Friday, November 25, 2016
Challenger a bit Deeper than Ghost
As is the case with most first round match-ups in The Mighty Smackdown, we found ourselves comparing two very different reading experiences. I think all three of us would struggle to think of a student who we would recommend read both Challenger Deep and Ghost, but we could also think of multiple students and -in the case of Challenger Deep - adults who we would see deeply enjoying each book.
I picked up Ghost and, to be honest, prepared myself to be underwhelmed, despite the gleaming National Book Award Finalist stamp on the cover, and, at least initially, I was. As both Beth and Christie noted in our discussion about the books, we have read this book (seen this movie, watched this show etc.) before: The scrappy underdog (fighter, writer, artist etc. etc.) gets spotted by an inspiring future mentor and begins the (slow/tortured/awkward) process of overcoming a troubled past. In this case our young protagonist, Castle Cranshaw (aka Ghost), is a young man with a troubled family past that not surprisingly is having a pretty profound impact on his present, most often manifested in “altercations” at school that tax the patience of his long suffering mother. One day while walking home, Ghost happens on what turns out to be a training session for elite athletes and the novel begins its forward momentum. I don’t think I have to tell you too much more from a plot perspective, but in saying that I want to be clear: this isn’t some run-of-the- mill novel, despite some familiar plot tropes. Reynolds has a genuine ear for dialogue and bits that may have have rang a little hollow in the early part of the book gain resonance as the characters develop and you see how their unique voices reflect them. This is the first book in a series - with subsequent novels that will presumably feature other members of the track club - and that is an important thing to acknowledge as we read. This relatively slim volume will add up to a larger whole and Reynolds impressed me with what I think was some considerable restraint in his writing that allowed some subtleties and nuance to come out of the characters. There are moments here where awkward silence is just as profound as bombast and that’s not something every author looking to create a dynamic reading experience understands. Our whole Callingwood crew thinks this is a book that will find a wide readership in the upper elementary and junior high with a particular come hither smile towards some of our boys who may be reluctant readers. Two quick anecdotes: 1) I had a young man sitting in my office a few weeks back and Ghost happened to be sitting on my desk, he picked it up and was 30 pages in before I knew it and he asked to take it home for the weekend so he could finish it. Which he did by the time he returned it to me the following Monday 2) Just today, one of our reading intervention teachers mentioned to me that one of our young guys (who happens to be the best athlete in our school) has progressed so impressively that we’ll likely need to move him out of the intervention in the next few weeks or so. The teacher just wanted one novel to start reading with him to start him off on the right foot and I was happy to tell him I knew the perfect novel. These two moments in our little school tell us that this book may have a power that transcends its initial impressions.
If Ghost exuded an air of predictability and then became something maybe close to special, Challenger Deep began as something completely out of our range of experience and morphed into something that was both disturbingly familiar and deeply moving. If I felt I didn’t need to provide you much of a plot summary for Ghost I’m going to just flat out admit defeat in that I don’t think I have the writing chops to do this plot justice without writing another novel-length work (something I’ve occasionally been guilty of in this competition). Here’s my attempt at the proverbial nutshell: The novel offers us a framing narrative of a high school student (Caden Bosch, who is based on author Neil Shusterman’s son and co-collaborator) as he struggles with mental illness, but it also offers us another narrative (a challenging deeper narrative, if you will) that takes us within the internal landscape of Cadon’s illness. I think we all found the opening quarter -and for me probably the whole first half- to be alternately discombobulating, and, to be honest, not terribly engaging. There were times it was kind of like The Hilarious House of Frightenstein (Look it up kids!) meets Samuel Beckett, which normally, I’d be pretty game for, but there was something missing. During our discussion I think we hit on what it was: we’re effectively launched into the deepest and most disturbing mysteries of Caden’s illness fairly early on in the narrative, well before we really get to know Caden in any meaningful sense. This is the Hamlet paradox I used to talk about with my kids: we’re asked to join Hamlet in confronting his most profound challenges, but we don’t ever get to meet Hamlet before his dad dies and he’s flung into the abyss. We get pieces of him later, through shards of memories from Ophelia, Gertrude and Horatio and it’s through these shattered memories that our empathy for Hamlet builds. This is the case in Challenger Deep, as well: We’re ass-deep in talking parrots and living bowsprits (don’t ask) before we’ve really had a chance to get to know Cadon in any meaningful sense. The effect is an ongoing uncertainty -if not outright confusion - that left me feeling kind of flat and disaffected about the novel as a whole. Now, I recognize that this is part of the “message” of the text and those feelings help us to better understand and empathize with the complex web of intellect and emotion in a mental health crisis. It’s just not anymore fun to read than it is to experience. This shifts, however, in the second part of the book, and in our discussion we really keyed in on the author’s ability to tap into not only the empathy of the other characters in Cadon’s life, but also his ability to empathize with others -most notably his parents and younger sister- while they grapple with the ramifications of his illness. As we moved through the latter stages of the book, we all found ourselves deeply invested and I’ll tell you that there was no serious debate about which book would move forward. I don’t suspect that this will find as wide an audience as Ghost and I’d be cautious about the kids whose hands I’d put this in, not so much because of anything particularly graphic or disturbing, but because it is going to require a certain degree of patience and endurance in a reader. I think it would be a fantastic teaching text in a classroom - probably grade 9-10- with the right dynamic - with some meaty themes and some sterling displays of craftsmanship by this writer. It is not a perfect book, but it is ambitious, heartfelt and very well-written and ultimately, it’s a book that may be an important way in to a conversation about mental illness that remains a difficult one for many of us to broach. Callingwood votes to move on Challenger Deep.