Monday, June 27, 2016

The Cormier book I'd heard the most about

The Chocolate War, Robert Cormier
Eugh.  Cormier makes me want to shower.  I bought or traded for a second-hand copy of this book because I hear and read about it all the time.  Plus I thought The Rag and Bone Shop was a profound discussion piece.  This is that again, but it's also so depressing! And with a generous smattering of alarming content.  Let's break this down;
  • The overall feeling I had upon finishing the book was mostly simply put: grim frustration.  In more detail: it was anger, sadness, irritation, respect, and fascination all at once.  I am so angry about how it ended and angry that things like (and worse than) this fiction are real.  I was sad for the characters -- and those in reality -- who face exclusion, peer pressure and darkness of this kind.  I was irritated by the stereotypes that pervaded the novel.  I was both irritated and filled with respect that the book is still relevant more than 40 years after it was written.  I am embarrassed to say that I was grossly fascinated to see what would happen and still fascinated when it closed by the darkness of sororities / secret societies.  I almost wanted to go googling.  I didn't. 
  • From an English teaching perspective, I think this book has a lot of mileage for discussion. I wouldn't want to discuss it with anyone but seniors, but I think talking about what is relevant and what would need updated for millennials is really interesting.  How would this play out in a school near them?  How would this play out in their idea of an American prep school now?   What updates would you make if you were asked to adapt a screenplay for a film to be released set now?  What is a comparative text from the past five years?  Which characters align with each other?  What did you want to happen?  Aaaaaah...I could talk about this for a long time with students.
  • The book has been controversial for many reasons.  I get all those.  In addition to blasphemy, smoking, violence, multiple crude references to masturbation and petting, there's an underlying suggestion that good does not always triumph over evil; that sometimes, life isn't like that.  I'm not sure how I feel about that.  Because the thing is, sometimes this is true. Sometimes (oft-times) the jerks get away with their stuff and the good guys get hurt.  Oft-times school is hard for good guys.  There's a story there. But the book virtually glamourises YA mutiny!  What is more disturbing, is...
  • This book has stacks of sexist content.  It may have made waves in the 70s for being occasionally vulgar (it's as vulgar as Looking for Alaska -- which is on recommended reading lists I've seen for high-schoolers), but for our generation, forget the crude content, the sexist stuff is what would cause the real storm!  Not only are female characters virtually absent from the story, in their brief presentation they are 100% sexual objects.  This angered me on so many levels.  Whether this is Cormier's view or his subjective offering of his characters' male gaze -- either way it is so wrong.  I'm not denying there are disappointing views of women out there -- that perhaps I was being invited to step into the minds of young men who hold those disappointing views -- but there was nothing to suggest an alternative view.  The words "rape by eyeball" were used in this book.  The expression "boys will be boys" was used in this book.  A boy touches himself when he is looking at a girl.  Surely there is a way to reflect how some boys can be or how charged these years can be without saturating every female moment with objectification and all-out lust?  (Really, there aren't appreciative observations of beauty either, only ones that cross into lust territory.)  And if Cormier is saying that a prep school world is like this -- everything is about sex for these boys -- is it always so vulgar and out of the boys' control?  It was such an insulting view of young men.  Yes, saying women are only as interesting as how tight their sweaters are is disgusting, but so too is implying that there is no decency in a serious throng of representative male voices.  Having worked in all-boys school, I felt there was some authenticity in the crudeness here (oh, the ways many of my students found innuendo in the smallest thing I said), but not all boys are single-minded arousal-bots.  That's unfair.
  • The insight outside of the sexual into the young male mind was interesting.  For this, I prefer Schmidt of course.  So much.  But he doesn't cover secret societies, and...
  • The treatment of the secret society is imaginative and engrossing.  I was into these moments.
  • The multiple viewpoints work surprisingly well.
Gah.  This book.  It raises so many questions -- questions I'd like to raise with my daughters at the appropriate time.  But I'm hoping I find a better text as a springboard, because...holY(!)...insulting!  If you have read this book, I want to hear from you.
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