Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Fiction and Lies

Back in the 16th century, some people called fiction "lies" because it wasn't true; someone had made it up. We have come so far by the 21st century that a fictional character, Tommy from Daniel Waters' Generation Dead, has his own blog. He posts entries fairly frequently and even replies to comments at . One of the comments on his most recent post was "RU real?" He replied that you had to read a book by Daniel Waters to know about him, which seems to me to be a disingenuous echo of Huck Finn saying

"You don't know me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth mainly. There were things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied, one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly--Tom's Aunt Polly, she is--and Mary, and the widow Douglas, is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book; with stretchers, as I said before."

If Twain had the technology and the time, maybe he would have enjoyed prolonging the blurring of the line between truth and exaggeration by inventing a blog for Huck. Hmm.

At any rate, Generation Dead raises some interesting issues. That's pretty much all it does; it raises them. Almost everyone I've talked to who has read it agrees that it is positioned for a sequel (which also explains the updating of "Tommy's" blog, doesn't it?). My daughter, who bought the book, agrees with me in not liking books in which the conflict is not fully resolved.

But the issues it raises are very interesting, especially to the target YA audience. The cover illustration shows a girl wearing eye makeup eerily similar to the makeup that one of Eleanor's friend shows up in every morning. (Once we took this girl to The Olive Garden, and a little girl who was walking towards the restroom took one look at her and went back and got her mother before she would go any farther past that girl with the black circles around her eyes.) And the cover illustration does reflect one of the issues in the book: what does it mean to dress like a "Goth" and listen to groups like Grave Mistake in a world where teenagers come back from the dead and go to your high school?

Eleanor, at 14, responded to the school's enforcement of politically correct terms for the teenagers who have risen from the dead:

"You aren't supposed to call them zombies...."
"Zombies, dead heads, corpsicles. What's the difference?"
...."You could be expelled for saying things like that...You know you're supposed to call them living impaired."

As the book goes on, the term "living impaired" is rejected in favor of "differently biotic" and it is revealed that in groups of their own, the dead kids call themselves zombies, but they don't like living kids to call them that as a perjorative term.

The verisimilitude is wonderful, and one of the reasons I think Eleanor responds to the fiction. She came home from school a few weeks ago and said she had a thought during art class and that led to another thought about guns and someone blowing up the school, and then she looked around guiltily before she realized that there's (as yet) no penalty for thinking about prohibited topics while at school!!!

Related to the pc terms are the activities of the acceptance campaigners who give out t-shirts with slogans like "Zombie Power!" and "Some of My Best Friends are Dead." Their stated aim is to transform the culture so that dead teenagers are accepted and no longer discriminated against. This discrimination theme is exaggerated enough to remain funny all the way through the book (no easy task, really). The high point is when a teacher tells a group of teenagers (some dead, some alive) that:

"Transformation always requires radical action. If Elvis Presley had not taken the radical action of singing a style of music traditionally sung by black people, we may never have had the transformation that rock and roll enacted on modern society. If Martin Luther King had not taken the radical action of organizing and speaking around the cause of civil rights, we may have never undergone the transformation from an oppressive state to one of freedom and equal opportunity for all. And that transformation is not yet complete. You kids are living--or unliving, as the case may be--proof of that."

Another thing we both really enjoyed (especially in light of the recent Freshwater controversy) was the occasional mention of religious groups who discriminate against the dead. At a school assembly, one girl says
"My dad says that it isn't natural, people coming back from the dead. He says that there's stuff in the Bible that talks about the dead coming up out of their graves, and that it means the world will end soon."
The teacher in charge of the assembly responds by saying "With all due respect to your father's beliefs...we have found nothing in our extensive studies that suggests the phenomena of the differently biotic is a sign of the Apocalypse. Of course, we could be wrong, but we prefer to look at the phenomenon as a scientific puzzle to be answered rather than a metaphysical conundrum."

Later in the book, we get to read some of the hate mail addressed to those on the "side" of the dead, and it's hilarious... I might wish it sounded a little less like some of the recent letters to the editor in my small-town newspaper...

Which brings me back to fiction as "lies." Isn't it pleasant when someone writes a book that can make us laugh about issues we're too close to to be able to see clearly? Some things are, no doubt, "stretched," but it seems to me that much of this book "tells the truth, mainly."


Jeanne said...

I got an e-mail from Daniel Waters pointing out that
"it actually wasn't 'Tommy' but another reader who suggested to the 'RU real?' poster that they go read the book. Tommy replied a little further down and wrote 'No. No, I'm not,' so he told the truth.

Mainly. ;)

Fran Friel said...

A fine and thought provoking review for a fantastic book.

Very Best Regards,
Fran Friel

forbiddenorange said...

I devoured it in one sitting...and am desperately waiting for my next feel.

There WILL be a next fill, RIGHT?

*threatening tone*

Jeanne said...

forbiddenorange, Mr. Waters also said in his e-mail that my blog name "would have been a great one for the final GD book," so I think your longing for another will be fulfilled!