Friday, June 25, 2010

Feed: A Premature Evaluation

Last night, while I was shopping for birthday gifts for my elder son, I found Border's big display of "required school reading," presumably pulled together from reading lists of actual local high school English classes. I recognized most of the titles, but a new one stood out for me: M.T. Anderson's Feed.

Considering that it shared shelf space with the likes of To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, The Giver and others; and considering that it had a silver "National Book Award Finalist" medal on the cover (and it seems to have won a few literary awards Out West); and considering that the back-cover synopsis sounded like the story was from my favorite literary genre, dystopian fiction; and considering that it was only $8.00 for a trade paperback, I went ahead and bought it.

I don't buy books for myself as often as I used to. I must be out of practice, because the one thing I did not do that I certainly should have done was read a bit of the actual text before I made my purchase decision. Because, ten minutes later, while waiting for my sushi to arrive, I pulled out my new book and found this:

We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.

We went on a Friday, because there was shit-all to do at home. It was the beginning of spring break. Everything at home was boring. Link Arkwater was like, "I'm so null," and Marty was all, "I'm null too, unit," but I mean we were all pretty null, because for the last like hour we'd been playing with three uninsulated wires that were coming out of the wall. We were trying to ride shocks off them. So Marty told us that there was this fun place for lo-grav on the moon. Lo-grav can be kind of stupid, but this was supposed to be good. It was called the Ricochet Lounge. We thought we'd go for a few days with some of the girls and stay at a hotel there and go dancing.

Before I get into the teen-speak language, I want to point out a couple other things. First, you'll notice that Anderson is creating a new slang vocabulary, a la A Clockwork Orange. Null here basically means "bored." Unit is the word for "man," and the characters in this novel use unit as teenagers today use the word man; it isn't always used to refer to a male human, as in "Give it a chance, unit." (Women, or at least teenage women, are referred to as unettes. This type of wordplay I like.)

I have nothing against creating a new language as part of a story's setting, but in a story like this, it seems somehow more unoriginal than in A Clockwork Orange, Dune, or The Lord of the Rings, for reasons I discuss at the end of this post.

Second is the sentence structure and word choice. The first four sentences are short, opinionated, self-centered, and unnecessarily vulgar. They immediately brought to mind The Catcher in the Rye. And indeed, you don't have to look too far to find similarities between Holden Caulfield and Titus, the main character and narrator of Feed. It also irks me a bit that the names Link Arkwater (from Feed) and Ward Stradlater (from Catcher in the Rye) have the same rhythm and cadence, not to mention the same final letters.

Perhaps that's a drawback of being well-read: It's too easy to find fragments of the classics in new works. As I read Feed and other new fiction, I'm always seeing bits of other well-known books instead of the author's own writing. In Feed, for example, I keep seeing the aforementioned The Catcher in the Rye and A Clockwork Orange, as well as Yevgeny Zamiatin's We and the sexual parts of 1984. Granted, I'm not even halfway through yet, so I could be surprised later on.

But back to the subject I postponed earlier: the writing style. As an editor, I find this book difficult to read without cringing. Take a look at that fifth sentence again: "Link Arkwater was like, 'I'm so null,' and Marty was all, 'I'm null too, unit,' but I mean we were all pretty null, because for the last like hour we'd been playing with three uninsulated wires that were coming out of the wall. We were trying to ride shocks off them." This sentence (a) is a run-on; (b) uses the "teen-speak" that I can barely stand to listen to, much less read; (c) uses the filler like.

If this sentence is any indication of the language of the entire novel, as it is turning out to be, then I am in for a long, rough ride if I am to finish reading it.

I am amazed that this was featured on a list of required reading. Presumably, some English teacher somewhere is teaching this book in class. It must be difficult to teach kids how to write well when you have them reading stuff like Feed because it breaks so many of the "rules" that you're trying to teach them. What are teenagers supposed to believe when you tell them, on the one hand, not to write in run-ons, not to use the fillers that you use in speech (except in dialogue), and not to simply write the way you speak, and then, on the other hand, have them read an award-nominated book that breaks those rules? How important could those "rules" be if one can become a successful writer while breaking them?

As an adult, editor, and avid reader, I understand style, and how writing like this can suit the story better than "standard English." But teenagers — many of whom already hate English class and are always on the lookout for justification of that hatred — haven't yet developed a sense of critical literary analysis. It takes experience and introspection.

And I still haven't concluded myself that the writing style in Feed is an improvement and not a detriment.

A few dozen pages in, and I'm leaning toward the vulgar teen-speak as being detrimental, or at least badly done. It's obvious that Anderson has thought about the language that his characters would use in this future time, but I don't think he gave it enough thought. He has created a new vocabulary, but he hasn't considered the other natural changes that language would have gone through during the time it took for his new language to take hold.

Take the filler like, for instance. I don't believe* that teenagers 40 years ago used like to mean said. That, I believe*, arose during the 1970s. It was used throughout the 1980s even more than it is today. Would teenagers 40 years from now still be using it in this way? I don't think so.* Same goes with "...and Marty was all..." to indicate a person's spoken reply. Even the use of pretty as an intensifier here is questionable. (To Anderson's favor, though, he does also use the new word meg, as in mega-, as an intensifier elsewhere in the book.)

This mixture of today's teen-speak with Anderson's futuristic vocabulary is, I think, why his new vocabulary falls short. It's different, but still rudimentarily employed; it isn't whole-hog realistically futuristic. If it's possible for science fiction to be anachronistic, this book's language manages it.

Still, I'm not yet halfway through reading this book. These are just my first impressions*, and maybe I'm rushing to judgment. Maybe Anderson is setting up a satire of youth's failure to recognize its own naivete. I hope to be surprised by what I find in later pages. I am dedicated to finishing this book, though, if only so that my $8 doesn't go to waste.

* As always, though, I could be wrong.

[Update 8/16 -- quite a while after actually finishing the novel: My early impressions still generally hold. The language is, above all, unnecessarily vulgar, especially considering the target audience, as if the author has something to prove by raising the "fuck" count of the text.

Although the novel has some merit, it falls short of the insightful, meritorious story that it could have been. Anderson created some situations that could have been meant as red herrings, or could have been meant as signs of mental and technological collapse, but came off (at least to me) as being dropped plot threads.

In particular, the female lead, Violet, is positive that someone from outside tried to hack into her feed one night, and the automated customer service is no help at all. when I got to that point in the story, I was ready for the intrigue to really take off, to discover secret lives and hidden truths, to find that the anti-establishment fight was more active than people really thought. But that situation lives in a single chapter and is substantially never mentioned again.

Anderson instead takes active outside forces (forces of truth, perhaps?) out of the equation and reverts to the detrimental effects of passive acceptance of social definitions of normality. Which, I grant you, isn't necessarily a bad issue to tackle in a novel like this.

On the whole, though, this novel left me wanting more. In a world marked by extreme superficiality, the characters were sufficiently two-dimensional, but the setting as a whole could have benefited from more development and depth. This was indeed a story of man vs. society, but the underdevelopment of the story's setting made "society" too monolithic, too static.

Be warned, too, that the conclusion is bleak. I'm not going to make an qualitative judgments about that, though. On alternate days, I think that it is realistically bleak, and therefore more truthful than any alternative, and pessimistically bleak, and therefore lacking that thing that makes good literature great: the ability to teach us how to be better humans.]