Tuesday, June 23, 2015

This Is Where It Ends

I keep wiffle-waffling on my feelings for this book.  On one hand, it's incredibly satisfying to have a really diverse cast of high school kids.  I adored the inclusion of ROTC cadets--I honestly don't think I've ever read a book where a student happens to be in ROTC.

On the other hand, the book has so many unbelievable situations and reactions that I found myself thinking that this was also a missed opportunity.

I was in middle school when Columbine happened.  My high school years were spent with multitudes of passes, hall sweeps, bomb threats, fire alarm pulls, and kids threatening to "pull a Columbine."  Pro tip: this is basically like saying "bomb" in an airport.  You will be pulled and probably not come back for a long time.  I get the fear and the uncertainty and the worry that you'll be sitting there, doing homework or chatting with friends or watching the saliva string that runs between your teacher's lips stretch and shrink as he speaks (TRUE STORY), and then BOOM.  Everything changes.  This is the reality of going to high school in America.

But a caveat: I have not been in high school as a student for ten years.  However, I do school visits as part of my library job and it's like walking into a jail.

So, while there were many aspects of This Is Where It Ends that I did like--the diversity, the sensitive portrayal of said diverse characters--the book as a whole just didn't work for me.  Let me tell you a little bit about it and maybe you'll see what I'm talking about.

This Is Where It Ends has a fascinating structure: it covers just 52 minutes in a school day, albeit not your average school day.  We rotate points of view a lot, and for the most part, Nijkamp has a good handle on each character's voice.  The issue that crops up with this technique is that all the characters end up sounding the same, but Nijkamp succeeds in giving them their own quirks and, for lack of a better word, personal style.  My linguistics teacher would have called it "personal grammar"--your way of speaking that is unique to you and not in any way incorrect.  He was a descriptive linguist and he was pretty awesome.

Sorry about the uptick in linguistics references lately.  I'm not sure what's causing this.  More on that on our 10 PM broadcast with Ron Burgundy.

However, while the characters as people felt authentic, as people in this situation they did not act the way most high schoolers would (in my limited opinion as someone who once went to high school and as someone who works daily with teenagers).

Claire is on the track team and planning on following her family members into the military.  She's in JROTC but she's not stereotypically butch or grunty or anything like that.  She's a strong, capable teen girl who knows what she wants to do with her career.  Part of it is being strong for her younger brother, who has lupus, and part of it is probably wanting to get away from Opportunity, Alabama.  A place with no opportunities.  She's also completely blind to the fact that her best friend, Captain Super-Hot Chris, is totally in love with her.  Yeah, Claire is a good person, but she can be pretty dumb.  More on that later.

Tomás is the school's prankster and the brother of another of our narrators, Sylv (Sylvia).  Instead of being at the start-of-semester rah-rah blah-blah speech by Principal Trenton (mandatory attendance in the gym!), he's rustling through papers in the records office.  His friend Fareed hears someone walk past the door (isn't everyone in assembly?), but thankfully, they don't enter the office.

Autumn is a dancer, but in her family, dancing is verboten.  Her mother, a prominent ballerina, died in a car accident, and for some reason or another Autumn's dad, who is an alcoholic, blames this on dance and forbids Autumn to dance and physically abuses his two kids.  Autumn's older brother, Tyler, generally tries to protect her, and even finds a safe space for her to practice, but lately, he's been acting really strange.

Sylv is Autumn's best friend ... and her girlfriend sub rosa.  She's also completely terrified of Tyler, but her brother Tomas just can't seem to figure out why.  Sylv is smart and fiercely loyal.

As the principal's speech begins, Autumn and Sylv are inside the gym, Claire is running track, and Tomás is breaking and entering.  After the usual yawn-inducing spiel, the kids move to leave and go to classes, but the doors are locked..  Someone's come in with a gun.  Tyler.

This is where everything fell apart for me (and the characters, but in a completely different way).  Tyler kind of has a hit-list of kids who teased him or who he didn't like, but he also manages to kill an obscenely large amount of people while doing his best American Psycho impression.  The scenes set inside the gym involve Tyler taunting people and daring them to stand up,  Actually, he really just wants his sister.  Because everything is her fault.

Why?  Well, because she likes girls.  Specifically, her best friend, Sylvia.    And Tyler also liked Sylvia.  This escalates from "awkward" to flat-out deadly.

Tyler begins executing the teachers and students in the gym, taunting Autumn and sending Sylv into further panic.  Outside, Claire recognizes the noises for what they really are, and for reasons that I don't fully understand, she and Chris set out on this epic run into town to get the cavalry.  She collapses, he supports her, things are swimming before her eyes ... then the cops show up, pop the kids back in the car, and drive them back to the school.

Wait, what?  Why would you take kids back to an active shooter area?  What was the point of all those pages spent detailing the excruciating physical exertion to run at that pace for that distance?  Was it just to finally get Claire to see that Chris is the guy for her?  It was so pointless.  DUH, Claire. I mean, I'm not the most romantically perceptive person, but that was like a freight train barreling down the tracks-level of subtlety.

Speaking of pointless, Tomás and Far end up opening the gym doors and getting people out, but not before Claire's little brother gets shot.  Then there's a chase scene through the school (seriously, I get that there's a small police force, but setting up a perimeter outside seems to be all they're doing) with Much Heroic Sacrifice.  Unfortunately, it's all for nothing and serves no purpose except to add to the body count.

Meanwhile, outside, they've got a clearly traumatized Claire serving as some sort of crisis counselor to the kids who got out of the building.  Um.  I don't think that actually happens.  You bring in a trained professional.  Not the track star whose little brother got shot and died a heroic, martyr's death.

Tyler keeps going on and on about how Sylv is corrupting his sister and how Autumn is making their family "bad" and corrupted--which is rhetoric that homophobic people spout all the time.  Only here it sounds ... I don't know, almost tacky.  This is the reason you're shooting up the school?  I would be tempted to classify this as a hate crime if he had just targeted Autumn and Sylv, but so much of this didn't make sense to me.  In most school shooting cases, the murderer has already announced his/her intentions via some sort of manifesto, social media post, or written explanation.

But with Tyler?  He was pretty much a decent guy and a good brother to Autumn until he was rejected by Sylvia and he made the choice to rape her.  Hinging Tyler's break on this makes it seem like Sylvia and Autumn are to blame for Tyler's actions.  Like they "pushed" him to act on violent and prejudiced thoughts.  I don't know.  I'm rambling here.

But really, the thing that cemented my generally negative opinion of the book was how the author described Sylvia's reaction to being raped: "I don't want him [Tomás] to know that Tyler raped me for the same reason I don't want Mamà to know.  I want her to remember me happy.  There was nothing either of them could have done to stop him."  What the ever-loving Cthulhu is this?  Sylvia accepts being raped as something that was inevitable.  It's something shameful that marks her as unworthy, somehow, so she has to hide it from everyone.

With the recent uptick in discussion about rape culture, this feels like a giant step backwards.  Rape apologists will say "Well, she was asking for it," and that's basically how Sylvia justifies her silence.  It made me so.  Angry.  So angry.  No, Sylvia, you do not have to accept this.  You do not have to hide it so that his sister will still be your girlfriend and your brother will think you are happy.  Tyler committed one of the worst crimes imaginable, and he has to be held accountable.  Because if he's not, he'll just do it again.

The ending of the book shook out as I thought it would, but I was too upset by all of the useless heroics to particularly care.  Plus, there are some strange stylistic choices that disrupt the flow of the book.  Tweets, texts, and blog posts pepper the narrative, and you're totally jolted out of the story.  I didn't understand the blog at all--was Mei in the gym and blogging???--and the fact that her identity wasn't revealed until about halfway through the book was disorienting.

When I think about how we were trained to deal with a school shooting, it wasn't like this.  You run, fight, or hide.  Nobody fought him, because GUN.  I'd like to think people are better than that--that they would put themselves in danger in order to save the lives of others.  Also, I can't imagine that this are would have such limited points of egress.  Even at my 1970s-build high school, we have numbered exits every so many feet so that you can GET OUT.

By my own admission, I am not an expert on this topic.  But I do know what it's like to grow up in a culture where you don't know if someone will start shooting at your school today.  It's always a possibility.  And that becomes your reality.  So you plan for it.  These kids and teachers try to reason with the shooter like they're hostage negotiators.  Totally different.

I feel mildly uncomfortable attributing this picture that doesn't quite match up to the fact that the author is not American and didn't have that sort of (very unfortunate!) school experience.  But, it's also probably true.

So, bottom line?  Outstanding diversity and great character concepts, but lacking in realism and logic.

I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley.



2 comments:

  1. The theme sounds intriguing, but I can see why the novel doesn't work for you. It sounds like it needs a lot of editing. I would have thought that someone outside the room would be able to use a phone to call the police instead of running all the way into town. Oh, well. I haven't read it.

    I remember Columbine. I was teaching at the time(still am) and remember our students getting together to do a sympathy letter.

    You know, we hear a lot about these dreadful shootings in U.S. schools, but it has never occurred to me just what it must be like to be a student wondering if some time today some loonie will burst in and start shooting people. How awful. Thoughts with you!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Sue! The worst part is that it's our reality here in high school. I was flabbergasted to go to big cities in Europe and see schools that looked like schools, not maximum-security prisons. We also had special drills where they'd cover the windows on the doors and we'd have to be silent, pretending there was a shooter. That was generally when the police brought in the drug-sniffing dogs. And I went to a "good" school (all things being relative).

      I'm not sure what happened with the phone thing. Everyone was tweeting and texting that there was a shooter, but I believe it was stated that the town was so small they only had like two police cruisers.

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