The Layers of Discomfort

Mom,

Well, first of all, I think there are a few different interlocking things we mean when we talk about books making us uncomfortable.  There are books that make us uncomfortable because they disgust us on a completely gut level–some might say a couple of preteens burying a body in the garden fits there.  There are also books that makes us uncomfortable because they evoke a negative emotional response–guilt, angst, fear, whatever.*  Then there are books that make us uncomfortable because they challenge us intellectually, often about something more or less fundamental about what we believe.**  I swear one of these days I am going to go back and reread Lord of the Flies, but there it sits on my Goodreads shelf with its two stars because when I read it at 14 I recoiled from it, yelling “no – that can’t be the way the world is – I refuse to believe it.” Plenty of books do all three, of course – some (not me personally) find Lord of the Flies disgusting on a visceral level, and it certainly is distasteful emotionally as well.  Rapp with his grimy characters and nihilistic worldview is a perfect example of someone poised to do all three.  I’ve read three Rapp books, and reviewed two of them quite positively for SLJ’s Adult Books 4 Teens.  The one I didn’t review was Printz Honor book Punkzilla which I find I gave 5 stars on Goodreads, though I can’t recall much of it.  And yet, still I had to be prodded by your post into reading The Children and the Wolves – precisely because I don’t particularly enjoy reading his books.

So, now that you’ve made me read it: what to make of it.  First, I think you are absolutely right that there are some objective flaws in the book, primarily having to do with Frog.  I have a 4-year-old daughter and am around 4-year-olds pretty constantly, so I think I have a little expertise in the area when I say that I didn’t find anything in her narration believable.  Her interactions with Wiggins in Wiggins’s sections seemed a lot more believable, though.  And you are definitely right that she could not have lost a baby tooth at that age–she’s only been missing 10 weeks, and they have been feeding her at least a little, so I don’t see how malnutrition could be the reason.  I didn’t have any trouble distinguishing Orange from Wiggins–primarily because I found it obvious early on that Wiggins was the only one with a conscience, and was therefore more than prepared for his actions at the end of the book–but I did think that both of them were pretty boilerplate Rapp.  They could have been taken from any of his other novels and just plopped down into this one. 

So, those are problems.  But back to your question about liking the book.  I mentioned before that I haven’t enjoyed Rapp’s work, and those words “like” and “enjoy,” are the key to this question, aren’t they?  Do we have to enjoy a book to think it is great, important, worth reading, worth defending, etc.?  The obvious answer to us literary librarians is “no, of course not” – but it sure is hard in practice to defend a book that you personally find repugnant.  The answer, I think, as I said in the below footnoted discussion on Heavy Medal, is to focus on the how and the why, rather than the what.  That is, OK, granted that Rapp is representing terrible things, has evoked a horrible reaction from me, has challenged me in some way: why did he do that (the ideas), and how did he accomplish it (the writing)? 

So, to take the easy one first, I think there are two pretty obvious reasons why Sara Pennypacker has her main characters bury a dead body.  The first is purely plot mechanics: if you’re going to tell a story about two kids taking care of themselves in a house for a summer, there are only so many ways to get rid of the parents, and most of them have been done before.  This is a new, interesting way to do that which opens up some interesting thematic concerns.  Which are the second reason – thematically, you get a lot of interesting resonances, from Stella and Angel each finding ways to communicate with Louise, to the whole issue of the garden that Stella tends in Louise’s honor, there are great reasons to have her body physically present even though she is dead.  As for how Pennypacker accomplishes it, I think you and Betsy Bird already touched on that, so I’ll leave it alone so I can get to Adam Rapp.

With The Children and the Wolves, I think the reasons for the uncomfortable emotions Rapp evokes (besides: that’s what he always does) have to do with a cluster of themes and ideas he’s working on.  The most important of these has to do with Capitalist/consumerist culture.  This is most present in Bounce’s story, where she leads a very hypocritical existence, openly mocking (in my opinion, quite humorously) her parents for their decadent lifestyle, while at the same time defending this lifestyle against the Poet.  In any case, I think it is clear from this (as well as Rapp’s other works) that Rapp thinks that sociopaths like Bounce are an inevitable result of what he sees as the decay of Western society.  Another theme that runs through the book, though less coherently has to do with religion.  Wiggins’s experience with the Digital Jesus, the social worker’s bumper sticker, and other pieces point to an indictment on Rapp’s part of religion, connected in many ways to his critiques about consumerism. 

As for the how (the prose), as I said above, I think there are major flaws in this book, and I agree with you that Wiggins’s voice, in particular is uneven at best.  But I do think that Rapp has a way with words–Bounce’s sections are darkly funny and Wiggins and Orange, though somewhat generic to Rapp, are unique enough outside of Rapp’s ouevre to merit some attention. 

Personally, I don’t think that the ideas or the prose in this book are strong enough to mark it as a great book in the way Punkzilla was, but they are definitely there, and they definitely justify the existence of the extreme unpleasantness of the story and characters, since they make it clear that Rapp is after something bigger.  He just may not have actually accomplished it.

- Mark

*I’m part of a discussion over on Heavy Medal about a related subject of emotional (or not) reactions to nonfiction books.

**For anyone who is keeping score at home, the idea of this trichotomy was planted by some of Matt Bird’s posts over on the Cockeyed Caravan about head vs. heart vs. gut.

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