Thomas, Rob.  Slave Day.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.

This novel describes what happens to as group of people on a southern high school’s “Slave Day”–a day in which individuals are auctioned off to then act as slaves for those who bought them for the rest of the day–in particular, a group of eight alternating narrators.  Each of them tells, in the present tense, what’s happening to them and how they feel about it, as it happens.   There’s a very clear sense in this that they are all speaking to someone–there are certain moments of reticence or even downright lies, ones that sometimes only become obvious due to information made available in one of the other characters’ narratives.  But this implied narratee is more than a little strange.  It’s certainly not clear who it is–who they might be telling all these confidences too, except maybe, themselves–and if themselves, then why are they so cagey and secretive about so many things, or so willing to misrepresent things that might make them look bad to others?  And if there is a narratee, where is he or she and what is he or she doing in moments like this one: “So now here I am, underneath him with my uniform half off.  His hands are inching up the backs of my thighs and I can feel his fingertips start prying at the elastic of my panties” (99-100).  She’s talking to the naratee while all this is happening?  And the boy on top doesn’t notice anyone there? This is eye witness reporting with a vengeance–or maybe a partocularly sneaky version of the panopticon.

Nevertheless, despite that always-present naratee, the characters themselves are quite unconscious of what each other are thinking.  Indeed, that seems to be the main point here–that for all the appearance of a communal event, this high school is less a community than a place where isolates jostle against each other with very little sense of connection or understanding of each other.   The focalizing characters who know each other often misunderstand or misjudge each other–or even more often, just simply assign different degrees of importance to the same event, so that what one character finds monumentally significant is more or less meaningless to some of the others.  Often, also, the central focalizing characters have very little knowledge of each other at all–they may or may not even know each others’ names, and see each other as strangers in the background.  One of them, a boy who wants to be an actor, notices for a brief moment of another, the student president who believes he’s the center of everyone’s attention,  as merely “that black dude who’s always on the microphone”–and then immediately moves on to think of things much more important to himself  This is not, then, an interconnected clique or group of friends.  It’s a bunch of disparate people, some connected to each other, some not.  In this way Slave Day is more like, say, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway than it’s like the many novels for young people with large groups of focalized characters, which often seem to begin with relatively isolated characters but then move towards integrating them into some sort of shared community or communal experience.  Yes, there’s a shared communal experience here–life at high school, and the events of Slave Day in particular.  But it means something different to each of them at the start and also, at the end.  What emerges is a pretty bleak sense that groups of people together are really, in essence, groups of people in isolation and mostly apart from each other.  A few small things change here–but very few, and not very much, and the changes actually tend in some cases to drive people further apart rather than bringing them closer together.  The novel believes more in isolation than it does in connection and community.

Part of this sense of isolation is created by the fact that, while there are eight separate narratives all centrally involving events on the same day and in the same place and all engendered by Slave Day, they actually break down into four different sub-stories which really have almost nothing to do with each other.  Two narrators, a cheerleader and a football player, are involved in a situation in which this best friend tries to get her for himself, explored in terms of her becoming his slave for the day.  Another pair of slave/master narratives involve a a black rebel who purchases the back president of the school council, in order to make a point about the racism implicit in the day.  A third involves a would-be actor student who purchases the teacher who failed him in order to get revenge.  And the fourth concerns the beautiful spoiled daughter of the wealthy mayor and the younger boy geek she enslaves almost by accident.   Each of these pairs of master/slave characters is so involved in their dealing with each other that they are not aware of most of what is happening to the other three pairs.  (This is also a way in which Slave Day is unlike Woolf, I think:  while apparently a complex interweaving of disparate characters, it’s actually a much less complex interweaving of four novellas, each with its own plot.  Once more, a YA novelist finds a way of simplifying a theoretically complex and sophisticated narrative technique in order to produce fiction that seems more complex than it actually is. )

Also, the four distinct narratives have a variational relationship with each other, in that each of them involves a different version of power politics or enslavement in human affairs.  The cheerleader plot involves issues of masculinity and the domination of women by male power and male sexuality.  The football player is a somewhat shallow boy who buys into normative ideas about what matters that give him, a white male athlete, great power.  As the day goes on and he becomes ever more frustrated by the cheerleader’s refusal to have sex him, she becomes more and more aware of what’s wrong with her relationship with him (Slave Day, she says, and being his slave, doesn’t feel much different from any other day) –and also, what’s wrong with the other’s boy’s competitive and underhanded struggle for her.  She ends up free of both boys, a happily independent woman.  The rich bitch/geek plot explores both issues of social power (money) and the hierarchical structure of the high school world, in which he is less than meaningless and she is a star.   Each gains a small amount of insight into the other–she about his real worth, he about her real emotions under a veneer of toughness–but he ends up threatening to blackmail her in a way that ends her enslavement of him, threatens his enslavement of her, and provides him not just with independence but with an ugly lesson in how best to survive in a world of dog-eat-dog isolate.  He is less ingenious and tougher, but more dangerous at the end, not just to others but also to himself?  The teacher is enslaved by his loss of energy and insistence on strictness, the actor boy by his inability to do well at school while also helping to support his trailer park family.  Their story explores the power relationships of student/teachers and the power of societal and personal circumstance.  Each comes to know and understand more about the other (as do all these characters, in fact) as a result of the slave game, and in this case, there’s a move towards a very small amount of greater contact that enriches and changes both their lives.   Theirs is the most hopeful and positive of the four stories, and the one most like what you might expect of a YA novel with a group of isolated characters coming together.  The other stories end much less conventionally.

The fourth plot is the one most resonant in terms of ideas of slavery, as one African American boy enslaves another and makes public displays of having him pretend to pick cotton, shine shoes, and such–live out old stereotypes of racial power and enslavement.  It also represents a debate about ways of confronting one’s path in life as a person of colour.  One boy represents resistance to white power, the other acceptance and use of it in order to move ahead himself.   Ironically, the rebel seems to win–we’re told that there’s unlikely to ever be another Slave Day–but the other boy manages to keep his quest for success intact, and even gets the girl the rebel hoped for.  And yet–his winning is like the victory of the young geek, a triumph that defines him as self-centred, dangerous, and isolated.  As he himself says at one point (and what the novel seems to reinforce throughout),  “what’s more important–maybe he’ll learn that whatever else happens today, when all is said and done, I’ll still be me, and he’ll still be him” (47).   And as the rebel says at the end (although not about all these narrators it certainly applies to them), “”In our own ways, each of us got exactly what he wanted”–and that was a gain for some, and a loss for others.

At any rate, all of this amounts to a sizeable and many faceted discussion of how people have power over and are enslaved by each other,  how freedom might be indepedence or isolation, and what the ethical and personal implications of all that are.   It uses the alternating narratives to show how both slaves and masters have power and at the same time disempower themselves and others.

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