Saturday, January 13

Marly's Ghost


by David Levithan
with spot illustrations by Brian Selznick
Dial 2006

The premise sounds less than promising: Take Dickens' A Christmas Carol and update it to present day, change the holiday to Valentine's Day, and turn Scrooge into a 16 year old boy hardened and embittered against all things romantic after having lost the love of his life.

(Spoilers, such as they are, follow).

Marly is the young girl Ben (short for Ebenezer) has lost to an unnamed cancer, the chains binding her to the living are a charm bracelet filled with memories and mementos her Ben holds so dear they keep both of them from moving on. The three spirits who visit Ben are of Valentine's Day's past, present and future giving him glimpses into who he was, is and could be. The diminutive waif Tiny Tim here becomes a gay couple, Tiny and Tim, who first feel the brunt of Ben's anger and frustration only to see him turn and become their biggest supporters.

It's quite a feat to update Dickens and make it relevant to a teen audience and the effort here is admirable, if flawed. The book calls itself a remix as opposed to a retelling because Levithan has attempted to retain as much of Dickens's original text and dialog wherever appropriate. The effect is that the narrative is woven with odd little bits that never quite seem to mesh with the story being told. There's almost a sense of the archaic in some of the speech, particularly when Ben communicates with the spirits.

I'm also a little confused about the message. Is it that Ben shouldn't grieve the loss, or simply that he's gone too far in wallowing in his grief. With Dickens it is understood that Scrooge had hardened himself over a great many years and his heart hardened over so that his conversion required divine intervention. But the idea here is that Ben has succumbed so quickly that it appears no one has tried to provide the boy any sort of grief counseling at all. Granted, it removes the story from it's flow to look too deeply beyond the simplicity of its origins but it also distracts from the believability of Ben's conversion to suggest that all he needs is an extra-terrestrial reminder of what he's become (and a glimpse at being dead by age 19) to send him to the other side of the emotional spectrum. I'm not a big advocate of psychotherapudic pharmaceuticals but a low dose and a little counseling would have helped Ben a whole better than his conversion into an exuberant pro-love apostle out to spread the good word.

When I was a teen and reading rock and roll criticism seriously there was a review for something that the critic derided snidely as "perfect for 14 year olds in love". Well, I was 14 at the time, in love, and didn't understand why that was such a bad thing. This would have been the perfect book for me back then.
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