Monday, August 26, 2013

Review: "Small Avalanches" by Joyce Carol Oates

In which Sam rants AND raves about a series of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates called Small Avalanches, and muses on the nature of YA fiction.

There is a small but important distinction between Young Adult (“YA”) fiction and fiction about young adults. When I picked up Small Avalanches, I was nearly positive the book was in the former category. It had all of the indicia, in my mind: a cover featuring a young, possibly teenage girl, alone on a path, potentially on some sort of journey; a book jacket describing the stories within, featuring protagonists like “a high school girl” and a “jealous teen;” and a summary under the ISBN number on the inside cover proclaiming “Adolescence – Fiction” and “Youth – Fiction.”

In a twist of fate, Small Avalanches is, in my opinion, not YA fiction. Indeed, the protagonists are young women on the cusp of adulthood, with childhood still trailing behind them like a small dark shadow. Yet their journeys are short – and sometimes terrifying. For example, the first story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” followed a young woman through seemingly superficial pursuits until her boy-crazy chase placed her in the path of a much older, much more dangerous man. 

The ambiguity of the story’s ending set the tone for the rest of the novel, with the author rarely revealing the girls’ true fates, but rather immersing the reader in a sunlit snapshot of her girlhood/womanhood. And I do mean immersion – JCO’s prose is extraordinary, fluid, and full of life. Instantly you see and smell and recognize the places and people she describes. In one passage she compares a stranger to her father, and the reader not only sees the stranger, but is struck with language illustrating the difference the protagonist feels in his presence:

I didn’t pay any attention to where he was pointing, I looked at him and saw that he was smiling. He was my father’s age but he wasn’t stern like my father, who had a line like a knife cut, from frowning.

Simple. Tight. Effective.

And if the reader is lulled into unwary acceptance from the protagonist’s perception of the stranger, she is returned to caution by JCO’s prose:

I ran higher up the hill, off to the side where it was steeper. Little rocks and things came loose and rolled back down. My breath was coming so fast it made me wonder if something was wrong. Down behind me the man was following, stooped over, looking at me, and his hand was pressed against the front of his shirt. I could see his hand moving up and down because he was breathing so hard. I could even see his tongue moving around the edge of his dried-out lips . . .

Overall, the strength of JCO’s writing gets Small Avalanches my highest recommendation. The short story format here is the only quarrel I have with the book, and it may be because I wanted to know more about each girl, and see how she fared. Not all of the stories have a clear beginning, middle, climax, or ending. In some, it isn’t clear by the end of the story whether anything real has happened at all. The reader wonders how much may have been in the narrator’s imagination, or illness, or memory. But I think that unreliable structure was intentional: the evanescence of youth, and our own lack of surety at that age, resonates in the very way JCO pieces together a picture of young womanhood in those brief glimpses of girls’ turbulent lives.

Back to the YA conundrum: while I do recommend Small Avalanches, I caution readers that it is not a typical YA book, and almost certainly not suited for the youngest YA readers. The book deals with heavy topics (though more often by implication than explicit description) such as rape, drug abuse and addiction, mental illness, and some frightening violence. It is childhood through the eyes of an adult: the scary parts are fragmented, but they are there, and more than once I was shocked by what happened to a character. Some of what happens seems like hallucination; the surreal, strange, almost absurd events of Haunted in particular gave me pause.

So what is YA fiction? Am I right to think that young readers should be kept away from Small Avalanches – is this not YA fiction, written for them? Is there really a difference between adult fiction about young adults, and fiction written for young adults? I wonder if, as Meg speculated on Friday, YA fiction can be that introduction the real world young women wonder about: its violence and terror and chaos. I wonder if Small Avalanches is an accessible descent into what fear and pain look like; how they could manifest in the life of a young woman.

Small Avalanches is wild. It is adult. It does not follow rules. It goes to dark places. So does the real world. Are YA readers – am I – ready? 


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