(On a personal note, I'm gonna say When You Reach Me looks awesome. Its jacket apes a famous New Yorker cover. It takes place in NYC in 1979, and it involves Madeleine L'Engle's classic A Wrinkle in Time. I was a kid in Manhattan in 1979, and I was awestruck when I met L'Engle at our church, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and I used to fill my days with silly time-travel fantasies based on her books and H.G. Wells ... so, yeah, maybe Stead and I share a brain.)
More kid lit news from the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction ... by the way, did you know Amelia Earhart once landed in WRJ? Well, she did.
Now the CCS is putting out a graphic novel about Earhart's 1928 Atlantic ocean crossing: Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean. It's part of a series of graphic bios designed to introduce kids to history without the boredom. Ben Towle of North Carolina drew the pictures, and Vermont novelist Sarah Stewart Taylor wrote the text. You may know the Hartland author from her mysteries starring a Harvard art history professor — or because she's married to current Democratic gubernatorial candidate Matt Dunne.
Taylor and Towle will discuss and sign their book on Friday, February 19, 4-6 p.m. at CCS. Without having seen either of them, I'm guessing it will be more interesting than the recent biopic Amelia with Hilary Swank. Towle's images remind me of Tintin, which is always good.
If you're interested in writing books for kids or young adults and want some guidance, keep an eye on the website for the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Its MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults was the first such program in the U.S. Besides the two-year, low-residency MFA program, VCFA hosts periodic "retreats" like this one for novel writers in March. For $450-500, you get room and board and a weekend of discussion and critique. This one's closed, but check their site for future events.
And that's my weakish segue into the real reason I'm writing, which is an amazing book I just read. As it happens, Boston-based author M.T. Anderson was teaching in VCFA's program when his YA novel Feed was published in 2002. But he doesn't anymore.
Yeah, this book came out back in 2002. It was a finalist for the National Book Award, so I should probably have known about it. But I didn't, maybe because of the whole "young adult" thing.
And it actually has something to say about the world we live in. The only real difference between Anderson's book and George Saunders' futuristic satires that appear frequently in the New Yorker — some with teen characters — is the Young Adult label. What they're doing is very similar, and it's in line with what Anthony Burgess was doing in A Clockwork Orange: criticizing our current trends using the fractured voice of a kid from a dystopian future.
Now, a lot of authors try to do this. Most of them end up sounding preachy. (Even the great meditative sci fi writer Ursula LeGuin lost her touch when she went all dystopian, I think.) Very few of them really get under the skin of their messed-up, brainwashed characters.
Anderson does that. I should say, he totally, like, does that. The book is written in a voice that's basically the ideal MTV viewer after a couple more centuries of devolution. It's set in a future world very similar to Mike Judge's movie Idiocracy, only without the eugenics angle.
In Idiocracy, future Americans have names like Frito, quaff a sinister green "energy drink" called Brawndo instead of water and are glued to a show called "Ow! My Balls!" which is obviously based on MTV's "Jackass." In Feed, the teen characters sell themselves to corporations as human product placements and are glued to a show called "Oh? Wow! Thing!" which is obviously based on MTV's "The Real World."
"Glued to it," though, isn't quite the right term, because this future world has no TV sets. Or computers. We are them. Everyone who can afford it has a wireless neural feed delivering entertainment, chat, and information straight to their cerebral cortex. Using the feed, they can exchange not just thoughts, social-media-style, but recorded sense impressions — their memories.
Sound pretty sweet? Thing is, the feed comes with a barrage of advertisements micro-targeted to your demographic and past purchasing patterns. You can't mute them, and you can't turn them off. You can't turn the feed itself off, either, because it's intertwined with your basic neural functions, including the ones that keep you alive. When you mess with it, bad things can happen.
"Why would anyone choose to get a feed?" you ask. Consider how difficult it already is to function in our society — to seek and get a good job, for instance — without access to the Internet. Then multiply that by several times.
Then consider how it would feel if everyone around you was "chatting" silently — as if they were telepathic — and you were shut out of the conversation. (Ever been in a meeting where everyone has an iPhone except you? Ever realized the person you thought was listening to you is actually checking her Blackberry?)
The narrator of the book, Titus, has never considered those things, because he's never known life without the restless ocean of voices and music in his head. Using only his voice — with its crappy vocabulary and fragmented syntax — Anderson conveys this beautifully.
What makes the book powerful, for me anyway, is that he captures the good parts of having a feed. Titus and his spoiled teenage friends aren't residents of some gloomy Stalinist mind-control state. They love the constant stream of new stuff being thrown at them. They love being American consumers. They love buying things — though of course the fantasy, the shopping, is always better than the reality and the possessing. Which just makes them want to buy more. Which is what the feed is all about.
Meanwhile, we get hints that the world outside the feed — you know, like, the real world — is not doing so great. People — rich people, anyway — live in off-ground bubbles with micro-environments, because Earth's surface is a wasteland. Mysterious disasters keep happening in the third world. The U.S. president — who's about as articulate as Titus — is on the defensive. And even the pretty rich kids keep getting these weeping skin lesions. No one asks why. They just turn their lesions into the latest fashion.
These dystopian novels almost always have a character who's more awake and aware than the others — someone who remembers the past and can inspire the main character to rebel. In Feed, it's Violet, a girl Titus meets while vacationing on the moon. Her parents never had feeds, and she got hers late, so she can think more independently and use words better than Titus. She likes to do things to subvert her feed, like requesting info on a lot of disparate products that don't add up to a coherent demographic profile. (Try it yourself with Amazon.com!)
Anyway, though he doesn't understand half the stuff she says, Titus is drawn to Violet. And then the book evolves into a sort of futuristic variation on Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia. Only it's about 20 times sadder — I'm not kidding here.
Some readers will be angry at the author for taking them to such a dark place. But I think Anderson does it in a way that's fair and necessary. It's fair because his characters never behave inconsistently or implausibly. They're people, not ideas.
It's necessary because he wants to reach readers to whom the notion of a neural feed really does sound pretty damn cool. And then — much like Samuel Johnson kicking that stone to remind the idealist Bishop Berkeley there's a real world out there — Anderson wants to remind us that no matter how empowered we feel by our extended existences on the Net, we still live in bodies. Bodies that malfunction and decay.
The Information Age makes us feel less mortal, more godlike — that's not a sci fi concept, I think. That's a reality many of us are living now.
Another reality is that the more virtually connected we get, the more easily we can let our real-world connections slide. That doesn't mean we necessarily do give up our "meatspace" social networks, only that we can. But some of us do give up on each other — and I think that's what this novel is about. It's not a cautionary tale about some still-distant future, or a finger-shaking Luddite screed penned by someone who doesn't get the appeal of going online. It's Sam Johnson kicking that stone in our direction.