I shall leave it to wiser minds than mine to unpack the reasons and discourses driving the current boom in dystopian fiction, but you could make a decent argument that never before has the bleak future looked so bright. Or possibly over-exposed. With Station Eleven and Grasshopper Jungle winning the Clarke and the Kitschies Red Tentacle respectively, and with the likes of Memory of Water, Europe in Autumn, and Elysium all regularly occupying slots on various other award shortlists, it's fair to say the "It's All Gone to Shit" section of the virtual bookshop is pretty crowded right now. The latest effort to try to shoulder itself a bit of space on the shelf is Sean Jackson's debut novel Haw, the plot of which I shall now briefly outline. Stop me if any of this sounds familiar.
Environmental catastrophe engulfs the world. American society bifurcates as the super wealthy "Hidden" minority barricade themselves inside opulent skyscrapers, while at street level wretched "citoyens" pay the physical tolls exacted by rampant pollution and ceaselessly violent state oppression. The widower Lucas toils in the city as a hydrologist, fighting a losing battle to provide clean water and dreaming of a better life for his sixteen-year-old son, Orel. Finally recognizing the futility of their situation, they flee to the countryside, where they discover an isolated community of "peaceniks" living off the ravaged land as best they can, and Orel finds love with the community leader's eldest son. Then intruders, fires, explosions, running, running, death, and ashes.
Novelty is not the be-all and end-all of artistic endeavor, of course. To note that Haw is unoriginal (it is unoriginal) or derivative (it is derivative) is to risk focusing on irrelevancies; this is YA, present tense narration and all, and is therefore aimed at a demographic unlikely to have read too much in the way of Cormac McCarthy or Jack Womack. However, you, dear, knowledgeable SH reader, are perhaps not part of that demographic, and I'm definitely well out of it. I do work with teenagers every day though, so rather than come across like a trendy vicar trying too hard to get down with what's hip with the kids on the street these days (daddy-o), and inaccurately second-guessing what they might like, the metric I'll be using here is much simpler: would I recommend this book to my students?
Sadly, I would not.
This is sad because, first, one of the defining aspects of Haw is its irreproachable sincerity, and this, secondly, means that I'd feel like a bit of churl poking fun at it. Lazy writing is fair game but this is demonstrably not lazy—endeavor and earnestness thrust from every page, line, and piece of improving vocabulary—it's just not something I could honestly describe as "good," either. I don't know what the point of it all is. I'm not sure it quite knows what its point is itself, but by god it's determined to make it.
The first act takes place in the city. I say "act"; precious little action occurs. Orel takes a bus journey and a couple of pictures ("His photography proves he is of sound mind." [p. 6]). Lucas frets. The primary function of the opening fifty pages (not far shy of a third of the novel) is to describe in exhaustive and exhausting detail the general shitness of the city, and the shitness of the people who live there, through a blandly awful succession of what the situation demands I label random acts of senseless violence. A girl gets murdered and another tries to sell a baby's corpse as pet food. Conspiracies are espoused and the politically undesirable disappeared; watercourses poisoned and houses looted; streets defecated in and dogs pissed upon; vagrants beaten and dead horses flogged. Character development is notable by its absence: we learn little besides how Lucas is unhappy in his work and worries about his son, and how Orel is an artistic type who enjoys taking photos and using his smartphone-esque "button" to post them on the internet (which apparently still functions just fine). The most thoroughly developed character is in fact Gail, Lucas's boss who, working as he does for the government, is an unmitigated psychopath:
. . . they described it, informally, as a blind allegiance to governing power that borders on fascism, with sadistic tendencies. (p. 40)
Gail then disappears for the entirety of the second act before briefly reemerging to be evil at the end of the third. We, however, shall linger with Gail a touch longer, because, in as much as he gets more than a couple of pages of backstory, he is the most strongly established character in the book and thus symptomatic of one of its main problems. Both Gail and the unrelenting worldbuilding are marked by a virulent strain of anti-government libertarianism. It's not the libertarianism itself that's the problem (I'm all in favor of some healthy skepticism towards the powers that be), as much as its bludgeoning one-note expression. The lemma government appears seventy-three times; almost once every other page. This is a frequency less suggestive of "professionally published novel aimed at the teen market" than it is of "handwritten manifesto anonymously mailed to local newspaper." Moreover, the sole motivation of the government, and Gail as its proxy, is to be evil. Not evil as a byproduct of neglect, you understand, or evil through a desire to maintain control or will to power, just plain out-and-out wickedness, because that is apparently what governments do: "The government has done some horrendous things—intentionally" (p. 133), lest we were in any doubt.
It's as nonsensical as it is incessant. Where is the money coming from to pay for all those jackboots and nightsticks? Economic unworkability is a standard generic blind-spot, of course, but it's particularly egregious here. Because the government is just eeevil, its primary goal is not the exploitation of its citizens, but their total eradication; how can you fund an army if you've wiped out your entire tax base? The government has even restricted use of that most American signifier of freedom, the automobile, not because there's no more oil (the refining and distribution system, like the internet and cellular networks, also seemingly unaffected by lifetimes of disrepair), but because "people are easily tracked on public transportation." (p. 33) The bastards.
Given the environmental degradation that marks the novel, this antipathy to trains and buses is a little odd. While I've always assumed public transportation is generally seen as an absolute social good, its reframing here as nothing more than another element of the evil government's society-wide panopticon is entirely in keeping with Haw's excessive mistrust of the state and the general incoherence of that mistrust's expression. Once Lucas and Orel go on the lam, Gail commits himself to tracking them down (because EVIL), and while the surveillance apparatus of the rail network proves telling, Orel is able to get a call about his acceptance to Princeton (which is somehow still a thing) without raising any flags whatsoever. You'd think such an avowedly arseholeish surveillance state would at least have heard of metadata. Narrative sincerity notwithstanding, the dystopia described in Haw is so unfailingly yet implausibly awful that at several points I wondered if it was intended as parody and I was simply missing the joke. I still wouldn't rule that out.
The contempt in which the narrative holds the government is matched only by that in which it holds the citoyen underclass—"dirty, relentless, and vulgar" (p. 92)—which seems a little harsh what with the evil government making them that way in the first place: "Pollutants are to blame for the hordes of citoyens who do little more than smear their presence on history, like feces on a toilet wall" (p. 6). The only people to retain any shred of virtue are Lucas, Orel, and the small group of, I suppose we could call them, survivalists, with whom they later settle down. You and me against the world, kiddo, you and me against the world.
This brings us to the second problem with Haw, which is that it reminds me of nothing so much as Over the Top (1987), arguably one of Sylvester Stallone's less durable movies. Those of you unversed in the nuance of bad late-eighties action-cum-melodrama will need to know that OTT stars Sly as a down-on-his-luck trucker who wins back the love of his estranged son through an insuperable combination of arm-wrestling, big rig ram-raiding, and monosyllabic shouting. I remember watching it at home when I must have been twelve or thirteen, and Dad (who in retrospect had probably had a couple of drinks) getting embarrassingly emotional at the lengths to which this guy was willing to go for his son, while my siblings and I just rolled our eyes at how dumb it was. But we only had one TV and there were only four channels, so what were you going to do?
In much the same way I've since come to realize that OTT was aimed more at my father than my younger self, I have to question who this book is really for. The main character is Lucas, not Orel, and this is very much his story. I guess he's driven by wanting to provide for his son, but the story itself is driven by the need to display just how much he wants to provide for his son. "Look!" it seems to say, "Look at what a dutiful and devoted father this man is!" As a parent myself, criticizing this aspect feels like a betrayal of the dadhood—lord knows I'd like a bit of extra credit every now and then—but there's a good reason most Young Adult protagonists are young adults themselves, not middle-aged men. If YA books are meant to help their readers make better sense of their worlds, it's probably better for us to let them work it out for themselves, and with characters like themselves, instead of trying to hog the limelight for one last manful swansong. Unfortunately that's not the case here, as Orel kind of mills about on the fringes, being sensitive and taking photos exposing the fragility of existence, while Lucas juts his "small, square jaw" (p. 5) and faces up to the on-rushing dadpocalypse. Indeed, the entire second act seems contrived solely in order to have Lucas kill someone in defense of his family, thus impressing the local hardman (and by extension the reader) with his dad credentials:
Kione gives Lucas a look from the corners of his eyes. Lucas doesn't seem to be rattled by the kill-or-be-killed encounter. The ex-soldier is pleased to see that the father is capable of protecting his son against full-on evil and aggression. (p. 120)
This sits uneasily with the third main issue I have with this novel, which is the narration. As the above demonstrates, the prose is lacking for a certain elegance, and the tendency to refer to people by their social roles is indicative of what I assume to be an attempt to simplify the language for a younger audience; even three pages from the end (p.178) Orel and Lucas are still "the boy" and "the man" respectively. While McCarthy uses this trick to invoke universality, here the effect is just dissociative. The perspective is mostly third-person limited, with occasional random dives into third-person omniscient, so, combined with the oversimplified declarative nature of most of the language, this makes it nigh-on impossible to reliably assign motivation to the characters themselves, creating a world populated entirely by flagrant authorial puppets.
As every character is an author mouthpiece, their musings on the state of the world carry the weight of inarguable fact. These characters then act not through any organic need, but simply because that's what the plot demands they do. The most glaring example of this is the entire final act, which sees Lucas dragging Orel and Orel's boyfriend, Nico, back into the collapsing city, risking all to collect his late wife's ashes and some unspecified "papers" (because "papers" are what dads have, I imagine). When they first fled the city, Lucas was quite happy to leave these seemingly invaluable items behind with nary a thought. They are, in fact, entirely absent from the story until page 134. That said, and to set aside plot holes so large Stallone could navigate an entire fleet of road-trains through them, the momentum in the closing stages is handled surprisingly effectively. The perspective cuts cinematically between Lucas, Gail (remember him?), and Gerard (Nico's dad. You won't remember him. He has a beard). The novel builds to a conclusion which does, at least, conclude.
The final reason I couldn't recommend this book to my students is that the majority of them are girls, and you'll have noticed that there's no room for women in the dadpocalypse. The first act closes with a murdered girl's body dumped in a fountain, the second with a grandmother's suicide, and the third involves that meaningless search for Orel's mum's ashes: a perfect triple-goddess hat-trick of dead women, which is something of an achievement, I suppose. The only woman to survive through to the end is Nico's mother, Nan, and predictably, "Nan is no friend to the government" (p. 172). What's worse, the declarative authority assumed by the narration combines with the all-pervasive dadness of the book to create some passages which are, at best, cringeworthy:
It was the Fourth of July that last full Friday. The sun peered down on the coast and a few lithe teenage girls even peeled down to their bikinis and stretched out in the sand. (p. 176)
Eww. These thigh-rubbing instances of the male gaze are mercifully few, but stand out all the more because the book has such a clear and laudable commitment to depicting Orel's sexual orientation as entirely positive. Less laudable is its commitment to portraying everything about Orel as entirely positive. The boy is a genius and a saint (Princeton at sixteen!), a characterization that fatally undermines his believability, further forcing the narrative focus onto Lucas and his perspective—hence, presumably, the "lithe teenage girls." That a book with such an overtly progressive position on gay representation should so roundly fail the Bechdel test is further testament to the gap between Haw's sincerity and its execution.
I wonder at how a book which is so short can be so disjointed; I've never read a professionally published novel which is so desperately in need of an editor, both in terms of structure and simple copy ("hones in on" [p. 104], "Gail ensured him this would happen," [p. 29]). Haw's most compelling character is its straw man, which is surely not what anyone was intending, and while what I assume to be its core messages—be wary of authority and remember that your father loves you—are things I can absolutely get behind, their delivery here is so lacking in nuance and coherence that any greater purpose the book may have had is rendered moot. I don't know who this book is for, but I can say it's certainly not for my students, and definitely not for me.
K. Kamo has a master's degree in globalization and teaches in Japan, facts that are more related in theory than in practice. He blogs at this is how she fight start and occasionally tweets. He also regrets not choosing a less abstruse pseudonym.
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