Plus Two


Beth Fama is not only a frequent commenter on this blog, but a good friend, so I will preface this post by saying that I make absolutely no claim to objectivity.

Given that, I loved this book. Here are some highlights for me:

1) The prose.  As you know, this is always first for me. The prose here is excellent – I don’t think I noticed an infelicitous phrase throughout (although SLJ found one – but I sure didn’t notice the one they mention on my read). Sol’s voice is strong and distinct, and never unduly calls attention to itself.
1a) The slang/jargon. I loved “smudge” in particular. “CircaDiem” as the name of the drug the smudges take was perfect: a) exactly what a pharma company would name that drug and b) transparent enough to understand its purpose.
1b) The French. I might have missed something, but I didn’t notice an explanation anywhere for all the French, which I thought was fine. The French (and the one mention of Latin) gave it a nice alternate-history feel without having to overexplain anything.
2) Characters. D’Arcy in particular was very well done. His tentativeness at the beginning – unable to understand why exactly he’s helping this smudge. his conflicted feelings about turning her in. His slow growth into an equal partner with her. Great stuff. Sol, of course, was amazing. Side characters: Jean, Helene, Ciel, Gigi – everyone popped. They all (including Sol and D’Arcy) had clearly delineated agendas (and hinted back stories) of their own, which organically led to their alliances or conflicts. Very well done, in a genre where characters often exist for the purpose of advancing the plot.
3) Structure. I quite enjoyed the bi-partite structure: the first half–interweaving the “desk” story with the present, the stealing of the baby leading to the show down with Poppu’s kidnappers–is what the reader expects the entire book to be. Then Beth throws Ciel out there, everyone scatters, and we get a whole new second half with renewed motivations and questions.
4)  I think Beth  writes incredible love scenes (there was some great stuff in Monstrous Beauty as well)–in Plus One, the sex scene, for sure, but even more so D’Arcy and Sol’s first kiss – wow.
5) Poppu’s death scene is another great set piece – really moving.
6) The ending. Well played with no cop-outs.

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Plus One


Today is the official publication date of Plus One, the new YA novel by our frequent commenter Elizabeth Fama. I read this book in January, and just now re-read it, so I want to share some thoughts.PlusOne

I was excited to read it when I first heard the premise last summer: in an alternate version of history, the world was divided into Day people (Rays) and Night people (Smudges) during the 1918 Flu Pandemic. At the time, it was a way to increase productivity and decrease the crowding that led to more contagion. However, in the years that have gone by, it simply became the accepted way to live, with everyone’s activities limited by curfews. Until, of course, a night girl named Sol and a day boy named D’Arcy meet up.

There is lots going on in this book. On one level, it is an analysis of the kind of society that can emerge when we allow our governments to have too much control over every aspect of our lives. Just as one example, no one uses the phone any more (except to text) because “It was too tedious and expensive for the state to redact verbal conversations, and on the customer’s end, the ten-second time delay necessary for the redaction–along with frequent, irritating bleeping of content–spelled the death of person-to-person calls.” Isn’t that great? So much explained about the society and the government in one sentence!

On another level, it is just a solid, fast-paced adventure story, with chase scenes and hideouts. Sol has what she admits is a harebrained scheme to steal her brother’s baby from the hospital so that their grandfather can see the baby before he dies. Her brother has been reassigned to Day, and has not been in regular contact.

On yet another level, it is a great romance, as Sol and D’Arcy develop a relationship that has deeper roots than it first appears.

And yet again, it is also a story about the lengths to which people–all sorts of people–will go to protect the things and people they love.

I don’t want to go too deeply into the plot details here, since the book is brand-new and many people won’t have read it yet. But I do want to mention some of my favorite things about the way Fama has written the book.

On my second time through, I realized how carefully and cleverly the whole thing was set up. Every person or idea that would come into play later in the book was mentioned early on–even if I didn’t notice it the first time around. By alternating between sections (designated with time and day) that told what was going on in the present day and sections (designated with titles) that filled in the gaps from the past, she was able to give us the information we needed to know for the one story without slowing the pace.

I was impressed over and over at the way Fama can tell us so much in just a few words.  The first line is terrific: “It takes guts to deliberately mutilate your hand while operating a blister-pack sealing machine, but all I had going for me was guts.” This tells us right from the beginning something important about Sol, and it is emphasized by the second sentence: “It seemed like a fair trade: lose maybe a week’s wages and possibly the tip of my right middle finger, and in exchange Poppu would get to hold his granddaughter before he died.” So in two sentences we already know that Sol is gutsy, impulsive, witty, and fiercely loyal to Poppu, all of which are played out in the rest of the novel.

I liked the way that the characters were not stereotypes or straw men–everyone was depicted in fully human shades of gray. People are defined by the choices they make, and those choices are often informed by the things–and people–they value. D’Arcy’s parents and Sol’s make different choices in similar circumstances, and the results affect their children in ways they couldn’t have anticipated.

There’s more I could add, but I want to give you a chance to have your say. I will conclude with another of my favorite parts of the book–the way that Sol and D’Arcy learned to see each other’s worlds, and especially the part where Sol shows D’Arcy the Milky Way and D’Arcy is able to top that wonder by showing Sol a murmuration of starlings. Coincidentally, just days after I read that description, someone on my news feed linked to this marvelous video of a murmuration that I can’t resist sharing here:

- Mom

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My New Heroes


I haven’t been following the Battle of the Kids’ Books over on SLJ this year (too much else to do), but Monica Edinger made reference to it in her blog today which made me want to read what Patrick Ness had said about Far Far Away. And then I got sucked in a read a few others, including Mac Barnett’s take-down of Midwinterblood. As you know, these two books were two of my “why does everyone else love these” books from last year, so I’m happy to say that Patrick Ness and Mac Barnett are my new heroes (of course, Barnett was already my new hero for co-authoring Battle Bunny).

Here’s some of Barnett on Midwinterblood:

The jacket copy of Marcus Sedgwick’s unfortunately named Midwinterblood promises “a painter, a ghost, a vampire, and a Viking,” which sounds like the start of a joke my uncle tells that makes everyone uncomfortable.

people speak in that manner peculiar to Characters in Futuristic Novels. Sample dialog from our young lovers: “‘I believe we are not the only place that has no need for cars,’ she says. ‘I don’t know about need,’ Eric says, ‘but yes, since gas became so scarce, there are many places that use alternatives.’” Good to know!

Clichés abound. . . . The well, if you understand, had run dry.” Oh, I understand.

And the problem with clichés, of course, is that they lack specificity. Midwinterblood is a fatally unspecific novel. Despite spending more than 1,000 years with Eric and Merle, I have no idea who they are. And worse: I have no idea what brings them together (except that they both brush hair out of their eyes quite often). Forty pages from the end, an incarnation of Merle reflects that “My way was to think, and his way was to do.” But that distinction isn’t really borne out by the novel, and anyway, well, it’s a cliché. In a not particularly passionate scene, Eric informs Merle, “Our love is forbidden.” I guess we’ll have to take his word for it.

And here’s some of Ness on Far Far Away:

I didn’t believe a word of it.

I didn’t believe Jacob Grimm (of the Brothers Grimm) would need to help an American teenager in order to cross over to the other side.  I didn’t believe the whimsy of Jeremy’s father trying to run a (literal) two-book bookstore meshed with Jeremy and Ginger subsequently being starved to near-death by a serial killer of children.  I didn’t believe that EVERY missing child named in the book – either abducted in the present or the past – would end up having a happy ending.  I didn’t believe Jeremy and Ginger would suffer no discernible trauma after a life-scarring experience.   Most of all, I didn’t believe Ginger would say “Zounds.”  It’s as bad as “heck.”

I found the book false in the most objectionable way:  the teenagers aren’t allowed to be real people.

Because of the Grimm connection, a lot of energy is spent on the fairy tale aspects of the story.  But even fairy tales create a universe in which the story can logically take place.  And they can certainly be harrowing and full of real danger and truth – anyone with a passing acquaintance of the astonishing work of Margo Lanagan knows that. . . .  I’m more than happy to believe in fairy tales, but I didn’t believe any of Far Far Away.

Hey – didn’t I say all of that! Anyway, I know you disagree with me on both novels (so did everyone else!), but I thought I’d highlight the fact that a couple of people who write much much better than me had some similar thoughts.

- Mark



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The Completist: Robert C. O’Brien, Concluded


Z for Zachariah was Robert C. O’Brien’s fourth and final novel. He died before finishing it, and his wife and daughter completed the last few chapters from his notes. This book, of all his novels, deals head-on with what O’Brien referred to as his concern about “the seeming tendency of the human race to exterminate itself.”


The plot is quite simple: a nuclear war has destroyed everything. Sixteen-year-old Ann Burden is living alone in a secluded valley that has somehow escaped the radiation. The only explanation given is that the valley has always “had its own weather.”

Ann’s parents and family left the family farm one day to see how the neighboring Amish families had survived the war, and they never returned. Ann has been living on her own for some months, raising chickens, caring for the cows, planing crops, and just getting through the days. But now someone is coming. She sees the smoke first, and watches the progress of whoever it is as he approaches the farm.

When he appears, it is a man wearing a radiation suit. Ann very prudently hides herself in a cave and observes for some time, but when the man bathes in a radiation-poisoned stream and becomes ill, she ventures down to care for him.

The man, whose name is Loomis, is a scientist (ofcourse he is!). He is a chemist from Cornell who had been doing research on plastics and polymers for a government-funded project in the hills outside of Ithaca. His job was to help create a safe-suit, as well as other things like water and air filters, that would allow soldiers to continue to function in areas that had been atom-bombed. (See, didn’t I say that O’Brien had kind of a Cold War fixation?)

Anyway, Loomis has the prototype suit and all the other apparatus, which has enabled him to walk from Ithaca to Ann’s valley. He does get quite sick with radiation sickness for a time, but eventually recovers.

Once she is over her initial skittishness, Ann is delighted to have Loomis around. He has helpful suggestions–such as how she can get gas for the tractor, thus enabling her to plow a much larger garden patch–and Ann begins to imagine that there might be a future for them together.

But there is a dark side, too. When he is sick and delirious, she learns that there was another man with him in the cave outside Ithaca, and that the other man had been attempting to leave, wearing the safe-suit. Loomis shot him. This fits with what Ann has discovered about Loomis–that he is very protective of the suit, and also very controlling.zach1

The more he recovers from his illness, the more controlling he gets, until eventually Ann realizes that if she stays in the house, she will effectively be his prisoner, so she hides out in the cave. But even that is not enough, and Loomis clearly intends to find her. He stalks her, and even succeeds in shooting her in the leg. Then Ann has a moment of clarity:

“And I suddenly realized that he was not trying to miss. He wanted to shoot me in the leg so I could not walk. He wanted to maim, not to kill me. So that he could catch me. It was a simple plan, a terrible one. Starvation would force me to come to the house or the store. And the gun would keep me from going away again. And I knew he would try until he succeeded.”

Ann concludes that there is no possibility of peaceful coexistence, and she knows that Loomis will not leave the valley. So she decides that her only option is to leave the valley herself. And to do that, she will need to steal the safe-suit. She knows that Loomis will shoot her if he has the chance, but she is determined, and she succeeds. She has a final showdown with Loomis after she steals the suit, telling him, “I don’t want to live with you hunting me as if I were an animal, and I will never agree to be your prisoner.” He begs her not to leave him alone, but she reminds him, “You have food. You have the tractor and the store. You have the valley.”

The last words in the book are: “As I walk, I search the horizon for a trace of green. I am hopeful.”

So again, we have O’Brien tempering his pessimism about what people can and will do with hope.

Of the four novels, this is the only one written in first person, in the form of journal entries. I think he does a pretty good job with Ann’s voice, mixing a kind of country competence with naivete. It lends a real immediacy to the narrative, especially when Ann is on the run from Loomis, and when she is planning her escape from the valley.

As a bad guy, Loomis falls somewhere between Dr. Schutz of Group 17 and Dr. Schultz of Mrs. Frisby. We actually feel a bit sorry for him, wandering the country looking for other survivors in the only existing safe-suit, but at the same time, he is overbearing, and has no idea of how to live in this new world. When Ann suggests, at one point, that she could wear the safe-suit and walk to a nearby town for books at the library, he gets violently upset with her, ordering her never to touch the suit.  He has no interest in Ann, except as someone who can possibly help him, with her knowledge of farming. He rarely makes an effort to talk to her, or to find out anything about her, but at the same time, he doesn’t want her to have a separate life. He’s not actually evil, although he’s certainly ruthless.

Ann, like O’Brien’s other protagonists, is smart, resourceful, and thoughtful.

My final summing-up of O’Brien’s book would be this, using your categories:

Masterpiece:  Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.  Of course. This is just a great book that works on so many levels.

Minor MasterpieceZ for Zachariah.

Must-Read: The Silver Crown.

For Fans: A Report from Group 17.

And one final note: O’Brien’s daughter, Jane Leslie Conly, wrote two sequels to Mrs. Frisby. They are Racso and the Rats of NIMH, and R.T., Margaret, and the Rats of NIMH. Both owe much more to the Don Bluth movie version than to the original book. Both are pale imitations of O’Brien’s masterpiece, and I’m relieved that Conly stopped after the second book and started writing her own books, which were much better. Among other issues I have with the so-called sequels was the way in which she tried to wrap up all the loose ends that O’Brien left in Mrs. Frisby, such as which rats had died in the rose bush, and how things had worked out in Thorn Valley. As you know, I don’t have any problems with a little ambiguity, but Conly seemed to want to beat every horse until it was fully dead.

Okay, that’s it for my first try at a Completist post. I know you’re off at the Eureka Leadership thing this week, but I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts, since I know you’ve read at least three of these books.

- Mom

P.S. One more side note: there is a movie of Z for Zachariah starring Chris Pine as Loomis that has just finished filming in New Zealand. It will be out later this year or sometime next year.

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The Completist: Robert C. O’Brien, Part 2


Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is, as you know, probably my favorite children’s book of all time. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I have read it, read it aloud, and listened to it. And every time, it gets me. I get incredibly caught up in the dual stories–the story of Mrs. Frisby and her children and their need to have their home saved from destruction by the plow, and the story of the rats, their captivity in NIMH, their escape, and their plans for the future.Frisby

I am not, as a rule, a big fan of “talking animal” books, but this one is an exception. And I think it is an exception because O’Brien makes it as realistic as he possibly can. In contrast to the movie made from the book, and also to the book’s sequels, which were written by O’Brien’s daughter, O’Brien’s rats, mice, and birds do not wear clothes or look in any way different from ordinary animals. You just have to have this one suspension of disbelief: that the rats were given injections of some substance that made them super-intelligent and super-long-lived. That one fact leads to everything else that happens in the book. Continue reading

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The Completist: Robert C. O’Brien, Part 1


I’ve never done a Completist post before, but I just recently re-read all four of Robert C. O’Brien’s novels, and decided I would try my hand at this.

O’Brien is primarily–and deservedly–known for his Newbery Award-winning middle grade novel, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971).  His next most well-known book is the YA novel, Z for Zachariah (1975), a BBYA selection that was published posthumously. He did, however, write two other novels, a middle-grade called The Silver Crown (1968) and an adult novel entitled A Report from Group 17 (1972), which was also a BBYA pick. The three children’s/YA books are still in print, but Group 17 is long out of print, and even vanishing from libraries (so I was quite clever to have bought a copy many years ago).

All four novels are on the surface very different, but they have some common themes and threads that really stood out to me when I recently re-read them all. Continue reading

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Poor, neglected blog


I would apologize for not writing any blog posts in a while, except that you haven’t either, so I think I’m off the hook!

But, there is good stuff to come. I’m working on my own Completist post, and I have some comments on some new books that I have been reading.

So–if we still have any readers out there–keep checking this space; I promise, there will be something here in the not-too-distant future!

- Mom

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The Completist: Robert Cormier, Wrap-Up

The only Cormier novel I haven’t discussed so far in this series is After the First Death. Primarily, that’s because, despite the fact that I know I have read it, I had no memory of it until I finished re-reading it today. But it just so happens that After the First Death also works well to wrap up this discussion of Cormier’s work. It contains almost every piece I’ve been discussing.

after the first deathThe novel revolves around a terrorist plot to hijack a bus of students and ransom them in exchange for the destruction of a covert branch of the United States. One of the heads of this covert branch sends his son, Ben, to negotiate with the hostages, and deliberately gives his son false information, knowing that the terrorists will torture him and he will “betray” this wrong information. The ploy works, and the terrorists are defeated, although they manage to kill one child as well as the bus driver, a young girl named Kate who had been filling in for her uncle. Ben narrates much of the first half of the novel, but in another twist ending, it turns out that he killed himself after “succeeding” on the bridge, because he could not live with himself for “betraying” his country. In the last third of the novel, Ben’s father takes over much of the narration, speaking to his son beyond the grave and begging for forgiveness. Most of the rest of the novel takes place on the bus, alternating viewpoints between Kate and two terrorists, a young man named Miro, and an older one named Artkin.

This novel really does have it all. In the realm of authority, Cormier explicitly compares Ben’s father to Artkin: both are in the grips of an unquestioning patriotism which causes them to do terrible things. Near the end of the book it is even suggested that Artkin is Miro’s father, setting up the parallel between them even further. Cormier has no sympathy for the terrorist cause, but in setting such a deliberate comparison between Ben’s father and Artkin, he suggests that he has little sympathy for the United States government–or at least its covert operations–either.

In the person of Miro, we have another character whose free will may have been taken from him. Kate ponders her increasing pity for him: “He was still a monster, of course. But who had made him a monster? This world, his world. Who was guilty, then: the monster of the world that created it?”

Guilt runs rampant throughout the novel. Ben’s misplaced guilt drives him to suicide, while his father’s entirely appropriate guilt drives him to possible mental illness. And of course sin and evil are at the heart of everything: the terrorists’ heinous activities; Ben’s father’s decision to use his son as a pawn; the evil of war; the list goes on.

I find After the First Death to be Cormier’s worst written novel, but aside from The Chocolate War and Fade, it may well be his most richly thematic book.

So that wraps it up. All I have left to do is give you my traditional ranking of the books:


  • The Chocolate War
  • Fade
  • Tenderness

Minor Masterpieces

  • The Rag and Bone Shop
  • In the Middle of the Night
  • Heroes

Must Reads

  • After the First Death
  • We All Fall Down
  • I Am the Cheese
  • 8 + 1

For Fans

  • Tunes for Bears to Dance To
  • The Bumblebee Flies Anyway
  • Beyond the Chocolate War

Take It Or Leave It

  • Frenchtown Summer

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The Completist: Robert Cormier, Part Four

I swallowed the wafer, telling myself: Think of it as a wafer, no communion, no the Body of Christ.

Kneeling, I waited for thunder and lightning, for the walls of the church to crumble, the pillars to tumble against each other. But nothing happened.

That was the worst thing of all (Fade)

I’ve been talking a lot in these posts about sin and evil, and the consequences of evil on the people sinned against. Today, we’re going to look at a few books that focus on guilt: that is, the consequences of sin on the sinner himself. We saw some of this play out in of Tunes for Bears to Dance To and Heroes (from Part One of this series), but I’ll offer a few more examples.

8 + 1A story called “Mine on Tuesdays” from 8 + 1 shows the implications of a father’s guilt over leaving his wife and daughter. The story is set on a Tuesday, the father’s visitation day. Father and daughter go to an amusement park, where the father allows his daughter to ride on a particularly scary ride, despite his misgivings. He doesn’t accompany her because he is hungover. As his daughter becomes more and more scared on the ride, and then refuses to talk to him after the ride is over, he realizes that letting her go on the ride alone was a possibly irredeemably betrayal. He reflects on how his guilt made him give in to anything his daughter ever asked for: “All those why nots I had tossed her–not bouquets of love, but bribes.”

Another story of guilt, which I’ve mentioned in each of my last two posts, is We All Fall Down. In Part Two, I briefly mentioned the crucial betrayal: Buddy is a screwed up, but basically decent kid, who goes along with a gang—led by a boy named Henry—to do some random vandalism. When a girl who lives there unexpectedly comes home, Henry attacks her. He attempts to rape her before pushing her down a flight of stairs, leaving her in a coma. Technically speaking it seems implausible that Buddy could have done much in the moment, but both he and Cormier hold him accountable for guilt by association:

Thinking of that house, how he had stood there, doing nothing, while Harry raped a girl. A kid, for crying out loud. . . . Glancing at Harry now as he turned onto North Boulevard, he decided that Harry was Frankenstein, the doctor who created the monster.

Who is the monster then? Buddy wondered. Remembering his part in the vandalism and his inability to stop what they had done to the girl, he thought: Maybe it’s me. But I am not a monster. Or is that what all the monsters said?

Buddy attempts to make amends for his guilt by befriending the girl’s sister. They develop a relationship, which is brought to an abrupt end by her discovery of his complicity in the vandalism and assault.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a Catholic of Cormier’s time (or even today), his characters frequently feel deeply guilty even when they have done little or nothing wrong. Sometimes, Cormier thinks this overactive guilt is a good thing, as in a pair of stories in 8 + 1.  In “Another of Mike’s Girls” the teenaged protagonist falls out of love with his girlfriend, and complains to his father that he feels “like a rat” for breaking up with her. His father responds, “You should feel like a rat . . . You can’t help what happens to your emotions, Mike. … It would be terrible to fake it with Jane or anybody else. If you didn’t feel bad about it, you’d really be a rat.”

In “My First Negro” the stakes are considerably higher, but the moral is about the same. In a story taking place in the 1930s, the narrator befriends a black boy from a very poor district of Monument. He becomes involved in a fairly harmless, or possibly even positive, prank—he and some friends steal fruit and vegetables from the garden of a rich resident, and actually intend to give them away in the black neighborhood. But they choose to disguise themselves by darkening their faces with cork, and when the prank goes sour, they end up inadvertently offending the black community. Like the denouements of Tunes for Bears to Dance To and Heroes the damage has been done to their relationship, but Cormier wants us to see the narrator’s guilt from this as a positive growth experience.

in the middle of the nightWhile perhaps not as unambiguously positive, In the Middle of the Night finds a similar sort of nobility in guilt. The novel is primarily focused on a teenaged boy named Denny, but his life is heavily impacted by the guilt his father, John Paul, feels for a long ago accident. John Paul was an usher at a movie theater. On a particularly busy night, he was sent by the manager up to the (closed off) balcony to check on a strange sound. While up on the balcony, it collapsed on the crowd below, killing 25 children. John Paul has been cleared of any wrongdoing by the police, but he feels intensely guilty, and the town blames him as well, harassing him with late night phone calls and more. The main plot revolves around Denny’s decision whether or not to try to clear his father’s name with a local reporter. In the end, he decides to honor his father’s wish to continue to answer “no comment” to questions about the incident. He is swayed in large part by this speech from John Paul:

Those people, twenty-five years ago, the ones the children left behind. Father and mother. The foster parents, sisters and brothers, what loss, what pain they felt. Time heals, like in the old saying. But for some, time does not heal. The pain stays, and it has to go someplace. It comes to me.

fade2The final novel to discuss here is Fade, where the narrator’s guilt is decidedly less benign. For some reason, it took me a long time to get to Fade, in Cormier’s work—possibly because it is his longest novel (although still only about 300 pages). All I can say is that it is a stunning piece of work—perhaps on par with the brilliance of The Chocolate War.

The novel is centered around narrator Paul Moreaux’s relationships with his uncle Adelard and his aunt Rosanna, neither of whom he has seen in many years prior to the opening of the novel. It is the relationship with Adelard that drives the plot—it is he who explains to Paul the secrets of the “fade”, the family ability to turn invisible. But it is Rosanna who drives the emotional core of the novel.

Looking at the plot through the trope of invisibility, the novel is a kind of dark fantasy thriller. Paul begins to use his “fading” to spy on various people throughout town, and finally at almost precisely the halfway point in the novel, uses it to murder the town’s quasi-mafia leader Rudolphe Toubert, who has been crucial in busting his father’s union. Following this murder, Paul resolves never to fade again, but also to track down the next recipient of the fade, who is always a nephew of the current fader. He eventually finds Ozzie, the illegitimate son of Paul’s sister Rose, who gave Ozzie up for adoption.  Ozzie has had to learn about the fade by himself, and he is a young man brimming with hatred.  At a young age, he murders his adoptive father, and plots to murder the nuns who take him in afterwards. When Paul reaches him, it is too late for Ozzie. Paul and Ozzie become locked in a death match, and Paul eventually kills Ozzie, in stunningly similar language to his murder of Toubert.

fadeThis thriller is fantastic, but Cormier adds another layer. At the exact moment Paul kills Toubert, the novel abruptly shifts, and we are told that what we have been reading is an unpublished manuscript by an author named Paul Roget. His niece and his literary agent are reading it and discussing whether Paul—now deceased—intended it to be a memoir or a novel, and the reader is strongly encouraged to begin to doubt the accuracy of first half of the novel, though Cormier gives us ample evidence for both positions.

This metafictional device makes available a completely different reading of the novel, one which is focused on Paul Roget’s attempts to come to grips with his guilt over his relationship with his aunt Rosanna.  Paul is sexually obsessed with Rosanna, masturbating to his fantasies of her, and confessing his love to her. His confession of his love, in the form of poem to her, precedes a scene of excruciating, embarrassing power that is impossible for me to summarize:

“It’s beautiful,” she said, her voice gentle as she held the poem in her hands, her eyes liquid blue as always but the liquid now resembling tears.

My own eyes were fastened on her breasts—it was beyond my power to look elsewhere—and for a glorious moment I feasted on them while I squirmed before her, face flushed, juices thick in my mouth. Then I felt the surge of ecstasy developing and struggled, bringing my knees together, stricken, as she looked at me, the poem still in her hand, her expression soft and tender. I bent forward, trying to make myself small and, at the same time, to hold back that quick beautiful spurt but unable to do so. As our eyes met, my body quivered with delight. I had never known such piercing happiness, such an explosive moment of sweetness. I trembled, shivered, as if strong winds were assailing me. And then, as always, came the swift shame and flush of guilt but this time worse than ever before because it had happened while she watched and I had seen her eyes grow puzzled and then alarmed and the—what? I could not read her expression—surprise, disgust?—I saw her mouth shape itself into an oval and heard her voice.

“Oh, Paul.”

Could she see the stains on my trousers?

“Oh, Paul,” she said again. Such a sadness in her voice but beyond sadness. Accusation, maybe, or betrayal.

After this amazing scene, and even before Paul learns how to “fade”, he begins following Rosanna, and learns her secrets—she had a brief relationship with Rudolphe Toubert in her teens and became pregnant. She went to Canada to have the baby and give it up for adoption, but the baby died at birth. It is her shame over her pregnancy that kept her away from Paul’s family so long, and she is back in Monument primarily to ask Toubert for money to open a small business.

frenchtown summerWith this knowledge, and with the knowledge that the fade may be a fictional device, Paul’s account of Toubert’s murder takes on new significance. Perhaps Paul had nothing to do with Toubert’s murder, but is acting out in fiction his jealous hatred toward the man who impregnated his beloved aunt. Of possible relevance here is a poem Cormier wrote in his collection Frenchtown Summer. In the poem, the narrator, in an angry fit tells a kid to die:

Three days later,
Hector Henault was crushed
like my goggles
under the wheels of a Mack truck
on Mechanic Street
near Fifth.
They said he died instantly.
I was awestruck
by my power to kill.

Perhaps what is going on in Fade is a portrayal of a similar kind of guilt—Paul wished for Toubert to die, and then he was murdered. In his fictional reworking, he then places the blame for Toubert’s death on himself.

Another piece of evidence that the plot of Fade is primarily a fictional reworking of Paul’s sexual guilt is in the spying Paul does while fading. Apart from the murder of Toubert, there are two main set pieces of Paul fading, both involving illicit sex. In the first, Paul observes a girl with whom he is infatuated prostituting herself to a much older shop keeper in town. In the second, after befriended a classmate and his twin sister, he breaks into their house to spy on them, and comes across them kissing. Incredibly, rather than leaving in surprise, he stays invisible, and watches and listens as they have sex.

Cormier—or rather Roget—could have had Paul spy on any number of things while invisible, so it is telling that the primary thing he observes is sex.  Moreover, it is difficult not to parallel these two encounters with Paul’s obsession with Rosanna—the first involves a large age difference, and the second an incestuous pairing: together these represent the two hurdles towards a real, rather than fantasy, relationship with Rosanna.

The second half of the novel does not fit quite so neatly into this pattern, but there are certain evocative passages. Most telling is the similarities between Rosanna’s and Rose’s illegitimate pregnancies (even down to their names), so that Paul’s search for his nephew becomes another attempt to connect with his aunt. Beyond that, though it is not driven by sexual angst, this entire section is again centered on Paul’s guilt: Paul’s search for Ozzie and attempt to help him use the fade responsibly are a direct reaction to his guilt over the murder of Toubert, and his attempt to ensure that it does not happen again. The tragedy of the novel is that he can only stop Ozzie by reenacting his own worst sin.

I think I have exhausted the theme of guilt in Fade, but there is much, much more to this novel—especially the second half, in which Ozzie’s fade seems to bring on a kind of schizophrenia. Suffice to say that anyone interested in Cormier should most certainly put a high priority on reading this one.

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The Completist: Robert Cormier, Part Three

What happens when your free will is no longer free? The novels we’ll look at in today’s post feature characters whose mental and physical conditions have taken away all or part of their free will. This is a serious problem for Cormier’s worldview, and one he spends considerable time examining, especially in the masterful Tenderness. But before we get to Tenderness, we have to deal with I Am the Cheese.

i am the cheeseHey, did you know that Adam is totally reliving the same day over and over again? Oops, should I have said “spoiler alert”? Seriously, though, the famous twist ending of I Am the Cheese reveals that 1) the plot in which Adam has been biking across New England to bring a package to his father has been going on almost entirely inside Adam’s head and 2) Adam has been institutionalized by Witness Protection for three years and has been reliving the events of the book every year as an interrogator tries to find more information about who killed Adam’s parents. It’s a very clever twist, but it has serious implications for how we respond to Adam as a character. What, exactly, is the point of Adam’s trek across “New England”? What, in fact, is the point of Adam’s existence at all? I think there are plenty of answers to that question, but I don’t find any in the text of the novel—partially because Cormier leaves the revelation of Adam’s existence until the very end of the novel. I love I Am the Cheese, but to be honest, the second and third times I read it, I became much less interested in the sections that I knew were going on in Adam’s head, and felt that the novel suffered from my knowledge of the ending. And frankly, I think the questions I just posed about Adam’s existence bothered Cormier too, because he returned to a similar scenario, with a more complete answer to these questions, in The Bumblebee Flies Anyway.

bumblebeeIn The Bumblebee, we are again in a medical facility, and again we have a character, Barney Snow, with extreme memory loss, although in this case, his memory loss is intentional—he has agreed to participate in a series of psychological experiments on memory, in part because he wants to erase his knowledge that he has a terminal illness. But this time, we have full knowledge of the institutional setting from the beginning, and we learn of the extent of the memory experiments in a slow reveal throughout the novel. By eschewing the twist end of I Am the Cheese, Cormier gives himself room to contemplate the implications of Barney’s situation. His answer is in the title of the book. According to a (completely bogus) urban legend, the common bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly due to some (usually unstated) law of aerodynamics. The punchline is: and yet “the bumblebee flies anyway.” Regardless of its (non-existent) scientific provenance, it is a useful metaphor for fighting the impossible fight. And that is exactly what Barney does. One of his fellow terminal patients is determined to have a last joyride before he dies, and Barney concocts a quixotic* plan: they find a wooden car, with working wheels, in a nearby junkyard; they dismantle the car piece by piece, and then reassemble it inside their hospital; finally, Barney and his friend will ride the car off the roof in a blaze of glory. In the end, neither Barney nor his friend can go through with plummeting to their deaths, but they still send the car—dubbed “the Bumblebee”—flying off the roof. A third co-patient who helped them, Billy, asks them why they didn’t get in the car, to which Barney replies in his head: “Didn’t Billy understand? They didn’t need to fly. The Bumblebee would fly for them.” As the novel ends, Barney is finally succumbing to his illness, confined to his bed, barely conscious, and possibly still lacking important memories, but he has still triumphed:

In the bed he now occupied he was surrounded by a grayness, and out of the grayness came faces. The faces were always sad and unsmiling. He wanted to tell them: Hey, laugh, or at least smile a little, because the Bumblebee is still flying and we made it fly.

I Am the Cheese and The Bumblebee Flies Anyway have clear connections in plot and theme. Cormier came at a similar theme of restricted free will from a totally different angle in another matched pair of novels: Tenderness and We All Fall Down. In both of these novels, one of the main characters is clearly mentally ill—Cormier doesn’t diagnosis his characters, but the main villain in We All Fall Down seems to have some form of schizophrenia, or perhaps even multiple personalities; and one of the two protagonists of Tenderness has some form of psychopathy or sociopathy.

we all fall downWe All Fall Down engages in yet another of Cormier’s beloved twist endings. Throughout the novel we follow a character who calls himself The Avenger, who we are meant to believe is 11-years-old and out to avenge a random attack on a neighbor of his. What we find out at the end is that The Avenger—his real name is Mickey—is actually a middle-aged man. When he was 11 he murdered a bully in his neighborhood and ever since he has reverted, in some sense, to being 11 any time he has felt the need to be “The Avenger”, meaning to kill again. The psychology may or may not be realistic, but Cormier attempts to make a distinction between The Avenger and Mickey, and the climax has one of the protagonists set Mickey against The Avenger psychologically. The point, for our purposes, is that Cormier seems to want to absolve Mickey of The Avenger’s crimes, because The Avenger is a type of compulsion. Like I Am the Cheese, the twist comes too late in the novel to allow for a full examination of its implications. Moreover, Mickey is actually a side character in the book. And so, once again, Cormier returned to a similar set of circumstances to grapple with the issues at greater length.

tendernessTenderness has two main plotlines, which eventually intersect, but it is primarily an examination of Eric Poole, a serial killer who seems utterly incapable of feeling guilt or remorse. His particular compulsion—parallel, in some ways to The Avenger’s—is to kill young women, and her describes his murders as imbuing him with a sense of “tenderness.” Meanwhile, Lori, a very damaged young woman who habitually uses sex to get what she wants—CDs, money, and a car ride are the three we see in the first several pages—develops a fixation on Eric, and sets out to meet him.

Through a strange but strangely plausible set of circumstances, they end up on a highly bizarre road-trip, and Lori is absolutely determined to believe that Eric is or can be “nice.” And seemingly through her sheer force of will, she begins to have an impact on him. Eric is convinced that he will have to kill Lori, not out of the “tenderness” he needs, but because she knows a critical fact that could return him to prison. But it is more difficult to kill her than it should be: “Now that he had condemned her, he felt a rush of tenderness towards her, not the kind he found with the other girls . . . but a different tenderness, wanting to be gentle with her.”

Even after he makes an attempt, Lori persists in her beliefs. She tells him (and it seems to be genuinely true), “You’re the only person who’s ever treated me with respect. And I trust you . . .”, provoking the following reverie from Eric:

As he watched her tongue licking jelly from her cheek, he wondered what it would be like to kiss the jelly off that cheek, to feel her body close to him, not like with the others, but stopping before the act was completed. Maybe there would be tenderness in all that. . . . He realized she knew all about him but she didn’t care.

Cormier does not go overboard with this—he makes it clear that Eric retains his compulsion to kill, but the friendship he develops with Lori, perhaps the first real friendship either has ever had, does provoke a genuine change in him, to the extent that he actually tries to save Lori’s life when she falls in a river (despite the fact that her death would be advantageous to him). Of course, we know how Cormier loves his twists, and the kicker is that he fails to save Lori, and the police use her death—believing he drowned her intentionally—to send Eric back to prison.

*See what I did there with the “fight the impossible fight”?

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