Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Review: Gone by Michael Grant

After tackling the emotional imbalance brought about by completing Suite Francaise, I was in desperate need of something relatively light and plot-driven as a break for my tear ducts. Having heard some great things about Michael Grant's dystopian series, and finding myself bombarded with WH Smith adverts to the effect of 'buy this book right now', I felt it would offer me a desired reprieve. 

Gone, the first in Grant's series of six books, is set in a town on the shores of southern California. The book opens with the sudden and seemingly supernatural disappearance of all those over the age of 15. Thrusting the reader immediately into the premise of the plot, Grant explores the implications of this suddenly adult-free zone, limited within a mysterious shimmering barrier that has been constructed around the town, and affectionately named the Fallout Alley Youth Zone (FAYZ) by those contained within it. The book follows Sam, a 14 year old boy, as he attempts to understand the reasons behind the sudden disappearance of the town's old folk, accompanied (in standard Harry Potter-trio style) by his confused and at times perplexingly psychotic friend Quinn, and brainbox-turned-love interest, Astrid. Along the way, it is revealed that Sam and a number of other youths within the FAYZ contain various powers; in Sam's case, allowing him to shoot balls of light from his hands. But events truly reach their climax when students from the enigmatic Coates Academy arrive and take over the town with an efficiency that any political candidate would envy. Enter the story's antagonist - the brutally powerful and sociopathically unfeeling, Caine. Engaging in something of a power-struggle, Caine and Sam also find themselves racing against time to prevent their own impending disappearances as their 15th birthdays loom.

When I set out to write this review, I knew it would be difficult to keep my contempt to a minimum. As I have mentioned before, I am a generally kind reader and rarely do I come across a book about which I have little (if anything) good to say. Unfortunately, Gone falls into this category with a speed and assurance that could break records. I desperately wanted to like this book. Having read a couple of blurbs, I was hoping for a dystopian exploration akin to Lord of the Flies. A world in which children rule is ripe for psychological exploration. Lord of the Flies is, after all, fundamentally a thought experiment on the makeup and implications of human nature unchecked. In this sense, Gone had a repository of potential. But its offerings were superficial at best. The characters were never truly given a chance to develop, instead differentiated by seemingly arbitrarily-assigned personality traits. The 'trio' were particularly unengaging, leaving me, after 560 pages, rooting for the bad guys. And, worst of all, numerous chapters are given over to the work of the semi-robotic Albert in his attempts to keep the local McDonalds running. Sadly, this is not a joke.

" 'Welcome to McDonald's,' Albert said. 'May I help you?' 
'Are you open?' 
'What would you like?'
The kids shrugged. 'Two number-one combos?'"

I wanted to laugh. But mostly I wanted to cry. In a world suddenly without adults, where chaos reigns, and children are running around with supernatural powers, I find it extremely difficult to accept that keeping a fast-food joint in operation would be anyone's priority. 

The biggest problem I had with this book, however, was its stylistic condescension. I was aware, before reading, that this was a book very much embedded in the Young Adult (YA) genre. Given the spectacularly mature and beautifully crafted YA literature that I've had the pleasure to read, however, I find it difficult to excuse massively dumbed-down language and plot. Initially concerned that I was judging this book too harshly, I have reached the conclusion that the fault is not mine. Rather, it lies with an obvious underestimation of the reader's understanding of language and his/her engagement with relative complexity. As you become more familiar with the tone of the book, it becomes unfortunately clear that the simplistic character dialogue is not a reflection on personality or psychology, but rather for the 'benefit' of the reader's understanding. Enter Quinn's description of the nuclear power plant(!), into which the trio have just entered:

" 'It kind of reminds me of when I was in Rome and saw St. Peter's, this really big cathedral,' Quinn said. 'It's like, you know, you feel small looking at it. Like maybe you should kneel down, just to be on the safe side,' " (p.109).

I am perhaps too generous in supposing that a reader unfamiliar with St. Peter's would be willing to exert the effort to do a little research. But this piece of dialogue is just one example of the intellectual condescension that absolutely seeps through this book. This tone is, unfortunately, only added to by the completely excessive use of colloquialisms. Now, I am always one for linguistic realism. It adds to the angle of the dialogue and serves to further ingratiate the reader into the novel's setting. But, in Gone, barely a paragraph passes without a 'dude', 'brah', and (my least favourite colloquial expression of all time) 't'sup'. Whether or not this is how the populace of southern California interact (and my personal experience suggests not), the usage was disproportionate to need. Instead, it only served to further dumb-down the dialogue and, consequently, the plot. 

Yet the true issue here comes from Grant's attempt to juxtapose such language and style with some genuinely serious and mature issues. From dealing with Astrid's severely autistic brother, to confronting a girl with bulimia, Gone tries to grapple with problems that would certainly create acute turmoil in a youth suddenly without authority roles and adult helpers. But, again, the potential remains unfulfilled. By dumbing-down the language and failing to really explore the psychology of this new world, the place of these issues within the plot feels arbitrary. 

So, this truly is not a book that I would recommend, whether you are 14 or 40. To the youth out there who might be tempted, I would say pick up a copy of Harry Potter or Daughter of Smoke and Bone or (if you are feeling adventurous) Lord of the Flies. Because these are books that are compelling without being condescending. And, most importantly, not a 'brah' in sight.


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