Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The "Escape From Furnace" Series by Alexander Gordon Smith

In 2004, the year I graduated from high school, "young adult" was a wishy-washy label attached haphazardly to all sorts of books, the most popular being Harry Potter, that were, yes, geared towards younger audiences but were also clean and slightly patronizing. Sure, Harry Potter learned some valuable life lessons, faced down seemingly invincible foes, and grew as both a wizard and a person--what teenager can't relate to that in some way?--but overall the books in that series, as well as most others published at the time, were pretty inoffensive; if you weren't a complete idiot who read too much into wizardry, Harry's journey was almost quaint in a way, like a bedtime story expanded over a few thousand pages. Rowling's series was all the rage when I was in high school, and while the subject matter didn't appeal to me, I gave the first book a shot: I read it in a few days, thought it was a perfectly acceptable story, and never read the rest of the series, content that my prejudgments about "young adult" or teen-oriented literature were accurate.*

Five years later, I found myself standing in front of teenagers eight hours a day, five days a week, attempting to teach them some of the "serious" literature I so enjoyed when I was their age. Sometimes I succeeded, more often than not I failed...but a source of pride that first year was my avoidance of anything "young adult." So patronizing, I told myself, writing down to teenagers. I thought it was disrespectful to my students--all those authors writing in a certain style about certain topics that were appealing to some stereotypical 16-year-old out there somewhere; they should be reading books by adults, for adults, because that's what they were destined to be. That image of "young adult" that was so thoroughly welded to my brain as a teenager wouldn't come undone, even as student after student talked about their newest book with such wide-eyed enthusiasm. The books they read--for pleasure, not for assignment--were about dating, drug abuse, car chases, demons, zombies, possessions and exorcisms, sci-fi adventures, and on and on. I was caught a little off-guard, and I had a choice: adapt, or be stuck in the past with my strange book prejudices.

Eventually, they wore me down, and I began reading so-called "young adult" books. At first there were one or two, checked out skeptically and with a little embarrassment from the local library, and soon there were more...so much so that by my fourth year as a teacher, I was reading books that were either recommended to me by students or presented through book reports and projects and sounded too interesting to pass up. They were different, well-written, and mature in their own ways--not patronizing, but clear, straightforward, and driven almost exclusively by plot instead of meaning or academic ambiguity. The authors knew their audience and what they wanted to read, which made the stories all the more enjoyable; for someone whose love of reading had been thoroughly debased by five years of constant undergrad analysis and literary theory, it was like being led out of a prison from which I could've escaped at any time.

This inevitably brought me to Alexander Gordon Smith's Escape From Furnace series, which I began reading in December of last year and finished this past week, April 2013. What began as a simple, albeit strange and ominous story of a young boy--Alex Sawyer--who is falsely arrested and imprisoned in the titular hellhole, Furnace, became over five books the fascinating, horrifying, and consistently surprising story of Sawyer's transformation--physically, mentally, emotionally--into something far more than the skinny hoodlum he began as. There's very little I can do review-wise to explain what makes Smith's series such a good read, other than to just list the reasons one by one.

1. It's Honest. Life sometimes sucks. It's a fact teenagers know all too well and adults are too willing to forget. Their own experiences are shrouded by embarrassment and faded by time, and they dismiss the problems of adolescence as little more than the complaints of lazy whiners who don't understand dedication, hard work, and perseverance. But life does suck, undeniably so at times and never more clearly--or unfairly--than during those teen years when adults lecture on and on about preparing their kids for "the real world" without actually ceding any sort of real freedom or responsibility. Sawyer's experiences are beyond anything the average teenager would have to face--by the end of the series, he's literally a Frankenstein's monster, a shell of what he used to be--but he still faces adults who take advantage of his sub-status in society, manipulate him emotionally, judge him by his mistakes, refuse to trust him, and so on. He takes on leadership roles to the point that, by the fifth book, he has become the entire world's one and only savior...and afterwards, in a fantastic epilogue, earns the trust and respect of every adult he encounters. Yes, life sucks--and being a teenager doubly sucks--but Smith shows his readers that, at the end of the road, there is freedom from it all.

2. It's Graphic. J.K. Rowling...Lemony Snicket...Christopher Paolini...not a single one of them would have ever even considered including one-tenth of the graphic elements Smith includes in his book. These range from scenes of torture, vivisection, Frankenstein-style dismembering and reassemblies, and cross-species transformations to murder, visceral to-the-death fight scenes, decapitations, bombings, immolations, and near cannibalism. And Smith writes them with an increasingly normalcy to his style, which is perhaps the most unnerving aspect to the whole thing. By the fifth book, this is the world Sawyer lives in now, and he's used to it...so we should be, too. Because, after all, we live in a world that is just as hideous and dispassionate towards others, and it's important for everyone, even teenagers and "impressionable" young people, to understand this: there are people out there who are violent, vengeful, and downright evil, and they do unspeakable things to other people. The key is not to avoid these things; the key is to acknowledge that they exist, resist the immediate gut reactions that say "turn away" or "this doesn't concern you," and decide how it can be stopped, how it can be prevented, how it affects even those of us who live half a world away from it. We cannot keep these events hidden in the shadows, like a mutated young boy in a below-ground prison; they must come to the light, and with it, the solution. Otherwise, we will face the consequences of our ignorance and inaction.

3. It's Surprising. Can't kill off main characters in a book? Smith begs to disagree. It's almost unnerving how willingly Smith dispenses with his characters, even those who have been with Sawyer since the beginning. In a way, it's refreshingly honest--see #1 above--and also the way a good story should be told: without predictability, willing to do what the reader doesn't expect--maybe even what the reader doesn't want--for the sake of advancing the plot, forcing the characters to adapt and grow, and building the tension in search of a thundering climax. Any shock I felt over Sawyer's torture and transformation--becoming the Frankenstein's monster--was quickly overpowered by a dozen more shocking moments in the book...related to their escape, to the nectar, to London itself and the plague, to the Warden, to Albert Furnace. I finished one book, thought about how the next book would most likely proceed--based on cliches and little else--and was happily proven wrong every time, and almost always from the first two or three chapters.

4. It's Hopeful. As one of my students said to me, "It ends with one of the best speeches about hope in all the books I've read." I don't disagree, but it's not just the closing speech in Smith's fifth book that offers hope to the readers--it's the entire series. By the closing pages of Execution, Alex Sawyer has endured more heartbreak, torture, violence, hatred, isolation, war, and death than...well, just about anyone. (This is a sci-fi book, after all.) There are more than a few moments where he turns himself over to the darker side of his nature, often far past the point of no return, and still he comes back. He remembers his friends, his name, his parents, the mistakes he's made, and the journey he's endured...and all of it gives him strength when virtually the entire world is against him. It's a clear message that, even at the lowest points in your life, when everything and everyone around you seems to be working against you, when you feel like something other than the good and decent person you are--maybe even when you feel like a failure, a loner, a freak, a monster--you have the strength and attitude to rise above it.

5. It Doesn't Talk Down. Alex Sawyer is a teenager, beginning to end, but other than the stupid decisions he makes that get him in trouble in the first place--mistakes that, honestly, can be made by anyone, regardless of age--he doesn't talk or act stereotypically. Had Smith interrupted the story at any point and written passages intended to lecture or teach a message--moments of the author banging his message on the heads of his readers--all would have been lost. But when Smith feels the need to do this, he has his characters embody these epiphanies--slowly, quietly, almost like a sunrise coming over them and warming their faces. And more often than not, we see them coming, too, sometimes from miles away, but still we wait for Alex to realize them with anticipation: it's yet another turn in the story, another chance for this transformed young man to grow by yet another small degree. Sawyer is allowed to be a full character--a person--rather than a soapbox spouting cliches or words of wisdom. And really, that's what "young adult" literature is: not literature for "young adults," no, because that would be patronizing; rather, it's about all the little changes we undergo when we're young--the everyday triumphs, the moments of understanding and overcoming, the failures and lessons that come with failing, the leaving behind of who we once were and gradual becoming of who we need to be--and how those changes never truly leave us. We all become adults one day, but by keeping the memories and lessons with us, constantly reminding ourselves of where we came from, we stay young.

*Even as a teenager I was a lit snob, my locker filled with books by Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, and Jerzy Kosinski.