Wednesday, April 15, 2009

“Among the ruined languages”

“Oh dear white children, casual as birds,
Playing among the ruined languages,
So small beside their large confusing words,
So gay against the greater silences,
Of the dreadful things you did . . . .” 
–W.H. Auden, Anthem for St. Cecilia’s Day, epigraph to M.T. Anderson’s Feed.

“[You] could peet your milk with knives in it, as we used to say, and this would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of dirty twenty-to-one, and that was what we were peeting this evening I’m starting the story with.”
–Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange

I came across a great review for John Brindley’s Rule of Claw this morning. Good reviews always make me smile, but this one got me thinking about an interesting combination that shows up in a lot of YA, Rule of Claw included, and that’s language and dystopia.

On the one hand, there’s a lot of interesting dystopian YA these days, and by that I mean speculative YA about bleak near-futures with lots of themes extrapolated from current events or trends. Scott Westerfeld and Cory Doctorow are, for me, among the chief figures in this genre at the moment, and M.T. Anderson’s Feed is the supreme masterwork of teen dystopia. (I’d put The Rule of Claw firmly in the teen dystopia subgenre.) At first blush, these books are, broadly speaking, futuristic sci/fi-fantasy, but a key ingredient in a good piece of dystopic speculative fiction is an element of timely, contemporary nonfiction. The writer needs to draw something from the culture—preferably something often discussed—and run with it. The books can survive the cultural currency of these nonfiction seeds, but they generally lose that terrifying shimmer of plausibility and if we continue to read them, it’s for other reasons (for an interesting exercise, read 1984 and then Feed. Orwell’s book seems positively quaint as a work of current speculative fiction). the other hand, there is the ever-present issue of teenspeak in YA fiction. Not surprisingly, authors of YA are concerned with the language that develops around and within teenage culture. For fiction, I think there are two general approaches to teenspeak, the imitative (picture a writer hanging out at the mall with a tape recorder) and the creative (picture a writer hanging out at his desk and imagining the mall and the tape recorder and the teens). You could say “the mirror and the lamp,” if you care to get all freshman-year English lit. You might also say the nonfictional and the fictional.  The imitators/nonfictionists are YA authors whose language is faithful to actual speech you might hear from actual teens. At its best, I think this approach relies on an unerring ear, and it doesn't call attention to itself, rather it allows other aspects of the story and characters to take center stage. At its worst, it’s a complete distraction, where you sense a writer slavishly regurgitating slang he has no understanding of or control over. The creative/fictionist approach sees spoken language—especially teen language—as a consequence of the world of the novel and takes the time to “build” (or, as the case me be, “unbuild”) the dialect right along with the cities, schools, and scenarios of the novel. Think again of 1984 (“Newspeak” is, I think, the aspect of that novel that remains timely) or Anthony Burgess’s classic A Clockwork Orange (a book that could be discussed as proto-YA, right?). Or, of course, Feed.

And now we’re back to the dystopias and the speculative fiction subgenre. I don’t know if there’s any more to say about this than that there’s an intersection here between observed and imagined, nonfiction and fiction, and when its handled skillfully, it really sings. If there is more to say, I think it might have something to do with the unique and contradictory relationships teenagers and authority figures have with language. Fascinating to contemplate.