Wednesday, January 6, 2010

close to the bone in YA fiction

Your personal canon, as a child and adolescent, is a curious thing. I often look back at the peculiar collection of books I read before adulthood and wonder at how idiosyncratic and random it all happened to be. (And, it has to be mentioned, how influenced by my older brother, then and now the biggest influence on my literary life.) The books that I read or didn't read, from my beloved hometown library, were determined so much by chance and luck that it amazes me. This is particularly important, as back in those days I would reread my favorite books over and over-- it's no exaggeration to say that there are books I discovered in that period that I've read a dozen times or more.

As you can probably guess, I wouldn't trade any of that for having read more, or more systematically, before adulthood. The lived-in quality that my appreciation for those books has is something deeply valuable to me. I am moved by these books in a way I can't describe; they are a part of my makeup, and as much as I wonder who I might be if my personal canon had been somewhat different, I have come to accept them to the degree that I have come to accept myself. Few things can move me quite like a book I cherished as a 12 year old.

These days, I'm afraid, there is never not a degree to which I read with a thought to what I feel I must read; there is never a book I read, try as I might, that isn't in some small way a part of the project of my reading life. I am at an age when I do things with a purpose that in some way feels necessary. The loss of that wonderful feeling of purposelessness is something that I hope I can someday overcome, but for now, I am content with the fact that there are simply things that I feel like I must read. If there is a loss in reading having become a project, it is for now a necessary one. I always distrust people who seem to read for some greater reason, but I try to keep in mind that this is one of my many petty hypocrisies. I suppose even I am not pretentious enough to say that this movement in my reading echoes a movement in my larger life....

Anyway. This feeling of emotional intensity and connection to particular books is not entirely the product of  having read them when I was young. Certainly, my particular reading habits contributed a great deal. I read a lot of different things, but without question, what I read about the most was magic. I won't bore you with my belief in magic, and what it meant to a sometimes lonely preteen, and blah blah-- you've heard it before, I'm sure, and from more talented writers. Suffice is to say that I drank in books about magic and spells in great quantities, and in particular about other young people gaining magical power. This meant, often enough, that I was reading young adult fiction.

YA fiction fascinates me. It is written for people who are living at a time when your whole mind seems like a raw nerve. Everything is vulnerable, and passionate, and deeply moving, and you live constantly with the peculiar sensation of being in a body and a life that is not fully your own. For this reason, I think, it's natural that so many YA books feature magic. I think when you are deeply unhappy, which I suspect most people in the 11-13 range are, you long for the ability to escape your own life, to transcend the narrow confines of what you are. Magic is also, incidentally, a good proxy for one's sexual being. But more on that in a sec.

This is all just preface to talking about one of my favorite books growing up, Diane Duane's Deep Wizardry. (My preferred cover, incidentally, is this one, but I felt it was too small to use for the post. As you might have guessed, it is my favorite because it was the cover of the first copy I ever read.) It's a bit of a curious case. It's the second in a series that now counts eight volumes. Although the individual books stand alone well enough, I can't see someone particularly getting much out of this one without having read its predecessor, So You Want to Be a Wizard. What is strange about it is that, though I read four of the books through my teen years, this was the only one to ever really move me. I enjoyed the original well enough, but it certainly didn't touch me in the way that this book did. It's been a consistent mystery to me why I have been so much more attached to this one than any of the other books I have read in the series.

It's a story about a couple of young wizards who, by chance (or at least, as much by chance as the predestination of a magical universe will allow), must undertake a magical task of great importance, deep in the depths of a trench in the ocean. It involves great personal sacrifice on the part of the young wizards, and it is filled with a subtextual and textual references to the two dawning preoccupations of early adolescence, death and sex.

The story is really well crafted and well told, and it deals with the symbolic object of the sea in a way that plays directly to the strengths of the YA form, and to what the YA fiction's audience is experiencing at that time in its life. This preoccupation with the most emotionally loaded subjects that I have mentioned, this closeness-to-the-bone, leads YA authors to this concern with death and sex, among the most visceral and elemental of human preoccupations; the realities of the veils we expect to place between these subjects and our young people (rightly or not) forces YA authors to concern these subjects with a restraint and delicacy that I find is, often enough, only to the good. Oh, most YA books are bad, but then most of anything is bad, and as is the case so many times, restraint is an incredible tool, for focus, concision and clarity. Indeed, it is exactly the desire to tell so much, but having to say so little, that has made me return to YA books no matter how much trash I encounter.

Anyhow-- the two protagonists, a boy and a girl, have forged a friendship through magic, and its attendant hardships. Both were lonely children, caught up in the feelings of powerlessness and isolation, and find in each other a best friend. But as they are in their early teen years, their friendship is touched with sexual longing and sexual panic. As I have said, this focus on sex-- not sex as in intercourse but sex as in the whole great edifice of human sexuality, its promise and the fear it brings, to people of that age-- that is at a remove from direct or obvious discussion about the physical acts of sex is one of the things that makes YA fiction, to me, so powerful when done correctly. It is perhaps the fact that Duane retreated from the sexual longing and sexual confusion that is present in Deep Wizardry in the later books that makes them unsatisfying to me. To be clear, and to head off accusations of creepery, I would not have preferred it that the protagonists (12 and 13 years old in this book, by the way) had engaged in any explicit sex acts in the series; I imagine I would be pretty disturbed by that.

Rather, the frank and real discussion of the growing prevalence of sex in the lives of people of that age is a real strength of the book. The entwined longing for and panic in the face of the reality of sex is to me one of the central realities of young adult life. It's a sad facet of our hysteria in the face of sexual issues concerning those too young to legally have sex that we tend to occlude the issue altogether, out of fear, or out of genuine but misplaced principle. I remember the preoccupation with sex from that time of my life, and how much it dominated my thoughts and feelings, along with death, and my utter inability to articulate my feelings about either. I remember, in fact, fearing sex before sex was a reality in my life at all. I'm thinking of being in fifth grade, and not yet having sexual longing-- oh, I suppose in the Freudian sense I had sexual longing, but not in any obvious or forceful way-- and yet knowing, cognitively, from my education through books and through the unstoppable osmosis that kids pick up on things, that sex was coming. Not intercourse, I was aware, anytime soon (and I was more right than I knew), but merely knowing that, in the near future, life would become more complicated, and desire and partnering and all that came with that would be the reason why. I knew it was coming, and I was intrigued, and I was afraid.

I digress. The point is that this book deals with the deep issues of sex and mortality with real delicacy and poignancy. I hope it isn't giving too much away to say that the two young wizards each has to take the shape of a whale, but by different means, and the girl becomes a humpback, and the boy a sperm whale. And over time, they both come to fear how they are changing, and how their relationship is changing, and how transforming into these two different species of whale is affecting them. Nita, the girl, comes to be horrified by the new aggression and anger that the boy, Kit, shows in his sperm whale form. So the journey to complete their quest becomes complicated through what they are becoming, and a choice that Nita hides from Kit looms over the story. Through it all, there is the concern of Nita's mother, her frank questioning about whether Nita and Kit are sneaking off to have sex, and the larger concerns of maintaining ties and commitments to family in the sudden onrush of still-unformed adulthood.

I suppose the metaphor of the different species of whales, and the whole question of transformation, seems very obvious when spelled out like this. But Duane spins it all out with a controlled and sure hand. I should say, amid all this discussion of subtext and symbol, that the plot itself is a very satisfying and well done. It's a lovely book, to me. I can't imagine that the average reader would get as much from it as I have. Part of that is the simple, intense feelings I have that connect it to a particular time, a particular era of my life when I was so open to possibility, and my emotions were so raw and intense I thought I couldn't take it. Part of it may be that it hits the right notes to satisfy my own particular tastes. Whatever is true, it moves me. I know this is criminally overwrought, and I apologize-- but I swear, at times when I contemplate its cover, I shudder, in the face of what it meant to me, in a time of wondering and panic, and my fear in the face of becoming myself, and through it all, the dark and formless symbol of the sea, still the most powerful one we have, the limitless ocean, and what lies beneath.

Update: Diane Duane herself, I'm honored to say, popped up in the comments to provide this link to my preferred cover of the book. Humbled she responded, and glad to have the link.


E.D. Kain said...

Overwrought or not, Freddie, that last line was lovely.

I think I have a similar experience as you with young adult fiction. I hadn't ever thought of magic as a proxy for sex or sexual longing, but certainly as a way to help understand the unknown - both in the world approaching us and in the growing self within us.

Looking back I suppose some of the more fantastical YA fiction I read then did deal with sexual themes - but of course, as a young adult or a child, our minds are, as you say, raw nerves. They are more tuned in to our passions than our deep analytical selves. So it's interesting to come back to these books when you're older, because you can see how they effected your younger self in ways that your younger self didn't realize at the time. And yet, if you hadn't read the books when you were younger, the emotional impact upon revisiting them now would not be the same. (There is a similar quality to the music we listen to as young adults.)

In any case, great piece.

Diane said...

Re the cover you like -- there's a bigger version here:

I like it too. :)