Monday, July 25, 2016

Enter Title Here


The other night, I had a dream that I reread Enter Title Here and loved it.  I remember waking up and feeling nervous and angry because that meant I needed to rewrite this entire review.  But then I realized that I hadn't reread anything, and that my feelings remained unchanged.

I hated this.  I hated this so much.  And I don't usually use such strong speech in a review, but there is no other way to describe how I felt when I finished this book.  However, I'd much rather hate something based on a visceral emotional reaction, which is often irrational, than have to be disappointed in it due to, say, propitiation of stereotypes or other problematic content.  Hating something may not have anything to do with the merit of the book, only the style.  Feeling hurt by a book is entirely different, because it's done something or said something that causes pain.

I really wanted to love this.  I mean, a metafictional YA novel about an Indian-American girl faking her way through writing a novel and trying to get into college?  I should have loved this.  PLUS, I was promised an unlikeable narrator/protagonist and I am usually all over those.  But Reshma isn't just "unlikeable"--she's cruel, single-minded, possibly amoral, and totally unbalanaced.  She thinks that blackmailing her Adderall supplier is an acceptable way to make friends, and that cheating is a-ok as long as it gets you better grades.  I understand that this was being played for laughs, but Reshma seemed too earnest in her litigious and cheating endeavors to actually be sympathetic or funny.

But let me back up and do a quick synopsis of the story.

Reshma is the daughter of Indian immigrants who are basically geniuses: her mother works for Google and her father started his own tech company before being undermined by his business partner.  She attends a highly competitive high school somewhere near the Bay Area (so sorry, so not a Californian), and her sole purpose in life to be valedictorian so she can get into Stanford.  Valedictorian.  Stanford.  Early decision.  Stanford.  SO MUCH STANFORD.

But Reshma has constant anxiety about Being The Best.  Concerned that her college application isn't strong enough, she writes for the school paper and gets a piece published on HuffPo.  After that, a literary agent contacts her and Reshma says she's got a novel in the works ... except that's not true.  So she starts a novel that's just a journal of her life, which is also Enter Title Here, and chronicles her increasingly unhinged escapades of all-nighters fueled by Adderall.  That's it for the story, really.  The dramatic bit occurs when we find out that she's been plagiarizing all through high school.  Even her HuffPo piece was plagiarized (like HuffPo cares, but for some reason, Reshma seems to think HuffPo is a somber and weighty place to have one's work published).  And Reshma's only upset that she got caught.  What do you mean there are consequences for cheating?  What do you mean my application has been denied?  What do you mean I'm not valedictorian any more?

I get it: this is a book for teens.  Teens are basically liquid hormones stuffed in a skin suit, so the whole volatility bit is super-accurate.  But!  I would also think that the majority of teens realize that if they decide to cheat, there will be consequences.  Reshma sees herself as such a Speshul Snowflake that she feels the rules don't apply to her.  Maybe I'm just living in a fairyland of morality here, but I really hope that most extremely intelligent teens who want to go to college or write a book or maybe even both realize that cheating your way to the top is not right.

I'm not saying that it doesn't work: look at Donald Trump.  I can't, in all honesty, say that cheating doesn't pay.  Unfortunately, for the lowest of the low and the scummiest of the scum, it does.  That's part of the great festering unfairness wound that is life.

Generally, in stories where a character behaves really despicably, there's some sort of comeuppance (unless it's contemporary literature, in which case you just wallow around in a morass of evil, despair, loathing, and cruelty for four hundred pages and endure the occasional heinously-written sex scene).  Reshma's comueuppance is being caught cheating, and her "character improvement" involves not going to Stanford and not suing anyone about that.  She works like A Poor (holy Moses! How low the great ones have fallen!  BRB retching) in retail, is grateful for the people in her life that clean up her messes, and decides to "conquer retail" instead of ... whatever she was going to do at Stanford.  Conquer college?

Let's not beat around the bush: I pushed myself academically when I was in school.  I cried if I got a B.  I felt sick to my stomach and the world always shifted a bit when I saw grades that weren't as high as I wanted.  But I was only competing against myself.  The reason Reshma sued the school was because they were going to weight AP classes more heavily when calculating GPA, and that would give her archnemesis the valedictorian spot.  At my school, it was the opposite.  For some reason, AP classes were weighted less than honors classes, so although I had a harder course load than the valedictorian, I had a lower weighted GPA.

My parents always made sure that I had a proper view of things like class rankings and status colleges and so forth.  I was invited to apply to Harvard, but I didn't.  I didn't want to go somewhere just because of the name.  I just wanted a degree that would let me do something I enjoyed and have medical insurance.  Although I am--generally--an exceedingly impractical person, I've always been very practical when it came to education and jobs.  I marvel a bit at this strange subroutine running in my brain; it's perhaps the only logical constant in there.  Everything else is all emotion and histrionics and blowing things out of proportion.  My teachers were surprised when I went to a state school, and not even "the" state school (UW-Madison, which is a party school and where it takes you at least six years to graduate because it's so crowded).  My classmates said I was going to a "ghetto school," which is obviously problematic because of the use of "ghetto" as a perjorative, but also unfair to say that a school that isn't Madison or Harvard or Penn State (another popular choice) is a crappy school.

All of that word vomit simply means that I didn't understand Reshma and her all-consuming desire for valedictorian and Stanford on some fundamental level.  Maybe a lot of teens will, and this book will be a smashing success.  I felt profoundly disappointed and despairing that this is what we've created.  This is what we've done to our teens: we've turned them into amoral cheaters who think that the name on their degree and the style of their handbag are the only things that matter in life.

Hooray for the future.

I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley.


10 comments:

  1. Er - AP? GPA? What are those for those of us who don't live in the U.S.? I assume "valedictorian" is like our dux of the school, although being dux just means you got the highest marks in the exams. The exams are done externally, with some internal marks. The ATAR that gets you into various university courses depending on your score, is weighted to maths and science subjects, with the annoying argument that they're harder. Well, yes, for those who are not good at them! If you ARE good at humanities subjects, bad luck.

    As for plagiarism, it's a thriving industry. There are entire web sites that offer to do your essays for you. I had a student once who copied a story off the internet. When I challenged him, he handed me a replacement, also copied. Face palm!

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    1. Okay, so AP means Advanced Placement and it's basically a college-level course you take in high school. At the end of the year, there are exams based on what you learned in the class and you have to write lots of essays. AP Exams are scored 1-5 with 5 being the best. If you get a 3 or above, you get college credit for the corresponding course. Because I did all AP English and Government and History, I got a year of college done before I even started.

      GPA is Grade Point Average and it's a total mess. Basically, if you have all As you have a 4.0, but because so many kids get all As they decided to start weighting classes differently. So Honors classes got the most weight, then AP, then regular, which makes no sense b/c AP is harder. So even though I took all AP, I had a lower GPA than the people who didn't want to do as much work and just took Honors.

      I think I would do very poorly on your ATAR--I'm a humanities girl! It sounds a bit like our SAT test for college.

      Ugh, it's so obvious then things are plagiarized! What offends me even more than the fact that they didn't do the work is that they thought that the adults were too dumb to notice.

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    2. Goodness, it sounds complicated! :-) I think there may be some kids who do the odd university-level subject here, but it's not a part of the system. We do have Year 10 students at my school(would that be your sophomores?) who are doing Year 11 subjects - the top kids get to do psychology and a couple of years ago, pretty much the whole Year 12 Psych class was made up of Year 11 students.

      Yeah, kids can be dumb like that. It never occurs to them that, a. We know their style and b. If they can look online so can we. Recently, I was amazed to find one if my better students had done it. It was a one and only time, but why? I asked and got an embarrassed admission that it had seemed like a good idea at the time. He rewrote without complaint.

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    3. LOL at "it seemed like a good idea at the time." That's the definition of being a teenager right there ;)

      It is super complicated, so a lot of kids figure out ways to game the system. It's not *actually* that important for the rest of your life but teachers and guidance counselors make it seem that way, so teens get obsessive. I know several of my high school classmates cheated and it was an open secret, but they got into good colleges. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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  2. Yikes, just reading your review makes me cringe from this book. I would also hope that teenagers realize cheating is not the right way to go, and I would say that most do. The sad thing is, I can still think of many instances in which teens obviously did not think this way. The character of Reshma sounds awful, and I can't imagine feeling any sort of connection with her.

    I think I was a lot like you as far as pushing myself in academics, but as you said, it was competing against only yourself. I also chose to go to a state school (a UC) that is considered to be on the lower end of the scale, and people like making fun of it and may look down on it, but it has a solid program in what I love and it works out well. I definitely can't relate to that insane drive that so many teens have to always need the 'best' and 'greatest' at any cost. I wish I had more time right now to say more in this comment, but unfortunately I'm pressed for time - so, in short, this is a fantastic review and I completely understand and agree with what you're saying. Thanks!

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    1. Thanks so much Jordan! Yeah, I really wanted to connect with Reshma, maybe after she was outed as a cheater, but that never happened. I don't like to throw words like this around lightly, but she seemed vaguely psychopathic in that she didn't seem to feel any emotion, especially when it came to causing pain to others.

      In the end, it's what YOU do in college that counts, not the name or the program or any of that. You could go to OMG THE BEST SCHOOL EVAR and still not feel satisfied. :)

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  3. Maybe this book is supposed to depict a certain state of thing, and magnify it for shock value? I haven't read it, so I don't know. But even if it were, I agree - from what you say, it offers teens a warped perspective of what the world should be about. Fabulous review, and I really liked how you weaved your experience into it!

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    1. Yes, it's definitely a shocker-type book, but there is the expectation that you are supposed to think Reshma is hilarious (or something) because she's so over the top. That's like saying "I love Emperor Palpatine because he's just so evil!!!" Ummmm, no. I think if Reshma had actually toned herself down a bit after losing what she'd cheated for, she would have been more sympathetic. As it stands, I have a feeling she's going to just go on cheating. :/

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  4. I wonder, also, if the book is referring to a real-life occurrence--Megan McCafferty's books Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings were plagiarized by an Indian-American Harvard student. That happened about 10 years ago, but it still sounds pretty familiar. And I don't like completely unlikeable protagonists, either. (That sounds rather like a tautology, but oh well.)

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    1. Ahhh--I vaguely remember hearing about this! Good catch. I wonder if that's what inspired it? That reminds me how much I really liked Sloppy Firsts when I read it ages ago...

      I totally get the "unlikeable protag" v. "completely unlikeable protag" situation. It's like ... Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine. You kind of like Darth Vader even though he's evil, because he's also totally fascinating and has this internal struggle. Palpatine is just straight up Evil.

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