by Daniel AlarcónBuy at Powell’s »
John Freeman: Reading these two novels back to back might have been the oddest literary double-header of my life.
Philipp Meyer’s The Son is a grand, blood-splattered historical epic about the violent settlement of Texas. If it were an animal it’d be a bear—a big, bristle-haired, gore-mouthed grizzly capable of dragging a fully loaded 18-wheeler across, say, 2,000 miles of frozen tundra simply because it was bored and had a newish toy.
And then, out of sheer pique, it might eat that semi.
The other book, Eleanor & Park, is a swift, tunes-mad tale of teenage romance. It’s playful and likable, a 320-page teddy bear that burps up sayings if you squeeze it. I say this because I have never spent this much time in the head of fictional 16-year-olds who have thought so little about sex, and this book seems to be screaming, each time you squeeze, “Love each other but don’t even think about sex!”
I tried reading them simultaneously but The Son kept trying to eat Eleanor & Park, so I divided them and read each separately.
Eleanor & Park did not win me over at the start. It begins, as far too many YA novels I have read do, with a new kid coming to town. Eleanor is freckly, awkward, and dresses in thrift-store clothes before it was cool to do so. Also: Eleanor buys clothes at Goodwill because she is poor.
In the opening scene Eleanor hops on the school bus to a high school in Nebraska and sits down next to Park. He’s Korean-American, listens to Sub-Pop records, has dated the cool girl (even if this was back in grade school), and knows Taekwondo. He might be different, but his peers respect him.
Alternating between the two teenagers, we watch as their awkwardness evolves from passive aggression to a form of courtship. The book gently maps itself atop Romeo and Juliet, and even has a few scenes in which characters quote from or talk about the play.
This scaffolding turns out not to be necessary; Rainbow Rowell finds her groove fairly quickly and then this book develops the friendly rhythm of a rom-com. Park notices Eleanor reading his comic books over his shoulder, so he slows down and makes it easier for her to do so. She laughs at how subtle he thinks he’s being, but soon she can’t stop thinking about him.
The novel is not without edginess. Rowell easily enters the paranoid mind of teenage romance. After they finally hold hands, Park worries he’s gone too far. “Jesus,” he thinks, “Was it possible to rape somebody’s hand?”
I was relieved that Rowell didn’t make too much of the racial difference between Park and Eleanor. They simply like each other, in a G-rated way. She likes his hair and his skin. He fancies her freckles. Taking it to the next level is talking on the telephone. Neither of them has a driver’s license.
In many ways, Eleanor & Park reads like a historical novel. There is no Facebook, Instagram, texting, or easily accessible porn. It’s as if Rowell has decided to strip all the microprocessors and dark matter out of teenage romance, and return it to an idealized pastoral place where 16-year-olds who catch a lucky break and have a whole day alone at home do a bit of kissing and then talk meaningfully about their families.
The only darkness at the edge of this town is a series of dirty messages someone keeps scrawling on Eleanor’s binder, the kind of expletives you find written on bathroom stalls. Simultaneously, her mother’s new boyfriend turns out to be a drunk and dangerously controlling. Something is going to break, and Park and Eleanor’s romance becomes a kind of safe haven for her. Or will it break, too?
No novel operates under a burden of realism, because even realism is a pose. Still, if a novel adopts the pose of realism—drawing from pop culture, forms of speech, news stories; unfurling scenes in a filmic way, like long set-pieces—to simply set a whole issue aside feels like a dodge. Even for a character, like Eleanor, who is feeling slightly haunted. Here are teenagers free-spirited enough to speak their minds, to swear, to get in fights, but somehow it takes them almost 300 pages to finally think of, say, masturbation or sex?
I haven’t read enough YA fiction to judge how common this de-genitalization of teenagers is, but it feels like a disservice. (Even if it pleases a few—if not all—librarians.) How less alone I felt, in contrast, when I read Judy Blume’s great novels, to know it’s OK to have desires.
Eleanor & Park seems to pry desire apart from young love, to shut down the express lane between the two. Or slow it down. Perhaps that’s appropriate for teenagers of a certain age: to stop, to wait, to listen to their hearts. Take a break for safety’s sake. But to not even acknowledge the continuum feels like wishful thinking.
The Son leaves none of the gory details out. Like how when you rip off a scalp the remaining bits of connective tissue might glint in the light of a New Mexico spring day. Or the fact that deer tendons make excellent tensile string for a bow and arrow. Want to know how a man screams when he is tortured? What a man’s dying breath sounds like when he is shot through the chest by a yard-long arrow? Read onward.
The Son boldly sweeps forward through nearly two centuries of American history, lassoing all the great contradictions into an epic multi-generational family tale. The McCulloughs are Texas royalty, which means they have stolen, killed, and worked for the quarter-million-plus acres of their ranch. It once was scrub, then it is range for cattle, and by tale’s end it’s pumping out oil.
There are a lot of characters in this book, but we get to know a few closely. Eli McCullough, known as the Colonel, is born in the early 1800s. As a teenager he watches a band of marauding Comanche storm his family’s ranch, murdering and raping his mother and sister, before he is taken into their band as a kind of slave and given the name Tiehteti-taibo, which means “Pathetic Little White Man.”
Eli’s tale of his capture and survival is an astonishing piece of narrative, full of terror and humor and a peculiar form of bearing witness. During the first years of abduction he does women’s work: carrying water, tanning hides, collecting ash. Gradually, he learns to shoot, to resist, and in slow motion he becomes a kind of man in Comanche terms, earning his captor’s trust and coming to respect their ways. He observes the conservation and honor of their epic buffalo hunts, is party to the murderous battles they have with other tribes and with the occasional army ranger who wanders into their path; he takes a lover, and then another one.
It is startling in a book so rich in adventure, killing, and dangerous loving that Eli’s story does not dominate it. Meyer follows several other storylines: In 1915, Eli’s son, Peter, regrets the rising tide of racism that brings the McCulloughs to war with their Spanish neighbors and turns their relationship to the local Mexicans paternalistic.
Simultaneously, the book follows a watery day in the life of Jeanne Anne McCullough, Peter’s tough-as-nails granddaughter. She has fallen in her home, and as she dips in and out of consciousness, she flashes through scenes of her life, growing up rich in a masculine world, living in the shadowy legend of a great family name even as its numbers are thinned by war and conflict.
As the novel creeps forward in time, history’s score begins to repeat. Hubris leads to a downfall; strong men take what they want and apologize later; when no justification is available, an enemy is created and turned into something less than human. The Mexican royalty gets greedy; their people need a strong man. A century later the new oilmen are singing the same tune about the Arabs in the Middle East.
Meyer’s characters are aware of history’s echo, and yet they often ignore it in the way that people close to violence acquire a numbing cynicism or emboldening righteousness. The McCulloughs’ tale, though, prompted neither emotion in this reader. Not since Child of God have I read a novel so steeped in blood, yet so gently hopeful its blood-spilt tale will turn a reader’s head. There is sprung poetry in its sentences, and gore abounding. It wins this round with one swipe of its mighty paw.
John: I thought Freeman’s judgment was tremendous—it’s not surprising for those of us who know his work (I highly recommend How to Read a Novelist), but his gloss on the “de-genitalization” of Eleanor & Park is especially interesting. In the opening round, you remarked that Park is “about 1/30th as horny as an actual 16-year-old boy,” and Freeman makes a case that it’s a weakness in a novel that otherwise trucks in the tropes of “realism” and does indeed have some edge, including language that I wouldn’t have thought acceptable in YA fiction.
Obviously, making Park as sex-obsessed as a typical teenaged boy might have absolutely ruined the charms of the story. The novel is a romance, and the affection they have for each other is of the soul-mate variety, not just a firing in the loins. (In real life, even if Park had been able to keep his hands off Eleanor because he’s a good kid, he wouldn’t have left himself alone. I don’t know how interesting scenes of Park’s dad pounding on the bathroom door would be, dramatically speaking.)
My memories of being 16 grow progressively dimmer, but I think of it as a horrible and confusing time: Sex is the one thing you’re most interested in while simultaneously being (for me anyway) almost impossible to imagine happening. One of my closest friends, Mark Brookstein, who I am naming so I can embarrass him on the internet, used to fall in love half a dozen times a day. After we were liberated by our driver’s licenses, our small pack of friends would go to Baker’s Square for pie and conversation—a regular Algonquin Round Table, I’m telling you—and as the waitress would walk away with our order for two blueberry crumbles, a slice of French silk, and a cup of the cauliflower au gratin soup, Mark would declare that he was in love. And he would mean it, because what else could a feeling so intense be?
Not much later, when we would have our first relationships, we would see that love meant more than lust (though a big part of those first loves, I think, is probably rooted in a kind of gratitude that this other person is a partner in exorcising these sexual desires). The impossible becomes possible. The intensity of Eleanor and Park’s relationship is recognizable, but within the novel, there is a purposeful blindness to the fact that some or even much of it is attributable to, or would at least be complicated by, the roiling hormonal stew that these two would be steeped in.
Has Rowell imposed a kind of innocence on her characters for the sake of keeping us from being horribly creeped out? Is the G rating a necessity or a flaw? It’s interesting that this probably makes the book “safe” for YA (though Rowell’s book isn’t exactly “safe” and has even been challenged by parents), since raging-hormone Park and Eleanor might prove terrifying.
Kevin: Judge Freeman makes an excellent point, but the lack of sex (or realistic sexual urges) didn’t feel like a dodge to me. I think it was a successful tactic, and not because Rowell was trying to meet some blurred guideline of age-appropriateness. Ultimately this story isn’t only a YA novel, it’s also a teen empowerment fantasy. As readers we can’t feel any real ambivalence about our heroes or the fantasy falls apart. To honestly probe the sexuality of two 16-year-olds in possession of enriched yellowcake puberty would undermine everything else Rowell was doing in the novel. An author could certainly do it, but she’d end up with a darker story than this one can be while still delivering the goods to its intended audience.
Mystery, crime, and thriller novels, for instance, are often defined by a first act in which chaos is introduced and a third act in which order is restored. You can write a terrific novel about a detective solving a murder in which that doesn’t happen (there have been thousands), but when you do that you are arguably playing with some of your toys outside of the mystery/thriller sandbox (and will probably be told so by mystery fans). If you are going to provide the reader the catharsis of good triumphing over evil in the context of a crime novel, you often have to sacrifice something in terms of strict realism.
I won’t spoil the end of E&P, but Park’s parents allow something to happen (even encourage it) that I don’t believe any responsible parent in the real world would. But as a teenager reading that story, I would be thrilled that Park is able to solve this really serious problem by himself, without the direct intervention of the grown-ups in his life. As a grown-up myself, I was excited for him, even as I thought to myself that there’s no way I’d let my kid do that. Nevertheless, by taking the story in that direction the novel avoids facing the realities of Park and Eleanor’s situation head-on. That’s not an oversight on Rowell’s part: It’s a calculation.
This is a little bit arbitrary because all fiction is plotted on a three-dimensional continuum and isn’t so easily pigeonholed, but I think a lot of people would define “literature,” at least in part, as fiction that deals honestly with what it means to be a real human being—a self-aware consciousness—in a complex world (The Son certainly qualifies). A lot of what we call “genre” can’t always do that, because it’s trying to do something else. That does not mean I think a work of “literature” is better than a work of “genre.” In my opinion there are many, many excellent genre books that are more successful than excellent literary novels. It’s not a qualitative assessment, but a shifting one that is tethered to the expectations of the audience.
I thought this was a terrific judgment because Judge Freeman made his expectations clear and explained why The Son did a better job of meeting them.
John: Freeman also highlights a trait of The Son that I don’t think we discussed the first time around, which is the sly humor of Eli’s sections. The conceit that he’s providing these memories as testimony to the WPA is brilliantly executed and provides a lot of mordant humor, particularly in the scenes where Tiehteti-taibo is mistreated by his capturers. Eli’s account is deadpan and sympathetic to his tormentors; he’s come through his experiences identifying more with their ways of life than with those of the white man. It’s an achievement of perspective that I find myself admiring more as I give it additional thought.
And this is how I feel about the book as a whole: It didn’t knock me off my feet when I read it, but the ambitions and achievement are significant, and I could make a pretty good case for the novel as prize-worthy to a jury of writers and critics. If we’re going to keep up our tendency to predict Pulitzer winners, I think The Son and The Goldfinch are the most likely contenders, and because of its subject matter, I may even put The Son a bit ahead.
Kevin: Every time the eventual Pulitzer Prize winner has been on the Rooster shortlist, it has won the Tournament of Books, and the ToB has correctly predicted the winner of four of the last six Pulitzers. I actually think there are three novels in the tourney that feel like potential Pulitzer bait to me—the two you mentioned plus The Good Lord Bird. Only six novels, however, have won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer. The last to do it was E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News exactly 20 years ago. Medal-winning history is not on the side of James McBride.
It’s time to take out the Zombie ballots and see if this match changes anything. In fact, Eleanor & Park did receive enough votes in our reader poll to move into Zombie contention. If the Zombie Round were held today, Eleanor & Park and Life After Life would be our drooling undead challengers.