Saturday, November 7, 2015

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

(I posted this on tumblr and ended up moving it because it offended my roommate, who was my intended audience. It turns out Crustacean Station is not a place everyone likes to go.)

My roommate was very concerned that everyone in our house read Carry On by Rainbow Rowell. "It's like Harry Potter with gay people!" was her pitch.

Q: Then why not just read fanfiction?

A: Because it's actually like Harry Potter, it's not like a fanfiction (she replied).

I started reading the book with my judgmental glasses on and was trying to figure out how I would tell my roommate that it just seemed like a bunch of complaining instead of a book. In the early chapters, it mostly seemed concerned with critiquing how badly Dumbledore treats Harry in the books--making him live in an abusive household and ignoring him most of the time. By just foregrounding this in the text a little bit, by having Simon (the Harry character) point it out, and by explicitly showing the effects of his childhood a little more, Rowell made it impossible to ignore how weird this is.

At this point, I was still just thinking that the book seemed like a parody as Simon lackadaisically complained about how the "Humdrum" was always sending magical creatures to attack him, yet never seemed to actually kill him. But somewhere between the second and fifth description of how much Simon loves the food at his magical school and how he eats as much as possible at every opportunity, I crossed over from "Yeah! Harry would have a lot of issues," to, "Oh no, Simon has a lot of issues!" The feels were stacking, and the book had leveled up from being a response to Harry Potter to being an interesting book on its own merits.

Obviously, it begs comparison with the Magicians series by Lev Grossman, which very self-consciously references Harry Potter and Narnia (to the point of Grossman being the cover quote for Carry On). The Magicians is one of my favorite books, but it's definitely a book that makes a point about fantasy and fandom--it stands in relation to other things, not on its own. Carry On isn't like The Magicians. It's both meta, and a thing in itself.

The best section of the book is the middle, when Simon starts feeling real and his nemesis Baz comes back to school. Simon spends about 100 pages obsessing over Baz in a hilariously un-self-aware way--he follows Baz everywhere and wants to know what he's doing at all times, but claims this is because Baz is always trying to kill him (he's not). It's funny on multiple levels--because Simon's obliviousness is funny, because of its resemblance to Harry/Draco fanon, and because of the heterosexism in most fiction and life. In most books of this type, Simon could act like this without the author, or many readers, thinking there was anything gay about it.

All the buildup goes on a little too long but it sure is satisfying when Baz finally arrives, and he doesn't disappoint. When he becomes a main character and the book focuses on him, Simon, and Simon's friend Penelope, the story really takes off--both with their adventures together, and with Simon and Baz's slow burn "truce"/friendship/GAYNESS.

And my roommate was right that it doesn't feel like fanfiction even though it is gay. When it comes to most Harry Potter slash the focus is going to be heavily on romance, without the plot and worldbuilding that are a big part of the appeal of the books. There are some issues with how the plot is developed, I think, but it's a really clever one, and the worldbuilding was great. I especially love how the spells are song lyrics and idioms that become powerful because people say them a lot. It's cute and actually makes more sense, intuitively, than random Latin words having power.

Anyway, a really good book! But I have a lot of fine-toothed complaints, because that's how I roll.

A stylistic complaint: she switches haphazardly between all the characters' POVs--this seems lazy and fanfiction-esque in a bad way. I can't really explain why I have an official opinion on this, but I think that if you have multiple POVs, you should follow some rules and not just switch back and forth between random people whenever you want to give the reader a piece of information, i.e.:

Aw, man!  I dropped my Cheeto! Where did it go?

I am a random observer in the back of the room and I noticed that the Cheeto rolled behind the trash can.

Did you know that ever since the dawn of time, the space behind me has been cursed, so that anything that rolls behind me turns into an evil demon?

I'm going to kill everyone! Cheeto Smash!

I guess I'm not just suffering from a crabby conviction that writing should be STRESSFUL and CHALLENGING--I also feel that this really flattens things for the reader. Multiple POVs don't need to be like this. They can be quite engaging, like in A Song of Ice and Fire where you are biting your nails trying to figure out when Character A will find out what Character B has already realized, or if Characters C and D will meet each other.

But that's the difference between a consistent, organized use of multiple POVs, and just dipping into everyone's head for ease of writing. I think the book would have lost nothing and been much more solid if it was narrated by a limited number of characters--say, Simon, Lucy, Penelope, and Baz. Think about it!!

My MAIN complaint though is that the concept is too good to be treated as skeletally as it is--simultaneously rushed and over-signposted. No spoilers, but let me tell you, it's really smart. I was so excited when the penny dropped, but this was with more than 100 pages to go, and then more and more POVs began overexplaining the revelations at a glacial pace. Meanwhile, several really interesting ideas and characters weren't given any development--even though this is one thing the thousand and one POVs would have been good for.

The blurb basically advertises it as a romance/teen angst story with fantasy trappings, but that was so unnecessary because the fantasy trappings are so good! Just give them a little bit more attention and emotional weight!

My final complaint (is such a thing possible?) is about the WTF character Agatha, Simon's ex-girlfriend. The nicest thing that can be said about Agatha is that maybe she's supposed to be a deconstruction of flat love interests--but the other characters are good as characters, not just deconstructions. What happens is that we get a super girly, shallow, and dumb character who the author seems to be low-key making fun of in all her POV sections.

The weird implications of this are summed up when Agatha is making gingerbread women and puts pink icing on them. Unbelievably, two other female characters call her out for doing this, and Agatha responds, "I like pink and girls should feel like they're allowed to wear pink." This seems like a pretty reasonable statement, and since the whole exchange is so awkward, I assume Rowell is trying to make some kind of point. But what??

Sometimes it seems like she's trying to show that it's okay to like the girly things Angela likes--but if that's her intent, she badly undercuts it by making Agatha be so dumb and frivolous that she puts the other characters in danger. If she's uncomplicatedly judging Agatha for caring about hair products and liking the color pink, I don't know what to do with that. It certainly wouldn't fit with the quality and thoughtfulness of other aspects of the book.