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The Chaos (Epic Post!)
Over at Heavy Medal a month or so back, in the comments, the question was raised about emotional v intellectual engagement.
In a nutshell: is it fair that we tend to preference books with which we engage emotionally?
In that discussion, Mark Flowers (hi, Mark!) of Cross-Referencing said:
None of this is to say that emotional reaction should be taken out of the equation, but if we are really going to evaluate a book, we need to look at the how and the why of those emotional reactions, not just the fact of them.
I’ve been holding that comment in my head. “I feel” is, after all, invalid in Printz conversations if we leave it as an emotional reaction. But the question of the how and why takes that reaction and allows it to become another path by which to examine facets of writing and assess excellence. How does the author engage the reader? Is the emotional engagement or lack thereof in some way a response to the particulars of the writing? And how do we unpack the writing to get at the heart of the how and why? Because that’s where we find meat worth discussing in the context of the Printz.
In the interests of full disclosure: The Chaos was not my book. I didn’t enjoy the reading experience on a personal level, and I’m putting that right up front so that we can try to get past it, and so that someone who did like it can tell me whether the things I see as being less than stellar are coming at least in part from that emotional response, although I also see textual elements that at least exacerbate the flaws. And although this book was not for me, it’s clearly got something going for it, with three stars and some aspects that are downright brilliant.
I should clarify, too, that I didn’t actively dislike the book, more that it would have have been an “eh” and a DNF if my reading were actually dictated by my own taste.
So let’s unpack my emotional response and see how it’s rooted in textual issues.
Piece the first: I really don’t like Scotch. But from a Printz perspective, that is a sign of strength. Scotch is evoked skillfully enough that a reader can respond to her on an emotional level. She is selfish and she uses a terrible event in her past to excuse everything she does. She has moments of kindness — she cares about her brother, she worries about Punum, a crippled poet she meets at an open mike event, even if her concern is mostly a series of open mouth, insert foot moments. Underneath the often bitchy exterior, we are expected to believe, is a decent girl with a compassionate heart, and mostly I did believe it.
I responded pretty viscerally to Scotch-as-bitch. In those moments when she says something obnoxious, when she thinks about herself and the world in relation to herself instead of anything else, even as the world pretty much implodes, I am impressed at Hopkinson’s willingness and skill with such an unpleasant main character who is also the first person narrator.
But then there are these moments of self justification or internal monologue that don’t work as well, sometimes related to unpleasant behavior but mostly just off in a first person narrative. Scotch narrates in the past tense, but moments of narration seem almost present tense (“Yes! Sorta got it right this time,” or the real time reactions to her blemishes). I am sure this happens in other first person narratives, but I noticed it here because these moments stuck out and disrupted the narrative flow. It struck me as a cheat, almost; an easy way to show Scotch’s selfishness that ends up feeling more like the worst kind of telling.
Scotch also thinks of irrelevant things, or only tangentially relevant things, a lot. I don’t think this is accidental; it seems to be designed to indicate how shallow she is. Even as the world falls apart and people’s craziest thoughts become reality, Scotch worries not only why she is turning into a tarry mess but how badly her pants fit as a result. I appreciate the intent, but something about the execution didn’t work. Too obvious? Forced? Both of those are terms that I thought of trying to articulate this. Mostly it all adds up to a character I didn’t fully believe because the voice had inconsistencies, and it’s a shame because I would have believed her with a little less effort.
Speaking of tangential relevance, there is a lot here that I didn’t see the point of in the context of the novel. This might be about the emotional piece; would this have served to make the world more real to me if I had been fully in it? Examples: the conversation in the beginning about the dating trio (one girl, two guys, open relationship); the immense wealth of detail about the homeopathic ointment Scotch uses on her “blemishes;” some of the details of the Chaos (although the Chaos is so strange that it’s almost impossible to distinguish meaningful from not, and I think I wouldn’t wonder about the Chaos aspects if the earlier oddities hadn’t primed me to be looking out for patterns or meaning in seemingly meaningless moments).
On a similar note, there are a LOT of issues at play, and some of the seeming irrelevancies might be about highlighting those questions. But I had to work to make those connections, which indicates they aren’t seamless. We’ve got two friends (out of two) dealing with their sexuality (I almost pitied Scotch when she makes it all about herself and wails that she’s the only “normal” one, despite how absolutely awful that statement is, because it’s so clear how lonely she feel in that moment), then we’ve got handicapped folks, female sexual empowerment (through Scotch’s experiences) which I didn’t buy but some reviewers did (and it probably says more about me as a teen than anything else that I had doubts), bullying, and socioeconomics. And that’s without even getting to race, which is hugely important here and it’s a shame the depth and nuance of that aspect of the text get a bit drowned by so many other aspects of humanity that come across as issues.
It all adds up to a bit of an Issue book, with the didactic, meaning-infused connotations that capital I implies.
I haven’t really touched on plot and setting, but this is fresh and unusual and I’ve never read a fantasy like this before. A giant volcano in Toronto, hallucinatory insanity everywhere, terrible things happening but in such surreal ways that it’s almost unreal for the characters: this is good stuff. And the use of a ‘Brer Nansi/’Brer Rabbit story (Scotch recalls her white Jamaican father and black American mother arguing versions) along with a Baba Yaga thread is a nice illustration of Scotch’s mixed ancestry (and, indeed, Toronto’s mixed cultural identity). The two tales come into play a bit late for their importance, and why Baba Yaga, of all the fairy tales from historically white countries, is never made clear, but those are what you might call peccadilloes.
Also on the plus side is the treatment of race; as I said, this is nuanced, delicate stuff.
Throughout the book, Scotch grapples with the fact that although she self identifies as black and of Caribbean ancestry, this is not something the outside observer can tell from her appearance; there is a critical scene where a white guy hits on her, is baffled when she indicates her darker-skinned brother, and then essentially tries to console Scotch by telling her she does not look black; she “could be anything.” For Scotch, whose character is deeply informed by having been bullied cruelly when she was one of the few students of color in a white suburb, this is a call to anger. When it comes to race, Hopkinson has a deft hand exploring the issues — and they never become Issues.
Scotch’s “blemishes,” which trouble her throughout the book, are spreading patches of blackness on her skin, which perhaps speaks to some antipathy about her own color; is it possible that her desire to be seen as black is not as definite as Scotch claims? Certainly, her sense of self worth is tied into her self perception that she is attractive, and how complex and fascinating that the thing that threatens her beauty is tied to color. I’m not sure where Hopkinson wants the reader to go with this, but I could dig in and analyze this aspect at length and I think this, even more than the unusual setting (which doesn’t do anything other than propel some growth for self absorbed Scotch), is where The Chaos shines.
The ending, which is deeply tied to the ‘Brer Nansi story and the blemishes and skin color, troubled me, but I’m curious how it plays to others. In the end, the lasting effect of the Chaos on Scotch is that she is now dark. Unequivocably dark skinned, no longer having to fight to determine and assert her racial and cultural identity. I worry that this is an easy out. Scotch’s racial identity has been determined for her, through magic. On the other hand, those concluding paragraphs acknowledge head on that being darker is hard in all the ways North American society privileges whites and penalizes everyone other, so maybe it’s not that easy of an out?
In the end, the didacticism makes this not a short list contenda for me, but it’s fresh and important (because we are, sadly, in a world where we still don’t see enough racial diversity in fantasy to make it something that we no longer need to comment on), and for some people that will weigh pretty heavily when balancing all the elements. I’d love to hear your thoughts, although the poll indicates only five other readers! If you were one of them, won’t you speak up?
About Karyn Silverman
Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.
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