Monday, February 26, 2007

You can't count on me

So, here's that unreliable narrator post . . .

I distinctly remember two books--actually, one book and a trilogy--from late elementary school: the novel I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier and a trilogy by John Christopher called The Tripod Trilogy. I loved those books equally, but now I think I see that they stood on opposite sides of a certain kind of developmental divide.

The Tripods Trilogy takes place in a distant future where mysterious totalitarian alien robots (the tripods) have enslaved humanity and pushed it back to a pre-Industrial Revolution agrarian existence. The books are told in first person by a boy (13? I don't remember) who, along with two others, endeavors to resist the tripods. It's a wonderfully spare yet vivid and gripping sort of dystopian science fiction, and I loved it.

I Am the Cheese is also first person, told by a 14 year old boy, but it was set in what I felt like was contemporary America (not really, it was published in 1977 and I was reading it in the late 80s). Now, I think the best way to describe it is a boy's-eye view of a Graham Greene Cold-War spy novel. It's basically the story of a child coming to terms with his father's involvement in espionage and suffering the consequences. Kinda. I still can't describe it well.

Anyway, I still see distinct similarities that begin to explain why I loved both books at almost the same time. They were both first-person books with ample adventure and characters a bit older than I was. They both have a slightly subversive undertone--a distrust of authority that I found appealing.

But the differences are striking, too. My best friend, Mike Rost, also read the Tripod books, and we spent a lot of time talking about them, discussing the movie version we'd like to make, which character we'd like to be, etc. Not so for I Am the Cheese. I don't think I discussed this book with anyone. It was a private enjoyment (and not simply for the very slight hint of sex it harbored), and even in private, I never identified with Adam Farmer, the book's narrator, in the way I did with the tripod book's narrator. Now I also notice that the evil in the Tripods, though mysterious in nature (what was in those tripods?), is identifiable, uncomplicated in its evil, and alien, whereas in I Am the Cheese, the enemy is not only mysterious but unidentified, probably familiar, and extremely complicated.

When I look at it now, the first line of I Am the Cheese holds a big clue: "I am riding the bicycle, and I am on Route 31 in Monument, Massachusetts . . . " It's the simplest kind of sentence, simpler than most senstences in the Tripods books. Basically, here I am and here is what I am doing. But by the time you get to the end of the book, you know this sentence is, at best, only half true, even thought the narrator believes he's telling the whole truth. This was the first time I'd encountered this kind of storytelling (or the first time I'd noticed), where the author and the narrator are telling the reader distinctly different stories.

The "I" who tells the stories in the Tripod books is telling the story straight; there's nothing that the author wants you to know that the narrator isn't telling you. Satisfaction comes from immersion in the story, from looking at the world through the narrator's eyes as much as possible. Geometrically speaking, it's a straight line between the three principals: author, fictional narrative "I," and the reader.

In Cormier's novel, the "I" believes he's telling the story straight, but the author hopes that you, eventually, see a story that the narrator does not--or at least to be very unsure of what you've just read (which was about as far as I got, the first time I read it). Satisfaction comes from resisting immersion in the narrator's story, from remaining aware enough to recognize oddities and evidence of patterns. Geometrically, you cannot count on being able to draw a straight line from you, the reader through the narrator and into the author--at best, it's a wobbly triangle.

I see now that the Tripods Trilogy belonged to my pre-adolescent self, whereas the cryptic, confused appeal of I Am the Cheese was the harbinger of the horror of adolesence. (Thank God I didn't see it that way then. I'd have been an even bigger prat than I already was.)

I already said I love unreliability in YA narrators, but it's not because I think they're more advanced or more difficult to write or because I think it's good for anyone's critical thinking skills. Certainly not because I think they necessarily sell better. I love narrative unreliability because I think it is the perfect vehicle for capturing the chaos of adolescence. It's right for the genre in the way third-person omniscient is right for high fantasy. I think it reveals a distinct space between childhood and adulthood where reliability and trust are radically redefined or eliminated all together.

I'm inclined, now, to think of adolescence as a Tower of Babel moment or series of such moments. Think about it: some time before high school (toward the end of fifth grade if you were like me) God or some other not entirely benevolent entity notices that if you were to continue on this path uninterrupted, you will become a godlike being: understanding, intelligent, and rational but also guileless, innocent, and highly uncynical. And for better or worse, the entity believes this is unacceptable (or maybe just boring), and so he has created adolescence, which, in the course of preventing you from remaining your innocent, idealized fifth-grade self, causes three things to happen: it makes you generally incomprehensible to the world for a period of several years; it makes you realize that there is much less that you can truly rely on than you ever imagined; and it makes you realize that you are, more often than not, completely on your own when it comes to making sense of the world and of yourself. No one, especially not a good YA author, is going to make this last one easier for you.