I have turned off comments. In my absence comments have only gotten progressively worse. Further discussion does not seem possible at this point. In the future I may consider re-opening them, but as of now comments are disabled.
John Wynn Whitmore would rather go by the name “Jack.” He has been raised by his grandparents, Wynn and Stella, when his parents turn out to be deadbeats. In preparation for his junior year of high school, Wynn wants Jack to visit his old grammar school in Kent and doesn’t mind if his best friend Conner tags along. But an end of the school year party turns into more than just a send off for the pair before leaving for England.
Drunk and tired, Jack walks in on an awkward situation at the party, stumbles outside to walk himself home, and accepts a ride from a stranger. He awakens in pain, on a table, almost assuredly drugged. Escaping his kidnapper seems to end the traumatizing ordeal, but Jack and Conner get more than they bargained for when they take the law into their own hands and journey to England. Guilt isn’t the only thing that awaits them in Kent.
Smith’s prose is blunt and brutal. This is best reflected in the characterization of Jack. Jack’s voice is sharp and affected with just enough teenage apathy and confusion to make his character believable, if unlikable. He can come across as ungrateful for his grandparents, but it’s never a question that his life has not been easy, despite being provided for (the Whitmores own a successful winery). Andrew Smith’s writing reflects the urgency of Jack’s situation. As it worsens (because believe me, it does), he adopts a different style to chart Jack’s deterioration and wavering grasp on reality. The narrative switches unceremoniously between the first and third person. It begins with Jack’s inner voice referring to himself in the third person but soon Jack begins doing the same himself. It reflects the confusion and desperation of the plot as he continues to spiral down a road of addiction.
The additional layer of Jack telling us this story after he’s already experienced it doesn’t add much to the plot—we never, for instance, find out when in his life Jack is speaking from or whether he chose to return to Marbury after all is said and done. It was helpful in the beginning chapters, though and was very good at catching my attention. As far as sustaining it, that is a different thing.
I made a list of words to describe how I felt when reading The Marbury Lens: uncomfortable, disturbed, ill, unsettled, offended. It was a difficult book to read and this has been a difficult review to write because I don’t think this book was necessarily bad. The jacket copy mentions a pair of glasses and a different world, an English girl, and war-torn Marbury. All of these are included, but there is so much that fills the spaces between that still haunt me now, days after finishing, and not in a good way.
It’s part psychological thriller and part fantasy with the line between the modern world and Marbury blurring in bizarre ways with a strange kind of logic. In the first 55 pages there is: a 16-year old walking in on another teenage couple having sex, then is invited to join them; a violent kidnapping; attempted male on male rape; male on male molestation; an inordinate amount of profanity; a murder. I am all for a gritty narrative fleshing out a story in interesting and realistic ways, especially in a YA book (teen literature is too often watered-down), but in this case felt it was all just too much because I could not find the cohesion I needed to make this a truly satisfying (if disturbing) read. In fact, the constant repetition of the phrase “Fuck you, Jack” appears at least once every few pages but is never really explained. It could be remnant guilt since Jack blames himself for the kidnapping, for the attempted rape. It could be Jack telling himself (in the third person) he deserves what happens, but the phrase loses all meaning without context for me and it became gratuitous and annoying. By the end, I didn’t care. I just wanted it to stop.
The profanity was the least of my problems with this book (that is to say, it wasn’t really an issue). Jack’s reliability as a narrator is always questionable. I liked how this kept me on my toes wondering if this was all some outlandish drug-induced nightmare. What I didn’t like was the lack of clear or subtle innuendo to establish why Marbury exists or what exactly it is. Perhaps that was intentional, but I needed something more. I could believe it’s all one long, strange trip if there wasn’t such an emphasis on the glasses being real, tangible things that connected to real, tangible people who exist in this other, unexplained nightmare world that for all intents and purposes, might as well be fake to anyone without a Marbury lens.
I still don’t understand how Seth (a ghost) and his history are somehow relevant to the story other than as an extra paranormal bit of weirdness to add to an already bloody and grotesquely strange Marbury (in which people wear human scalps as loincloths). Others can hear him move objects around, so Seth as a ghost is believable. But what he adds to the plot engine, I can’t be sure. The narrative threads are too separate for me and never quite come together to work toward any unified goal. Jack’s kidnapper exists in Marbury as well, but we don’t know why Marbury is there or what it is for that appearance to make any sense. Other than Jack’s insistence that Freddie the kidnapper “messed with his brain,” we get no proof. We have no idea. The accusation dissipates.
What’s worse: without context for how Marbury relates to his kidnapping, the kidnapping and attempted rape become forgotten trauma. This is why I really wanted a twist ending that reveals (subtly or otherwise) Marbury as Jack’s self-imposed penance, a drug induced haze brought on by addiction as he struggles to deal with the emotion of those awful days. Maybe this is the case and my complaints are hollow. I still needed something extra to convince me. Otherwise, this kaleidoscope of supernatural and violent unpleasantness could work brilliantly for other readers. It did not work very well for me.
There was an uncomfortable vibe from Conner’s frequent preoccupation with his friend potentially being gay (and this is unfortunate since it occupies such a relatively small portion of the plot). Jack is not gay. Jack goes out of his way in the beginning to tell us as much and to explain how open-minded he is (this feels like a token statement). It is very clear that Jack is not gay—not that I ever cared, but Conner clearly does and refuses to let the subject drop. A strange man walks in on Conner talking to Jack, concerned, in a bathroom, and his most logical response to get rid of him (or perhaps he’s trying to be funny) is to instantly say they are both gay and does this man have a problem with that? Perhaps I am overreacting, but what really bothered me was his use of several disappointing phrases throughout the book regarding homosexuality that I’ll refrain from quoting until I can check against a finished edition for accuracy.
If I had known there was a character in this book that was this preoccupied with homosexuality, I would never have read it (although the bitter reality is: people like him do exist). Really, I am that bothered by Conner’s idiocy (even if he thinks it’s charming or that teasing Jack about it is OK). This, in addition to the completely out of the blue situation that arises on the airplane between Jack and this same man from the bathroom: the man begins molesting or attempts to molest Jack. I have no idea where this scene comes from or what it does for the narrative other than give Jack an excuse to rant later on in the book about how fed up he is with guys hitting on him or trying to rape him.
I found more potential in The Marbury Lens than satisfaction, but I also found some large disappointments that other readers may not be affected by. Fans of gritty narratives and unapologetic prose will be absorbed into the intense and bizarre adventure. There is no question that Smith has written a book that will stand out among its contemporaries. It was just not the best fit for me.
Edit: Several comments have made me realize some clarification is in order. There are a few things I would like readers to know:
1) I am not yet willing to provide direct quotations from the text to support my discomfort and unease with an aspect of Conner’s character because I reviewed and only own an advance copy. Until I can find a finished edition and cross-check some quotes for accuracy, I am refraining from including textual evidence. I fully realize this makes my concerns appear weaker and unfounded, but if I could have quoted directly, I would have!
2) I am not accusing, implying, or in any way am concerned with the author, Andrew Smith, “gay-bashing” in this book or of having any other negative opinion or belief about homosexuality. I am just trying to make my confusion and disappointment with some of Conner’s phrasing known.
3) Any and all issues I had with The Marbury Lens are due to my inability to find context that would enabled me to better understand and put into perspective those things which I specifically point out in my review.
-Erika (11/18/2010 5:25pm PST)
Release Date: November 9, 2010
Reviewed Format: Advance reading copy provided by Feiwel & Friends