Far Far Away

Mom,

I’ve just seen on Goodreads that you gave four stars to Tom McNeal’s Far Far Away, which also made the National Book Award longlist, and is on Someday My Printz Will Come’s list of books to discuss this year.  I read it a week or two ago, so I suppose now it’s time to talk about it.  I have very conflicted feelings about this book, so I’ll try to get straight some of what I thought, but I’m very interested in your thoughts to try to clarify my own.

far far awayFirst, I’ll say that I found it incredibly compelling, from beginning to end. I was sucked into the characters of Jeremy and Ginger (less so Jacob – more on that in a minute) and was genuinely interested in all the various episodes.  The final section in the baker’s basement was frightening and amazingly well wrought, and I was generally pretty pleased with the resolution of Jacob’s “thing undone” to save Jeremy, Ginger, and Frank.

OK, my conflicts.

1) The use of Jacob Grimm. Probably my biggest probably with the book was McNeal’s strange handling of Jacob and the Grimm fairy tales in general. Most importantly, it seemed like an incredible waste of a potentially fabulous character. Why did the ghost need to be Jacob Grimm rather than some other figure from history or an imagined character? The two primary uses were in the quiz show and in Jeremy’s recounting of the fairy tales in the dungeon.

The quiz show, though, was a very thin reason for his presence (again, why couldn’t he be an expert on Abraham Lincoln, or someone). What’s more, the quiz show was incredibly poorly written. Of the five questions McNeal tells the readers, only one (the complex three part question that comprised the 6th questions on the show) was genuinely difficult. The rest were child’s play not just to Jacob, but to anyone with a basic (not “uncommon”) knowledge of the tales. The Rapunzel question in particular was offensively easy.  And of course, the final question, in which Jacob and Jeremy are stumped because they haven’t seen Disney, while being very clever in the context of the reader’s knowledge of those characters, could never, ever have been the real final question, precisely because it is so easy for everyone else.

As for the tales in the dungeon, I admit it was touching to have Jeremy recount them to Frank and Ginger, but it certainly didn’t seem particularly central to the novel that they be Grimm tales. Especially since (and this a larger point here) McNeal seemed to have a poor understanding of the Grimm tales. He constantly had Jacob making remarks about Wilhelm’s supposed beliefs about the tales that couldn’t possibly have been true–the one that stuck out for me was the idea that beauty=goodness, goodness=beauty. Even a cursory examination of two of the most famous tales, Cinderella and Snow White, should be enough to show anyone that beauty is very often evil in the tales.  (In the Grimm, as opposed to the Disney, Cinderella’s step sisters are beautiful). It seemed like McNeal was laboring under a conception of the Grimm tales as “fairy tales” the way we use that term in common discourse–like, “this isn’t a fairy tale”–a story with a truly good protagonist and truly evil antagonist, with magic and charm, and a mostly happy ending. Our recent discussion of Rumpelstiltskin is another great example of how that isn’t true.

2) The plot. I already said that I enjoyed each episode of the novel, but I still felt that the whole book had an oddly mis-shapen feel. The quiz show took a place of prominence in the middle of the novel, but didn’t really amount to much in the scheme of things. The abrupt shift to the horror of Sten Blix at the end came out of nowhere and didn’t seem connected to the rest of the book, despite being the novel’s strongest section. It would have greatly improved the novel to have severely curtailed the first 2/3 of the book, to maybe half the length, so that we got to the dungeon much quicker.

OK, your turn. Tell me why my criticisms miss the point of the book.

– Mark

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4 Comments

Filed under Books, Teens

4 responses to “Far Far Away

  1. So, for me, the abrupt shift to Sten Blix was kind of the entire point of the book. I’ll admit it was VERY disconcerting, but I felt like it was McNeal saying, “See? The world isn’t a fairy tale. The bad guys don’t always initially behave in the ways you’d think they would and vice versa (the Crinklaws, for instance). Scary crap (moms leaving, dads going into a depression, people having dangerous, evil secrets) happens in real life ALL THE TIME.” Also, I felt like having Jacob Grimm as the narrator enabled McNeal to write the whole book in the style of a fairy tale without it actually taking place in a “land far, far away.” I thought the author was really playing with both our conceptions of fairy tales and the conventions of them as well. I need to do a reread, but in terms of voice, style, and overall effect, this is one of the stronger books I’ve read so far this year.

    • Mark Flowers

      Oh, I completely agree that the abrupt shift was the point. I just felt that as a structural matter, it took McNeal far too long to get there, so that it made me wonder what, exactly, was the point of everything that came *before* the abduction.

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