Archive for the ‘Ellen Hopkins’ Category

Hopkins, Ellen.  Identical.  New York: Margaret K. McElderry, 2008.

This novel is so over the top that it almost becomes entertaining for its sheer over-the-topness.  Almost, but not quite, because what’s over the top about it exactly what makes soap operas over the top, and so it’s just too expectable to be all that interesting.  Indeed, I’ve seen the central (and theoretically surprising) plot points of this novel over and over again, especially on (and I now admit to a secret vice) One Life to Live, which specializes in contradicting its own title, sometimes by having supposedly dead people return to life again, and often by having characters suffer from dissociative identity disorders–as is the case in this novel.  On One Life to live as here, furthermore, the cause of the disorder is the sexual abuse of the child by her father.  Under stress because of the accident in which one of his identical twin daughters died, and which has caused his wife to retreat from him, the father (himself, it turns out, a victim of distant and damaged parents and forced to partake in child porn films when he was 10) abuses the remaining twin–who then solves her trauma by imagining herself to be herself, the abused one, and also, alternately, the other twin, alive and there to look after her, as well as to indulge in drugs and sadistic sex with various unworthy boyfriends.  As the long and convoluted last sentence suggests, this is, quite simply, cream of condensed melodrama, with a surprisingly small cast of characters engaging in more nameable and ever-so-contemporary issues and traumas than you can shake a stick at:not just the DID and the father’s abuse of his daughter, but also drugs, alcohol, sadomasochism, bulimia AND anoxeria (one each for each of the main character’s two separated personalities), self-involved and unloving parents, mysteriously disappeared grandparents who return, a dangerously attractive and arousing male teacher with a nice butt, a parental affair with a neighbour, a pushy jealous girl at school, an unbelievably kind and loving boyfriend who’ll put up with everything and anything, and a partridge in a pear tree.

Well, not really a partridge–but all the rest.  And the characters discuss all of these and just about everything else in their life in terms of thickets of pyscho-therapeutical jargon–again, much like One Life to Live or any other soap on any other network.  In the light of its setting in a rich southern Californian upper-middle-class lifestyle, It’s has an OC or The Hills vibe, and is in that way astonishing similar to another recent YA book I’ve discussed here earlier, Marci Dermansky’s Twins (not California, but equally selfish princess-y) –but with poetry.

Poetry?  Yes, indeed, melodramatic pyschotherapeutic poetry a la self-inhvolved senstive types in Creative Writing 101.  Identical is yet another of the current plethora of YA novels written in what purports to be free verse.   As in just about all the others, the verse is so free as to me to appear to be free of verse   But here, as in Helen Frost’s The Braid, which I discussed in an earlier post, the ickily prosaic descriptions of a so-typical-it’s-stereotyped teenager’s stream of thoughts are, at least in theory, shaped (or wrestled) into something that’s supposed to look like poetry by means of a range of structural pyrotechnics.  The transitions between the two alternating focalizations occurs always on a double-page spread, the left side being the character’s whose voice we’ve been hearing in the past few sections, the right side being the other one who’ll we be hearing for the next few.   Both of these are set up at a series of parallel short stanzas the last short phrase of each of which is on a line by itself–and those phrases form a comprehensive sentence in themselves, and are repeated in both the poems, but with a substantially different meaning in terms of the differing contexts of the two different utterances.  Sometimes the imply opposite meanings, sometimes just different ones–which I guess confirms the book’s interest in issues of being identical but different–as the two twins are supposedly identical but different, and turn out in fact to be absolutely identical–one person claiming to be two.  Some of the transitional sentences make sense:

I wish
this moment
could eclipse
The shadows
around me
always haunting me

Some don’t:

Not me
I like it
I get off
he gets off
most of all.

In addition to these transitional devices, there are also a number of shaped poems–shaped in the most cliched of ways, like a poem about love shaped more or less like a heart or one about the father’s drinking shaped like a bottle.  And one makes a giant L followed by the single word “lust.”  Guess what it’s about?  hint–it’s not greed or sloth.

But for all that, and a bewildering variety of differing line lengths and other shapes and such over an astonishing 565 pages ofr angst, nothing ever sounds like anything more than an attempt to describe the main character’s thoughts about herself in a single, detached moment.  As in other free verse novels of this sort, the focus is on present-tense perception or self-analysis, and there’s little sense of how the individual moments are connected.  It’s very piecey and fragmented, and, for all its endless melodramatic excess of event, surprisingly uninterested in building a suspenseful plot.

And that, of course, is exactly why the novel can perform its main trick, which is to deceive readers into believing there are two main characters rather than just one deluded one.  (Something similar happens in terms of tricky uses of alternating narratives to represent what turn out to be varying versions of just one character or life in Brent Hartinger’s Grand and Humble, Brian Caswell’s Double Exposure, Michael Lawrence’s The Crack in the Line,  and Sonia Hartnett’s Surrender, so it’s hardly all that innovative an innovation.)  It did take me a couple of hundred pages to realize I was being deceived, although there were even then discordant notes, such as not knowing who had died in the family’s apocalyptic car crash and wondering about it, or worrying about why these two girls living in the same house never actually reported having conversations with each other about anything, and sometimes nevertheless seemed to know what has happened to each other in their separate lives (a few times I thought the author had forgotten which twin she was working with at the moment and accidentally given her the other one’s memories).  But (thanks to One Life to Live, I guess) I began to suspect DID fairly early on, and found myself desperately hoping that the novel wouldn’t go there, because it would just too silly, and, given the high-pitched hysteria of everything else about it, not being surprised that of course it did go exactly there after all.

In a more positive vein, I can also say that this is one novel that actually makes the indistinguishability of its two focalized characters work.  That’s problematic in other novels–like, for instance, Melanie Little’s Apprentice’s Masterpiece or Bruce Coville’s I Was a Sixth Grade Alien (both discussed here earlier), where supposedly quite different characters of quite different backgrounds sound just the same even before they discover their commonalities.  But here, they are in fact the same, so what seems a flaw in the writing turns out to be a clue to the real situation–although, I suspect, an unintended one, for the two competing personalities do keep insisting on their utter lack of similarity, indeed, their absolute oppositeness–she’s so insecure and I’m so brave–even while sounding exactly the same.

My thanks to Rebecca, who recommended Identical to me after reading my previous entry on The Braid (see her comment on that entry)  Despite my obvious unsuitability as an audience for its particular mixture of operatic angst and poetic pretension, I’ve learned much from reading it.   Most especially, it has confirmed my growing sense that, despite its apparent sophistication as a literary technique, the use of alternating narratives in fiction for young people tends to confirm conventional aspects of that kind of writing far more than it challenges it: as happens throughout literature for young people, it tends to involve exaggerated binary opposites (good and evil, home and away, etc.) that then mediate each other, and it gets used to confirm common and conventional thematic concerns (as here, for instance, coming together is better than being isolated, and grandparents may be better for you than parents are, and above all, supposed difference usually hide a shared similarity that can bring people together and make them one).  Indeed, as a literal example of how two apparently divergent voices can be inherently monological, it neatly represents something essential about literature for young people generally.