Monday, 23 February 2009
Patrick Ness, The Knife of Never Letting Go (2008)
Part of the effect of reading a really good young adult novel—and The Knife of Never Letting Go is an exceptionally good young adult novel—is that it interpellates you into a young adult frame of mind. That was a time when books mattered more to us, and those 40-somethings you see on the tube reading Harry Potter or Twilight are trying to recapture the vividness with which books clattered into their minds when they were that age. That clatter, or its noisy echo, accompanies the reading of Patrick Ness's tale.
It's a rattling, violent, dystopian coming-of-age story. Todd Hewlitt has grown to the threshold of manhood in Prentisstown, an all-male community of religious fundamentalists on an unnamed planet. The backstory is that, colonising this world, the human settlers fought a war with the aboriginal alien ‘spackles’, in the course of which (the result, say some, of alien germ warfare) various unpleasant things happened. One is that all the human women were killed off. A second is that animals can suddenly talk; although we discover in the course of the novel that animals don’t actually have a lot to say for themselves (repeating ‘here’ over and over, for instance; or saying 'flesh and feast and tooth'; Todd’s dog is fond of ‘need a poo’). But most of all is ‘Noise’, the novel’s central conceit and a brilliant one—a kind of inadvertent telepathic access to the thoughts and feelings of everybody around you. This is rendered very vividly, not least by the typographic convention of handwritten-style scribblings that overwhelm the printed words. You don’t doubt that it would be horribly intrusive and claustrophobic to live in such a world. Ness renders that very well.
This, in fact, is the book’s core trope: hell is other people. Now, hum, hoom, I ponder whether this means that there is a kind of adolescent distortion, even an ontological mendacity, at the heart of the book. Because, you know, hell isn’t other people. Actually Ness puts his thumb into the balance by surrounding Todd with unusually hellish, twisted folk. He doesn’t shy away from the fact that being brought up in such an environment has marked his otherwise pleasant hero-narrator function with streaks of stubbornness, paranoia and—most of all—violence. For this is a very violent book. That's really where a but enters the judgment.
I thought the book too violent. This is not a charge I make lightly: Ness’s violence is not gratuitous. He works hard to show not only violence but the consequences of violence, and leaves you in no doubt that (for instance) when Todd knifes a spackle to death it is a bad and wrong thing. Nevertheless, violence is the way the book’s through-line is orchestrated; it is violence that arranges the various on-the-way narrative climaxes, and that makes the book queasily complicit with what it condemns. Worse, the novel tends to underplay some of the consequences of violence with a couple of props—SFnal magic sticking plasters, say, that seem to cure everything up to and including a knife in the back—or else in places by softpeddling the actual somatics of being wounded. So, one of the book’s villains, Aaron, gets bashed, eaten and mangled more than once, suffering wounds that ought to kill him, or at least put him out of action for months. Yet he keeps popping back up, like a baddie in a slasher film.
What separates a YA novel from an adult book? One answer to that question is: nothing, really, except that adult novels novels have explicit sex and swearing in them and YA novels don't. But then again Melvyn Burgess has written YA novels in which there is explicit sex, and Ness rather knowingly includes the word ‘fucking’ in this book. I say ‘knowingly’ because it’s deliberately there (religiously brought-up Todd self-consciously says ‘effing’ otherwise) to mark that Todd has gone too far in killing a spackle. Except that he hasn’t gone too far. He won’t have gone too far, we discover, until he kills a human being; which bothered me. We care more for the death of a dog than this alien. Hum, I thought. Hoom.
This is a critical matter, I think; and it gives me pause. Ness’s book is evidently in some sense ‘about’ youth knife-crime, one of those push-button Daily Mail topics liable to jerk public knees in quasi-hysterical lurch-kicks. As such it is neither exploitative, nor facile. I did wonder if there was the whiff of get-out-clause in the implication that it is a crazily religious fundamentalist—rather than, say, a socially alienated urban—upbringing that is behind the alpha-teen-male posturings of knife crime. Of course we can take that, as the other-planetary setting, as framing, the symbolic sidestep that brings the central theme more clearly into focus. The emotional tug, and costs, of the impulse towards violence are unflinchingly drawn. The more I think about it, the more I think that my problem is not ethical so much as aesthetic. The book is part of a more general cultural arm’s race, in which ultraviolence becomes more and more ultra in order to register as violence. Less, though, is more. Less Todd punching himself in the face, or Aaron lurching out with half his face falling off, and the book would have been more effective. It’s a question of tone.
There are other problems. The narrative is too loosely drawn-out and the novel too long. It is a compelling read, but Ness’s deliberately repetitive style has the effect of padding it rather, and the fabula—Todd leaves Prentisstown, meets a girl, and together they flee the evil Prentiss and his fundie posse towards the symbolically monikered ‘Haven’—is not ideally served by a sjuzhet that tries to work in too many local climaxes and too many detours. The ending (quoth the out-leaping baddie: ‘even a simpleton knows there’s two roads to Haven!’ 477) seemed to me forced, diverting an organically developing denoument into a cliffhanger for the purpose of spooling the whole into a second and eventually a third installment.
I also wasn’t sure about the core concept. The spoiler-redacted reveals toward the end depend upon certain things having been kept secret from Todd. But the effect of the Noise is, in good Zamiatin We tradition, that people cannot keep secrets from one another. Ness modifies this by saying more than once that it kind-of is possible to hide stuff in your noise, and I could buy that. But Todd has spent his whole life in Prentisstown; could a whole population of men (who, we are told, often think about the women they have lost) really have hidden this big secret from him for a decade and a half? The two men who raised him kept the secret to protect him—but the rest of the town would have no such motivation.
Ah, but I look back and see that I’ve written a thousand words and two-thirds of those come after the ‘but’ in the ‘this is an excellent novel, but …’ metasentence. That’s distorting. The positives assuredly outweigh the negatives; and there is a great deal in the book that is expertly and compellingly handled. It is, not to mince words, one of the best YAs I have come across in a very long time. You should read it.