then turns into a whole series of different moral dilemmas for everyone involved.  Who will tell on who, what’s the right thing to do, should I feel guilty, and so on.  Not everyone is in the same social group–some seem only connected to one of the others, or barely  know some of the others–so that there’s the sense of a web of circumstances created and spreading, the original action having an effect on people not centrally involved in it to begin with.  And because all the characters do (or even do not) face the same sorts of moral dilemmas and judgements about each other, there’s a kind of variational effect: all the characters face differing versions of what one should do or can do when faced with a moral dilemma.

Also in terms of variation and difference, there’s an attempt also to create different-sounding voices.  One girl does a “like she goes” and “whatever” shtick and is really only a little less shallow than that implies.  The girl who gives out the test answers is something of a poet, and her thoughts are always turning into bits of organized language.  So there’s an attempt to focus on individuals and individual difference, and it becomes thematic–the different and differing people seem to be weighed and judged on the basis of the ethics that controls their decisions about their behaviour.  Those who are blind to the ethical implications of cheating are clearly judged negatively (or so it seems to me), those who understand or come to understand and act with principles and/or to help others are judged positively.  That’s perhaps too obvious a pattern to need stating, except that it seems different and more ethically sophisticated than the egocentricity that seems to hold sway in Koss’s The Girls, where moral concerns about the effects of one’s actions on others are hardly even beginning to be relevant.

It’s also interesting to see how the alternating narratives allow moral judgements to be made.  In theory, each character speaks for him or herself, and each has equal weight–it’s apparently a democratic chorus of voices, with no lead singers.  But despite that, what they say or think either condemns them or not–in part, I guess, simply because conventional moral assumptions might be taken for granted, but also, I think, because Koss is able to make clear how some of these characters are simply blind to what others or thinking, or to the wider implications of their behaviour and its effects on others.  In part, in other words, because it is a community, a chorus of voices, our awareness as readers of what others think seem to be inviting us to make specific moral evaluations as we read the thoughts and conclusions of each of the characters in the light of everything else we know.  We are always at some distance from any one of the characters because we’re privy to information from other characters’ sections that allows us to judge and evaluate what they’re thinking or understanding.  And so, there’s always an awareness of irony; how can you be such a self-centred boob, I find myself asking of some of the characters, when I know that someone who’s supposedly a friend of yours is suffering and you could be doing something about it?  How can you not know what is so obvious to me as a reader of the other character’s thoughts, or not care about what someone else might be thinking or feeling?  I supposed it might be possible to slant a set-up like this in favour of libertarian self-assertion and make the characters with ethical concerns and thoughts for others and their own moral principles seem silly–but I suspect that’d be a lot more difficult to bring off.

There’s also a series of variations on the idea of teens confronting their parent’s values and power over them going on here.  These young people tend to have the values of their parents, at least to begin with, and those whose families focus purely on competitiveness and winning don’t get much moral pressure from their parents over the cheating.  Many of them have a moment of maturity when they realize they can be better morally than their parents are.   One of the boys, scared of what his father will think, learns that his father can be frightened of him now that he’s older and larger.  One of the girls realizes she is better–less self-centred–than her egocentric mother.   And so on.   And meanwhile, some just accept and act on their parents’ negative values, and emerge looking bad.

As in The Girls, a new community emerges at the end–those who stand up for each other–and those who care only about their own futures, etc., seem to be left out of it.  Moral concerns win over egocentricity.

Here’s a book trailer for my novel in Scholastic Canada’s Dear Canada series, about a Jewish girl in Toronto in the depths of the depression:

The book is based on my parents’ memories of their childhood, and ends with the characters becoming involved in the Christie Pits riot.

Not a Nickel to Spare is avaiable from Amazon.ca here.

Koss, Amy Goldman.  The Girls.  2002.  New York: Scholastic, 2002.

The five girls are a clique, built around the most popular and demanding girl, Candace.  The others always do as they believe she wants–but since she always cleverly manages to suggest what she wants rather than actually saying it, and because the girls are all so fearful of her that they work desperately to figure out exactly what her wishes are and make that happen, the results are never her fault.  The five girls tell in turn what they experienced in the past tense (there’s no clear sense of an audience, just the stories being told as stories but to no particular hearer), and as they do so,  readers get to know that their apparent community is rife with endless tensions.  Without admitting it to the others, each of the other four is fearful of the queen bee, Candace, and each thinks she is alone in her fear and confusion.  Readers, then, privy to all their separate thoughts and feelings, know more about the actual dynamics of the group than anyone in it does–another version of the soap opera dynamic, where the issue is, will they realize what we know before it is too late.  They do, of course, eventually figure it out, as readers, in the role Tana Modleski identifies as the soap opera viewer-mom who empathizes but is unable to actually interfere and say what she knows, are invited to cheer them all on.

It’s instructive that this doesn’t actually seem to work as I’ve come to expect multiple (more than three or four, say) alternating narrators.  It isn’t the most obvious version of that kind of story, where a bunch of separate individuals either come together into a community (Paul Fleischman’s Seedfolk, perhaps, or Judith Clark’s One Whole and Perfect Day), or alternately, a bunch of separate individuals are, unbeknownst to each other, already in a community and affecting each other’ lives (Fleischman’s Seek).  Instead, it’s about people who believe they are a community, but each is unaware of the individual tensions of others that pull against the enforced togetherness (although aware of her own).  In other words, it’s the opposite problem–not that individual are actually a community but don’t know it or haven’t achieved it yet, but instead, a community is actually separate individuals but don’t know it or haven’t achieved it yet.  The obvious result should be that the individual come to their senses and the community falls apart–and in a sense that does happen here.  But not quite: as the girls in turn to choose to act on their feelings, they actually form a new community–one built around reconnecting with the girl whose forced exclusion was the device that began the plot, but more a community of equals–and the former leader is excluded (or simply dropped because they knew she’ll drop them, but hey, let’s look on the bright side)–although as the ending makes clear, with a new admirer and all ready to start the same old behaviour but with a different bunch of girls.

Indeed, what’s most enterprising here is just that–that this nasty girl doesn’t actually change.  Even more more interesting, she doesn’t seem to be equipped with the self-awareness to change.  The passages presenting her thoughts are most noteworthy because she never even seems conscious of the nasty tricks she’s in the process of perpetrating.  She either completely takes them for granted and so they aren’t worthy of thought, or else she’s not even herself conscious of them.  The best she can do is think of these girls as hangers-on she has to deal with and manage, with a great deal of impatience (she is, then, a confident egoist; the others are equally self-centred but far less assured about how to go about getting what they want.  Indeed, as with so much recent YA, egocentricity seems to be a given–and that leads to intriguing manipulations around the idea of community: how d basically self-centred people form communities.  Here, the girls have to think about others just long enough to get what they really want, which is the comfort of a group that doesn’t challenge your right to be self-centred).

In any case, this book is a really fascinating case of a sort of Rashomon syndrome–this girls’ version of the events of the story is totally different from the others, because she understands herself in a way quite different from the way shared by all the other girls–and not just because her characters has a different set of obsessions that shape her views of herself and others, but because she truly sees the world, and herself acting in it, in a totally different way.   At one point, she even says of her family, “Why did no one ever see what I saw, or feel what I did?  didn’t they get it?” (34).  What matters hugely to the others doesn’t even seem to enter her mind.  What Koss manages to do most cleverly, I think, is to distinguish this girl’s self-centredness from that of all the others–make her a villain and the others sympathetic characters.  And I think it happens mainly because she has no obvious insecurity, no apparent awareness of why it’s wrong to take advantage of those weaker than yourself, and no guilt.  she is finally a kind of sociopath–as perhaps the others would be, too, if they weren’t so insecure about everything.

Dermansky, Marcy.  Twins.  2005.  New York: Harper 2006.

I guess I’m not exactly the best audience for books focussed on the identity problems of self-obsessed, whiny, spoiled, upper-middle-class princesses, because mostly I just found this depressingly self-obsessed and whiny, and I doubt if there was more than a moment or two in the entire book where I felt any sympathy for either of the two main characters.; sure they had big troubles, but so much whiny self-obsession!  Between the two of them, they seem to involve themselves in just about every cliché of dangerous teen life, from bulimia to shoplifting to drugs to sex both straight and gay, and all because nobody ever loves them quite completely enough or gives them the complete and absolute attention or adoration they so clearly and unquestionably are sure they deserve.  And they have maybe the worst parents ever–not only are they uninvolved in their daughters’ lives and unaware of their often serious problems, they actually move out of the house and leave one of the girls behind (the other has run away already at that point, not that anyone much seems to care).  All of this is a kind of satisfyingly awful wish-fulfillment, showing through exaggeration (although not presented as such–it clearly claims just to be the real way things really are) how completely bad things really are for self-absorbed teens who rightfully feel misunderstood and put upon and ignored by their equally self-absorbed parents.  What most scares me is that there might well be teen readers who’ll identify with all this–that we’ve come to a moment in culture so completely self-absorbed that this will just seem like the way life always is and can’t not be.

The alternating narrative works here in terms of showing how the two girls move back and forth from connection to detachment to connection, from togetherness, to isolation to togetherness, etc.  The odd thing, though, is that they both are in total agreement about which one is the good one, etc., and about what their relationship means–so that the book doesn’t really take advantage most of the time of its differing points of view.  We are told they are different and even opposite in outlook by both of them–and they agree about the ways in which they are different.  As the plot moves, on, they do inevitably have misunderstandings of what each other is doing or thinking–ones that a reader can pick up and think about–but that’s a surprisingly small element of the book.  It’s as if the author imagined a book about different twins forced to deal with their apparent sameness but couldn’t actually imagine their difference–or at least not establish it by giving them clearly different ideas or thought patterns about themselves and each other.

In theory, though, the book is about escaping sameness.  To begin with, the girls are held together in a sort of false community–the slightly younger one wants nothing more than her connection to her twin, and jealously prevents the twin from wearing different clothes or hairstyles or having any kind of relationship with anyone else–and the other one is too cowardly or cowed by her fear of upsetting her sister to insist.  So there’s an insistence on their being identical and, I suppose paradoxically, alone together in the isolation of their twinhood.  As the book moves on, though, they move apart in various ways and for a whole series of differing reasons (they seem to go through enough melodrama for twelve or fourteen sets of twins, not just one).  So one becomes popular and the other doesn’t, one shaves her head and the other doesn’t, one becomes bulimic and the other doesn’t.   And then they have to sort out what kinds of being different are positive, and what kinds are just self-destructive.  The trajectory of the book is a fairly obvious one: after escaping the obsession with being together and the same, they must find out who they really are and become healthy whole individuals before they can come together in what the book implies will be a good relationship at the end.  The move from claustrophobic sameness to a connection based on acceptance of difference–but each with her own circle of friends, etc., and her own interests and hairstyle (hairstyle does seem to be a huge deal here).

All this seems very North American in its insistence on the importance of being yourself and unique and an individual, and it’s equal insistence that this is exceedingly hard to do because after all, everyone want to be recognizably like everybody else, normal, the same.  Nevertheless, it follows more or less the same trajectory as Jacqueline Wilson’s Double Act, also about a set of twins, but British ones this time, who must figure out how to separate from each other and be the different people they really are–so maybe it’s a first-world, capitalist, contemporary ideology rather than North-american specifically (see also Avi and Rachel Vail’s Never Mind for another set of alternately focalizing twins with similar individuality problems).  In Wilson’s book, incidentally, readers know the twins are actually different from reading their differing narratives–and as I said earlier, these two claim that to be true but share so much in the way of mutual understandings of each other that it’s not all that convincing.

One other thing: there a kind of binary-oppositional game going on here.  The twins are, to begin with, good/bad, beautiful/not so hot (according to both of them and some school friends, even though they are identical), good student/bad student, social/antisocial, etc., etc., but then as the plot moves on they seem to change roles, so that the one with friends becomes isolated and the isolated one find hereself in a sort of family with her brother and his girlfriend.  Also, both are involved at differing times with members of a family, the father a famous basketball star and the daughter a would-be fashion model who befriends the popular twin but ends up in a relationship with the other one, and at various times one or the other of the twins occupies their brother’s former room and isolates herself there.  So, despite their move to difference, there’s a lot of identity confusion and crossing back and forth of the qualities and even situations that make them theoretically different.