Friday, June 22, 2012

Son of Rage and Love

Son of Rage and Love
By Thomas Raymond

A couple of weeks back when I reviewed the Hunger Games I got a little nasty on the subject of Young Adult fiction. I didn't (and still won't) say that I dislike the genre, but it bores me to tears more often than not. A few days later I got an email from Thomas Raymond, the author of the YA novel The Son of Rage and Love. Raymond agreed with me on many of my points about the formulaic nature of YA novels and assured me that his novel was different.

Turns out he was right. (Well, he would know... he wrote it, after all).

The Son of Rage and Love is about Daniel the 12 year-old son of an irresponsible C-list celebrity named Maya. Due to her career (and drinking problems), Daniel and his sister are being raised by their over-bearing grandmother. Daniel has been diagnosed as ADHD and takes medication to maintain his mood though the pills he takes cause all sorts of side effects such as hallucinations and paranoia. A steady diet of television, video games and structured time-wasting organized by his materialistic grandmother keeps Daniel out of trouble. Daniel's sister has spent years in therapy in order to prepare her for the career in acting she does not want. Needless to say, the sedated calm (or fog, as Daniel refers to it) that envelopes the household is a virtual prison for Daniel and his sister. That is, until a publicity gaffe forces Maya to adopt a precocious 13 year-old Haitian orphan named Jean-Maurice in order to rescue her ailing career. That's when the house of cars comes tumbling down.

The Son of Rage and Love is a breath of fresh air in the YA fiction genre for a few reasons. First and foremost, there are no wizards or vampires and it doesn't take place in a dystopian future. The protagonist does not possess a superpower and the ending is not a neither a neat little ball nor the launching point for a sequel. In fact, The Son of Rage and Love has more in common with Ken Kesey's celebrated novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and anything published in the Young Adult genre over the past few years. That's a step in the right direction, if you ask me.

In the Grandmother, Raymond has created an antagonist for the ages. Part Nurse Ratched, part Joan Crawford a la Mommy Dearest, the Grandmother is so unlikeable that the reader would cheer for Voldemort himself to strike her down. I'm always on the lookout for strong, memorable characters and if this book had one it was Grandmother (though I must admit that I have strong affinities toward bad guys). Sometimes a novel needs an over-the-top antagonist to tie all the themes together in a nice little package. Daniel's grandmother is precisely that character.

But the real reason this book succeeds is the themes it addresses throughout, many of which affected me personally as many of them are precisely the reasons why I have decided to live overseas, away from North America. Raymond explores the issues of over-medication (and unnecessary medication) of children and adolescents, the slippery slope of child psychology, the perils of a sedentary lifestyle, the cult of celebrity, the pratfalls of the Nouveau rich, alcoholism, pornography, latent violence, loneliness and social isolation. By introducing a character from a third world nation Raymond makes the unique decision to magnify the problems in North America rather than focus on the problem of poverty in Haiti. Not that poverty in Haiti isn't a problem, but having Jean-Maurice juxtapose a life in poverty against the complex anxieties of modern living in America is a novel approach.

Without being heavy-handed, Raymond weaves these concepts into the narrative. There is no preaching. There is no editorializing. These problems just are, as they would be in Daniel's life. And since Daniel's existence is both limited and encompassed in a narcotic haze, one cannot expect him to have strong opinions about his life (or anyone else's for that matter). Daniel is smart enough to understand that these problems exist but like most normal 12 year-olds not named Harry Potter or Katniss, he feels (and ultimately is) powerless to do anything about them.

What I think this novel delivers is a dose of critical thinking to young readers. Raymond has forced his readers to look at their own lives and the lives of their friends and family. Are we over-medicating our youth? Are were over psycho-analyzing our youth? If so, for whose benefit? Our kids or ourselves? Do we focus too much on the cult of celebrity? Why do their personal lives matter so much to us? The list of questions Raymond attempts to raise is interesting and IO wonder whether this would be an interesting book to study with a class of 11 or 12 year old kids.

If I had one complaint about the novel is that Raymond is long on the set up and a bit short on the follow-through. At 159 pages, The Son of Rage and Love could have been a little longer if it meant a bit more focus on the climax. I felt that the novel ended just a bit too abruptly and would have liked a little more in terms of elaboration. Still, I appreciate that this novel attempts to deal with adolescent adventure in a more realistic fashion and often reality isn't the storybook ending we expect after hundreds of hours of television, movies and video games. So, it's all good.

Anyway, if you are a fan of YA fiction (or even if you aren't) check this one out. Even if you aren't it has enough elements of classic adult fiction to keep you going. As I mentioned before there was so much about this book that reminded me of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and if that isn't endorsement enough, I don't know what is.

One word review: Refreshing.


Amber said...

I don't read enough YA fiction to generalize it as formulaic (although the ones I have read could qualify as such) but I think your grievance is fair.

This is a great review. I think a dose of critical thinking should be in everything and The Son of Rage and Love sounds like a good read.

...I don't know if you've ever read Lowboy by John Wray, but your discussion reminded me of it. Maybe its the overlap of themes: societal dysfunction, over-medication, mental-illness.

I definitely think young adults (maybe everyone) needs balanced exposure to real life issues, and vampires and wizards in the things they read.

Great post.

Jenny said...

"cheer for Voldermort himself to strike her down." LOL! Priceless. Well, as you probably know and barely tolerate, I read a ridiculous amount of YA. I should try to get my hands on this one to see, if nothing else, what you consider good YA.

neal said...

Your description here definitely interests me in this novel. Although Maniac Magee was probably skewed a little younger, I always appreciated the way it respected the hard things that kids sometimes have to go through. This book sounds like it does that.

I wonder, if you read a selection of Newberry winners, if the genre would feel stale. Although, maybe you're distinguishing YA a little older than what the Newberry award would consider.

Ryan said...

@Amber: I've never even heard of John Wray. I'll keep an eye out.

@Jenny: Whatever gets people to read is fine to me. If that is YA, great! Awesome! Yay! If it's Steampunk Zombie Dystopia set in 16th century France, ditto! I tolerate all!

@neal I have read a few Newberry winners (though the only one that comes to mind right now is Holes) and I have enjoyed a few. I fully admit that I have not read nearly enough YA to differentiate sub-genres and would hardly call myself an expert on the subject. Perhaps you're right. I'll try to sniff out some Newberrys.

Man of la Book said...

I don't read YA often (but I do) and I only wish other genres would have a quarter of the enthusiasm of the YA crowd.

Disincentive said...

I really like that kind of books. I read YA but I sometimes get bored of this fashion in YA - this year vampires, next dystopian, next mermaids...

but, really, there should be a law telling authors not to make their covers in paint. The cover makes me thing "nah".
This photo could use some actions (like a little brightening....) and this text could be edited. NOT IN PAINT. I'm sorry, but this is the worst thing that indie authors do. Covers seem just... disincentive.

Ryan said...

Oh god, anything but mermaids!

Jonathan Wilhoit said...

A YA book that's not about kids with special powers or a dystopian society, you say? Say it ain't so! We can't have kids reading books about reality. How else would we keep them in their insulated bubbles?

I keed, of course. Great review. The themes in this book are powerful ones, and they bring up questions and issues that deserve to be looked at long and hard. What sounded the best to me, though? The fact that the book doesn't set itself up for a sequel or trilogy. That kind of thing flies in the face of the current literary privateering, and I love it.

Anonymous said...

Dear Ryan,

I enjoyed reading this review. What I liked the best is that "there are no wizards or vampires and it doesn't take place in a dystopian future". You might love a novel called Pearl Lover, which is a young adult story with the question: "Is it moral for a woman to love two men." It is light on romance but heavy on the individual characters. If you are interested, I can send you a copy. I wrote it and just published it recently. Kea

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