Bruce Coville’s I Was a Sixth Grade Alien

Posted: October 20, 2008 in alternating narratives, Bruce Coville, children's and young adult literature, race, variation

Coville, Bruce.  I Was a Sixth Grade Alien. New York:  Minstrel-Pocket, 1999.

In alternating narratives, an American boy and the son of an alien ambassador to Earth describe what happens when the alien starts attending a typical American school as a way of helping the two peoples to know each other.   (Interesting how an American writer assumes that the embassy would have to be in the U.S.; I speak as an insignificant Canadian.)  While he’s never completely described, there are copious hints that Pleskit, the alien, is indeed alien.  He is totally purple, totally bald, and has a thing growing out of his head, a more than vaguely sexual stalk about five inches long and as thick as a pencil, with a knob on top that seems to exude smells of various sorts, usual noxious ones.  And he does some decidedly alien things, such as communicating by means of a complex system of words and smells and gestures: he says of his difficulty in writing down one word, “the full name for it involves two hand gestures, a large burp, and a tiny fart.  But those don’t translate into Earth languages very well” (23).  Also, one of his entourage is, quite literally, a slimeball, a round creature constantly covered with goo.  But despite all that, it turns out that Pleskit and Tim, the Earth boy who befriends him, are nearly indistinguishable.  As I was reading the novel, I found myself often forgetting whose chapter it was, and whether it was Tim or Pleskit who was telling the events.  Except for the superficial alien details, they sound exactly the same, write in the same rhythms, and possess more or less the same character.

That’s clearly deliberate.  The novel operates in terms of them recognizing the similarity and readers accepting (and learning from) what they also recognize.  They are brothers under the skin.  Tim is himself something of an alien already, an outsider looked down upon by his more popular classmates.  So he’s already all set to understand and empathize with an actual alien when one comes to his class: note how the title can be read as a statement by either of the two focalizing characters.  The novel then operates, in theory, as a kind of variational counterpoint, as the human alienation of unpopularity is paralleled with, represented by,  and explained by actually being alienated by reason of being alien.  I say in theory because in fact the two characters are so much alike that their alienation, of course, turns out to be a delusion:  they are alike under their very different skin colours and ever-so-superficial differences.  The difference is not real, and so the alienation isn’t real either–despite words like farts, there is no actual otherness in this novel.

In this way, furthermore, I Was a Sixth Grade Alien represents an extreme and therefore more obvious example of a pattern in the vast majority of novels for young people that use alternating narratives about characters presented as apparently but not really significantly different from each other: the characters’ arrival at the understanding that they are more alike than different.  It is, finally, a monological view of things disguising itself as a dialogical structure that represents an illusory difference.  The novel itself even admits, I suspect unknowingly, that that’s the case, when Pleskit writes, “[E]veryone on this planet likes to pretend he or she is unique and different (How unique and different they can be when they only have two sexes is something I cannot understand” (13).

I see this is as a form of one basic kind of superficial liberal tolerance–the kind that argues we should be tolerant of people different from ourselves because in fact we’re all basically the same, really, and so the supposed differences don’t actually matter.   But in fact, differences do exist, and do matter, and real tolerance, surely comes from a willingness to accept what is not basically the same at all.  Tolerance is tough if it really means you have to accept what is other–and the kind of tolerance that emerges here and in many other texts for young people isn’t tough at all, and isn’t really tolerant at all.

One other aspect of the novel also operates in support of the apparently unconscious ideology of ant-difference hidden under its conscious support of tolerance.  The anti-alien plotters turn out out be aliens–there is no truly human being, it seems, who can’t rise to the occasion and accept an alien embassy without fear or distress, unless so incited by true outsiders.  Furthermore, these actual alien enemies are motivated by the sefl-interest of capitalism.  They want to make the mission fail so that they can get access to the riches that Earth apparently has to offer (what those are aren’t specified here–perhaps in a later book in the series?).  Furthermore, these truly alien aliens also look truly different, with tentacles and such, not humanoid at all.   So while the novel claims to support tolerance for difference, it scores points against its enemies by making them so truly different as to be both grotesque and humorous.  and on top of all, that these ugly aliens share their ugliness and evil with Tim’s enemy in class, who shows his terminal intolerance by being more offended at Pleskit wearing a dress like a girl rather than anythng else about him.

As with everything Coville writes, this novel is good-humoured and very good-natured, and while the plot events and assumptions are decidedly (and deliberately, surely, for this is meant to be a widely read book that will appeal to a wide range of readers) conventional, there’s a surprising amount of political and social satire working its way into the mix, disguised as a fairly conventional and fairly adolescent kind of anti-social humour.  Despite its apparently unconscious undermining of its own ideologies, in other words, it’s still fun to read.  I’m not sure if that makes up for the ideology or just makes it scarier.

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Comments
  1. […] alien; the other two, both discussed in earlier entries on this blog,  are Bruce Coville’s I Was a Sixth Grade Alien and Pamela Service’s Under Alien Stars.  The first two both involve aliens coming to earth, […]

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