Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Her scarlet letter

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:

Even when he was little, you could see him stopping and thinking before he said anything, maybe because it was harder for him to talk. And he’d say these totally poetic things. Once when we were at Chris’s house, watching some honeybees fly around, Shakes said you could watch them singing to each other and thanking the flowers for their nectar. In grade school he was elected class president more often than anyone else—not because the other kids felt sorry for him, but because even people who hardly knew him could see what a model human being he was.Although he warns her that “[i]t’s going to be worse there than it is here,” Maisie leaves Philadelphia and her father’s second marriage to a narcissist who wears “outfits you’d expect to see on some slutty high school girl” and who enjoys boasting about her white Volvo SUV; she moves to Milwaukee to live her mother and her new husband, a spoiled brat who throws his dinner on the floor when it is over-salted and yanks the TV remote out of Maisie’s hands in the middle of Top Chef. “If I live to be a thousand years old,” she says, “I’ll never understand why my parents chose the people they married—remarried—after they split up.”

Maisie is only gone a year—her eighth-grade year—but when she returns to Philadelphia everything has changed:I’d gotten a whole new body during my year away. I’d grown breasts and a weird curvy ass. I’d gotten my period, too. I felt like a spectator watching my body do whatever it wanted, without my knowledge or permission. I felt like someone who’d been tricked into thinking she had one body, and now—surprise!—she had another.The boys have changed too. Chris has a girlfriend, with whom he denies having sex. “Kissing isn’t sex,” he says. When Maisie comes by to see them for the first time in a year, they are watching Girls Gone Wild. She glimpses “two blue dots dancing on the chest of a half-naked blond girl.” She realizes they are no longer kids, although they are not yet “even teenage boys.” And she becomes suddenly self-conscious. The problem is that she did not merely get breasts while she was gone. “I had these gigantic mega-boobs,” she says, “the kind movie stars pay fortunes for. I’d gotten them practically overnight, for free.”

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:[I]t was as if they thought we’d done something to them. As if we’d cheated on them with each other. As if I’d broken up the four-person gang we’d had since we were little. As if I’d chosen Shakes over them, and they would never forgive me.They don’t, either. One morning they confront Maisie on the bus and ask when she is going to let them touch her breasts. “Like Shakes does, every morning?” Kevin adds. Maisie is amazed that Shakes has told them, but she is even more amazed when he does not defend her.

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:“Outrageous, right?” I say. “How typically insensitive to make me sit in a class where the kids are discussing that book, of all the books in the world. I’m so offended by the thought—because now I’m the shunned Hester Prynne, the one the whole community thinks is a slut and maybe even a witch—that I almost forget I’m lying. It takes me a moment to remember that we’re actually not reading it for school.The fact that the allusion is spelled out at such length in the midst of a lie is a giveaway. Maisie’s self-identification with Hester Prynne is also a falsehood—if and only if Hester is conceived of as “the one the whole community thinks is a slut and maybe even a witch.”

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.

5 comments:

jseliger said...

You've convinced me to read Touch. One item in your post: should "point a moral" towards the end be "posit a moral"?

D. G. Myers said...

Cf. this.

D. G. Myers said...

One thing I meant to say, but couldn’t find a place for.

Francine Prose is the best American novelist of her generation—the baby boom generation. (Unless Marilynne Robinson [b. 1943] belongs to that generation. Then she shares the title with Robinson.)

An Anonymous Child said...

I'm at once curious to read this and simultaneously mistrustful. I read the aforementioned "Goldengrove" and felt that Prose missed the ball entirely. Not only was the book very (overly) similar to a number of young adult books I'd read recently, but I felt Prose didn't capture the teenage spirit at all. Her characters all sounded adult in unrealistic ways and though the writing may have been beautiful (there's no doubt in my mind that Prose can form sentences very well), the book did not move me in the least. It's a pity when an author creates a teen-aged character that sounds like an adult, and will often ruin a book for me. It certainly helped bring my opinion down in this case.

I seem to be fairly alone in my opinion so I shall give Prose the benefit of the doubt one of these days. Still, I'm not quite ready to encounter her teen characters again (for fear that they too will be forced into teenhood awkwardly and not sit there naturally) - as interesting as "Touch"'s premise sounds, I may look elsewhere among her many other books to get a further impression.

D. G. Myers said...

Except that it was not her intention to “capture the teen spirit” in Goldengrove. Nico was less a teenager than a particular young woman going through a specific experience. She is “Judy’d” by her dead sister’s boyfriend—a creepy twist on a character’s being created by a novelist. That is where Prose was trying to strike the ball.

Goldengrove was occasionally mislabeled a YA novel. It wasn’t that at all.

Give Touch (or After or Bullyville) a try. As an ex-teenager, I feel strongly that she catch the tones of a teenager’s voice perfectly in those YA novels.

If you prefer one of her “mainstream” novels (don’t know exactly what to call them to distinguish them from her YA fiction), you might want to start with Bigfoot Dreams.