Friday, January 2, 2009

evoking sympathetic characters--or maybe not


Every so often one picks up a novel in which the protagonist has been given some demoralizing physical affliction that is not his main obstacle in getting what he wants in the story, but seems to have been factored in by the author, either to create added sympathy for the character, or perhaps to provide an interesting, additional tension. But does it work?

On one end of the scale, arguably, we might have the overweight character, whose romantic horizon is consequently more constricted, or who suffers numerous barbs and indignities as a result of his weight. Does the overweight condition add much to the story? I can think of several YA novels in this category, most not too memorable, but a recent graphic novel might be useful to discuss along this line.

"Skim," by cousins, Mariko (author) and Jillian (illustrator) Tamaki, is the story of Kimberly Keiko Cameron, attending a private, girls' school in Toronto. Kim and her small group of friends practice an eclectic mix of Goth and Wiccan lifestyles, which sets them off from the majority, more affluent and conventional girls. Kim, who lives with her divorced mother, is a very lonely girl to begin with, and her overweight condition intensifies this. She develops a crush on her English teacher, a young, hippie-like, New Age woman. The graphics are quite effective in showing how Kim's fantasies sometimes mix with the realities of her infatuation. The teacher abruptly transfers away from the school, and Kim is despondent. She compensates a little by eating more frequently, and resists attempts by her girlfriend to hook them up with college boy dates. The story has its tender moments and story interest, but the overweight factor, and eating compulsion, are ultimately a little off-putting. Kim's lonely nature, her search for identity and meaning through Wiccan ritual, and through a fantasy love, seemed enough for the story without the added hurdle of her body weight.

Overweight may or may not have a genetic basis, but cerebral palsy definitely does, and we'd really be loading our character down with this while he's on his search for what he wants in the story. "Stoner and Spaz," a YA novel by Ron Koertge, does just that. Ben is a conservative, strait-laced, generally ignored student with a CP disability, a spaz, who escapes his loneliness with a heavy dosage of movies at the local arts theater—until he meets Colleen there, another lonely student, but a rebel who'll do any drug, and take any dare. She doesn't ignore his disability; she teases him about it, and thrillingly they're on some sort of high wire together. He doesn't even smoke cigarettes, but she has him try a joint, and takes him to all the swinging clubs with her. She challenges him to direct his own movie, and he challenges her to give up the drugs. We get the feeling Ben will have the strength he needs for his challenge, but our heart goes out to Colleen who just doesn't seem like she'll make it. So, does the affliction make for a better story? It probably would have worked fine if he were just the lonely, movie-addicted, introverted young man he was, without the CP complication. However, the CP seemed to have a reasonably good fit, wasn't overly clinical, and the story didn't strain to send any message about disabilities. Koertge continues to be a favorite YA author.

"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," by Mark Haddon, demonstrates a deeper end of the scale for imposing an affliction on a character. Christopher, an autistic 15-yr. old, narrates his story. Here, the affliction is the dominant theme of the story, though Haddon weaves his revelation of the autistic child's view of the world into a warp of light mystery about who killed a neighbor's dog. Christopher utilizes his love of reading Sherlock Holmes mysteries and an acute, deductive logic, to pursue the mystery. He is handicapped by an inability to 'read' the moods and behaviors signaled by other people, and though he cannot tell or understand jokes, he is often ironically funny. Other times, he is maddeningly irritating with his idiosyncrasies, and petulance toward his beleaguered father. I recall that Haddon had training in social work, and he probably understands his character well. In the case of this novel, the affliction, and the writing, are compelling reasons for reading the novel through, but the reading experience finally seems less rich when the mental process of the character is so far removed from us.

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