Murder and Suicide on the Appalachian Trail

I mean, it’s not actually called that, but it should be.

Oh. Spoiler alert. In the title. I’m not sorry.This whole post will be a spoiler, and yet it won’t matter because reading Black Heart on the Appalachian Trail is an experience, not just words to paper. I mean, just words to paper, but spacing and style and sectioning count (things that I find stylistically very appealing).

Caution: Don’t idly read on the beach while your friendzoned best friend is rubbing sunscreen on your back. Or maybe that’s the perfect time to read this. I’m not sure. At 195 pages, if you’re a voracious reader, you can finish it in one sitting. If you are a growing writer taking lessons, read it all the way through once and then again very slowly. There is a lot, as a writer, to learn from this book. There is a lot, as a reader, to learn from this book (mostly, death is never the answer, which happens to be the very last line).

Do you know how many people die in this book? It would give George R.R. Martin a run for his money, and it’s less than 200 pages. And it’s all kinds of death — it’s death by dementia, death by murder, death by addiction, and death by love. We’re talking figurative death and real death. Bodies tumbling over cliffs. Handguns to the temple. Needles to the veins.

Funnily enough, the novel is about living.

I have this dream of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. I’ve held this dream in my heart for several years now, and I feel it coming for me. I have no idea if I’ll succeed, but if I fail, it will be spectacularly. One character, Taz Chavis, succeeds. Two others, Simone and Richard, fail spectacularly. Granted, I don’t want to fail by throwing myself off a cliff, but exaggeration serves its purpose here.

There are these three hikers, but there are more: Leona, holding onto the memories of her husband when he was young as he lives his final days as an in-human. Dalton, who wants to be a father more than anything, and Deirdre who refuses to have a baby and brings an adoption catalog instead. Giuseppe, who wants to officially be a part of his lover’s life and trades a threesome with an 18 year old for his name on all the titles. He doesn’t care about the money — he just wants to be recognized. All of these lives, these questions of birth and death but mostly of those lives in-between, the late twenties through fifties where life is so muddled and unknown, even for those whose lives seem so straight (Simone the genetic scientist, Deirdre the ambitious postmaster) and ultimately heartbreaking.

Yes, I cried. I cried because I realized that life doesn’t actually get any easier. You might finally figure out who you are, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to like it. And how do you change it? Is change even possible? Simone had come to the conclusion that every single human had one gene that made them flawed, and this genetic flaw was inescapable. Taz — you could say he escaped it — all the death, the addiction, prison — while Simone, Richard, and even Giuseppe, they gave into it.

Is change possible? What constitutes change? Is when you’re dying the only time you actually live? And what do you do when you find out that the person you are is not someone you like at all?

Feel free to offer some answers to these questions. I sure as hell have no idea.


Beyond the story itself, I want to talk about the book. Here is a quote from A.M. Homes cited on the back of the book:

T.J Forrester’s narrative explores the weird heart of American darkness with echoes of Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, cousin Raymond Carver, and the young and very talented Brad Watson. At times this book makes Cormac McCarthy’s The Road look like hallucinogenic cotton candy. I couldn’t put it down.

Can I say, first of all, that “hallucinogenic cotton candy” is the coolest description ever?

Ray Carver is my literary love, and this book did invoke him. Forrester’s prose may not have been quite as tight as Carver’s, but not necessarily in a bad way. His prose was raw and no holds barred. I’ll readily admit that I have a hard time reading about animal abuse/ animal deaths at the pound, etc. This book kicked me in the stomach a few times in this manner, and hey, that’s the real world. That’s what this book is: the real world, full of ugliness and neglected children and people who give up. A far cry from my dystopian fictions where these things are expected because it’s dystopian, it chills me to think that well, here’s the world in all her ugly and beauty. And it shares the same heart as any dystopian novel because, and I really believe this, we have always entertained some state of half-dystopia, at least in our personal lives.

The book is written in mostly short chapters, often changing perspectives with each one. They read more like extended vignettes, with the hikers being the mostly-solid narrative that all these stories clung to. Most characters had more than one vignette, not giving them an arc but giving them an end. Forrester was not about beginnings in this novel; he pursued ends in all of their hard glory. I’m going to parse through the novel again, looking for the writerly bits, try to find the nuts and bolts. Maybe I’ll tell you more about it, if I discover anything that I can knowledgeably talk about. Or I might choose Forrester’s path and leave it with endings.

Do I like this book? I’m not sure. When I finished it, I dropped it on the coffee table and said f**k really hard. And that, I think, is the point.


The Uglies Series: The Uglies

I decided to pick up the Uglies in December after hearing about it from friends and consistently seeing it on lists of best YA novels on the market right now. I try to pick up on these things a little earlier, but better late than never, right? So I bought all four and sat down with the first book.

Book number one, The Uglies, was the most difficult of the four. First, let me say that Scott Westerfield is a fine writer, and he did create a magnificent world for his readers to traipse around in. The amount of detail he poured into it was astounding, and yet I never felt like it was being shoved onto me or overloading on “info-dumping”.  The story itself follows Tally, a girl about to turn 16. In a future world, once you turn 16, you undergo an operation that turns you into a “Pretty” — a refined set of features, beautiful hair and eyes, flawless skin, extra-strong bones, the perfect amount of fat, so on and so forth. Essentially, healthy supermodels. However, when Shay, a friend of Tally’s, escapes the city, Tally is forced by the city’s special forces known as the “Specials” to track Shay to the outpost where people had been escaping to for years. At this point, Tally doesn’t understand why exactly anyone would not want to become Pretty and leave the Ugly behind, and after being threatened with permanent Ugliness, Tally agrees. So away she goes, and eventually she finds the outpost (the Smoke) and Shay, but instead of turning on the tracker the Specials gave her, she waits and discovers the residents of this outpost. The leaders of the Smoke reveal a terrible secret. Having once been doctors at the city, they discovered that part of the Pretty operation left lesions on the brains of the people that took away all their desire to rebel, to fight, to hurt, to destroy, to protest, to argue, to speak out, etc. etc. Essentially, they were brainwashed in the most perfect sense.

In the meantime, Tally falls in love with David, a boy who had never lived in the city (and a crush of Shay’s), and ultimately Tally decides to destroy the tracker instead of revealing the outpost, determined to leave the city behind herself. Unbeknownst to her, destroying the tracker set it off, and soon the Specials set upon the Smoke, destroying it and either killing or capturing all the residents. Tally does manage to escape, and when she does, she leads those residents, including David, in an effort to release all those residents captured. Successful, she must then make one more difficult choice: to undergo the operation. Shay, one of those originally captured, was turned into a Pretty, and when Tally trapped her and brought her back to the new hiding place (the New Smoke), she realizes just how terrible the operation is. David’s mother, one of the doctors, believes she has come up with a cure for “Prettymindedness” but will not give it to Shay since Shay is unwilling. So Tally agrees to turn herself in and become Pretty to test the cure and see if it works. That’s where the first book leaves us.

Whew. That was quite a bit, and I didn’t even touch on some of the fascinating bits: a critique on environment, on culture, on age, desire, technology, and so on. My praise for The Uglies  lies here; these are all incredible issues about self-image, self-worth, self-esteem, environmental responsibility, knowledge, and sacrifice that are being passed down to readers about 13 and older. The readability is truly YA, though it might be hard for us older readers as the writing is, at times, almost too young.

My one big issue is that I did not feel that the change in Tally’s character was warranted. From the summary I gave above, it is hinted at and quite believable, but in the novel itself it is pretty bare. She went from wanting to be Pretty so bad, to being skeptical about the Smoke, to having a complete change of heart. I’m not sure that Westerfield made me believe that she really wanted to remain Ugly and live in the Smoke; I wanted to see more of a character arc.  Second, I would have liked more characterization of David. I felt as if his character was created in too-broad strokes, missing out on finer points of detail. In fact, I would have liked this for Shay too, but she is prominent in the following novels, and I was ultimately satisfied with her character. However, I think the empathization with her character would have come more readily if more of her was given in this first novel, especially when she runs away and then becomes Pretty. Finally, the development of Shay’s and Tally’s friendship happens over a couple of weeks, and yet Westerfield just skims through this part, hoping his reader will just go with it. While it might work for younger readers, I was quite frustrated with it considering how pivotal the development of this relationship was to the whole damn plot.

From a writer’s POV, I was impressed with his use of a new lingo throughout the novel (all four, in fact). While it was a bit hard to adjust to at first, I was able to follow along rather quickly, and the language really helped with the immersion into the world. In fact, I think that Westerfield really utilized language to his advantage in these novels, a real wordsmith. Keeping in mind that the language was meant for younger readers, I was enchanted with both diction and composition as well as his imagination. While it was rough going with the new lingo, he really refined his work throughout the novel, and the following three novels really shone in this respect.

Well this is my treatise on the first book. If you’ve read it, let me know what you think. I love the YA genre, especially futuristic stuff, and I look to these published authors as potential teachers. If you’ve noticed something I’ve left out, feel free to share!

Update 2.21.13

I’ve been meaning to write this update for a while now, but as we all know, life has a way of getting in the way. One of the things I really glazed over was the different big issues that Westerfield raised in this novel (and the series at large). Westerfield was not looking to just write a story for summertime amusement; he had goals to achieve and ideas to convey. It would be terribly disrespectful of me as an admiring reader to not treat these issues.

Environmental Responsibility.  In his novels, our current civilization is known as the Rusties, due to our fascination with using metals (esp. iron) in constructing buildings, cars, etc. Westerfield’s civilizations have moved beyond constructing with the metals that we are familiar with today, no longer cut/burn trees, use all recyclable materials, and more. It plays a rather important part of the arguments the Specials use to sway Tally to their side. The Smoke emulates the Rusties in many of our more undesirable habits, generalized as living in an unsustainable manner. It is actually one of the most thought-provoking arguments to this mind-control experiment that Tally’s city’s Specials are running (by performing lesions on the brain that take away all desire to protest or think too hard). How can we let the rebels (Smoke) continue with the same destructive activities that wiped out most of the Rusties and nearly destroyed humankind? Are we justified in performing a little brain surgery to keep our planet (and each other) alive? And, by extension, are we people naturally destructive when we have no social morality imposed upon us? Do we not have environmental stewardship built into our systems as animals that belong on this planet?

Beauty and Self-Image. This issue is a centerpiece, obviously. Uglies revolves around this idea that at the age of 16, you get a complete make-over — facial, bone structure, muscle, eye color/shape, and so on. Gals and Dudes both look forward to this operation, when they get to join the Pretties on the other side of the river and do nothing but party for the next few years of their lives. In Uglies, we are quickly introduced to Tally’s friend Paris, or rather, the absence of Paris. A friend of Tally’s, Paris was several months older than Tally and thus received the operation and transition before Tally. He promised to come back and visit Tally, but he doesn’t. When he does finally visit her, it’s to encourage her about the operation. Their lives literally revolve around this operation, around become gorgeous and meeting this pseudo-standard of beauty that is decided by a council. Difference is preserved but everyone is essentially made the same. What is the point of this? Prejudice is gone because no one is judged by their looks. All of the bullying that we associate with adolescence is based on looks and socioeconomics. In Westerfield’s world, both of these things become non-factors. Of course, there is a small matter of the lesions to the brains, but it stands to reason that we will, somehow, figure out a way to differentiate ourselves from others. If we can’t do it by looks or upbringing (everyone is brought up in a similar manner), then how do we do it?  Intelligence is one method; those like Tally who work out of the lesions (you’ll have to read the books to figure out how that happened)  become Specials — whether they want to or not, really.

But let’s look at the self-image issues the idea of making everyone beautiful brings up. No one is raised to appreciate themselves as they are. Really, in this world, even unique talents aren’t exposed or suggested (unless they make you special. Special.). Personalities are whitewashed, removing that factor of differentiation. Image becomes the clothes, the hair, the make-up, the cliques of friends — basically, less of what you are and more of what you can make yourself. If this isn’t a critique of where our culture is headed, I don’t know what is. Billboard advertisements, pill bottles, T.V. commercials, and mall stand guys all stand as testimony to “making your best self” instead of learning to love the self that was given to you. Self should not be an idea perpetuated as reflective on the outside but as a whole host of factors that are primarily internal. Anything less is to make human beings into little more than pretty bags of flesh. We deserve to be. Tally learns this lesson through her growing affections towards David, who was raised in the Smoke without any idea of Pretty or Ugly; he was all raw personality and force of will. Tally’s character growths in this first novel revolves around her trying to accept the idea that there is more to being human than being Pretty.

Social Control and Order. We are taught that the one thing we value more than anything else (in America) is freedom of speech. We allow all sorts of opinions and arguments and diatribes, often with heat or bitterness. And that means that sometimes we don’t get along. But everyone (theoretically; let’s not get into politics too much) has the right to say (or protest, or disagree, or praise) what they will. There are grey areas, times when we aren’t sure whether or not someone should be allowed to say something, whether they should be able to protest or argue. Westerfield’s society shows what the limitations of speech and opinion could look like. Granted, this is an extreme example; no one foresees brain surgery in our futures, but what if we could make everyone just…get along? If science could determine what is truth and not truth, and we voice opinions and make decisions in the same logical manner in which science comes about with the facts? We are human, not robots. That’s not possible. There’s too many minute factors such as life experiences and education that determine how any given person will form their opinions or come to their decisions. But let’s pretend for a second that all of that could be non-factors and everyone could just get along. No arguments. No judgments. No decidedly hurtful words. No bullying. No real anger. No murder. No hurt. It sounds nice in a way until you consider what you would have to give up: experience, individuality, and emotion. Westerfield brings up a very good question with his created civilization: is it worth it?

In fact, of the three issues I identified above, Is It Worth It? applies to each and every one of them. I’m not sure if I am secure enough in my own philosophies to say yay or nay on any of them. I’m caught somewhere in the gray, and it’s difficult to pull out.

What do you think? Could you make these calls?