Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Disturbing YA Fiction

I mean "disturbing" in kind of a good way; sometimes you need to be disturbed out of your placid mode of thinking. When I read John Green's An Abundance of Katherines (given to my kids right after it came out as a prize in a contest by our local YA librarian), I remember reacting to the world of the young adults in it, which is curiously devoid of parents. As a child who read E. Nesbit and Edward Eager, I was used to parents having to be out of the way so the kids can have an adventure, but sure that if the parents became aware of what was going on, they would intervene. I get no such feeling from Green's novels. The parents are missing, or they don't care what they kids are doing, or they're so out of touch with the kids' world that they're completely and utterly ineffectual.

The parents in Looking for Alaska are the third type. They have no idea what's going on in their son's life. I've had this book on my to be read pile since August, when the local Freshwater supporters handed out their list of proposed banned books and put a note by Looking for Alaska: "oral sex." I had no idea how funny it is to label the book this way. The oral sex scene is about two high school kids so innocent that they don't know how to perform or receive oral sex, and so unsupervised that they have the time to find out. It rates right up there with the sex scene in The Tall Guy as one of the funniest sex scenes ever:
"And then she wrapped her hand around it and put it into her mouth.
And waited.
We were both very still. She did not move a muscle in her body, and I did not move a muscle in mine. I knew that at this point something else was supposed to happen, but I wasn't quite sure what.
She stayed still. I could feel her nervous breath. For minutes...she lay there, stock-still with my penis in her mouth, and I sat there waiting.
And then she took it out of her mouth and looked up at me quizzically.
'Should I do sometheeng?'
'Um. I don't know,' I said. Everything I'd learned from watching porn with Alaska suddenly exited my brain. I thought maybe she should move her head up and down, but wouldn't that choke her? So I just stayed quiet.
'Should I, like, bite?'
'Don't bite! I mean, I don't think--I mean, that felt good. That was nice. I don't know if there's something else.'
'I mean, you deedn't--'
'Um. Maybe we should ask Alaska.'
So we went to her room and asked Alaska. She laughed and laughed. Sitting on her bed, she laughed until she cried. She walked into the bathroom, returned with a tube of toothpaste, and showed us. In detail. Never have I so wanted to be Crest Complete."

Obviously, Looking for Alaska is a coming of age story, and one of those in which the protagonist can't come of age until he comes to terms with the death of one of his friends, appropriately enough, since his hobby is memorizing the last words of famous people.

I enjoyed the timing of my reading of Looking for Alaska, because about the same time I was reading it, John Green evidently made a big splash at the NCTE convention, with folks lined up to get his signature on his newest novel, Paper Towns. And during the same week Libby, over at Tortoise Lessons, provided a link to his ALAN Conference speech, in which he says
"Books give us the faith that others are real, that their joy and pain should matter to us, and that ours can matter to them."
During the same week, I was listening to Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran during my commute, and got to a part in which a Muslim student makes a pronouncement that fiction is merely a model for behavior, using The Great Gatsby as an example of a novel that promotes infidelity. That day I was protesting an idea something like this one in my classes, the idea that we're all supposed to learn some lesson from what we read in classes, but not from what we read--if we read at all--for pleasure.
Green says
"As if there is some kind of dichotomy between good and fun. As if [The Great]Gatsby is oatmeal and vampires are Lucky Charms. Vampires, of course, ARE Lucky Charms--they are magical and delicious and just dangerous enough to excite me. I love vampires, and I love vampire books. And please know that I would never argue against putting books kids want to read in their hands. But I am arguing that we need to make space in our classes--no matter how advanced or remedial the students--for ambitious novels. Because good is not the opposite of fun. Smart is not the opposite of fun. Boring is the opposite of fun, and when we create the smart/fun dichotomy, what we end up implying is that Gatsby is boring."

My experience as a teacher is that when a student tells me something is boring, it means he doesn't have the context to understand it, to make it matter. That's pretty easily fixed, in a class, and it also implies the truth of what so many mothers tell us (and which John Berryman fixed in my memory forever): "ever to confess you're bored means you have no inner resources." In fact, later in the speech, Green says "I think it's always good to be challenged, to know that there are other people out there, and not all of them value the same things you do." So I'm guessing he would be glad that I find his first two novels disturbing. And maybe he would like the button I sometimes wear which reads "Comfort the Disturbed. Disturb the Comfortable."


John Green said...

I would be very glad, indeed. Brilliant post. -John

Libby said...

Hey, John never comments on *my* posts! (Kidding...) Truly, though, this is a brilliant post. Nicely done! And it made me want to read *Alaska* again...though that one scene is so painful(ly true), I don't know if I can bear it again...

Harriet said...

A terrific and thought-provoking post.