le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Magicians: potter, narnia & frustration

At the prompting of a couple of my Adolescence class students, I finally caved and checked out Lev Grossman's The Magicians from the library. I stuck with it, despite wanting to give up after about 50 or 75 pages; I got stubborn about seeing it through.

I find myself crankily perplexed, now that I've finished reading. The book is a weird mishmash of things, with a take on children's fantasy that I don't quite know how to read. In essence, it's a coming-of-age magical school story; the bulk of the narrative occurs during Quentin's years at college:  Brakebills school of magical pedagogy (which seems, somehow, to be a slight misuse of the word pedagogy; at any rate, I wish my own pedagogy was magical). My students brought up the book when I mentioned (after a question in another class) the relative rarity of novels set during college, with college-aged protagonists -- in particular, the rarity of such books aimed at a younger readership (Pamela Dean's Tam Lin is an exception; it seems that most YA college-setting books are also fantasy fiction, frequently set in fantasy lands with fantasy universities of Magic - Diana Wynne Jones's Year of the Griffin is one such example).

Quite a long time ago, I read a book that my sister had read (I think for college - so this would have been mid-90s). I can't remember what it was called or who wrote it, except that it was set around college-age, and in New York City (I think), and felt grey and gritty and slightly headachey. I think there was a character in it named Flavia, which I remember only because it was the first time I came across that name.
Anyway, I read the book as an early-high-schooler, and didn't really care for it (most likely because I didn't really understand it, not on an emotional experiential level). The impression I have of that book is just flat and grey like that awful grimy dead snow and slush that collects in street gutters in the very late winter.

The Magicians was very like that. I am a fan of books (and films) about great unhappiness, or bleakness, or depression. Someday this pain will be useful to you leapt to the top of my list of favorites after I read it. The movies I love most leave you feeling, as a friend once said, a little bit like you wish you were dead. I do not like uplifting or rollicking stories. I don't like happy characters.

But the characters in this book were painfully flattened, paper dolls really, tricked out with window dressing from Rowling's books (obviously) and retreading ground already well laid by the unbelievably talented Diana Wynne Jones. I have no idea if Grossman ever read Jones's work, but anyone who has cannot miss the resonances and echoes of her ideas and themes. This is not an accusation of plagiarism, but what it does do is make Grossman's work pale by comparison. Pale to the point of nonexistence, really.

Fillory, the books-and-world within The Magicians, is a straight-up ripoff of Narnia. This is also, evidently, intentional, but it doesn't work right. Neither do the Potteresque references, oblique or direct. It's as if Grossman read the Potter series, then said "I can do better than this, and I can make it more sexy and add drinking and make is Edgy and Raw and Powerful."
 Then sat down and overhauled Rowling's books.
Except he inserts all kinds of crap instead of improving.

The Potter and Narnia aspects of the Magicians are too large, too significant, to be just references or allusions or even, as reviewers like to say, sly jokes or tongue-in-cheek jabs. Too much similarity just makes the book feel like it's a mashup of these two fantasy series, refracted through the grey, snow-grimy lens of flat, frankly unlikable, characters. The characters who struck me as most interesting - Eliot and Alice - get desperately short shrift; neither is at all developed. They're shorthands, and dull ones at that: Eliot, a fop, a connoisseur of wines, an unrepentant alcoholic, effortlessly talented at magic. Alice, small, a bit mousy, fiercely talented and intelligent.
But we know nothing about what these characters are, or want, or feel, or believe - they are figures being moved around the book in a way that feels desperately disjointed and desperately, insufficiently, clever.
Grossman's attitude toward the fantasy genre is obnoxious, especially since he owes his entire novel's publication (and maybe its existence) to the genre and that genre's popularity. The Magicians would not exist were it not for the Potter phenomenon. Yet he seems to be smirking sidelong even as he borrows and incorporates elements of those books into his, as if to say "this is REAL Littrature; your poor fluff is just for foolish, deluded adults and unknowing, inexperienced children. True sophisticates will appreciate the cleverness of - ha ha! - a secret teenage wizard who is unhappy for no obvious reasons!"
There might as well be a sticker on the front cover that reads: THIS ARE SERIUS LITRATURE. SERIUS LITRATURE IS SERIUS.

The total absence of anything approximating joy or even mild pleasure left me impatient and irritated with every character in the text. Again, I love misery, but I don't want to see people wallowing in it without knowing how or why they're miserable. Quentin does not have anything that looks to me like depression or true anxiety, anything like a mental illness; he also has no external causes for his misery. He has serious anomie, a state of life I can relate to, but have no desire to wallow in vicariously. Moreover, Quentin's anomie doesn't lead either him OR us as readers anywhere, except into a totally obvious anticlimax in Fillory that is hugely unsatisfying narratively and emotionally.

I am still not really sure what Grossman is trying to do - or thinks he's doing - with his Narnian world. There are some nice touches to Fillory - the clocks embedded in trees, the Cozy Horse (though that is a bit cloyingly saccharine, and sounds like it belongs in the Raggedy Ann books), the large "soft and sympathetic" sailor bunnies. But all of these things are really just slight turns on creations from Lewis's fantasy world; it isn't Grossman's originality or creativity here at all. The Neitherlands, the world between worlds, full of pools through which one passes to another world, is a straight ripoff of The Magician's Nephew - and plays too prominent a role to be just a riff, an homage, a reference. You cannot pilfer from books and then pretend to have done something original and clever by surrounding your pilferings with dour, unlikable characters.

In the end, this book is more of a problem than a delight, and it isn't a problem in a bright and intellectual way, either. The pleasures of wrangling with this particular text are relatively few; Grossman is doing nothing subversive with children's fiction at all. He's hewing to the old line that those silly books are for children, and we adults are just too wise, too sophisticated, too knowing to believe in that kind of foolish crap. And look what happens to the sucker who, even as an adult, does return (literally and metaphorically) to fantasy land! 

If anything good has come out of my reading of Grossman's novel, it's that I now appreciate, even more vividly, the brilliance of writers like Diana Wynne Jones. Even Lewis's Narnia, for all its many problematic aspects, still has a glow of originality around it. The Voyage of the dawn treader is a glorious book, one with truly complex emotions and themes, far more so than anything Grossman can come up with. And for fantastic college stories, Dean's Tam Lin blows Grossman out of the water.

And realizing that Narnia and Tam Lin and Derkholm are even better than you initially thought is nothing to sneeze at. Though I don't advise you discover their greatness via Grossman; instead, re-read those old classics with a smart but affectionate eye.

Monday, November 22, 2010

teenage dream: Glee and gay boys

I watch Glee with a mix of delight and frustration; it's inconsistent, it has an infuriating habit of starting, then dropping, plotlines, it has an obnoxious tendency toward "special" episodes of guest stars or themes that disrupt any momentum the show may have developed. But it also has some great secondary characters (ones who chew up that scenery like crazy), some thoughtful and captivating plotlines, and the best parent on TV.

A couple of weeks ago, Glee hit it out of the ballpark with "Never Been Kissed." I've been thinking about this episode a lot, and not just because it introduces a new location, an all-boys high school that I have been referring to as gay hogwarts (it's the blazers and the senior common room that got me).

THE moment of that episode is Kurt's visit to gay Hogwarts, when he meets adorable Blaine, who sings with the Warblers, the school glee club. In this delirious alternate-reality, the Warblers are "like, rockstars" who stage impromptu performances in the aforementioned common room. Blaine and his cohorts launch into a cover of Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream," sung to Kurt (played with even more than usual aplomb by the staggeringly fantastic Chris Colfer, about whom I cannot say enough in praise).

Watching the episode the first time, I kind of groaned; I don't really like the song and so that made the moment less charming than hoped for.
But then I read the post Tom and Lorenzo wrote about the episode. And ever since reading that post, I can't stop thinking about "Never Been Kissed."

TLo write:

Sure, teenage romantic fantasies are inherently silly to adults because they come from a place of such inexperience and naivete, but they serve an important function in the sexual development of kids. They train them to dream about the best possible outcome. Just as they've been trained their whole lives as to how to make that outcome happen.

Which is some incredibly astute theorizing on adolescent fantasies about romance.
And then, because they're amazing, TLo go on to say:
Teenagers see thousands of murders depicted onscreen by the time they reach 18 but most of them never see a boy kiss another boy or sing him a sweet love song. You want to prevent gay kids from killing themselves? Push for more scenes like the above. Giving a young gay boy the dream that someday Prince Charming will come and sing a love song to him? You cannot imagine. You simply cannot imagine how revolutionary such a thing is.

And even though I spend my days thinking about queerness, thinking about adolescence and childhood and queerness, even though I was more aware (and I sincerely hope, more sensitive) of queer issues when I was in high school - despite all that, TLo are absolutely right: I cannot imagine. I simply cannot imagine how revolutionary such a thing is.

Because of the way criticism works, though, and because I think about what I read, I am beginning to both imagine and understand how revolutionary such a thing is.
even if Glee falls apart again, even if the show goes downhill from here, I will be thoughtful and thankful for this episode that shows us - not in a jokey dream sequence, not in a way we giggle or sneer at - the teenage dreams of a gay boy.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Ah-ha moment, courtesy John Hench

from the back page of John Hench's Designing Disney: Imagineering and the Art of the Show
quote on the illustration is not attributed to anyone else, so I assume it's either Hench or Walt Disney himself.

spring semester, planned!

I bit the bullet and slapped together my spring booklist/rough schedule for the adolescence class. This sounds much more haphazard than it really was; I've been musing for weeks now what to add, what to subtract, what to recycle, what to try new for the spring version of this course. I've read and read, I've made lists, I've informally polled my students. Finally, I realized I can't fiddle with the list forever - book orders were due three weeks ago - and so I just went ahead and put down the books that, for today anyway, seem most interesting/useful/engaging.

The list, in roughly the order in which we will tackle them:

The Breakfast Club
Freaks & Geeks
King Dork
Fancy White Trash by Marjetta Geerling
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Cracked Up to Be by Courtney Summers
Huge (TV show)
Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher
Liar by Justine Larbalestier
King of the Screwups by K.L. Going
I was a Non-Blonde Cheerleader by Kieran Scott

along the way we'll read an introductory bit of queer theory, and an introductory bit of fat studies from Marilyn Wann.

It's a little trauma-heavy, but then so is the entire YA catalog. LIAR absolutely broke my mind, and I'm very keen to try it out on unsuspecting undergrads. The non-blonde cheerleader has the huge advantage of being set in Florida (a deliciously weird place), and is relatively trauma-free. It's a girl-centric book without being TOO annoying, and it - like King of the Screwups - turns the idea of "the outsider" on its head [sometimes literally, in non-blonde cheerleader].
Cracked Up to Be was pretty great, though it uses some of the same old cliches and tropes, but it does some interesting things as well, and is very dark. I think it'll be a nice trio with Speak and Perks of Being a Wallflower.

I'm excited about this semester.

Now, I just need to get my Myth & Folktale class organized, which - of course - is the real challenge.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

reading Madapple

After trawling the lists of best books at the YALSA website, I collected a pile of teen fiction at my library on monday. Last night I started reading Christina Meldrum's Madapple, and it's thoroughly fascinating.
It's a terribly strange premise: girl raised by brilliant but wacky mother, kept isolated from modern life, essentially: no electricity, no running water, no mirrors, no television, no contact with other humans. Homeschooling - heavy on the science and botany/herbalism, other books with many passages redacted. Girl beaten for reading a hidden copy of The Scarlet Letter. Mother dies, girl has to cope.
Meldrum's got BIG themes and issues going on - metaphysics, theology, mysticism, along with all the other good stuff about family and identity and being that one finds in a really good YA novel.
I stayed up far too late last night reading, and I'm a little sulky now because I have to go to school, where I'll be busy all day and unable to read more.

In other news, I think I've decided on a general "theme" for my adolescence class in the spring, a theme so broad it's practically no theme at all. But the organizing principle is going to be .... difference.
I think I am going to put I was a Non-Blonde Cheerleader on the booklist. *cackle* *cackle* *cackle*

now, off to teach grammar, and then day one of discussing K.L. Going's King of the Screw-Ups.