Monday, September 21

Getting the Girl


by Marcus Zusak
Arthur Levine / Scholastic 2003

Cameron is a multiple anomaly in the world of teen fiction about boys. He's sensitive, quiet, sweet, poetic, searching, and longs for a girl beyond his reach. I take that back, Cameron reads like the cliche of a sensitive teen boy caught in the shadow of his older brothers and the rough-and-tumble streets of his working class neighborhood. As Cameron drifts along from scene to scene, it is quickly clear that what he longs for and deserves he will get, and the title confirms the inevitable.

So the question is, if we learn all this quickly going in, what's to hold us long enough to care?

Zusak's language. But just barely.

The only way Zusak can pull this off is by having a main character insightful and erudite enough to convey what would be beyond the scope of most teens his age. He presents himself as awkward, but it's the shambling awkward of a teen who hasn't realized he's a king in disguise. The reader sees (and is supposed to) that Cameron is worthy of so much more than his current station in life, and all he really wants is Octavia, the one girl his older brother Ruben has cast aside (as he is wont to do every couple of weeks). But like a pauper sage, Cameron must spend time living the horrible doubt of an artist, looking at his working class dead-end family and wondering if he's good enough for something more.

All along the way we see Cameron's poetic notes that he takes, an attempt to capture an emotional photograph of each transition as he experiences it. His father lives for the gruntwork of plumbing, his brother for occasional fight that has made him top of the trash heap, his sister the secretive photographer who may be his spiritual equal, and through it all Cameron serves as Frederick, Leo Leoni's picture book mouse whose gifts only bloom in the dead of an emotional winter, when it may be that he's lost the girl for good. The old Yiddish expression is that sometimes people need a story more than food; for Cameron, his words are food that keep his soul alive.

And the metaphors. I have author Varian Johnson to thank for pointing these out at a recent lecture at VCFA. Water, water, everywhere, and Cameron is there to swim in it, drown in it, ebb and flow with it. But the water is Zusak's/Cameron's metaphor for his desire, his lust, his longing and hopes. Octavia is the ocean he longs to swim in, to touch and be consumed by. It is compelling because Zusak manages to keep making references to water without downing the reader in the obvious. The metaphor is clearly Cameron's, and its in these moments that Zusak succeeds.

But when a book so clearly telegraphs its message early on and shows no hint at veering off track, then both me and the teenage boy inside me begin to get antsy. The pacing is so deliberate that it frustrates, and Cameron's poetic notes verge on the precious. With few scenes and sparse-but-poetic handling this book's 250 pages could be cut in half and not miss a thing. The first-person narration so eloquent in its observations they make actual prose-poems in Cameron's hand inserted between the chapters redundant. There is a perfect novella – the size and shape of which would attract more boy readers – trapped in this conventional-length novel, one I would have been hard-pressed to find fault with. But as is the story drags, the inevitable seems less a prize for having been held at arms-length for far too long.
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