Friday, April 26, 2019

Opportunity's Secrets

 Review and analysis of Marieke Nijkamp's novel This is Where It Ends...
as part of my graduate coursework in Young Adult Literature. 


To say this is a challenging book would be the understatement of my semester. I can't say people should read this book. We are dealing with enough horror related to school shootings and gun violence without reading novels about it, but perhaps it is inevitable that someone should write this story for the modern teen. It certainly speaks to what would happen at MSDHS in Florida two years after its publication.

The Good

I really enjoyed the pace of this book, the drawing out of one hour of terror in a small Alabama high school. I loved how (most of) the characters were drawn and connected. I found a particular power in the narratives of Autumn and Sylv, a young couple loving each other in secret. I also found that same power in the narratives of Sylv and Tomás, her brother. I especially enjoyed the characterization of Fareed, and I really wish he had more of a voice. There are some quietly beautiful moments in this novel, powerful and painful realizations and regrets of secrets kept that shouldn't have been. There is a strong sense of the type of questioning a young person might have flying through their minds as something so heinous reigns over them. It also has a great deal to say about the power of the relationships siblings have as well as the nature and power of grief. These are good things to think about. Nijkamp is good at writing these sorts of things. I was moved often.

The Bad

I was moved by the threat of a Southern snow, but that feels like the only thing this book gets right about the South. And, while much of Nijkamp's prose is strong, the dialogue in this novel, on the other hand, is not well-written. It came off as either simple and shallow or completely unrealistic given the circumstances. Claire's narrative, especially her dialogue with Chris throughout, is just not effective at all. Their relationship feels extraneous and underdeveloped. Claire seems to be more of a plot device than a character. I would've preferred Matt's (her brother's) story take a leading role. He is the one with the strong snow story.

and The Ugly

This book is harrowing in the worst way. I want to rinse it off of me. I feel it in the pit of my stomach and want to cry at Nijkamp's choice to give this murderous monster a voice at all. The way Tyler is characterized and how he comes off feels wrong. Mass shooters are cold and calculated and at a distance. They are outcasts. They don't have track star girlfriends. They don't stop for a heart-to-heart with their little sister. They are hard, unwilling to accept love, and mentally ill. While Tyler may be those things to an extent, this book just paints him as a victim of physical abuse and grieving for his mother. Chris even says, poorly to Claire, those things don't typically make people into rapists and mass murderers. Maybe I just don't know. Many people need help out there. Perhaps the more interesting thing might have been to give him his own narrative voice. That's what Gus Van Sant did in his 2003 film Elephant, which must have informed this book. It fictionalizes this sort of story, interconnected narratives on the day of a school shooting, much better.

My Reader Response

Through her presentation on Reader-Oriented/Reader Response Theory, Leigh reminded me of something: I like the openness of tackling a work of literature as part of an "interpretive community." It is the basis of my job, where five days a week, I take 31, then 27, then 31 subjective reactions to a text and somehow, in pairs, small groups, and as a whole class, we come down to something we can agree upon. It's sort of a perfect approach to this book, as it offers so many different perspectives readers can latch onto for discussion and debate. We in this class, it appears from many of the posts I've read on This is Where It Ends, have certainly varied reactions to what works and especially what doesn't. In addition, this all works because of the very nature of its topic, the school shooting, and the unavoidable and absolutely devastating prior knowledge we all carry into it.

The major problem with This is Where It Ends beyond the issues I have with a few of Nijkamp's characterizations is that it is simply a novel that I can't imagine teaching or adding to my classroom library. I simply can't see myself exposing people to the darkness of such a story, when it feels as if it takes so many liberties with what seems real to me. These shootings need to remain in the realm of the real world, in my opinion. The true stories are how we will cover this horrid stain school shootings have left on our culture.

However, I do have something to say about the issue of secrets in this novel, a theme, a trend, found within the true stories of school shootings as well. Let me use one of Leigh's strong classroom strategies for interpretation: The Two-Column Note (that doesn't work on blogger, so I've adapted).

"What the Text Says" 
"Opportunity has so many secrets" (222).

What the Text Means
Sylv's reveal to us, the reader, that Tyler had raped her some time before the shooting comes just before this line, a direct reference to the fact that she has and will continue to keep this secret, one that might've prevented this tragedy. It also speaks to Courtney's point, in her presentation on Psychoanalytic Theory, that Sylv is a representation of ego. Sylv, in keeping her secret, is defending and controlling her own memory and the pain she suffered. As a result, she has unconsciously perpetuated Tyler's violent tendencies.

"What the Text Says" 
"Opportunity is no place for secrets" (252).

What the Text Means
Claire's reflection on the nature of secrets as a guiding force in this tragedy is a call to not keep them. Tyler's darkness had been a mystery to her to an extent, even though they had an intimate relationship. This is a statement on prevention. Courtney's call that Claire represents the superego is interesting. The superego regulates the impulses of the id. It is rules, guilt, conscience. The more I've thought about, the more I have come to appreciate Claire's narrative. She is necessary to understanding the type of level-headed thought needed when we face situations like this. Like the concept of the superego itself, Claire is a representation of societal rules. Our society hopes that young people will come forward with the secrets that trouble them. Claire has that hope.

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