Thursday, September 1, 2011

Roll, tap, tap, tap

Oh boy. The Marbury Lens. You may have read about it here; I'm not sure where heard about it, but I'm building a list of 15 "New & Notable" books to booktalk and one of my colleagues recommended it. I think it'll go on the list, it's definitely compelling but whew! It's one of those books (like Liar) where the reader decides what happened. The author, Andrew Smith, doesn't spell it out. Here's the story, told by a deeply unreliable narrator; take what you read/heard and figure it out ... for yourself.

I won't tell you what I decided (or rather what's still rolling around in my head), but here's (more than) a little to get you started. Jack Whitmore is a 16-year-old boy with few emotional connections. He's been raised on the central California coast by doting maternal grandparents (his mother was a teenager herself and is long gone, dad was never in the picture), whom he regards with tolerant dispassion. His best (only?) friend is Conner. In that cruel boy way (lacking that Y chromosome, I just don't get this), Conner continually ribs Jack about never having had sex, frequently baiting him about being gay. The boys plan a trip to England later in the summer, where they'll take a look at the exclusive school that Jack's grandfather attended to decide whether they want to spend part of their senior year there.

At a party at the end of the school year, a drunk Jack stumbles upon Conner having sex with his girlfriend. Conner casually invites Jack to join them. Getting drunker, he flees the party and accepts a ride home from a doctor in an expensive car. Only this doctor takes Jack to his home, where he drugs and tortures Jack and attempts rape. Jack manages to escape and tells Connor what happened to him. Connor concocts a plan to kidnap the doctor, which instead results in his death. There is no evidence linking them with the doctor's death, so the boys fly to London as planned.

Jack arrives a few days before Conner, and meets an older man in a pub who leaves him with a pair of purple-lensed glasses, saying they are Jack's. Jack glances through them and sees another landscape -- seemingly post-nuclear. He tries them on and is transported to this place, where he sees the decapitated head of the man who handed him the glasses and is known by name by two younger boys, Ben and Griff. Jack somehow knows he is in Marbury. And once he's experienced Marbury -- full of horrors like mutant flesh eaters and a lot of mutilated body parts -- Jack feels compelled to return. Neither the insistence of his best friend or the love of a good woman can keep him away.

I think that's what I had the most trouble with in listening to this story is what draws Jack to Marbury. Aside from the gradual breakdown in his sanity resulting from the kidnapping, that is. Or maybe Jack isn't going crazy? In Marbury, Jack is in charge, he's the actor not the acted-upon, those boys look to him. But, does Marbury exist? What happened there? Why is Conner in Marbury, but has mutated to the bad side? And what about the ghost of Seth, who appears to Jack both in Marbury and in his "real life." (Seth announces his presence in Jack's real life by making the "roll, tap, tap, tap" sound.) And another thing ... why does Jack sometimes refer to himself in the second person? So many questions ...

I didn't really like this -- it is extremely disturbing -- but I couldn't stop listening. Was it because I wanted my question answered (why does Jack keep going back?)? Or like Jack, was I drawn to something very awful and couldn't look away? It's clear my appreciation of this book suffers from middle-aged-woman syndrome (alas, it's unavoidable): it is so written for teenaged boys. It doesn't matter if I like it or not. And I'm happy to sell it (hence it's appearance on my list).

Mark Boyett reads the novel, and he is very good. I think he's new to narrating, but he reads this book with confidence. His voice is a bit gravelly for a teenager, but Boyett overcomes this by speaking in those boy rhythms as Jack and Conner exchange insults as conversation. I think he really does a fine job depicting Jack's spiral downward -- picking up the pace as Jack disconnects from the reality of his life in London. I could also hear a distinct change of delivery -- more certainty, harsher -- when Boyett reads the parts of the text that are in second person. Several sections of the novel are devoted to first-person narration from Seth, telling us the story of his life (another textual question -- just how does Jack know this story?). Here Boyett goes a little overboard with the twanginess, a fairly cheap way of indicating a rural and less educated character. At the same time, he reads Seth with a quietness that makes his narrative quite compelling to listen to.

I did find him a little too high and swishy for the novel's few females -- essentially Jack's new English-Swedish girlfriend Nickie and her friend Rachel. The English accents sound a bit wobbly to me as well. [The middle-aged woman has to interject here: Could these girls be more of a teen boy's fantasy -- utterly supportive and eager for sex? And Swedish ... really? Come on!]

I poked around the author's blog to see if he had commented at all about Meghan Cox Gurdon's take on his novel (she does call out The Marbury Lens for its "unimaginable gore and cruelty"), and what I found was thoughtful and worth reading. In our world of instant media reaction, Smith took a few days to think about what had been said. He kept his eye on his book, not any hurt feelings at being singled out and certainly not that YA saves. OK, I could have used fewer expletives, but it's the middle age talking again (she's talking a lot today). I am intrigued that Smith thinks he wrote a happy ending. It kinda makes me rethink the book all over again!

[To erase from my head the horrors of Marbury, here is Marbury Big Mere, photographed by Espresso Addict as part of the Geograph Britain and Ireland project and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. As instructed, I note that the photograph is copyrighted, but licensed for further reuse.]

The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith
Narrated by Mark Boyett
Brilliance Audio, 2010. 10:49

1 comment:

Jen - Devourer of Books said...

Wow, this seems really complicated. I do like unreliable narrators, though, so perhaps I'll check it out.