First off, pardon me if this all comes out a bit jumbled. I stink at these well thought out posts and most of my blog posts come out as little more than incoherent rambles. You’re probably better off reading a blog post by Hannah Moskowitz or Libba Bray or Maureen Johnson. They’re good bloggers. Not me. I’m a hack. A blogger without a clue. A witless wonder with a keyboard.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Last night I finished Andrew Smith’s THE MARBURY LENS. It’s one of those books that’s going to haunt me for a long time. Maybe forever. There are few books/films/plays that have that lasting kind of effect on me. Donnie Darko was one such film. I remember the first time I finished watching it, just sitting in my bedroom surrounded by empty beer bottles and an ashtray full of cigarette butts, with my mouth hanging open and my thoughts suspended out…there. I couldn’t wrap my brain around the movie. I couldn’t have explained it. To this day, when people ask me to describe it, I tell them that they just have to watch it. I have watched it at least twenty times.
THE MARBURY LENS was like that for me. Last night, sitting in my sweats, waiting for a friend bearing light sabers to come over, I turned the last page, read it…half-a-dozen times at least, and then closed the book. I sat on the edge of my couch going over and over the last bits, unsure what I’d just read. It’s a complete mind f__k of a book. It begins with detachment and beer, detours into kidnapping and rape, and then takes you screaming right over the freaking cliff into the bowels of insanity. Cannibalism, orgies, falling in love, missing time, strangers, ghosts, corpse-eating bugs, friendship. It’s all there. All there to mess with your mind. Today, I’m still not entirely sure what I read. I think, like Donnie Darko and Mulholland Drive and The Machinist and Naked Lunch and Slaughterhouse Five, the events matter less than how they make you feel. And Marbury, for me, represented a hellish landscape, a past Jack simultaneously rejected and craved. It was a hook in his mouth. A rotting ulcer that kept him from moving forward. However there’s more to the story. More to uncover. And I hope to peel back the layers on future readings.
As you can tell, I haven’t been this excited about a book in a long time. Books like this push boundaries. They show us what YA can be. Fearless and brutal and touching and raw. Just like life. JELLICOE ROAD was another such book. It didn’t have the brutality of THE MARBURY LENS but it didn’t pander to its audience either. It challenged them. It let them know right from the beginning that it wasn’t screwing around. Patrick Ness’ CHAOS WALKING series is the same. It offers the darkness of real life. These books don’t hold back. In fact, they pull back the curtain to reveal the wormy underbelly of life. Evil can’t always be tamed. Good isn’t always that good. Heroes are often the most fucked up of all. And yet there’s hope.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people about darkness in YA. How dark is too dark? How much is too much? I have a lot of dark stories I want to tell. Some are maybe too dark. Some not. I have funny stories too. I hope I’ll get to tell them all. Books like the ones above show me what to strive for. They tell me that the only boundaries in YA literature are honesty. If you’re honest, if you’re real, then the story goes where it needs to. It’s not gratuitous. It eliminates everything that doesn’t serve the story. What’s left over is okay. It’s in bounds.
There are bound to be people who hate this kind of darkness. People who want to draw lines in permanent black marker. People who think that standards of decency should be iron-clad. And they’re right to think that way. If the boundary pushers had no one against which to push, the world would be anarchy. But I hope none of these books get caught in the crossfire. These books are my heroes, their authors are inspirations.
And I think I’m going to go read them all again.