July Fourth, I spent about eleven hours at the Esplanade, waiting for and then enjoying the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular, the rehearsal for which I had been lucky enough to sit in on the evening before (I live tweeted the entire rehearsal, and I was pretty awesome, if you ask me). It was insanely hot, even by my Tucson standards. Since, by Tucson standards, when it’s hot, you just don’t go outside, period, and here I was, with nothing but sunscreen and sunglasses and lots of Gatorade and water to keep me from dying. I also had snacks, both healthy and junky, and friends, two of them. Also a deck of cards and a game called the Fantastic Island Puzzle (if anyone can find this game still in existence, please tell me, as I lost the instructions years ago and so only remember how to do some of the 240 challenges). So it was a fun day, but I also had some moments where I thought I had sweated out all of the possible moisture in my body, I was just that slick with glisten. Also, I ended up with the most unfortunate Bermuda shorts tan, with about ten shades difference between my lower and upper legs and a clear line delineating the shorts hem. Classy.
Anyway, I came with my Kindle to do homework, but that got dull, so I decided to read a novel instead. I had recently been intrigued by the book Butter by Erin Jade Lange, mostly because the description on NetGalley included the note that most of the vulgar language had been removed from the final copy of the book, so I thought that even though I hadn’t heard of the title, I better grab it before it got bowdlerized.
I’m quite sorry for all of you who are going to have to read Butter in its new iteration, however that is, because I don’t understand how the emotional highs and lows could ever be as well portrayed without vulgar language, simply because that’s one of the things that contributes to making this novel a rather phenomenal psychological portrayal of teen angst, serious emotional turmoil, and that complicated minefield that is high school, with its sort-of-bullying, sort-of-social-cliqueyness, sort-of-kids-being-kids, sort-of-self-deprecation mess. Butter, whose name you won’t learn until the last page of the book, is a morbidly obese high-schooler who has decided he’s had enough with yo-yo dieting, feeling bad about himself, and being alternately ignored or made fun of. So he creates a website, makes it public to his high school classmates, and says that he’s going to be eating himself to death on New Year’s Eve. That’s it. He’s had it, and eating his way out of a mess that he ate his way into seems the way to do it.
That sounds totally contrived, but it works, because the novel is otherwise so intense, so close to Butter’s emotional core, that that slight contrivance allows you to breathe while you read. It’s quite gripping. Even though books that are so closely narrated and so dependent on character usually depend on your being to identify strongly with the main character, I didn’t find that my never having been overweight made it hard for me to care about the book. In fact, out of all of the novels I’ve read recently, this was both the farthest from my experience and yet the one in which I felt most invested in the character and the story. After Butter creates his website, he becomes popular and begins to make actual friends, but he’s not sure what to make of the fact that some of his new popular friends are completely into the idea that he’s going to eat himself to death via live webcam in just a few months. Also, there’s a girl. Of course there’s a girl.
If you read my blog, you know that I really love the idea of fiction as an examination into something, not just a story. Just stories are just boring, a lot of the time. Butter is not a boring story, but what’s more, it’s a great examination into current teen culture. So it’s possible that it will become really dated really fast, but it’s equally possible that it will be held up as one of those texts that really describes an era. Because it has everything that today’s youth culture and today’s America is about–relationships mediated through the Internet, peer pressure, voyeurism, obesity, and class. Even without the extra perk that I personally got, being from Tucson and knowing enough about Greater Phoenix to get all of the sly references and jabs, I think any smart reader will be astonished with how much Lange packs in, and how seamlessly she does it. If you just read the book’s synopsis, you probably think it’s an after-school special, lesson-teaching book, and it certainly would have its place in, say, bibliotherapy, group counseling, or possibly even academic curricula. But that reduces it to a lesson when it’s really just an excellent novel and a very impressive debut.
That’s why I’m disappointed by the note I got about the language being taken out, even though that note is also what prompted me to read Butter in the first place. There are lot of reasons this is a bad idea. First, it ruins the integrity of the novel, because that’s just how teens speak, and I found none of the language gratuitous–in fact, when I finished reading and remembered that note, I couldn’t think of any instances that stood out to me as being the ones that would be edited. Second, it’s insulting, controlling, and wimpy–I mean that it insults teen readers’ intelligence to assume that reading books with offensive language means they won’t ever learn about appropriate language registers; that such censorship is a form of sociocultural control and has a lot to do with power being held by the wrong people; and that it’s a cop-out clearly done to avoid backlash from conservative readers who prefer to insult and control. I’m not surprised, since it’s a Bloomsbury book, and they’re pretty much known for picking really interesting YA books and then failing them (just google “Justine Larbalestier” or “Jaclyn Dolamore” with the term “whitewashing” and you’ll see what I mean) and their authors, but that doesn’t mean I’m not disappointed.
I can’t tell you what the final book reads like in terms of language, because I have the ARC, and because I’m writing this review nearly two months before the book is officially released. But while I don’t support what I can only assume to be bad editing and marketing choices, I’m really impressed with Lange, and I think her book deserves a very wide audience.