Monday, July 17, 2017

Relationships in The Takedown by Corrie Wang

WARNING: The following post discusses details contained in The Takedown by Corrie Wang which may spoil the book if you have not read it yet. You've been warned!

            In her novel The Takedown, Corrie Wang utilizes an "unlikeable" narrator to expose the flaws in relationships and highlight the human need to be seen. Like any finely crafted work of fiction, The Takedown layers several thematic concepts: the reach of karma, the thirst for vindication, the hunger of jealousy and revenge, the fragility of human connection, and the importance of truth in relationships. Certainly, I will not endeavor to analyze all of these potential themes; however, it is worth noting that Wang’s novel does not shy away from what many would consider to be the underbelly of growing up. In today’s digitally connected world, teens are coming-of-age on full display and this can often manifest in unforeseen consequences (some deservedly and others no so much). This concept is of particular interest for my own work as I seek to build a realistic contemporary world for my characters to function in; however, in this post, I shall examine the following: voice and the notion of likeability, implementing direct address as a narrative tool, the complications of parent/child relationships, and developing realistic friendships.
            The novel and its summary both begin with the notion of likeability. In fact, the inside jacket copy plainly states: “Kyla Cheng doesn’t expect you to like her. For the record, she doesn’t need you to.” Similarly, the very first line of the novel offers the same disclaimer when the protagonist asserts herself by declaring she’s “warn[ing] you in advance” that “you’re probably not going to like [her]” (Wang 3). While this definitely establishes the strength of the voice, it does raise some questions: Why all the need to tell the reader how they’ll feel about the character? Why not let Kyla stand and deliver as she does in later chapters? Honestly, this beginning feels less like a device and more like manipulation. What about the reader who sees aspects of herself in Kyla? Should she feel less than for being disliked by her peers or finding herself in the middle of a controversy? I raise these questions because the protagonist in my story is similar in many ways to Kyla and I am striving to create an unlikeable character that readers will ultimately root for. This requires a delate balance of push and pull; I want the readers to see her flaws and love her despite them, which is why the narration is so essential to the progression of the plot.
            Undeniably, narration is a vital component of fiction that can make or break a novel. There are many potential pitfalls of utilizing first person narration, but for the young adult reader the benefits typically far outweigh the possible redundancy, droning, and authorial influence. Readers of young adult fiction have come to rely on the first person narrator as a means to view coming-of-age challenges such as navigating social scenes at school, developing solid friendships, maneuvering into adulthood while maintaining solid connections with parents and peers alike. Consider the following passage:
“Question, oh silent, unseen reader. How am I supposed to act? Because I don’t know anymore. If I’m only sweet and endearing, you’ll never respect me. If I take charge and am in control, you’ll think me aggressive. If I embrace my sexy, I’m a skank. If I embrace my inner dork, I’m ostracized. If I’m wildly popular, it’s the same.
Minus a couple of hiccups, I thought I’d been acing this teenage stuff by me being me, but then I got this for it – see previous 209 pages – and everyone rejoiced.” (Wang 212).
I have toyed with the all powerful use of you to hint that my main character is telling this story to someone for some reason; however, Wang’s protagonist never makes it clear who the “you” is in her use of direct address. Why tell the readers anything in this case? Why not just show them these elements through the progression of plot? Here is where I must suggest that Wang’s use of direct address comes across as an aggressive need for the main character to explain herself despite an entire narrative that demands otherwise. As a result of this, I’d be in favor of less direct address and more scenes showing Kyla navigating her world as only she can. Readers are smart enough to know when they’re being led and it usually pulls them out rather than emerging them in the world. The other option would be for Wang’s story to rely on Kyla being heard – as I am trying to accomplish in my own work. If the character is fulfilling a need, readers are more likely to buy the direct address and accept it as a reality of the narration.
            At risk of overload, I will quickly explore the complexity of relationships in The Takedown. The need for Wang to tie up the issues between Kyla and her mother with a neat little bow undermines the struggles she endured throughout the novel. Rarely, does a person experiences so much growth and understanding in such a short period of time and I would caution writers and myself against doing this. The reality is, sometimes parents don’t like their children for many reasons – yet they love them in spite of these things. The love is sometimes messy and complicated and layered (just like the people). And I think Wang does a disservice to the sharp edges of life she seems to be depicting in the first half of the novel. So for me, consistency is the key. Also, knowing the ending doesn’t have to be perfect because ambiguity is often a harsh reality of life that the young adult reader must adjust to.
            Additionally, Wang attempts to prove the strength of friendships that are anything but solid. The relationships we forge with others and the ones we develop with ourselves ultimately determine the world we create. Certainly, many relationships change but readers need to feel what mattered about these relationships to begin with in order to empathize with the characters. For Kyla, most of these relationships are built on shaky ground save for her love interest, Mac. And I am still puzzled by her need to reject him over and over and over. Equally confusing is his need to be rejected over and over and over – and still stick around. As a result, I want to make sure the actions of my characters seem realistic and not create faux tension in the process.

            While I know the main character in The Takedown isn’t suffering from mental illness as my character is – they do share some things in common: the sharpness of their edges, the unapologetic singular vision, the brute force by which they approach just about every area of their life, etc.  Conclusively, I will aspire to create sufficient relationships, downplay melodrama to increase believable tension, and recognize that sometimes ambiguity makes for a more realistically fitting ending. Overall, this novel was a fantastic glimpse into an imperfect world, featuring imperfect people, and I hope to continue to explore these elements (and others) as I develop my own work. 

Monday, June 19, 2017

Thematic Development in The Movie Version by Emma Wunsch

WARNING: The following post discusses details contained in The Movie Version by Emma Wunscwhich may spoil the book if you have not read it yet. You've been warned!

            Novelists seek to create appropriate pacing, cohesive plot development, and effective dialogue in order to engage and ground readers in the world they have established. While not limited by the parameters of the genre, young adult authors have the added responsibility of appealing to the doubts, frustrations, and concerns of the modern teenager in a way that seeks to bridge the gap from adolescence to adulthood in this ever-changing climate. Undeniably, fiction often serves to prepare readers to face the frequently harsh realities of life.  For this reason, many young adult novels attempt to create protagonists who both seek to understand and find their place in the world at large. Likewise, in her novel The Movie Version, Emma Wunsch explores the main character’s desire to recreate, control, and ultimately understand the human experience to suggest that not all stories will provide a happy conclusion.
            Initially, Wunsch’s world-building suffers as a result of limited dialogue tags and excessive telling. Consequently, the beginning of the novel requires a certain level of concentration that may dissuade the typical young adult reader. Moreover, early in the novel the author relies on establishing character via telling and not showing which distracts rather than connects them to the main characters. It is worth mentioning that most of this problematic telling happens before the reader can establish an emotional connection to the characters and decide for himself or herself how to feel about the relationships because the entirety of the plot demands an understanding of the bond between a sister and her mentally ill older brother. Admittedly, these issues do not hinder the author’s ability to hook and capture interest of readers – which speaks to the strength of the overall narrative.
            For example, early in the novel the protagonist, Amelia, constantly reminds readers “this is what it’s like in Toby’s world” (Wunsch 5) rather than the author showing and allowing readers to formulate their own opinions. Being told by the narrator how different she is from her brother is not the same as the author showing readers the difference. Initially, it is difficult to bond with or root for either of these characters because they incessantly need to speak to each other via movie references and quotations. Young adult audiences will be familiar with some of the newer titles, but unless they are cinematic connoisseurs, some of the references might prove distracting.
            Furthermore, the author’s attempt at fostering sympathy for and connection with the main characters via movie quotes is not nearly as effective as the characters desire to filter their own existence through the same lens. There is no denying that the main characters, Amelia and Toby, have forged a bond by watching a copious amount of movies. Their love for these movies allows them to communicate by having entire conversations composed of nothing but movie quotations; however, most readers might find this to be authorial posturing. It is only when Amelia reveals the significance of precisely what the movie version is that Wunsch is able to tap into the universal human desire to recreate, control, and understand the most difficult aspects of life that the story becomes inclusive. Consider the following passage:
            “What’s the movie version?” Epstein asked. 
      “It’s the better version,” I said, which I immediately regretted. Except for Toby, who kind of invented the idea, I don’t think I’ve ever really told anyone about the movie version.
      “Better like the audience is willing to pay ten dollars to see it. Not better like happy. There are plenty of sad movies, like The Fault in Our Stars, which was amazing, or If I Stay, which I didn’t like. But movie-sad is way better than non-movie-sad.
                                                              (Wunsch 23-24).
            Here we get an understanding, for the first time, about the protagonist’s deep desire to recreate and control her own experience (at least in theory). This notion is extremely relatable to readers both young and old because humans make mistakes and not all of them are life altering or catastrophic. In fact, very often the little mishaps are the ones we obsess over and replay in our minds a million times until the memory no longer causes us embarrassment, pain, or exposure. Wunsch’s careful attention to this idea makes the main character’s struggle to cope with and (at times) deny the existence of her brother’s mental illness more relatable as she taps into the universal folly of the human condition. Writing relatable characters requires this connection and inclusivity no matter how strong the concept or plot may appear. 

            Throughout my own reading and writing, I’ve been thinking about endings and why they are often so disappointing in literature (and life). In a given novel – readers meet new people, fall in love with them and their world, and forge a meaningful connection to their struggle only to be cast out on the last page as if we have not known them intimately. Most authors understand this and seek to provide the most sufficient resolution possible. Readers have a deep desire to know the characters are okay and we hunger for closure that tells us how these characters have dealt with their problems. This desire for completeness is all a part of human nature’s need to understand and something Wunsch’s story touches on. But life is not like a movie. Often we never get a second chance, rarely are we able to control the outcome, and most of the times things happen we will never understand and that is the very purpose of The Movie Version. In this novel, the mental illness is ultimately not a thing to control and the protagonist’s struggle to accept that reminds us even the most unfulfilling endings present an opportunity to grow. Conclusively, this is a testament to the author who created the world and reminded us of our definitive connectivity– otherwise, why would we care about any of this at all? We wouldn’t.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Unresolved Problem in We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach

WARNING: The following post discusses details of Tommy Wallach's novel, We All Looked Up which may spoil the book if you have not read it yet. You've been warned!

            In my previous post about This is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp, I discussed how the author utilized the point-of-view of multiple characters and a compressed timeline to increase tension and drive the central conflict of the novel. As I am currently contemplating a new idea where a similar multi-character perspective could help drive the plot, I have been reading works that create suspense much in the same way. In this aspect, author Tommy Wallach’s novel We All Looked Up also uses a shortened timeline and multiple perspectives in attempt to propel the narrative to enhance conflict. However, the two-month timespan of Wallach’s novel often feels unnecessarily stretched out and the obscurity of the ending leaves readers feeling as if they’ve taken a journey to nowhere.
            Primarily, Wallach’s novel is plagued by having too many possible protagonists which forces him to work really hard at developing a conflict suitable enough to drive the action of the novel. Essentially, readers just passively observe the characters waiting for a comet to either hit the earth or not. Since one of the main antagonists is the approaching comet itself; therefore, not only do readers deserve to know what happens to the characters, but a solid story structure demands it. The fact that Wallach’s ending does not attempt to answer the question it spends two hundred pages developing is frustrating to say the least. Suspense is a wonderful device when utilized effectively, but here it feels like a tool to merely keep the reader interested and hoping the payoff will be worth it in the end. At times Wallach’s novel teeters between the author’s attempt at creating suspense and the reader’s frustration at waiting for something (anything) to happen.
            Early in the novel, Peter (a protagonist among many) has a conversation with one of his teachers which would appear to set the pace of Wallach’s tale; but it is simply a tease. This conversation explores the notion of what a good book should be able to do and ironically exposes what Wallach himself is unable to achieve in his own work. The teacher tells Peter:
            “The best books, they don’t talk about things you never thought about before. They talk about things you’d always thought about, but that you didn’t think anyone else had thought about. You read them, and suddenly you’re a little bit less alone in the world. You’re part of this cosmic community of people who’ve thought about this thing, whatever it happens to be” (Wallach 11)
            Unfortunately, a closer examination of this ideal is not explored to fruition in the story itself. The concept that a novel should explore things in a new way is certainly not groundbreaking and Wallach’s drawn out narrative explaining how the characters are dealing with the notion that a comet MIGHT hit Earth seems thin in hindsight since the ending (or lack thereof) is never fully revealed. While the young adult audience will certainly be intrigued by the subject matter – the possibility of civilization as we know it ending – they will likely be just as frustrated with Wallach’s frequent attempt at over-analyzing, incessant philosophizing, and at times downright preachy approach to the fragility of humanity.
            Young adults read for many of the same reasons that adults do; however, they are only just beginning to ask the big questions and authors have a certain responsibility to take this seriously while giving them room to explore their own hypothesis. Wallach’s authorial intent at first seems clear from the above passage: seeking to explore the big questions. But since his attempt at suspense revolves around how the characters change (or not) while waiting for the comment, it should also build to a sufficient crescendo for the reader. Furthermore, the secondary and tertiary characters are not sufficiently developed in a meaningful way and fail to add to the plot progression but rather extend it almost annoyingly.
            Later in the novel, Wallach continues to weave a philosophical tone that saturates his attempt at progressing the plot. He points out that “Socrates believed that in a perfect world, every person would be doing the thing that they were born to do” (113). Now, while some may view this as the incidental musings of authorial intent, it becomes almost laughable when consideration is given to the fact that the characters do not have any real purpose at all aside from their inability to control what may or may not happen to them.
            Even if the reader acknowledges that in life, endings are not always expected or fair or even clear – the journey of the characters still needs a sufficient payoff in fiction. While we may never know why something happens, this novel fails to explore the event actually happening at all which feels like a terrible waste of time. If Wallach intended to make a statement about the pointlessness of life, he could have at least given his novel the gift of that singular idea. Instead, he teeters – often taking one step forward and another three back. Readers want to see something happen or feel the ending has sufficiently satisfied the characters’ arc. Instead Wallach’s own work drones on while also echoing the “mistaken belief that anything [can] last forever” (330). By leaving the big questions unanswered he actually illegitimatizes the characters and the journey altogether.  
            It is also worth noting that the story ends with the characters “praying for mercy” (370) – literally. This creates more questions without answers and results in nothing but frustration. Where did God enter the picture? If not God, then to whom are they praying? And most importantly – did the comet hit or miss them? This journey of self-discovery hinges on the characters discovering something – anything! And what began as a series of questions ends with even more. At least, one thing is consistent and that’s Wallach’s abstract approach to tangible ideas: the pressure of unfulfilled dreams, the end of the world, the human connection.
            Essentially, for a novel to leave the reader with a sense of completion, there has to be a sense of completion in the work. So, I fundamentally believe the best, most realistic novels are the ones that force us to face a problem and deal with the aftermath the best way we (and the characters) know how. In the end, if this is also left obscure, suspense, character motivation, and the very progression of the plot seems to be all in vain. And no matter the topic, no reader wants to feel as if their time has been wasted.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Increasing Tension to Drive Conflict in This Is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp

WARNING: The following post discusses details of Marieke Nijkamp's novel This Is Where It Ends which may spoil the book if you have not read it yet. You've been warned!

            Characterization is a tool that helps develop plot. When done effectively, a well-developed character not only enhances the storyline but helps to fuel the tension in a given work. By placing the characters in a complicated setting, the author can build believable suspense leading to a sufficient climax. In this way, the novel This Is Where It Ends, by Marieke Nijkamp seeks to utilize the point-of-view of multiple characters to tackle the extremely relevant topic of school violence. As a result, the novel’s character development and utilization of setting contribute to a compressed timeline that propels the conflict.
            Writing from the perspective of multiple characters can at times result in a confusing narrative, weakening the central storyline for readers; however, Nijkamp purposefully leaves the antagonist, Tyler, without a direct voice which builds suspense throughout the book. Readers are forced to take the journey along with other characters, producing a tension filled experience and the knowledge that “fear and survival are two sides of the same coin” (57).  Tyler’s motives for the shooting may at times seem almost trivial, but the reactions of those he is related to, claimed to love, was rejected by, and particularly the ones he targets all give credence to the totality of the experience. Certainly, the young adult reader will relate to the notion of senseless violence while understanding sometimes society is not afforded an opportunity to make sense of such tragedies.  Thus, the characters’ voices unfold along with the action and serve to heighten a realistic building of suspense.
            Furthermore, because an antagonist (even one as vile as a school shooter) is still a human being, Nijkamp offers the lens of four unique perspectives by using the characters closest to the villain: his sister, his ex-girlfriend, the girlfriend of his sister and her brother. Additionally, the secondary and tertiary characters are sufficiently developed through action and dialogue and add a richness to the narrative that a singular perspective might not be able to handle. When readers realize the villain “is the only one who does not feel lost” during this experience, the tension overflows with anticipation about how this issue might be resolved (62). Nijkamp also does a sufficient job of creating the suspense as something showed through the story not merely told to the reader. The novel’s subtitle hints at this exact relevance as well indicating “everyone has a reason to fear the boy with the gun” (1). Moreover, by weaving bits of narrative via snippets of social media reaction throughout the novel’s main events, the author is also able to expand upon that development through a compressed timeline.
            The compressed timeline at once narrows the focus so readers are forced to react to each ticking minute. In fact, the entirety of the main narrative lasts for only 54 harrowing minutes which allows the author to heighten emotion and draw upon the necessity for resolution. While it is understandable that the author needs the compressed timeline to make her story plausible, there are some flaws in the action as well. For example, the entire school is said to be in the auditorium, providing Tyler (the shooter) a perfect opportunity to corral his would-be victims and maximize damage. However, as a high school teacher, I must acknowledge some realities that Nijkamp asks readers to suspend in order for this to be plausible. For one, no school would ever leave the office or front security area empty and even if the shooter manages to kill the guard and janitor before everyone arrives, there would still be secretaries, nurses, and guidance counselors preparing for the day, answering phones, and tending to the business of the school day. Typically, these professionals do not attend school assemblies as they are needed to ensure other aspects of the day are dealt with. Nijkamp needs the office to be empty in order to allow Tomas and Fareed to save the day and develop the narrative beyond what is happening inside the auditorium; however, this quickly becomes a plot problem for anyone in the know. Perhaps, the narrative seeks to do too much in terms of maximizing the peril students in the auditorium find themselves when simply being cornered by a madman with a gun would suffice.
            Overall, however, the progression of the plot is quite authentic. By highlighting the point-of-view of multiple characters and compressing the timeline, suspense builds to a heartfelt crescendo. Kudos must also be awarded to the author for avoiding the temptation to tie this package up with a pretty little bow as she does not offer the conclusion of a truly happy ending for all the characters. As in life, endings do not always serve to justify actions. The bravery, sacrifice, and genuine reactions of the main characters serve to “express how a heart can burst and break at the same time” resulting in a “sun” that cuts “through the darkness but ….[also] cast[s] shadows everywhere” at the same time (252). While we may never know why something happens, this novel allows readers to understand how it might happen at all.

            Conclusively, the best, most realistic, novels are the ones that force us to face dark realities about humanity and deal with the aftermath of such events the best way we know how – through art. In the end, whether we believe the main character’s motivation to be sufficient or not, villains in real life are rarely justified either. We can speculate, study, and seek to know why but often times come up empty in the search for meaning. In This Is Where It Ends, the author merely holds up a societal mirror allowing for the journey to speak for itself through the crafting of various character perspectives and a compressed timeline that fuels the tension in the work. The feelings and experience of these characters are as real as anything seen on the news today, and Nijkamp’s novel can certainly aid in understanding how to prevent such actions in the future. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Development of Inner Conflict in Intentions by Deborah Heiligman

WARNING: The following post discusses details of Deborah Heiligman's novel, Intentions which may spoil the book if you have not read it yet. You've been warned! 

            Conflict is an essential literary element in all works of fiction. The very connotation of the word indicates a clash, an explosion of sorts, between two opposing forces. For writing to even attempt to capture the essence of the human experience, protagonists must fully engage in a complex push-and-pull so readers can believe and relate to the story. Novels run the risk of being too predictable when the stakes are not sufficiently developed, resulting in flat characters and a stock storyline. However, when done effectively, the essential conflict might appear to have a multitude of possible outcomes, effects, and consequences – not only for the main character, but beyond his/her scope as well. Thus the strength of the relationship between given characters, between characters and society, and between characters and themselves becomes the lens by which readers can determine the importance of a particular conflict. Qualities such as honesty, loyalty, and truth very often determine a protagonist from an antagonist – with each reacting in an expected manner to highlight the progression of a character. These aforementioned qualities serve as a basis for the development of inner conflict in the novel Intentions, by Deborah Heiligman. Here, the author builds that inner conflict through the main character’s struggle by creating a solid dilemma to highlight the importance of truth in relationships.
            Initially, the main character, Rachel seems blissfully unaware of the limitations of her world. Like all teens, she is trying to make sense of her place in a world she thinks she already understands. But little does she know, everything she once believed true will come crashing down around her and that is where her story actually begins. Heiligman opens the novel with seemingly fully-developed relationships in play; Rachel is active in Hebrew school, has a tenuously changing relationship with her best friend, and is trying to navigate a volatile home life with her parents constantly fighting. However, when she overhears the rabbi having inappropriate sexual relations with a soon-to-be-married member of the congregation, the order of priorities shifts and a particularly interesting inner-conflict emerges. Forced to attend Hebrew school, Rachel wonders how she “can sit here and listen to him” (12) knowing what she now knows to be true about the once exalted rabbi: he is a flawed man, his word has lost its power, and perhaps he’s even a despicable person to boot. This shift in focus, the added layers to the problem, and Rachel’s own desire to right the wrong all heighten the impact of the issues and possible consequences for all involved.
            Heiligman’s clear attempt to raise the stakes – the influence of a higher power, the main character’s relationship with her faith, and the possible ramifications for the entire congregation – forces the reader to take note. The idea that truth can be something one might need to hide in order to survive supplants additional pressure for the main character. She does not run and tell her parents because that relationship is in flux. She cannot confide in her best friend because that relationship is strained. Instead, she harbors the information, letting it weigh down on her until she almost destroys herself with the pressure of knowing. Every time she enters the scene of the crime (the sanctuary) she swears she suffers from “post-traumatic stress syndrome” (35). Understanding that she herself is not being inauthentic, nearly eats her alive and the reader can simultaneously sympathize and root for her to prevail.
Conversely, Rachel’s struggle is a realistic one given the wide web of people who stand to lose as a result of her dilemma. Heiligman takes care to paint with a brush that exposes flaws, poses questions, and leaves the reader wondering about the result long after the conflict is resolved. Rachel does not act as she should, but as she must. It is not so much a desire pushing her forward, it’s the stress of the situation she finds herself in. The pain of not being able to tell this secret – whether perceived or real – fuels her motivation for most of the novel and she very often does the wrong thing.
As a result of this inner-conflict, Rachel tries pot, cheats on her good boyfriend with the resident bad boy (who also happens to be said rabbi’s messed up son), and stumbles through a series of desperate attention-seeking interactions with her former best friend. It is this relationship that is the most frustrating one for the reader to accept. Rachel seems to teeter between wanting Alexis to go away and pathetically begging for her to stay. The fact that Rachel goes so far as to frame her for shoplifting seems to signify a deep character flaw in Rachel’s own progression. Whether Heiligman is trying to make a statement here or not, this action suggests that Rachel’s downward spiral is complete.
             Finally, the inner conflict explodes and the secret is exposed. If the novel has one main flaw, it is in the cheeky resolution. Readers who are emotionally invested in Rachel, her family, and even the rabbi might be disappointed with Heiligman’s attempt at smoothing over the ending with a rose-colored paintbrush. The falling action seems rushed and the tone too light-hearted for the heavy musings that preceded it. The conversation between Rachel and the rabbi on page 245 simply does not hold the same emotional weight or value:
            “‘I know what you did…’
            ‘Rachel,’ he says.
‘I hate you,’ I whisper. I look up. He’s looking at me, not away. ‘I hate you!’ I say again.
            The rabbi sighs” (245).
            Additionally, the conversation continues to unravel in a rather unbelievable series of back and forth exchanges that also do not ring as true as they should. Rachel even goes so far as to give the rabbi advice about his son. For me, this exchange not only weakens the journey but threatens to unravel the very core of the conflict build throughout the novel. I simply want more from Rachel, from the plot, from the people (which may or may not be fair). She's such a feisty character and her voice will pull you in, but the ending is a bit too glossy for me. Overall though – the inner conflict fuels the progression of the plot while demanding that readers consider all possible consequences beyond the obvious. Young adults will relate to and root for Rachel despite the fact that many of the relationships used to fuel this fire change or dissolve altogether. But at last, Heiligman creates a flawed heroine on a quest for deeper understanding and that makes all the difference in the end.