Francine Prose, Touch (New York: Harper Teen, 2009). 262 pp. $16.99.
While other writers of her generation spill their talents in “genre-bending and stylistic play,” Francine Prose quietly goes about her business within the tradition of the novel. With each new book she achieves a significant revision of the tradition—not merely by adding something new and eye-catching, but by subtly altering the received opinion of her percursors’ books. Last year’s Goldengrove was her Mill on the Floss. Where Maggie Tulliver was tragically prevented from enjoying the full life she yearned for, Prose drowns her at the beginning rather than the end of the novel, suggesting that the aftermath of tragedy—its effects upon the survivors—may be the more interesting story.
Her new novel, a young adult novel marketed by an arm of Harper Collins that “features books for all teens,” books that “reflect teens’ own lives,” is her Scarlet Letter. It is a testament to Prose’s seriousness as a novelist that Touch neither mocks nor patronizes the conventions of young adult fiction, bending them to adult self-admiration. She expects her young readers to rise capably to the challenge of a reworking of Hawthorne’s themes. And as a consequence, she writes a novel that will appeal just as powerfully to adults.
Maisie Willard has been friends with three boys “for so long that it seemed perfectly normal.” She “can’t remember a time before the four of [them] were friends.” Kevin is the goofy one. Chris is the one who smoothes things over. Shakes is the one who stands out. His real name is Edward, but afflicted with “some weird kind of palsy,” he prefers to be called Shakes. Having been born “messed up” makes him different, and perhaps even better:
Maisie is only gone a year—her eighth-grade year—but when she returns to Philadelphia everything has changed:
Within a few weeks she and Shakes have begun to cuddle and then to neck in the back of the bus on the way to school. She permits Shakes to touch her breasts. Once, when they are caught and the whole bus stares at them, Chris and Kevin are badly upset:
What follows is scandal. The boys paw at her breasts for all the bus to see—either because she offers to let them for cash payment or because they pin her down and assault her against her will or perhaps for some third reason. When the school principal is informed, adults become involved, and things go from bad to worse. Her stepmother sues the school administration, and Maisie’s fellow students jingle change at her approach and urge her to go into the girls’ bathroom where a stick figure labeled with her name has been given “two humongous naked boobs” and a speech balloon which says, How much?
Maisie refuses to back down. “[W]hat did they expect?” she asks. “Did they think I’d just stand there like Hester Prynne and let them make me wear the letter B for Boobs on my chest?” Later she tells her therapist that she is writing a school paper on The Scarlet Letter:
Her therapist, believing that Maisie is telling the truth, starts to say that The Scarlet Letter is “the perfect book” for her to read, because it “makes you realize how often the whole community can be wrong, and how crucial it is for the individual to believe in herself and her basic goodness and—” But Maisie interrupts her, putting a stop to the literary pablum. It is a therapeutic version of the interpretation offered by Richard Chase in The American Novel and Its Tradition: “[T]he subject of the book is the moral and psychological results of sin—the isolation and morbidity, the distortion and thwarting of the emotional life.”
Maybe so, but not for Francine Prose. For her—and, consequently, for Maisie—the real subject is the damage that is done, to individuals and communities, by assertions of the truth that assume the voice of certainty, when the telling and retelling of stories—with their particular circumstances, exact details, and the different personalities involved—gradually make certainty conditional. The truth about human events can never be fully and impeccably known, which is why they must be told and retold.
Francine Prose has dedicated her career to some such view of literature’s purpose. Her young adult novels differ from her grownup fiction only in pacing and capaciousness. She allows herself fewer expansions of theme, fewer expository digressions and fascinating subplots, and reduces her narrative to the briskness of story. She is one of the great storytellers of the age.
With one thing more. She also has a moral vision of the novel. In Touch, she shows that Maisie, falsely accused of offering her humongous boobs for money, resembles Hester Prynne not because she is the one everyone considers a slut, but because she is the one person in the community—the only one—with moral courage. Among the conventions of the young adult novel is that it must point a moral, and in characteristic fashion, Francine Prose does so indirectly—with playful allusion to her literary predecessors—but she does not flinch from doing so. Touch is a novel that every American teenager should read. Most grownups too.