Sunday, April 28, 2013

Stereotypes ("Ten" by Gretchen McNeil)

Every reader has a tell--that one inner thought that shows up at some point during an especially awful book and announces, in its shrillest voice, what we dare not acknowledge out loud: every page after this one is going to be a chore rather than a pleasure--something you now have to do rather than something you want to do or get to do. You won't quit the book, obviously, because that's not what good readers do; not every book can be a gem, after all, and perhaps there will be something redeeming somewhere in its remaining chapters. Instead, you're going to hunker down with this thing, pessimism be damned, and get through it one chapter at a time, maybe even page by sluggish, tiring, frustrating page. And when you finish the book--a task that will take twice as long and be punctuated by the sudden, frequent need to get other things done around the house, maybe even things you've been putting off for weeks--you will have done so with a mind full of rage directed at the author, yes, but also at yourself for taking up the book to begin with. What a waste of time, you'll tell yourself, and you'll seek out a safe story, one written by an author you trust, to wash away what you just finished. For me, the tell is my sudden desire for characters to be killed off. Usually this thought occurs at the midway point, when one or more characters have worn out their welcome or stopped developing; in the case of Gretchen McNeil's Ten, however, I began wishing for swift and sudden homicides after about twenty pages. Thankfully, in what is perhaps the book's only redeeming quality, my wish was handily granted.

Ten is the story of ten teenagers who come together for a party and find themselves being killed off, one by one, while a vicious storm keeps them from getting help. (The party is held on an island, which they soon discover is yet another part of the killer's plan. Naturally.) As the night goes on, the teens increasingly begin to suspect one another, even as clues uncovered by one of them points to something much more sinister: the murders are payback for the bullying and suicide of a classmate named Claire Hicks, in which each of them had a part to play.* On the surface, this storyline has promise:  after it, it all but guarantees one surprise after another, as the characters will be forced to reveal information about themselves and their pasts while also trying--and probably failing--to survive a murderer who may also be a demonic spirit. Sadly, it's in these characters that the novel is faulty, and greatly so.

For starters--and there's just no nice way of saying this--not a single one of them is likable. Sure, part of the reason they've been gathered is because of how horribly they treated Claire, so expecting them to be fleshy buckets of integrity would be ridiculous. Plus, they're trapped together in a house fighting for their lives, so naturally they're going to be dominated by fear and paranoia; if they worked together like stable, reasonable people and thought about what was happening, putting the clues together and forming a responsible plan, there'd be no story to tell. No, they have to fall apart, and gloriously so...but even in stories of disorder like this one, there has to be someone--anyone--to be the voice of reason, where the reader can insert themselves into the story. Meg, the story's protagonist, is supposed to be that character. Unfortunately, she spends so much of her precious time consumed with puppy-dog love for TJ, another teen and the group's natural leader, that she becomes disposable; when most characters should be running in terror, if not for their own sake then at least for the safety and protection of their fellow teens, both she and TJ are instigating kissy-faced grope-a-thons, often mere feet from the rotting corpses of their former classmates. Meg plays it off--to herself, to us--as the natural reactions of someone in shock who feels their time running out, someone looking for comfort in times of monumental stress...but McNeil doesn't sell it as well as she should, so I don't buy it. Instead, I continued reading, hoping the next page would bring me relief from Meg's insufferable self-centeredness.

Sadly, she lives.

Secondly, and more worryingly, the characters are deeply stereotypical. Of the ten teenagers who find themselves trapped and victimized on the island, one is an Asian girl who--we soon learn--is on the receiving end of the murderer's wrath because she is an especially high-achieving and grades-focused student. TJ, the protagonist's crush, is an African-American jock--the quarterback, no less--who seems to have dated half of the girls in high school and is notoriously well-endowed. There's the protagonist's needy best friend, whose bipolar medication is stolen and spends most of the book hysterical; Vivian, the bitchy control freak; Kenny, an overweight boy with a heart of gold; and so on. On their own, these stereotypes probably wouldn't be as offensive as they could be; however, because these characters are already so deeply unlikable, it becomes a matter of why they're so unlikable, and when an author focuses on gender, ethnicity, and physical appearance, those traits become inextricably linked. Suddenly, we see these characters' terrible attitudes and decisions through the prisms of their race and gender, which is exactly what creates stereotypes in the first place. And while it may seem like I'm reading too much into this, it should be noted that within the first fifty pages, the characters themselves discuss the racist comments of another teen at the party through themselves and their ethnicities.

And then there's Claire Hicks. The girl who is at the heart of this story--a bullied teenager, an outcast--is depicted as dark-haired, silent, and brooding. McNeil is trying to show us that Claire was different, an outsider, that she didn't fit in...and to do this, she falls back on the age-old "goth teen" stereotype of the loner in who is quietly brewing in her own anger. This stereotype grew in popularity after Columbine, and that very image of teenagedom has been used so frequently by writers, filmmakers, and politicians alike to personify the "dangerous" and "disturbed" adolescent that they've become a cultural boogeyman of sorts. (This is made all the worse in the book by a closing revelation about Claire, in which we learn that she was, in fact, a vengeful and disturbed girl.) In perpetuating this stereotype, McNeil does so with harm. After all, her book is intended for younger audiences and therefore populates the shelves of high-school libraries across the country, including the one in which I myself work. Students who dress and act like Claire Hicks are already stigmatized by our culture, not to mention the culture of high school, which demands conformity more than it accepts uniqueness, and by reinforcing this negative image--this boogeyman--McNeil is quite literally misleading those readers of hers who might take this book at more than face value. Sure, their inner thoughts may tell them the characters are nonsense, just as it told me...but wouldn't it be nice if the author would just save us the trouble?

*Actually, we soon learn that this isn't quite true. In fact, by the end of the book, it seems that the involvement of these ten was limited, if not totally nonexistent.