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.