Archive for the ‘Amy Goldman Koss’ Category

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.

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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.