Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Of codes and canons

So I just finished Elizabeth Wein’s masterpiece Code Name Verity. I have nothing to add to the richly deserved praise already heaped on this book.

I enjoyed it so much that I cannot muster my normal critical faculties to answer the question I almost always ask: “how is this a YA novel?” I trust it’s well known by now that in this question I ponder not appropriateness, but representation. The question is whether the book is in some critical way about adolescence (as opposed to the deeply, insultingly boring question, is the book for adolescents.) I simply don’t care right now. (The last time I had this reaction was The Scorpio Races, so Verity is in excellent company.)

I will, however, take up my  hammer and tongs for a moment to address the final paragraph of the otherwise glowing review for the book in the paper of record (May 11, 2012):

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This is a very suspicious piece of criticism. Leave aside the critique of the cover (I don’t love it either, but I fail to see how it looks like a “lesbian version of Fifty Shades of Gray” but maybe that’s code for something I’m missing). The silliness gets truly thick with “I doubt most teenagers will get the references to ‘A Thousand and One Nights,’ Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Kim’ and the death of Admiral Nelson, all of which make the book challenging in a lovely, bookish way.”1

First, you could substitute the word “readers” for “teenagers” in that sentence and the statement would be no more or less true—or more or less relevant to full enjoyment of the book. The measure of a reader is not whether she catches every “bookish” nuance, but whether she is sensitive enough to detect that something subtle is going on between the lines in a book and whether she has the wherewithal to tease out those associative subtleties. Reading is not doing a crossword puzzle without Google. What a teenage reader might lack in canonical references at his fingertips (though I’d hardly call the Nelson quote canonic, of which more shortly), he might easily make up for in determination to understand what is obscure but intriguing (and intriguing obscurities are thick on the ground in this book). “Kiss me, Hardy” was unknown to me, and I’m rather glad of it. I had to work harder (and do some Googling) to fully imagine that aspect of the book than I did for the things I already knew. And thus my enjoyment increased.

When you suggest that because a book is allusive and “smart” that it is more for adults than it is for teenagers, you are in me-thinks-she-doth-protest-too-much territory (yes, I know what I just did there).  This time, I can break Ingall’s code:  “It’s OK that I read this YA novel, because I read it on a higher plane than a teenage reader will.” Tiresome.

Or maybe I should delete all my foregoing explanation and just post this:

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1. If I have one lasting niggle about the book, it’s that some of the allusions are too much sourced in the text, the codes too broken. Having Julie translate remembered bits of Wagner as she writes under duress seems an unnecessary concession to I don’t know whom and it breaks the very delicate suspension of disbelief you absolutely need for this book to work.