Friday, December 19, 2008

The Other Side of the Island by Allegra Goodman

Allegra Goodman is a tough author to quantify. She started her career as a thoroughly ordinary literary fiction author. Admittedly, her topics were somewhat esoteric--life in Hawaii, ultra-orthodox Jewish communities in the 70s--but, from my one foray into her early career, still thoroughly respectable psychological novels, full of unhappy marriages, strained parent-child relationships, and frustrated desire. Along came Intuition, a novel about an ethics scandal in a cancer research lab, whose emotional crux was the importance of science and scientific research to all of its characters. With her follow-up to Intuition, The Other Side of the Island, Goodman has once again made a hard left turn, this time into YA dystopian SF. As jarring as this transition is, it can hardly be described as choosing the road less traveled. Novels for children by authors of adult fiction have been all the rage for the better part of a decade, and dystopian, SFnal futures having been steadily gaining in popularity for almost the same amount of time (especially in the hands of mainstream authors). Even the subset of dystopian novels for children is hardly virgin territory. My previous experiences with both of the transitions Goodman has made--adult fiction to children's fiction; mainstream to genre--have taught me to be suspicious, to anticipate dumbed-down, unoriginal versions of more interesting works by authors native to both of these fields.

On one level, that is precisely what The Other Side of the Island delivers. The quickest and most accurate way to describe this novel is 1984 Lite. The protagonist is Honor, a ten year old who has recently relocated to island 365 with her parents, in a time described as "the eighteenth glorious year of the Enclosure." The island is one of the rare spits of land remaining after global warming and rising ocean levels transform Earth into a waterworld, and its inhabitants are huddled beneath a canopy intended to shield them from the ravages of unpredictable weather. Almost as soon as Honor and her parents arrive on the island, they call attention to themselves. A representative of the local school finds Honor deficient in the catechism of Earth Mother, the leader of the Corporation and the architect of Enclosure, and sniffs at her name, which, though beginning of an H like all the approved names for children born in the eighth year of the Enclosure, sounds like an O name and therefore "sticks out." When the family sings together in the evening, a Neighborhood Watch representative shows up to chastise them for being out of bed after curfew. At school, Honor gets into trouble for describing her experiences in the northern islands where she grew up, which don't match up with the approved version in her textbooks.

Quite a few of the touches in The Other Side of the Island are blatantly Orwellian, such as Earth Mother as a play on Big Brother or the slow encroachment of newspeak into the characters' language, which is signaled mostly through suspicious capitalization. When Honor's schoolwork is deemed Inaccurate, it means that she's telling a truth the establishment doesn't want to acknowledge, and when her class is told that there is something sad they must Accept, it means that the real situation is more fluid than they've been led to believe. Other elements draw on other canonical works of dystopian SF--the librarian whose job it is to edit out offensive passages and restrict access to books deemed inappropriate is surely a reference to Bradbury's book-burning firemen--but others are simply ubiquitous. An adult who has read some subset of the group which includes 1984, We, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, The Handmaid's Tale, The Carhullan Army, Never Let Me Go, and many other novels of the same ilk will know what to expect at The Other Side of the Island's every turn, and in case they happen to get confused, they can always fall back on Honor's textbooks, which punctuate the novel's action to hammer in the points that the rest of the narrative has been comparatively subtle about.
"The Flood destroyed the ancient world," Honor recited to the class. "Where there were continents, only islands are left. Where there were archipelagos, only mountainous islands remain. After the Flood, and the wars that followed, Earth Mother organized the Great Evacuation to the remaining islands in the Tranquil Sea. Then the Earth Mother rose up and spoke. 'What is freedom? What is choice? Words and only words. We need Safety. We need shelter from the elements. Without shelter all other words are meaningless.' Earth Mother pledged to Enclose the Polar Seas. She pledged to establish New Weather in the North and reclaim the islands there, one by one. Finally, she pledged to make a new world in the islands of the Tranquil Sea, islands she numbered and named the Colonies."
The result of all this borrowing from better, braver works of fiction should be a novel like Stephen Baxter's The H-Bomb Girl--perfectly acceptable for children who haven't read those better novels, but of absolutely no value to adults. Which made it all the more surprising when The Other Side of the Island turned out to be one of the most intense and terrifying novels I've read this year. This isn't a novel that should affect me--its manipulation is blatant, obvious, and familiar--but it does. The biggest reason for Goodman's success in getting under my skin is her choice to reverse the traditional roles of children and parents in dystopian children's novels. Unlike Baxter's Laura, Honor is not a plucky iconoclast. Though there are plucky, rebellious children in her vicinity--her best friend Helix, her younger brother Quintillian (though as he is barely more than a toddler, perhaps 'precocious' might be a better description)--Honor herself is timid and eager to conform. For most of the first half of the novel, she is driven by fear--of the unpredictable, uncontrollable old weather outside the Enclosure, and of the authorities on the island.

It is Honor's parents who are the rebels--having a second child and refusing to "give him back to the community" so that both their family and another can achieve the ideal form of two parents and a single child, collecting pamphlets by the rebel leader known as The Forecaster which urge independent thought and question Earth Mother's dogma, even taking Honor out of the Enclosure to touch the actual ocean. Honor's reaction to their behavior is part teen rebellion, part what Terry Pratchett calls "the sheer galactic-sized embarrassment of having parents," and mostly abject terror. She has seen what happens to people who don't conform, and more importantly she's seen what happens to the children of non-conformists when their parents disappear--remanded to the care of the state, housed in barracks on the school grounds and treated with disdain and suspicion. Desperate to avoid this fate, Honor tries to counteract her parents' rebelliousness with total conformity. She sheds Helix's friendship because none of the other girls are friends with boys, and changes her opinions and behavior to match those of the other girls in her class in order to win them over. She even changes her name to the more acceptable Heloise. The standard behavior of a teen eager to fit in, in other words, but in Honor's case the penalties for not fitting in are very real and very grave, and her terror at the potential consequences of her parents' behavior is palpable. Like many novels told from a child's perspective, The Other Side of the Island makes adults seem cruel and stupid when really they're just trying to do what's best for their child in the long term (or are simply too wrapped up in their own problems to notice anyone else's), but at the same time Goodman makes it clear that Honor's parents are taking terrible risks not only with their lives but with their children's, and thus opens up the question of whether it is better to acquiesce to totalitarian regime or risk being destroyed by challenging it.

Of course, none of these tricks would be effective if Goodman weren't the same exceptionally fine writer she's shown herself to be in her novels for adults. The Other Side of the Island is told in short, declarative, seemingly affectless sentences whose cumulative effect is an overpowering claustrophobia. Every single line of dialogue or bit of description hits on another restriction that Honor has to abide by if she wants to fit in, or another way in which she holds herself back in order to keep from sticking out. In Intuition Goodman used details as a way of establishing a sense of place and of the characters occupying it, but in The Other Side of the Island details have an obfuscating effect. The more we see of Honor's world, the greater our awareness that we are seeing only what she's allowed to see, and that there is much that is being concealed from both her and us. We can guess at the contours of what we can't see--especially if we've read dystopian SF before, since most totalitarian regimes will seek to restrict the same things using the same means, and as I've said Goodman is traveling down well-trodden paths--but that awareness actually intensifies our fear for Honor, because we know she's playing a game she can't win.

There is, however, a sense that in her determination to reveal as a means of concealing, Goodman is trying to have her cake and eat it. The Other Side of the Island is narrated from a point in Honor's future (perhaps long past her own lifespan): "All this happened many years ago, before the streets were air-conditioned. Children played outside then, and in many places the sky was naturally blue." are the novel's first sentences. The absence of context, then, can be explained as an assumption of a common context with the novel's 'intended' readers that its actual readers don't possess, a common SFnal device. When Honor recalls her brother being accidentally doused with detergent and becoming "so memory-sick he couldn't even remember his own name" the narrative is taking it for granted that readers will know what memory-sickness is and associate it with detergent. At the same time, however, The Other Side of the Island is clearly pitched at 21st century readers, stressing the ways in which Honor's world is different from theirs and particularly the elements of her life designed to horrify us by recalling a history that Honor (and presumably the people who come after her, into a world in which the streets are air-conditioned) isn't familiar with. When Goodman makes a rare and therefore attention-grabbing foray into imagery with Miss Tuttle, the librarian who "bent over her work and every once in a while lifted up a page to admire the cutouts she had made--so many small and large rectangles in some places that the paper looked like lace," she is clearly relying on a contemporary revulsion at the mutilation of books, drawn from associations her narrator shouldn't be able to make.

It certainly doesn't help that in its second half The Other Side of the Island becomes the kind of novel that, were it actually written in the kind of future suggested by its opening sentences, would not simply be reduced to lace by the likes of Miss Tuttle but sent straight to the mulcher, probably with its author along for the ride. For all of Honor's best efforts to fit in, her parents are disappeared, and she and Quintillian are soon designated orphans and sent to live on school grounds. There she becomes reacquainted with Helix, whose parents were taken away some time earlier, and becomes the plucky heroine she had previously, and so refreshingly, resisted being. There are a few nice touches in these chapters--Helix has for some time been rescuing the redacted portions of books from incineration, but when he reveals to Honor the real ending to Bridge to Terabithia she angrily and perhaps understandably replies that she prefers the new version, in which the heroine lives--but they aren't enough to overcome the fact that only sheer idiocy on the part of those in charge would explain their behavior towards Honor and the other orphans. Having previously, and with an awe-inspiring skill at wielding both the carrot and the stick, reduced Honor to a drone, her teachers strip her of all hope, make it clear that her future prospects are nonexistent, irrevocably shut her out of the very society she had been desperately trying to gain entrance to, and lock her in with several other disaffected youngsters in the same situation with only a bare minimum of adult supervision.

Shockingly, the result is rebellion, and, with the help of quite a few coincidences--Helix just happens to know what's happened to his and Honor's parents, Honor just happens to catch a glimpse of her mother, who just happens to have the perfect opportunity to send Honor a message, which is a code that Honor just happens to figure out, and be in the right place and right time to make use of, with the help of various adults who just happen to be members of the resistance against the Corporation--a successful one. I don't want to sound like one of those people who complain that happy endings are inherently unrealistic, but there's something almost glib about the ease with which Honor regains everything she's lost, and something almost calculating about the way Goodman qualifies that victory by ending the novel almost as soon as it's achieved, leaving the question of the larger fight against Earth Mother unanswered. It may very well have occurred to her that stories of dystopian futures are tough to end satisfyingly--too bleak and the story has no emotional arc; too happy and the story's message is undercut--and that Margaret Atwood may have hit upon the only good way to do so in The Handmaid's Tale, but the contrast between Honor's decisive triumph and the abruptness of the novel's ending is too jarring. It feels like Goodman deliberately trying to undercut the happy conclusion to Honor's story because she knows she's taken it too far. In a novel that works mainly because of Goodman's ability to successfully tweak her readers' emotional reactions, this is one bit of manipulation that falls flat.

I've come out more strongly against The Other Side of the Island than I'd planned to when I started this review, and certainly when I finished reading the novel several days ago and was still in the thrall of Goodman's prose and of its intense first half. Some novels grow in one's mind the further one gets from them. The Other Side of the Island is the kind that fades--the longer one spends away from the scary and claustrophobic spell it casts, the more obvious its flaws become. Nevertheless, that spell is cast, which means that there is something to read for in The Other Side of the Island. It's not a novel that I can recommend, if only because I'm not sure who I could recommend it to--if you have a child who's ready for Orwellian ideas, you might as well cut out the middleman and give them 1984 instead, and adult readers would be much better off with Goodman's adult novels--but it is by no means an unsuccessful work. To her credit, Goodman steers clear of the cardinal sin of adult authors delving into children's writing--unlike China Miéville's Un Lun Dun or Michael Chabon's Summerland, the one thing that can't be said of The Other Side of the Island is that it is mild or toned down. This may mean that, even constrained by a didactic, secondhand plot, the fact that Goodman is an exceptional writer shines through. Or it could mean that she has a good children's novel in her and just needs to find the right story for it. Whatever path she chooses to take with her next novel, The Other Side of the Island has done enough to persuade me to follow her on it.

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