Nalo Hopkinson's first venture into young adult literature at first appears to be a typical example of contemporary realistic fiction. Sojourner, Scotch to her friends, is sixteen years old and growing up in a good neighborhood in Toronto. She's a top-flight student, a star on her competitive dance team, the Raw Gyals, and worries a fair amount about both boys and zits. She's of mixed racial heritage, with an African-American mother and a white Jamaican father, could pass for white if she wanted to (but finds the idea of doing so offensive), and has an older brother, Rich, who's a lot darker than she is. Her family has the usual assortment of problems for a YA novel. Mom is a successful psychologist and Dad owns a small construction company, but several years ago he mangled his leg at work and is now in significant pain; refusing to take pain killers, he is often testy with both his children and his wife. Scotch's parents are very strict and last year actually had Rich arrested and jailed for three months when they caught him with a joint. It isn't clear what they would do if they knew that Scotch is sexually active, though there was another crisis last year when she gained an unwarranted reputation as the school "skank," was badly harassed for this by other kids, and eventually had to switch schools. At this moment in her life Scotch sees herself as smart, talented, pretty and popular, but she was clearly traumatized by past events and spends a significant amount of time both being mad at her parents for what they did to Rich and worrying that she's in danger of losing the people and things she cares about.
Two oddities in the first few chapters do signal that The Chaos is not going to turn out to be a typical realistic teen novel. First, it gradually becomes clear that Scotch's skin problem is more than just zits. She has very dark spots gradually growing all over her body. Her parents have taken her to dermatologists and several other medical practitioners, but so far none of the treatments has worked. The doctors agree that the problem isn't serious, but Scotch has her doubts: "This stupid skin condition I've got. Just when everything was starting to go great" (p. 8). Considering her mixed race ancestry and light skin, not to mention her brother's obsession with blackness—he's a wannabe slam poet who understandably concentrates on the difficulties of being a young black man—it seems clear from very early on that this spreading dermatological problem will have some kind of symbolic significance. The second notable oddity is what Scotch thinks of as her "hallucinations," the Horseless Head Men. These small, cherubic creatures, each with a "goofy sea horse grin," float in the air around her, invisible to everyone else, not exactly malicious but apparently suffering from some sort of ADHD and extremely distracting.
So, with these two exceptions, Scotch leads the life of a fairly normal, middle-class sixteen-year-old Canadian girl until the night when the Chaos begins. Then, in the space of a few minutes an active volcano emerges from Lake Ontario, Scotch's brother disappears in a mysterious explosion, and she finds herself instantaneously transported to what appears to be a cross between a subway car and the inside of an earthworm:
There were other people, also seated in rows of seats. If you could call them "people." A few looked human, except for the bandicoot heads. And the arms made of smoke. And the fact that you could see through their chests and they each had three hearts beating inside. And the jointed metal legs. Okay, they didn't look like people at all. But way more so than the ones that looked like a cross between a melty, burning wax candle and the color three, or the ones that tasted like yesterday and whistled like empty brains. (p. 84)
Hopkinson, who channels everything through Scotch's limited first person narration, never really lets us know whether this experience is an hallucination or something more real, but Punum, a Sri Lankan woman Scotch has just met, shares it with her and its surreal nature is simply a more extreme example of what is occurring throughout Toronto. Monsters stalk the streets. Everyone can now see the Horseless Head Men. People and objects are transforming, seemingly at random, in a variety of sometimes wondrous, sometimes humorous, and sometimes horrific ways. Once the Chaos manifests, the tale has some of the manic energy of an R. L. Stine Goosebumps novel, perhaps One Day at Horrorland (1994), with surreal events following one another with no apparent logic beyond that of dreams. Hopkinson is clearly enjoying herself, pushing the imaginative envelope, but she manages to give her story more gravity by making it clear that people are terrified and that a fair number are being hurt or killed by what has been unleashed. Worse still, the same madness appears to be occurring all over the world.
The rest of the novel involves Scotch's desperate attempts both to find her brother, who may be either dead or changed beyond recognition, and who repeatedly contacts her over her dead cell phone, and to find safety amidst the almost apocalyptic chaos. She runs into a variety of eccentric friends and relatives and, in one case, something that looks like her ex-boyfriend, but isn't. She must also flee, fight, or otherwise deal with a series of creatures out of a variety of folktales and mythologies, including Br'er Rabbit, Anansi the Spider, Sasquatch, and an extended sequence in which she encounters Baba Yaga, the phoenix, and a Jamaican roll calf named Spot, all of whom are extremely dangerous and unpredictable, though not without a few saving graces.
As is the norm in YA fiction, The Chaos has a strong didactic thread running through it. Some of the issues discussed are typical teen concerns, while others reflect the author's own interests, or both. Bullying, being sexually active, dealing with feelings of inadequacy, dealing with friends and parents, class and legal issues and a variety of other important topics show up at various points in the novel. Hopkinson's Toronto is an intensely multicultural and multiracial city and the complexities of race, racism, and multi-racial families are a major concern here. Although Scotch’s school life seems to be mostly free from racism, the outside world isn’t always so understanding. She is aware of the problems that her brother encounters, and that she generally escapes, simply by walking into a store or mall, and she deeply resents his having to bear this burden. Having a light complexion is not without its own difficulties either. For example, she must deal with white people who don't consider themselves racists, but who have trouble seeing past skin color and recognizing that she and Rich look very much alike or who unthinkingly assume that a light-skinned black person would want to pass for white. When she sneaks into a bar to listen to her brother perform his poetry, she begins to flirt with a guy who at first assumes that her brother is her boyfriend and, when he learns otherwise, is taken aback:
"Wow." He visually compared me and Rich again. "I never thought it could happen that way. I just figured the kids would all come out, I guess light brown, you know? . . . But you know what's really cool? . . . You don't look like you're half black. I mean, you could be almost anything at all, you know?"
And he's down. Down AND out. My smile froze on my face. (pp. 58-9)
Hopkinson also invites her readers to examine the nature of prejudice against both the disabled and homosexuals. Scotch's new friend, Punum, who is only a few years older than she is, not only has dark skin but is also a lesbian and in a wheelchair. She is also highly competent, talented, acerbic, brittle, and intensely aware of people who treat her as something less than a whole person. Scotch, who of course has no trouble with her being dark skinned, cannot help but be momentarily taken aback when she discovers that the disabled woman is a sexually active lesbian, this despite the fact that her former boyfriend, Tafari, has a deformed hand. Scotch has a very delicate tripwire where racial issues are concerned, but finds herself blundering hopelessly when Punum makes a conquest of her long-time friend and dance partner Gloria, whom Scotch had simply assumed was straight. She has always known that her best male friend, Ben, was gay, but discovering that Gloria is as well, causes her to blurt out, to her instant shame, "Gloria, you can't be gay! . . . I'll be all alone! Don't you see? I'll be the only normal one of the three of us!" (p. 146). Needless to say, having said this, it takes Scotch some time to make things right with Punum and Gloria. Through these very believable human interactions Hopkinson thus satisfies an important criterion of YA fiction (and much fiction for adults, of course), explicitly holding a mirror up to the reader, allowing her to see herself and examine both her own strengths and weaknesses within a clear but unobtrusive moral context.
So far I've mostly commented on the didactic elements in the book, but no one reads a novel purely to be edified and The Chaos is also a whole lot of fun. Hopkinson walks a narrow line throughout between the horrific and the humorous. It helps perhaps that Scotch is a brave, take charge sort of girl who tends not to dwell on the scary side of what she sees. Instead, she describes the scene in detail and tries to find a solution to whatever problem she's facing through direct action. As she hurries through the chaotic streets of Toronto, part way through the novel,
an enormous clawed foot crashed onto the sidewalk, a few feet from where I’m standing. It looked like I imagined a dinosaur’s foot would. I yelped. A second foot crashed down on the other side of me. People were scattering, cars and bicycles swerved out of the way. The feet were attached to ginormous drumsticks, which were attached to ginormouser thighs, all covered in big red and black feathers. (p. 120)
Here Hopkinson is clearly playing with the visual clichés of any number of monster movies from Godzilla to Transformers, but the specific words she chooses, from "yelp" to "ginormous" and "ginormouser," and the physical details of the drumsticks and the red and black feathers help to defuse the tension of the scene, turning it at least partially comic. Scotch is in fact standing beneath the fairytale witch Baba Yaga's gigantic chicken-legged house and is in imminent danger of either being stepped on, hit by an enormous egg, or forcibly recruited to become the witch's next Vasilissa, but Scotch's voice, always and perhaps unconsciously ironic, comes to the reader's rescue. "I ran, screaming, out from under it. The house thing ran too, continuing its tromp northward up University Avenue, careening every so often against one of the big bronze statues of old, dead white guys they had in the narrow paved strips that ran down the middle of the wide avenue."
As should be obvious, the surreal elements of the story are also important. Sometimes it feels as if Scotch is traveling through a painting by Joan Miró (or perhaps a picture book that Dr. Seuss drew while on acid):
"I grabbed your wrist when shit started to go weird. Now, I don't know what part of you I'm holding. Feels like your ankle. Both ankles."
"Let go of me," I said. "You're not my type."
"I can't," wailed the purple triangle. "I'm stuck."
"Oh, goody." My ear stung. I knew that was bad for some reason. Nine legs or eleven, all of my legs looked like half-melted black rubber. They were some busy legs too. I was sharing two of them with some mouthy pink chick I didn't like, and two more of them were intertwined with each other, with puffy-looking bulges where they touched. (p. 86)
Hopkinson's conceptual and visual inventiveness seems virtually endless, with one unexpected and bizarre notion following another. In the scene above, for example, Scotch's ankles actually begin to mate with each other like earthworms, and yes, there is something of an "ice" factor here, though nothing is ever allowed to get too horrific or gross for the typical middle school reader. Knowing the protagonist as well as we do by this point in the book, it is relatively easy to make assumptions about how the ongoing cascade of surreal images relates to Scotch's various issues. This, of course, includes her gradually spreading skin condition which, black and sticky, eventually turns her into an almost-literal tar baby. On a larger scale, we receive a number of hints as to why the Chaos may have occurred—it may well be that it's an external manifestation of the subconscious, of each person's unrecognized anxiety, guilt, or fear—but Hopkinson makes a point of never nailing down the answer, either for Scotch or for society in general.
So, what are we ultimately to make of The Chaos? Readers who come to this book strictly as fans of Hopkinson's adult work may be a bit disappointed because the story, having been written as YA, lacks some of the intellectual, structural, and stylistic sophistication which we tend to expect from the author of Midnight Robber (2000), The Salt Roads (2003), and The New Moon's Arms. It does, however, fit more comfortably with Hopkinson's first novel, Brown Girl in the Ring (1998), also the tale of a young woman trying to survive in a fantastic, post-apocalyptic Toronto. Taken as YA, The Chaos begins in a somewhat formulaic, teen-friendly fashion, but rapidly goes off the rails in a variety of wonderful and unexpected ways. The surreal, madcap, and sometimes arbitrary nature of this post-apocalyptic world may, however, not actually be all that big of a problem for young adults, who often see their own lives as chaotic and out of control. As her adult novels and short stories have made clear, Hopkinson has an abiding love for folktales and the book's surreal nature allows her to play with not just the Caribbean stories of her childhood, but also tales from the Russian literature in which she majored in college. Baba Yaga, flying around in half a giant egg shell, pestle in hand, chicken-legged house nearby, at once menacing and comic, seems wildly out of place in a modern western metropolis, but is also emblematic of the disjunction at the heart of Scotch's world. Race, sexual orientation, sexuality, physical health, parents, ultimately it's all one, big crazy confusion and Scotch has to come to terms with it, as do we all, if she is to survive the chaos of life.
Michael Levy teaches English at an obscure Wisconsin university and is a past president of both the Science Fiction Research Association and The International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts.