Saturday, April 10, 2010
the Wayside School books
I remember watching the DVD extras to Wet Hot American Summer (which is great) and in an interview, David Hyde Pierce was talking about how people assume that absurdism is easy to do, when really it's very hard to do. I think that's quite right. Just because absurdist fictions proceed in such an unpredictable and strange way doesn't mean that just anything works. To be funny, there usually has to be some kind of internal logic, or anti-logic, that underlies the seemingly unconnected events that unfold. Absurdism requires a constancy of unpredictability, so the unpredictability can't become predictable; you've got to be surprised, but you've got to be surprised in a way that defies the expectations created by what comes before.
Louis Sachar deserves the credit that he gets. He's best known for Holes, which is indeed a great young adult book. (I've never really forgiven the movie for the casting of Shia Labeouf. Stanley Yelnats is a fat kid. That's an essential element of his character. Shia Labeouf is not fat. It's inexcusable.) Holes performs what I think is the central task of young adult fiction of its kind, which is being lighthearted while maintaining a fundamental romantic seriousness. Early adolescence is a time when you are constantly confronted by a divide between the seriousness and power of your own emotions and a world that insists on telling you that nothing is that big a deal. I think the best in YA fiction reflects those feelings. Anyway, a lot of his lesser known work is great as well, such as books like Someday, Angeline, which is beautiful, or Dogs Don't Tell Jokes, which is great. My first and primary love among his work is the Wayside School books, though.
The Wayside books-- Sideways Stories from Wayside School, Wayside School is Falling Down, and Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger-- are about a school that was supposed to be built 30 classes long, only one story high, but was accidentally built one class long, 30 stories high. This central weirdness trickles into the teachers, the students, and the overall environment of the school. Strange things happen-- evil, spell casting teachers; Miss Zarves, the illusory teacher in charge of students who don't exist in a classroom on an imaginary floor; potato tattoos; a boy named Nancy; dead rats; and Myron, who knew he had to give up being safe to choose to be free.
One of the things about being a kid who's unhappy in school is that it's not the big things that really bug you, but instead all of the little petty indignities that pile up. In his little about the author section, Sachar talks about how when he was a kid in school, all of the adults used to mispronounce his name; and isn't that exactly the sort of thing that gets you down? It's that way in Wayside school, too; it's just that the little things involve the overwhelming desire to pull someone's pigtails, never being able to get down from the 30th floor to the playground in time to get one of the good balls, or people admiring your non-existent front teeth. That's the real beauty of the book, the way it demonstrates that there are fundamental elements of being a kid, and no matter how extraordinary the circumstances are, they assert themselves.
Anyway, these books are sharp and riotously funny, even for an adult, and I recommend them to just about anybody.