***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: One-dimensional antagonists and a rescue-via-girlfriend detract somewhat from an otherwise brave story about a young man learning to put his anger to rest and forge a new life for himself.
A.S. King is such a talented writer. You should know I'm holding her to a different standard because of that.
This book had a fascinating, wounded male voice. The concept of a young person learning to control (justifiable) anger and the impulse toward violence because of a traumatic upbringing is a brave and worthy premise. King's prose is excellent. The first argument between Hannah and Gerald was one of the most "real" teenage interactions I've seen in a book. They were both so wrong and so right in that argument. Neither wanted to apologize. It was beautifully messy. And I think King can write a damn good fight scene between boys.
One-dimensional villains. But King seems not to be able to create villains with depth, and I'm not sure why, given her talent. (Note that by "villains" I mean the characters at the heart of the protagonist's internal conflict.) Both the sister and mother are hopelessly one-dimensional here. (Astrid's mother was the same in Ask the Passengers). I'd go even further, and say that King is also weak at creating dysfunctional families with true dysfunctional depth. I positively loved the flawed dad in Please Ignore Vera Dietz (and when it comes down to it he was as supportive as many two-parent families), and Astrid's dysfunctional family still had dinner together every night, for crying out loud. Is King unwilling to portray true dysfunction or abject darkness because it's YA? Or is she perhaps unable to, because of a happy childhood? Or maybe, more generously, she understands that home life can be outwardly privileged and intact, but still harbor traumatic, tragically broken elements. The trouble is, it takes real subtlety to show psychological damage that's divorced from the tensions of a family's socio-economic struggle. I want her to succeed at it, because I think it's an important theme to mine, but so far it results in one-dimensionally evil bad guys. In Reality Boy, for example, King adds ingredients that are supposed to bake up into a dysfunction cake, but they don't...quite. Gerald's sister Lisi and Gerald's dad are actually reasonable human beings (although I understand that the dad's lack of intervention in Gerald's abuse by sister Tasha is a serious form of betrayal), and Gerald's mom makes him healthy foods in a well-kept home (yes, I know the point is that she substitutes those for real love). So why is Lisi in the story at all? Is it to reassure us that Gerald won't devolve into a psychopath like Tasha because he had one sane touchstone in his early childhood?
One of the problems is that King has made family members the villains in Reality Boy and Ask the Passengers, while having a first-person narrator. We might expect a first-person narrator to report, say, a school bully as one-dimensional, because the relationship is so superficial. But we expect that no matter how bad a parent or sister is, there is a deep and complicated relationship there.
I didn't believe the mother's motivation. She's half afraid of Tasha--she's like an abused wife who doesn't know how to escape her abuser. But she's also half fierce, protective mother, who admits she only ever loved Tasha. I don't care that King justifies it by having the mom say that she has "read on the Internet about other mother's experiencing this [love of only one child]"--as if King is trying to reassure us, the reader, that that's what's going on. I want to believe it of this mother, I don't want to be told it's possible, and then have two reasonable children overlooked in favor of the genuinely unlikable, unstable, abusive first child. I wanted a more believable response on the mother's and father's part to witnessing Tasha's holding Gerald's nose and mouth shut in the kitchen when he's 17. Furthermore, I want Gerald--a boxing, muscular young man now--to slap Tasha's hand away when she does it, not sit there actually feeling like he can't breathe. Yes, yes, I understand King's point: that when you've been raised with no voice, you feel like you can't defend yourself--he allows it to happen because he knows nothing else, he's still the 5-year-old boy being drowned in the tub. It works in theory but not in practice here: Gerald has a quick temper and a lot of independence as a teenager. He's not one of those children locked in Josef Fritzl's basement, completely unaware of, and inexperienced with, the outside world.
Not dark enough.
Another example of King subconsciously (consciously?) ameliorating the "dark" is Joe Jr., the circus boy. Joe is so vehement that Gerald shouldn't want the horrid life he (Joe) has, I thought when we finally got a view of Joe's home it would be abusive...and then we see Joe's family on their grounds in Florida and they're a giant, raucous, joyfully cussing group that celebrates marriage and pregnancy--highly reminiscent of my own extended family, which I think of as imperfect but more functional than most.
Saved by a girlfriend? We're supposed to see that Gerald's relationship with Hannah, and the respect from his boss, Beth, and the sympathy from the Hockey Lady, and the fact that Joe Jr. didn't like his life either, and the happy marriage of Hannah's fish friends (Ashley and..Gary? Can't remember his name) all served as a catalyst, opening Gerald to his worth and the potential his life had. But I worried that Gerald's turnaround was primarily reliant on a girl. Hannah wasn't exactly manic pixie dream girl, but she was so, so close. I think King tries to make their relationship slightly rocky to show that she is not the cure-all--they're growing together, and running away together is an impetus for change for both of them--but we're not as invested in Hannah because she's drawn too flimsily, and it's so strongly from Gerald's POV that in the end we do feel this relationship somehow saved him. I wanted to see his growth independent of a girl.
Ask the Passengers also had a love interest who was not well fleshed out. Dee is a significant part of Astrid's story, but we never get a feeling for who she really is. (By contrast, Charlie felt real to me in Vera Dietz--worthy of taking second position in a strong book.) In Reality Boy, Hannah takes up a lot of screen time, but she's only truly fleshed out a bit toward the end, when we hear of her family's deeper troubles. It may be asking too much, but I want to know her and feel her trauma before I even know the nature of that trauma, so that when I'm told what it is, it makes perfect sense with what I know of her. Finally, I thought Gerald's dad's "wake up" to reality (and I mean real reality) came too quickly. After all these years, all it took was for Gerald to run away from home to bring him to his senses?
Too much unpacking of the metaphors for us. I'm starting to see that King has a lot of telling in her books, cleverly disguised. She introduces symbols and themes, but then breaks down and ends up having her character explicate them, like she doesn't trust that teens will tease them out without help. In Ask the Passengers Astrid says something heavy-handed at one point like, "But I don't want to send my love away to the passengers, I want it to be safe here." Similarly, Gerald eventually tells us the "point" of lots of the symbols in the book: the list of kidnapping demands becomes what he knows he deserves as a human being, for instance. The plastic-wrap imagery was great, and then Gerald had to tell us why:
"I want to tell her about my plastic-wrapped heart and how I think she's unwrapping it, but I think it's stupid. Anyway, it's more than my heart that's wrapped. My brain is wrapped. That's how it works when you grow up in the land of make-believe. To survive, you wrap and wrap and wrap until you're safe."
Is this really the message King wants to send about sex? I was disturbed that one of the ways Tasha's mental illness manifested itself was in a high sex drive. I know King was trying to make it seem truly aberrant (humping the sofa when she was just a child, having sex when she was only 12), but that's so fraught with potential problematic messages about sex. For one thing, it's well within the range of normal for little girls to stimulate themselves in that way, and even not to know that it's something they should "hide." For another, girls who have sex at age 12 often have some sort of damage from their family--they're seeking something from sex that's missing from their lives. So including this drive on Tasha's part not only potentially sends a sexist message, but it does King a literary disservice: it only helps to point out how unsuccessfully King has portrayed Tasha's underlying problems. As a reader, I wanted to know what Tasha's inner demons were, and why she wasn't getting help by the end of the book. And I was worried about King accidentally sending a message she wouldn't want to send: that a high sex drive is psychopathic.
It reminds me just a little of what I thought was a faux pas in ATP, when King never has anyone bring up the question of bisexuality for Astrid. King was so focused on Astrid eschewing the "no labels, no boxes" issue that she maybe accidentally closed down a healthy discussion, one that teens need. This weekend I read an article that said something I didn't know: bisexuality is marginalized in the LGBT community, especially among men, who disparage it as a wimpy way-station between being in the closet and coming out as gay.
Of course, the fact that she's even tackling these issues is brave and valuable, so it feels a little unfair to leap on any lapses in political correctness.
I miss Vera Dietz. Once again (see my review of Ask the Passengers) King's "process" shows a bit too much in this book. It seems like she came up with the concept first, which is fine, but then didn't allow Gerald to pull her some of the way through, the way she seemed to allow Vera Dietz to do. She knew it would be about how a kid could be messed up by reality TV--which really means messed up by his family, who allowed the cameras in--and how our voyeurism as a society is there because we're soothing our own feelings of worthlessness, at the expense of the real human beings behind the show. And once she had that premise she built the characters and story line around it. As with ATP, the intellect of the main character is so high, his response to his predicament didn't feel entirely real to me. She created side characters who either weren't fleshed out, or who were pure evil, and populated the book with them because she needed them there for one reason or another. (Think of how Gerald met Joe once and they became instant "friends"--Joe was a plot device, so King had to "tell" us that he wasn't, by having Gerald imagine their lifelong relationship, including taking his own kids to the circus to see ol' Joe). Then she sprinkles in some tics for her main characters to make them seem unique and individual (for Gerald it's his zip codes and his Disney Ger-Day reveries, for Astrid it's sending love to the airplanes and chatting with Socrates). And of course King's prose is great, and her voice so mature, she can coast quite well. But in the end her work--which should soar--sometimes feels "constructed," and a tad didactic.