Sunday, January 20, 2013
No Crystal Stair vs. Every Day
Full disclosure: as I sit down to write this, I KNOW that I am about to be blasted. Entirely. But I write in the spirit of both physical and metaphysical Smacking, and I’m ready for the heat. Sort of.
No Crystal Stair by Yaunda Micheaux Nelson
There is lots to like, maybe even love, in this text, but I can’t help but think that its greatest accomplishment, its form (a documentary novel), is also its greatest failing. All the FBI reports and snippets of voices from Lewis Michaux’s family/friends/acquaintances and photographs have this objectifying effect on the persona of Lewis Michaux, where, even though we hear “from” him repeatedly, we never really get to see him from the inside. This is not to suggest that there is not emotional resonance throughout the text (because I sure did cry), but there is something…I don’t know…distancing about the chosen form. Maybe it is just me. But it sure is an interesting choice for textual form. And one I would like others to experiment with.
What we get is an almost Gump-esque (but real!) tour through 1906 to the mid-1970s, as this incredible man comes in contact with Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Martin Luther King, Eldridge Cleaver…truly, a remarkable (and at times moving) story. And, appealing to the English teacher in all of us, ultimately this is a story about the power of words and books to transform the human heart, and, by extension, to transform an entire nation. There is salvation in those scribbles bound into books, and No Crystal Stair is at its best when it is dealing with these words--a real emotional resonance catalyzed through context. We meet Langston Hughes as a character in this novel, but we are cognizant of the veracity of Nelson’s portrayal, and when we read Hughes' poetry, poetry we have read before, but never in this context, it is both moving and revelatory. When Michaux muses “how does Hughes know this stuff? It’s like he’s inside my head. Like he’s reading my mind,” it’s hard not to muse alongside Michaux and reflect upon what the best of literature does to move us profoundly.
Nelson wisely chooses not to deify Michaux however—this is a (at times) flawed and unsympathetic but (always) thoughtful boy and man who didn’t always do the “right” thing throughout life, but he sure did what he could see as just in order to better his life and the lives of those around him. The first thing that young Lewis does, literally on page one, is to steal a bike and to justify his actions. This is no simple lionizing of a man. And it would be so easy to make him a saint, to be ultimately played by Morgan Freeman in a movie adaptation. But Michaux respects the man more than that, and gives us an honest and complex depiction (that is ridiculously well-researched).
This is a book that inspires a person to research as he reads; I found myself constantly looking up things on the net (who was Marcus Garvey? Or Frederick Douglass?), and I was always a little ashamed that I had not known more of these individuals before. This is a text that begs to be taught (there are tricky temporal shifts and some allusions that some students would find immediately off-putting), but I’m also impressed how much it inspired me to read more and think more and do a little independent learning. I’m not sure too many kids would read it on their own, but I can see this being a powerful whole class exploration.
I liked it, but I didn’t love it. But I liked what it did for my brain and my heart.
Every Day by David Levithan
Here are five things I hate: being sick for the majority of the Christmas holidays, raisins in baked goods, realizing you are out of windshield wiper fluid while sailing down the Whitemud at 100 km/hr during a January chinook, Lance Armstrong’s smug “contrition,” and the novel Every Day.
I really hated this book.
Perhaps it is one of those cases where the book (or the movie, or the T.V. show…) is too “built up” prior to reading it; near the end of the summer, shortly before its release, many critics were waxing poetically about Every Day, some using it to frame this notion of a “Golden Age of Young Adult Literature.” So, I sure was excited to delve into a new book, critically-loved, from an author who has impressed me before (Sidebar: I would like to point out that Every Day seems strangely absent from a whole lot of People-Who-Loved-It’s Best Of Y.A. lists at year end…).
The book starts off just fine, I suppose, but becomes more plodding and ridiculous and clichéd as it proceeds, to the point where I didn’t feel like finishing. The basic premise is promising, to be sure, but in execution falls entirely flat. If an entire novel is going to be predicated on one (arguably interesting) idea (each day, a person [soul? entity?], named “A,” is reborn in another body, only to be “reborn” in another the following day, retaining that person’s consciousness), perhaps it might be a good idea to establish some of the “rules” as to the “how?” and the “why?” this happens. Instead, inconsistencies as to “how it all works” abound throughout the novel—A introduces new information, repeatedly, which completely negates the possibility of how some of the body swapping occurred earlier in the novel. So the “rules” for body swapping change depending on what “startling” revelation has to occur, or what difficult situation A finds himself/herself in. Foul, I cry.
The ostensible love interest is simpering and poorly sketched, her motivations never really understood or discussed (just what is it about A’s soul/persona that she finds so appealing?); in fact, the way that A treats Rhiannon is also intensely problematic in a novel that is about compassion and individuality. Opportunities to address gender, identity, and consciousness are entirely squandered; here’s the opportunity to say something interesting about these issues, and I’m not sure Levithan ever does. A (somewhat) interesting subplot regarding “demonic” possession, one that has the potential to honestly address issues about the confluence of faith and identity, fizzles out entirely with an illogical “Is-That-It?” conclusion.
However, I have a sneaking feeling that this book might move on to the next round. The premise is engaging, and a few of the episodes of A’s inhabitings are somewhat interesting and well written (but why doesn’t A inhabit an “average” kid’s body periodically? Wouldn’t A spend most of his/her/its time in young adults who are, well, just “average” kids? Not much of a book, I suppose, but, wouldn’t this happen? I digress.).
I get it. Sometimes, when a movie or book or TV show is critically lauded, and you finally read/see it, the text collapses under the weight of your expectations, we tend to be a little harder on it then we should. Something that was O.K., but built up to be great, then feels less than O.K.—more like bad (I’m looking at you, Silver Linings Playbook).
As a narrative whole, I found the whole thing to be a writerly exercise rather than a novel. And not a good one at that. Gimicky and trite. Disappointing.
Let the smacking down commence. I await full-throttle smacking from Mr. Thompson and Ms. Wright.
My vote is for No Crystal Stair.
Posted by Anonymous at 5:38 PM