And Then The Child Gets Raped

So Book Club was last night. We read a new title, something published this year by a young author who was getting rave reviews by book reviewers and, according to the dust jacket, other well-known authors who universally praise the author's talent and skill.

The writing was dazzling, wondrous and bewitching. The turns of phrase and wordplay are vivid and exuberant. These are words I'm picking out from the dust jacket. The prose made you appreciate "good writing" in the way that you want to clap when you read a well-crafted Talk of the Town piece. And the author was smart to put all this wonderful wordplay and astute description in the words of a 13-year-old protagonist because the only thing people want more than reading about precocious 13-year-olds is reading about precocious 13-year-olds in the first person. Everything about the book is perfect.

But the tone seems "current" in a way that is disturbing. These days, there doesn't seems to be that much difference between precocious, well-spoken teens doing whatever it is that teenagers do (I don't know, sit around and play with their hair or something?) and pretentious, overeducated adults pursuing the same things they were interested in as adolescents (again, whatever that might be). And maybe the author intended this, but I don't know. Which is to say, the twee tone grated after a while, and while it generally fit the setting, it wasn't a world I wanted to linger in.

The un-wide gap between precocious adolescents and pretentious twenty-, thirty- and forty-somethings sets up a situation where you can read a book and think that it could just as easily be a young adult novel. The Nora Roberts book we read was interesting if only because if you took out some gratuitous cursing and what little sex there was — and lowered the characters age by about ten years — it could have been a teen book; their lives were about as meaningful. In the same way, I kept getting distracted by the twee quality of this particular book, and were it not for the author's biographical badges of honor, I might have thought it was a young adult book.

And then the 13-year-old protagonist gets raped. Nothing spoils delightfully twee writing like the main character getting raped. And not just raped, but raped by a vagrant wearing a bird suit.

Um . . . gross?

On the one hand, it's a funny little think piece to write a novel that is wondrous and ponderous and full of beautifully crafted sentences and quirky characters and then destroy the vibe with child rape. Ha ha! How unexpected! On the other hand, it's like, Dude, did you really have to have your characters rape children?

Book Club disagreed in part about the intention behind the tone. Some felt there was an irony going on that was depressing — the disconnect between the real world and fantasy world. But others of us just saw a disconnect: Too much of the writing was too cutesy too much of the time to make it seem really bleak. The fictional satirical world seemed lifeless through the thick morass of sarcasm and snark — much in the same way George Saunders sucks the life out of his stories in his In Persuasion Nation by satirizing popular culture to death. Alliteration and quirk and astute observations about working class Americana make you not care about the characters and actually work to make you actively dislike the author's point of view. So you think everyone's dumb? Well, fuck you — but more importantly, it makes me not give a shit about the world you're creating, to the point where I'm counting how many pages I have until the end. Anyway, which is to also say, this book defaulted to that other really boring "current" trend of satirizing culture without participating in it. At times it reminded me of what would happen if George Saunders wrote an episode of Gilmore Girls — and then had the children get raped.

But maybe it's just me and my expectations about how or how not child rape is an acceptable plot development. But I think it's fair to say that those of us who got that far into the book were a little surprised about what transpired.

Then again, the author certainly set a high bar for herself to exceed. I don't know what's next for her but I wouldn't mind a novel in which, say, more than one main character gets raped. Perhaps she could set it in Brooklyn, with the requisite quirky characters, florid writing and perhaps even a torture scene. That would be unexpected for sure.

Posted: July 21st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: , , ,