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.

  1. I am truly flattered by the attentive read you gave my little book. Thanks.

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