Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Tragedy Paper

Regret - New Order (mp3)
These Are The Fables - The New Pornographers (mp3)

There was a time when novels set in high school centered around virgins, in plots where seeking to lose their virginity wasn’t the prime mover of the book. Or kids who rode their bikes around small towns investigating the strange mysteries required to Come Of Age. Those books are gone. They’re relics.

As a vanilla kid with a vanilla childhood whose virginity endured far longer than he might have wished at times, who rode his bike everywhere, whose vanilla limbs all worked properly if unimpressively, whose vanilla parents raised him to be “decent” (the most vanilla of words), whose dad actually hid his meager stash of Playboys and whose mom only cussed a few times each year, I enjoyed aplenty books that took me out of my comfort zone and showed me a world beyond my own comprehension. From Tolkien’s books to Blume’s girls to “The Red Badge of Courage” or “...Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” escaping the confines of my vanilla male prison is one of the reasons fiction will never die.

But there was something vital for me in books like A Separate Peace and The Chocolate War, books about Boys A Lot Like Me, and those books seem increasingly going the way of the dinosaur. I’m being selfish, and I don’t deny it, but I miss YA books that didn’t involve child molestation or abusive parents, that didn’t center around some diagnosed physical or psychological limitation, where the protagonist or one of the protagonist’s besties wasn’t gay or representing some maligned racial or cultural minority.

Or, to put it another way, the reason Freaks & Geeks has become one of the biggest cult TV classics of the last 30 years is because it’s a story about millions of people amalgamated into the bodies of a few precious pasty-lookin’ characters whose biggest dramas include hosting a keg party and skipping a school math competition.

Take a look at the best and most successful young adult novels of the last 15 years, and you’ll invariably conclude that teenagers who live vanilla lives must have it pretty good. Protagonists can no longer be merely Freaks or Geeks. They must be Uncontrollably Obviously Different.

If you’re heterosexual and pasty-colored, have a couple of reliable friends, and wake up every morning in the same bed and with the same two adults in the house, there can’t possibly be any conflict or plot challenge in your life so compelling as to fill a gripping novel.

And perhaps that’s true. Perhaps normal lives and normal people are incapable of extraordinary experiences worthy of 21st Century YA fiction. But it sure as shit doesn’t feel true if you’re a vanilla teenager. From the moment your alarm clock goes off too early in the morning to the moment time seems to move faster, and you’re staring up at the ceiling in your dark room with earphones on, wondering when in the name of holy deities, shit feels important. Everything in-between pretty much feels colossal, too.

The Tragedy Paper is the closest thing to a throwback YA novel I’ve read in a while. Granted, the protagonist is an albino, a teen devoid of melanin who suffers from a number of physical and emotional side-effects related to the disorder. But the way the plot unfolds, the book isn’t so much interested in being About The Struggles Of Living With Albinism; the condition is just a modernized way to create the Instafreak. Rather than have a lengthy back story about why some kid doesn’t fit in, leaves his former school, has no real friends, you just make him an albino and Voila! Instant loner and loser!

The other key male protagonist and the one who frames the narrative is Duncan, a year younger who is living out his senior year at The Irving School, the boarding school where something tragic and involving Tim occurred the previous year. Duncan inherits Tim’s room and a collection of recorded CDs (similar to Thirteen Reasons Why) on which Tim shares his story.

Duncan is the vanilla kid. He’s got girl problems and isn’t sure where he fits in school. And he’s often more interested in listening to Tim’s story than living.

I’m being very harsh, and this is intended as a compliment.

The Tragedy Paper is a very good, easily readable throwback book about outcasts, popular kids, the confusion of teen love, and stupid teenage decisions. The albino thing wasn’t so bad. Mostly what I wanted was more. Some more description. Some more about Duncan’s dazed and confused senior year when he wasn’t in his room or holding hands with his maybe-girlfriend. I wanted a bit more about life at a boarding school that wasn’t in the woods or in a tiny dorm room.

If what you want out of a book is more, it can’t be that bad of a book. And the world could use a few more teenage books where not everyone is getting laid, where just a really long smooch could make a kid’s head spin, books where there are no roving gangs of bullies so much as just mean, selfish kids.

The most memorable scene for me is when the main antagonist, Patrick, is leading Tim and a group of seniors through the snowy woods for reasons known only to him. The scene is fraught with the sense of a set-up. What are they going to do to Tim?? The only other kid who’s been nice to Tim even gets sick and has to stop to puke before Tim convinces him to keep going. Oh the irony! Tim is dragging this guy with him for something awful!

This was Elizabeth LaBan’s first novel. It’s good, but not great. It’s got the right kinds of ambition and approach and heart, and all that counts for something. I hope she’s not going anywhere, because she’ll get better her next time out. Maybe she'll even try and make something delicious out of vanilla next time rather than pure white.


troutking said...

Billy, have you read Bob Greene's book Be True to Your School? It's the diary of the year 1964 when he was a junior in high school. It's one of my favorite books for two reasons: 1) I like the historical details; 2) it really captures what being a teenager is like--the insecurity, the narcissism, the fun. I highly recommend it. I don't think it's on Kindle. Happy to let you borrow mine if you're interested.

troutking said...

Hi Billy!

Daisy said...

Maybe you should write your own pasty, vanilla, YA novel. I'd buy it.