Monday, September 14, 2015

10 Minutes About ("The Bone Clocks" And The Difference Between YA And Other Stuff)

There was a moment the other day when I was reading The Bone Clocks, which has been pretty good so far (one of the books I look forward to reading and which I actually make time for) when I began to suspect that maybe I didn't like it.

It was strange: I began to think, despite the fact that I was enjoying the book, that perhaps this was a Young Adult book rather than, you know, a book.

I am not per se against Young Adult books; I don't really care what you or any other person reads.  This year I've read a lot of comic books, and I'm currently re-reading the book Spellsinger (by Alan Dean Foster), both of which are things that would give my mom conniptions when I was younger. She did judge quality of reading. I don't. Read what you want.  But I don't like Young Adult books.  I've read a few of them here and there, and found them uncompelling and unsatisfying.  The last book that I think could be classified as Young Adult which I read and enjoyed was the Harry Potter series.

Young Adult to me tends to present as a flatter read, less complex characterizations, not as many deep themes and personal insights, and overall more boring.  It doesn't grip me, doesn't engage my mind.  One of the things I like about reading is that it almost completely takes a hold of me.  A good book will absorb me and get me caught up in it, my mind working feverishly in all corners.  That's part of why I read so little these days, actually: I'm so busy and have so many interruptions and am sometimes so worn out at the end of the day, that I can't focus enough to really enjoy a good book, so I go for lighter fair, like Internet reading or TV.

That's part of how I judge a book: how much does it pull my mind into it, how much does it make me think. Not think like I have to decipher this puzzle but simply think like imagine the scene and wonder what happens next and empathize with the characters and so on.  That's part of why I can put up with Stephen King's interminable It: despite the fact that it is MILES too long, it's (mostly, about 85%) very engaging and just sucks you into the story.

Young Adult books do not do that for me.  I'm left sort of reading it while also noting that I'm reading it, and getting distracted by television, or the way my shirt feels, or whether my pumpkin is still growing in the backyard (it is!).  A book like Bridge To Terabithia is a perfectly fine book and I enjoyed it, I suppose, but it's, at its heart, too simple a book to pull me in.

I feel that way sometimes about old TV shows.  One night I found an old Three's Company on TV, and remembered how much I loved that show as a kid.  Watching it again, I was amazed at how slow and simple the plot was, how obvious the jokes and telegraphed the storyline was.  The same thing with Newhart, which I also enjoyed.  These were the Young Adult shows of television, without the wordplay and visual jokes and overlapping storylines of television I've enjoyed as an adult.  Consider the Jerk Store episode of Seinfeld, one of my all-time favorite episodes: It has four storylines, each of which overlaps the other and calls back to earlier episodes and interact with each other, and the jokes range from simple jokes like Kramer getting hit with tennis balls to more complicated, adult-level jokes:

GEORGE: So concerned was he, that word of his poor tennis skills might leak out, he chose to offer you his wife as some sort of medieval sexual payola? 
JERRY: (explanation) He's new around here. 
GEORGE: (hopeful) So, details?
 JERRY: (walking away) Well, I didn't sleep with her. 
 GEORGE: Because of society, right? 
 JERRY: (weary) Yes, George, because of society.
 Young Adult simply doesn't have that complexity, and because of that, I've sometimes decided not to read certain books, at all.  Eleanor & Park, by somebody, was a book that sounded good, so I requested it from the library.  When it came in, the blurb on the back said it was "YA".  I dropped it in the return slot, unread.  I didn't even want to try.

Which seems odd, again, because I am reading Spellsinger, which is about a guy who is transported to another world by a turtle-wizard, and he sings Beach Boys songs to do magic and fight off giant bugs.  His best friend is an otter.  This would seem to be on the same intellectual level as most Young Adult, but somehow it's not -- even though I read this book at 17 or so and enjoyed it.

It's hard to parse out, but the general idea for me is the aim of the book.  To me, Young Adult books aim at presenting a teenage world, and teenagers (on the whole) are less complicated and interesting than adults.  Their needs and thoughts tend to be self-centered, immature: everything is superimportant, even if it's not.  Most of the action is centered on how it affects the main character, which is often a stand-in for the (presumed) reader.  I know not all of it is like this, but most Young Adult books have at least some facets of those.

Adult books expand out the scope.  Even when they are written in first person, they tend to be books about how a person interacts with the world, and not every interaction, thought, or feeling feels like it rebounds back to how does this affect me personally?  This has the effect of making the story feel more universal, and a little deeper.  The actions people take are seen as affecting others directly, with less navel-gazing.

A good example of a book that is not a Young Adult book but feels like one is the His Dark Materials trilogy.  In contrast to Harry Potter, these books really feel grown-up.  Both feature precocious kids thrown into a magical world they didn't really know existed, but whereas Harry Potter dwelt a lot on Harry's own internal struggles to grow up and adapt to the world -- how does this affect me? -- Lyra's adventures involved her leaving her comfortable life to rescue her friend, Roger, and then undertaking even more travels because it was necessary for her to do so.  While Lyra occasionally feels sorry for herself, etc., the difference is marked in how each does things, and why.   Harry Potter faces Voldemort (the T is silent!) more because he feels destined to: Almost everything Harry does is because he is forced into it, rather than because he wants to. His powers remain undeveloped and in the end he 'wins' (Um, spoiler alert?) because of something his parents did.  That's a juvenile perspective: getting yanked around by fate, unwillingly, relying on others to help you through.

Lyra, meanwhile, goes against the advice of her daemon, then opts to reject some adult advice while opting to follow others; she has to pick and choose who to trust and makes those decisions sometimes without consultation. She, too, is a "chosen one" on whom everyone's fate rests, but she is consciously guiding her own role in this play.  That's what adults do.

The Bone Clocks, which is where I started this, was starting to feel like Harry Potter: the main character, Holly, starts out the book by finding out (mild spoiler alert) her boyfriend is cheating on her.  She runs away, and falls in briefly with a strange kid from her school.  By the time I'd gotten that far, as enjoyable as the book was, it was feeling Young Adult-ish.  So I stopped and googled Is The Bone Clocks YA? and learned to my relief that it wasn't.  So I've kept reading it, and hoping that this first part (which is, as I've said, pretty good) is going to grow beyond the limited, self-centered perspective.  There's hints that will happen, so I'll stick with it a bit.

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