I don’t mean fiction that is literature, I mean Literary in the postmodern, smugly self-aware, consciously playing with literature and language sense.
Somewhere along the way, I lost all patience with this style of writing. Especially the self-aware bit.
So those of you who have already read Jenny Hubbard’s Paper Covers Rock will not be surprised that I had some difficulty with the novel.
I’ve tried. Oh, how I’ve tried. For two months, this is the book I’ve been reading between and in the midst of other, less aggravating books. I want to like it: it’s a boy’s boarding school story, and I often love that designation (A Separate Peace was a long time favorite). It’s short, and I’ve had the kind of fall where short books are a joy because I get to read them fast, so I can usually finish them before the flaws catch up to me. It’s got the tantalizing possibility of a teacher-student love story, which has held an icky sort of fascination since I came of age singing “Don’t Stand so Close to Me.”
Also, lots of positive reviews. Booklist gave a starred review and called Hubbard “a bright light to watch”; SLJ’s starred review called it a “compelling read”; and Publisher’s Weekly (star three by my count) said it was a “a powerful, ambitious debut.” Holla, because that’s some serious praise. Clearly, everyone else likes the literary lovefest the book has with books and itself.
So yes, I went into this with high hopes. Which lasted through the first chapter title (“Call me Is Male”) but not past the third paragraph (“My apologies to Herman Melville, from whom I may have to steal a few words to tell the story that is about to be told, that is in the middle of being told, that will never stop being told.”)
On the one hand, I suppose you could make an argument that this self-consciously precocious voice sounds like a real teen, because hopefully once we’ve left adolescence behind we also lose our ability to be this pretentious without some glimmer of humor or shame or awareness. But at the same time, part of what gets to me with this novel is that what it really sounds like is an adult trying to sound like a teen. Only an adult has the knowledge of Melville (and Dickinson, and the great American novel) to play with the language and themes of Moby Dick as Hubbard, and ostensibly Alex, does. And Alex is too self-aware. He talks about grief in such lovely, careful language. It makes his grief suspect. It makes him suspect: this was one of those books where I never ever forgot the author.
In short, this reads more like writing exercise than genuine story. It’s the smug self-awareness. The novel screams, “look at me!” The words ask you to scrutinize their order, in the Moby Dick references, in Alex’s claim that everything we will read is verbatim, in the opening epigraph and assertion that “The title is the writer’s stamp of approval,” which is then cited in the text and referenced again in the closing lines. Alex leaves his journal untitled as a statement of his discomfort (which should probably be evident from the text itself) but the refrain means that the reader must scrutinize the (not all that subtle) title of the novel, which is all about language hiding truth (the literal events at the rock and the metaphorical rock of fact), which then calls into question Alex’s claims of truth.
I could write a paper or three on all these neat little games of reference and allusion and layer. And that’s with only a vague, distant recollection of Moby Dick, which I last read (well, skimmed) in the spring of my senior year of high school. I suspect I could read it now and then really analyze the hell out of Paper Covers Rock.
And that, ultimately, is what really didn’t work. The novel appears to be deliberately designed to be picked apart and scrutinized in an English class. It works as a capital-T Text, but not as a book you (okay, I) might actually read.
And I know appeal doesn’t matter, and I know I often champion books that seem limited at best in their appeal. But this one doesn’t feel YA at all, and it makes me wish the criteria had something about being for a teen audience in the sense of concerned with the business of adolescence. Yes, Alex is a teen, but this journey doesn’t feel like the teen journey (from acted upon to acting upon). He is acted upon all the way through, even when he acts.
I won’t actually be surprised if this lands in the committee’s final five, because I can see the Literary qualities even if I don’t like the book (way 2, for the record), but I will be disappointed, because I find this pretentious and artificial and I much prefer it when the Printz recognizes genuine books. But at the same time, I have said that a true contenda is one that stands up to rereads and that can be taught. And this probably passes the first of those two criteria (I’m not about to read it again, though), and definitely the second, and if you don’t buy the argument that it’s a work of artifice and construct—or don’t think that matters, or in fact consider that a hallmark of quality—then this might not have any flaws.
Are you with me or against me? I’m ready for the lambasting to begin!
Pub details: Delacorte Press June 2011. Reviewed from final copy.