Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Parallel Reality and the Human Heart

Claudia Gray, A Thousand Pieces of You (The Firebird Trilogy, Part One)

Marguerite Caine is caught between worlds. Literally. Thanks to her parents’ invention, the Firebird, she can leap into parallel dimensions: a technologically advanced London, Russia where the Revolution never happened, a research colony on the ocean floor. But she isn’t leaping just for fun. Marguerite is seeking the man who killed her father, stole his trailblazing research, and not incidentally broke her heart. Along the way, she’ll uncover dimension-spanning conspiracies that undermine everything she knows.

On one level, journeyman YA author Claudia Gray compiles elements familiar from her genre. For instance, on Page One, she declares unambiguously which character Marguerite believes killed her father. If you’ve read more than one YA novel—well, more than one any-age novel—you realize that, by page 350, circumstances will reverse everything she believes, every obvious judgment. We know where Marguerite’s journey ends; we only read to discover what circuitous route brings her there.

However, that route remains gripping. Gray constructs an elaborate superstructure based on secrets and revelations. Every unveiled event opens a cascade of further secrets, as what begins in an apparent crime proves far larger. Details dropped before page fifty suddenly prove consequential after page 300. Marguerite’s life is massively interconnected; it’s impossible to tell, at any moment, which flippant detail might prove massively important. The complexity of Gray’s story keeps readers eager for another discovery.

Reading Marguerite's story as a straightforward chase narrative with romantic overtones offers a plainly fun story. But that’s like reading The Hunger Games and eliding Collins’ political subtext. Marguerite’s physicist parents believe they’re pursuing “pure science,” knowledge for knowledge’s sake. When their graduate assistant murders her father, leaving not even a body to examine (lampshade!), she discovers all knowledge has moral implications. Continuing revelations push this further, questioning boundaries between pure science and marketable technology.

Claudia Gray
Gray also invites speculation on themes of identity. Her premise forbids Marguerite to leap, Scott Bakula-style, into just anybody; she only visits dimensions where she somehow already exists. Yet in various realities, she’s a hedonistic orphan, a tzarina, a submarine pilot, and more. Gray forces Marguerite to question the circumstances that created her identity. Had reality unfolded differently, would we make choices similar to those we’ve already made? Are we mere products of our environment?

Marguerite’s story proves further intricately connected. Only looking backward can we comprehend just how beautifully Gray has constructed Marguerite’s reality. Seemingly insignificant revelations dropped fleetingly before page fifty prove crucial to explosive climaxes nearly 400 pages later. Once we recognize her elaborate, Jenga-like lattice, we naturally attempt inferences. But Gray constantly frustrates our attempts to predict her narrative: in her tightly woven narrative, the difference between playful scene-setting and dropping serious clues becomes increasingly indistinguishable.

This novel succeeds on so many levels. Despite my paragraphs of literary disquisition, Gray markets a high-tension yarn that sweeps readers along briskly, pace never flagging, characters never growing repetitive. Unlike many eat-your-spinach novels I remember from my teens, Gray wastes little time directly expounding morals; her points arise from characters whose tense situations force them to act. Gray remains a storyteller first, but her story, like life, forces characters and audience into deeper reflection.

Viewpoint narrator Marguerite serves the same basic role as human companions on Doctor Who: somebody needs to translate massively rococo science concepts into small words for the audience. Also, somebody needs to justify science that doesn’t actually make sense (quick scans of Brian Greene dismantle both Marguerite’s Firebird and the TARDIS). Though telling her own story, Marguerite is essentially us, facilitating our vicarious adventures through realities too sleek, romantic, dangerous, or marvelous to ever exist.

Saying “this book isn’t for everybody” seems almost redundant with YA literature. Despite her prudent adolescent narrator and early-twenties core ensemble, Gray drops occasional language and violence—less than typical cable dramas—and brief sex. Though Gray’s telling remains tasteful, parents should realize this ain’t no TBN after-school special. Her characters have sex to express deep devotion, not momentary thrill, and nobody imagines murder plots without violence. Just don’t mistake this for something it ain’t.

Today’s sweeping popularity of YA fiction with adults sometimes drives literary purists into a tizzy. Grown-ups, they say, should read books for grown-ups. Yet reading novels like this, I understand why audiences remain loyal to writing aimed at teenagers. Wise to life’s nuances, but unencumbered by adulthood’s baggage, teens see reality their own way. We adults, glazed in learned cynicism and hip gloom, would recapture that clarity. For one moment, between two covers, we can.

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