Another three-headed mess of reviews, as I do my best to catch up with the pile. This time, three contemporary YA classics: Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep, Malorie Blackman's Hacker and John Green's Paper Towns.
For chronological purposes, let's start with Malorie Blackman's Hacker (1993). Vicky is a bright kid - especially with computers. She's also a shy one, and is happier writing code and talking about serious geeky stuff with her dad than she is trying to fit in at school. Her brother, Gib, doesn't make things easier: as loud-mouthed and confident as Vicky is withdrawn. Vicky blames herself: she's adopted, so, to her, it is obvious that people would prefer Gib. She's just the extra, right?
Vicky's love of computers gets her in trouble during her math test. Instead of working the answers normally, she programs her calculator to do them for her. It doesn't even occur to her that this might be cheating, but when she's pulled into the office after the exam, she's accused of a far worse crime. It seems that someone actually hacked the school computer and stole answers ahead of time. Vicky inadvertently confesses to the wrong crime: her foolish workaround is confused with the outright theft. Oops.
Still, when Vicky gets home that night, she realises that there are worse problems: her father is now accused of hacking as well - stealing millions from the bank where he works. He's the most honest man she knows, and Vicky's determined to prove him innocent. Unfortunately, she'll need a little help from Gib.
Hacker is, on one hand, wonderfully dated. The dial-up modems, the programming and, in my favourite scene, the deliciously clunky printer (Gib actually has to sit on it to keep it from making noise as it rattles around the room). Tonally, there's something of the After-School Special about it as well: kids, over their heads, solving "contemporary" problems in a way that brings them all together and teaches them the nature of love and family. As a mystery, Hacker isn't all that mysterious, but nor is it meant to be.
Because, on the other hand, Hacker is so perfectly, concisely written that it is timeless. The computer 'stuff' is basically a red-herring: you could replace that with social media, football or fly-fishing, and it would have the same result. A girl hides in her passion. It gets her in trouble. She realises she can reach out. She reaches out. Happy ending. It is, I suppose, formulaic, but Ms. Blackman's characters and their problems - however Disneyfied the structure - are empathetic and, more than that, authentic. The bits of Hacker that ring false are the moments of physical menace, the ones that don't are the conversations between Vicky and Gib, their reactions to one another and the way they work (and don't work) together. The kids feel real, and, because of that, it doesn't matter how un-real the rest of the book may be.
Although far more plausible, Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep (2005), still felt less authentic. Prep follows Lee Fiora through four years at Ault, a New England preparatory (US: "boarding" / UK: "public" / etc.) school. Lee's a scholarship student and incredibly ordinary - she's careful not to be the weirdest or the loudest or the worst, but she's also not particularly smart, pretty, popular or out-going. Her attempts to maintain this delicate balance are the focus of Prep: a completely 'normal' person in an utterly extraordinary situation.
Superficially, Prep has a lot that I like in my entertainment - be it Gossip Girl or YA fiction. Pretty people, social anxieties, dance-related fretting and Machiavellian high school politics. But, if you'll excuse the crude phrasing, Prep didn't feel like the experiences of a teenager. It felt like an MFA thesis about what it is like to be a teenager, all carefully filtered through bottle-thick poetic and philosophical lenses. Lee's self-awareness is beyond admirable; it is inhuman. She's obsessed with her role in the greater ecosystem of Ault, and continually sees her actions through a disassociated hindsight. Prep isn't a collection of the adventures of a shy teenager: it is the collection of thirty-something, thinking about their teenage years and adding a sense of meaning, purpose and history to them that wasn't actually there. (As well as the John Hughesian-levels of impossibility to occur with several plot twists.) There's no sense of spontaneity or life to Prep; it is thoughtful to the point of suspicion, and the result feels more nostalgic than insightful. This isn't to say that Prep is some sort of failure - it is beautifully crafted, and it does have some genuinely evocative moments that ring true - especially between Lee and her family - but those are few and far between.
[Aside: My reading of Prep was also certainly influenced by the fact that it came back to back with e-re-re-re-re-etc-read of The Secret History, which touches on many similar themes, especially the desperation to belong, the overwhelming atmosphere of East Coast institutions (and the 'shame of being merely middle class') and the reinvention of oneself at a boarding school/university. It is also interesting that the weakest aspect of The Secret History also emphasises Prep's, er, misfires. The Secret History ends in a way that flags up the (at the risk of sounding like a complete cock) naivete of its young author: it assumes that the world comes to an end after university - but even in this misstep, the book only reinforces the authenticity of the protagonist's voice. Prep does the reverse, and tries to retrofit the protagonist's entire adult life into the prep school experience.]
John Green's Paper Towns (2008) also features a 'normal' kid, surviving the peaks and troughs of a high school. Quentin, however, isn't at a prep school - he's at his local school in Florida, where he's lived all his life, with his adoring (but wacky) parents, his loyal (but wacky) friends and his beautiful (and wacky) neighbour, Margo. When Margo climbs in through Quentin's window for the first time since they were kids, Quentin's in for a crazy evening - she hauls him around town on mysterious, disruptive tasks and shakes him out of his geeky self-absorption.
But then... she disappears. Certainly Margo's done that before (because that's what manic pixie dreamgirls do), but this time it feels different. Quentin and his friends assign themselves the task of finding Margo before graduation... or it is too late.
Like Prep, Paper Towns doesn't ring true for a teenage voice - but, unlike Prep, it gives the impression that it isn't even trying. This is a deliberately stilted rom-com that out-Juno's Juno when it comes to precious dialogue, candied philosophy and over-the-top silliness. One of those movies books in which the kids either talk in page-long monologues about the transcendence of being and/or a few lines of razor-sharp repartee.
Yet is because Paper Towns is so unreal that it can be forgiven. Plus, it is genuinely laugh out loud funny, which makes it all the more enjoyable than Prep's ponderous severity. Quentin and his friends come of age, get bullied, make mistakes, find love, get drunk and do actual teenage stuff: they just do so in an overtly hyper-real fashion, where everything is exaggerated to the point of improbability. The essence of it, however, remains vaguely true to the high school experience and the chaos of the time. And if Paper Towns doesn't shy away from making long speeches, at least those speeches make sense. "Paper Towns" are transient or artificial communities - but, as the book says, we also have the opportunity to build real and lasting ones.
Yet, like the Zach Braff vehicle this book clearly wants to be, Paper Towns is essentially about an 'everyman' (that is, a geeky, computer-loving, semi-popular, indie-film-watching everykid) and his quest for the manic pixie dreamgirl (I mean, good lord, that cover). Margo is a suitably ridiculous character, and the conclusion - and denouement - to her storyline is nothing short of frustrating. The book is about his quest to find Margo - the 'real' Margo - a Margo that's only for him and can't be shared. Like the rest of Paper Towns, there's a comfort to this storyline: nice guys 'earn' beautiful girls, bullies secretly respect geeks, everyone winds up getting what they want and deserve. This is actually a really fun one, and I'm a little sad it isn't a goofy teen movie, but there's no getting around it - Paper Towns left me feeling pretty dissatisfied at the end.
[Spoiler-laced rants: Not least of which because Margo is - not to put too fine a point of it - deeply disturbed. I'm glad she's had some small form of closure in a New York field, but this is a young woman that's been obsessed with death for over a decade, from a family that seems (potentially?) abusive. Her idea of taking care of herself is to go hide in an asbestos-ridden derelict mall and write poetry, and her strategy for the future is to take her Bat Mitzvah money and go live on the streets of New York. Not to preach like Go Ask Alice, but Margo's not really in a good place right now, and there's nothing charming about her kookiness when she has a breakdown and OD's on heroin. Fortunately Quentin has the magical gem of True Knowing and is sure that everything will be fine with her. OH AND ANOTHER THING. One of the things I liked about Paper Towns is how Quentin actually acted like a real kid and was good about keeping authority figures in the loop: teacher, cops, the occasional parent. Which is what a kid of his ilk in his situation would do when faced with something clearly beyond him (like, say, a runaway). So why, at the end, when they think that they're racing to stop a suicide, do they not? What the hell, Quentin? Also, the Lacey/Ben relationship, although adorable? No.]