Monday, November 28, 2011

The Zusak Scale

When I was in high school, I had a drama teacher named Mr. Zeis who taught me two valuable life lessons:
1.) Don't let anything break the illusion for your audience.
2.) Don't be afraid to make a fool of yourself.

A few months ago, I went on a Markus Zusak kick, and ever since I've been trying to figure out how to explain what sets his work apart. His use of language is a little different, the way he evokes emotion and swings you around from laughing to crying within just a few words is a little different... You don't "read" Zusak - you "experience" him.

I was toying around with an acronym, something like the Zusak Illusion Experience Scale (Z.I.E.S), and that dyslexically brought me back to my drama teacher (Zeis).

That's when it clicked: It's not about labeling a book as "good," or deciding whether or not you "like" it - I'm talking about evaluating those special few books that you develop a relationship with, that are so real that "reading" isn't an accurate enough verb to describe your interaction.

For our experiment, I'll be grading books on a scale of 1 to Zusak, with the Zusak level reserved for the most "real" illusions, the most "intimate" reading experiences. But please understand, I'm not suggesting that Zusak is the gold standard. Zusak, while great, is flawed. He never spikes the football, so to speak. I wait for that emotional stomach punch at the end (and I WANT it, I have my tissues at the READY), but he never quite gets there.

My goal: Find something that ranks ABOVE the Zusak - something that draws me in more, that maintains the narrative illusion better, and then brings in the closer (baseball analogy) to finish the job.

EXAMPLE ONE: MAUREEN JOHNSON

I recently did a book study on Maureen Johnson's NAME OF THE STAR, which I thoroughly enjoyed but described as "a little too tidy" for my tastes.



This book maintains an illusion perfectly - but it lacked the emotional attachment element. It didn't draw me in as deeply as, for example, MJ's LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPE duo. I never had a moment where I was so wrapped up in "experiencing" the story that I ceased "reading" it.



THE LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPE books, on the other hand, sucked me right in. Ironic, because NAME OF THE STAR is in First Person, which is supposed to feel more intimate, more immediate. THE LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPES are in Third Person Past Tense, but I was doubly invested and properly weepy at the end of both of them. For me, they provided the richer experience. I demand Disney/ABC Family/Hallmark make these into movies immediately. ABC Family could use THE LAST LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPE as part of their "25 Days of Christmas" series that starts every year around Halloween.

THE POTENTIAL ZUSAK HEIRESS

I bring this up because when I originally got wrapped up in The Zusak, I hypothesized that Tahereh Mafi's book SHATTER ME might land high on the Zusak scale - similar writing style, similar ways of playing with words, similar use of humor, etc.

I struggled to study SHATTER ME the way I've studied other books because, for the first time, I "know" the author. I've followed The Mafi for awhile, I've exchanged emails and Tweets, I've read her blog for ages - I had a good feel for who she was, how she wrote, and what was important to her LONG before I got my hands on her book.

At the core of everything Tahereh writes, you'll find a cheerleader, rooting for everyone to reach their full potential, to never give up, to see the best in each other and in themselves, etc. That's her mission:
"SHATTER ME is a story about hope, about love, about looking within ourselves and finding both light and dark, strength and weakness, and struggling to be more than the labels pressed upon us by society. it's about a girl trying to find herself in a world trying to tell her who to be."
Her core mission innately gives her writing extra depth that is often lacking in other narratives. I love reading Tahereh Mafi.

SHATTER ME is absolutely the kind of book you "experience" more than "read" - I'd call it innovative in the way she takes Zusak's sensory wordplay to the next level (including crossed out segments to show you what Juliette is trying not to think). I think Tahereh is going to be a major player in the industry. I think she's going to be a star. However, as many kudos as I give her for this project - I know she can do better.



SHATTER ME explodes emotions in a raw, almost messy way, which I think is good. Juliette has gone most of her life without being touched, so when she DOES experience the sensation of closeness, you feel the explosions it creates in her nerves and in her brain. But it gets kind of repetitive. Some may accuse it of crossing the "purple prose" line.

I've never felt closer to a character than I felt to Juliette - not only was the story First Person Present Tense, but the language is so sensory that I FELT what she felt, and the strikeouts let me into her head so deeply that I even knew what she was NOT thinking. If that makes sense. Subliminal and brilliantly executed.

What I don't understand is that Tahereh failed to take advantage of what I think is her greatest asset - her amazing sense of humor. SHATTER ME is heart wrenching - there is a lot of emotion sloshing about. But I don't remember ever laughing out loud. Once Tahereh integrates her playful side into her work, she'll be in a class by herself. Of this I feel confident.

SHATTER ME is a strong debut and worth a read, if nothing else so that you're braced for the inevitable copycatting that is sure to follow. The Mafi is only going to get better. Can't wait for the second installment.

AND NOW FOR A BRIEF TANGENT/RANT

I don't read jacket flaps. I do my best to avoid spoilers. I want to experience stories without anything getting in the way. What bugs me about jacket flaps (or other summaries): They tell you what you're going to read before you read it.

We live in a society of increasingly shorter attention spans. Things move quickly. It seems to me that the way these book summaries are put together is kind of old fashioned, and may even become problematic for a publishing industry already trying to keep up.

In short: I don't want to read a summary on a jacket flap, and then spend the next 150 pages learning what I already know. This dampens the experience and makes me less likely to enjoy the product.

SHATTER ME (in the hard cover US version) is 338 pages long. I read through about page 120 before I re-learned everything I learned by just reading the jacket flap. That's one-third of the book! Am I the only one who thinks this sort of "production" issue is a problem? Isn't there a way to write the jacket flap/summary so that you can jump right in to the story without the duplication? Wouldn't that be better for the reader, better for the art, better for the business?

Lord knows I understand how difficult it is to write a "hook" but this doesn't seem sustainable - it's like watching a movie trailer that shows you a summary instead of a tease. How invested would you be, as a viewer? How much would your attention wander?

This is by no means a knock on SHATTER ME (and should in no way reflect poorly on Tahereh, who I'm sure had nothing to do with it). This book was highly anticipated and spoilers were hard to avoid. SHATTER ME was good on its own. It wouldn't take much to hook a reader. At least in this case, I feel they over-hooked and it kind of broke the illusion for me. I'll bury my head deeper next time.