January 21st, 2013

Lisa Coffee

Masterclass Monday: Feed by M.T. Anderson and Quiet Plots

I know I'm a bit late to the party, but I just had occasion to rea Feed y M.T. Anderson.  Published in 2002, it was a National Book Award finalist.  It's a high concept book: about a future where a feed of commercially-driven messages are integrated into people's bodies.  A group of kids vacationing on the moon get hacked, which damages the feed of main character Titus's new girlfriend, Violet.  

Language is what makes this book so unique.  According to Anderson's Candlewick biography, "'I read a huge number of magazines like SEVENTEEN and STUFF,' he confesses. 'I listened to cell phone conversations in malls. Where else could you get lines like ‘Dude, I think the truffle is totally undervalued’?'"

I heard M.T. Anderson speak at the L.A. SCBWI conference, so I expected creative, sarcastic, and ironic words in this book.  I admit, though, with such a high concept as teenagers with a feed, I thought the plot would be o Hunger Games, epicness, too.  Instead, the plot was (to borrow Anderson's style) just kinda like, ya know, stuff and things.

*SPOILERS* will follow, so don't read on if you want to find out what happens.  

The book has many undercurrents.  Things are going amiss with the feed, and it seems like the kids' world is crumbling at the margins.  Titus, however, doesn't have any big mission or a cinematic moment when, Katniss-equely, he rails against the feed.  Instead, the plot goes like this:  Titus meets Violet, falls in love with Violet even though she's different, treats Violet like crap when her feed malfunctions and she begins dying, and then finally sits with a comatose Violet as she's about to die.  He promises to tell her story--the story of how he fell in love with a girl who fought against the feed in her own small way.

So that's it.  No big explosions.  No chase scenes.  No confrontations with the makers of the feed.  And you know, it was fine.  The message still came through clearly.  By giving us a glimpse into the lives of these characters, Anderson showed us how frightening and all-encompassing the feed was.  Titus didn't have a real enemy to fight or a real fight to make.  Violet had no chance to live without the feed.  

It reminded me of Kazuo Ishiguro' Never Let Me Go, in which the government creates test-tube children for the sole purpose of growing organs.  I kept expecting the two main characters to make some grand escape.  Instead, when they learn that they can't get a deferment because of their true love, they silently go forward with their final, fatal "donations."  This quiet ending is more scary than any big fight.

My takeaway, then, fro Feed and from Never Let Me Go) is that sometimes a quieter plot is the only way to really tell a truly frightening story