Thursday, January 2, 2014

A Review of Eleanor & Park: A Book That Looks Like Art

I had the good fortune to speak at an event with Rainbow Rowell at a Tulsa Library Novel Talk series on “Literature and Romance” in 2012.  I was there to give a talk over Jane Austen as prelude to a reading from her book, Attachments, and a Q & A with a friend of mine, Laura Raphael, who organized the event.  Sadly, I didn’t know a single one of her works, but my wife and I were bowled over by her presentation and unique storytelling ability.  I knew she had to be a great writer based on what I heard that afternoon, but nothing prepared me for the voice I encountered in her books—to say nothing of the feeling I had when I turned the final page of her novel, Eleanor & Park, last night.  Perhaps it’s for the best that I didn’t know her work back then; otherwise, I would have felt like a fool for speaking on the same stage as her, and might have simply yielded my time to let her go even longer.  After all, who cares what some diminutive professor from a small university has to say about Jane Austen—we have her direct descendant in the room with us!  (more about the Jane Austen connection to follow).   

I suppose it’s redundant to write yet another laudatory review of Rainbow Rowell’s phenomenally successful novel, Eleanor & Park, especially when she already has another successful book out (Fangirl) and a fourth one imminent (Landline).  However, a great work of art demands a response, and perhaps that’s my only defense in writing this review: to claim this work as a great piece of literature, rather than Young Adult lit or as some would pejoratively claim, ‘chick lit.’  This book works on every level that, say, Jane Austen, does, another writer who is unfairly relegated to the questionable sub-genre of ‘books that only girls like.’  Like Jane Austen, Rainbow Rowell uses the flowering of an unlikely romance to document our society—its prejudices, phobias, confusions, ideals, and disappointments.  The story of Eleanor and Park, two extraordinarily unique yet realistic teenagers, should resonate with anyone who tried to piece together adulthood from the disjointed shards of adolescence.  Clearly, we aren’t given all the pieces, and when we try to make them fit, the edges don’t match—we cut ourselves—and the result is a painful, frustrating mess that only years later, when we’re older and wiser (perhaps) do we appreciate why it was all worth it.  That’s what this work does for me: it shows why being a teenager was worth it, and why the pain of isolation and being ostracized is one of the greatest gifts you can receive in life.

Halfway through the book, when Eleanor and Park have begun their tentative relationship, Park reflects on Eleanor’s claim that she never looks ‘nice.’  He agrees, adding, “Eleanor was right: She never looked nice.  She looked like art, and art wasn’t supposed to look nice; it was supposed to make you feel something.”  It’s an important passage, since Eleanor and Park are two people who don’t look “nice.”  They aren’t “pretty,” and they don’t fit the neat ideals of American life sold to us in films,  advertisements, and far too many novels.  Eleanor is large, has a wild shock of red hair, dresses in a hodgepodge of men’s clothing, and just wants to be left alone.  Park is one of the lone Koreans in suburban Omaha, comes from a loving family, listens to punk rock and reads comic books, and secretly despises everyone he goes to school with.  Fittingly, they meet on the bus, with Eleanor as the new girl who everyone immediately makes fun of; even Park, no romantic hero himself (shades of Darcy, perhaps?), thinks she’s a weirdo and wants nothing to do with her.  Grudgingly he offers her space on his seat, though without a shred of gallantry; indeed, he hopes she never so much as looks at him in thanks.  The kids on the bus jeer her with whispers and shouts of “Big Red,” and Park simply glowers in silence, wondering why in the world he offered to be her protector. 

From this very unpromising beginning, the two begin a relationship as only two alienated teenagers could strike up: she begins reading comics with him from across the seat, and he, feeling a mixture of guilt and interest, starts leaning over a little more, waiting for her silently to finish the page before turning to the next.  The romance is slow, subtle, yet so entirely believable—or perhaps, life as it should be believed—that I fell in love with them myself.  Park finally takes the leap and gives her a comic to take home with her, which leads to short, staccato conversations about the X-Men and the Watchmen; this leads to offers of music (mix tapes!) and eventually, to holding hands.  The first time Park takes her hand—after weeks of hesitant attempts to say something real to one another—we get a masterpiece of literary polyphony; that is, two voices coming together to make a satisfying, harmonious whole.   Rowell breaks up the chapters between Eleanor and Park’s point of view, and while some chapters focus on long spans of narrative, others are mere pinpoints of thought (some are a single sentence).  This moment is first narrated by Eleanor, as she records their pointless chatter about the Watchmen:

“He was still holding the end of her scarf, rubbing the silk idly between his thumb and fingers.  She watched his hand.  If he were to look up at her now, he’d know exactly how stupid she was...If Park were to look up at her now, he’d know everything.  He didn’t look up.  He wound the scarf around his fingers until her hand was hanging in the space between then.  Then he slid the silk and his fingers into his open palm.  And Eleanor disintegrated...Like something had gone wrong beaming her into the Starship Enterprise....Maybe Park had paralyed her with his ninja magic, his Vulcan handhold, and now he was going to eat her.  That would be awesome.”

We then switch to Park’s perspective, as he notes that “Holding Eleanor’s hand was like holding a butterfly.  Or a heartbeat.  Like holding something complete, and completely alive.”  He goes onto to recall his previous attempts to hold or kiss a girl, which were not only awkward, but lifeless.  He feared he wasn’t attracted to “real girls,” or perhaps only to “perverted cartoon-sexual” girls found in comics.  However, once he took her hand, he realized, “he just didn’t recognize all those other girls.  The way a computer drive will spit out a disk if it doesn’t recognize the formatting.  When he touched Eleanor’s hand, he recognized her.  He knew.” 

While the romance is carefully and believably constructed, what is more important here is how both teenagers experience love.  Not through cliched phrases and “pretty” emotions, but through their own eclectic sensations and metaphors.  Nothing new happens in the world, we’ve all seen it before as readers, but as people, everything we experience is new—all the more so when we’re young, and all those song lyrics and films and books suddenly make sense (to us, at any rate).  How would a teenager like Eleanor, who has been told her entire life she’s fat, unwanted, unfit to exist in a world of prettiness and popularity, understand that another boy would want to “eat” her?  And how would a kid raised on American stereotypes and punk rock rebellion find beauty in a girl who isn’t afraid to be a work of art—a woman that makes him feel, rather than a cardboard model blithely sipping a Diet Coke?   The relationship that follows is a true work of art, not just in Rowell’s words, but in the haphazard, confused, beautiful, sublime manner in which they find one another. 

Yet like Jane Austen (to invoke her one final time), Rowell uses the teenage lovers to examine our own world—or in this case, the 80’s of Middle America.  Omaha exists as a real place in her work, with the good part of town divided from the bad by a single block.  Yet this narrow gulf is an ocean for Eleanor, who lives with her abused mother and four siblings in her drunk father-in-law, Richie’s, house.  Richie, a man who probably grew up in a “pretty” world and became disillusioned when he couldn’t have it, now sees all women as trash.  He kicks Eleanor out of the house—with her mother’s defeated but total compliance—and threatens worse, particularly as he scrawls pornographic messages on her schoolbook covers.  Eleanor learns early on that “pretty” is just a sales pitch, which money can buy—and others can only dream of.  So she defiantly becomes “ugly,” dressing as a piece of walking performance art which horrifies her peers (who, in one scene, stuff her clothes in the gym toilet).  This is not only her defense, but also her artistic manifesto for small-town Omaha: I’ve seen what you think is beautiful, and if that’s beauty, I’ll be a festering sore on your beauty; I’ll be the Caliban to your Prospero, mocking you as you live in splendor on your little island. 

In the same way, Park is formulating his own private manifesto, as society expects him to live up to the ideals of a suburban American male—and an Asian American male.  Yes, he does well in school and takes martial arts (at his father’s insistence, an American military man who married a Korean woman), but to him, this is all part of the pretty package he’s supposed to embody.  He longs for the feelings that comics inspire in him-a world of mutants and heroes who save the world by being different, who rise from the gutters to reach the stars.  Though taught to date a “pretty” girl like Tina (the popular girl, who secretly likes him), every instinct screams out for Eleanor, the only girl who looks like a comic book hero come to life.  When she cannot understand why someone as beautiful as Park likes her, he continually tells her, because you’re “cool.”  “Cool” meaning not neat, trendy, hip, or amazing, but a work of art—something that makes you feel something.  Teenagers are full of strong emotions but are taught to push these down and emulate ideas and experiences that only adults can appreciate.  Eleanor gives form to the emotions he has always felt, but has no words for—and only the frames of a comic book can approximate. 

Without recounting the wonderful story and the ins-and-outs of Eleanor and Park’s relationship, I will conclude with the ultimate spoiler: we don’t get a happy ending.  That is, we do get one, but it’s not pretty—it’s “ugly,” by which I mean as unique and satisfying as Eleanor and Park themselves.  True art and beauty cannot exist unsullied in life, especially for teenagers, who can never truly own anything.  Yet the book is gloriously optimistic—if never sentimental—in its view of love, and how love is a necessary step in our evolution, even if the results disappoint.  We need love, even if we can’t hold onto it, even if we can’t take it with us.  As Eleanor reflects at the end of the book, “You saved my life, she tried to tell him.  Not forever, not for goodProbably just temporarily, and now I’m yours.  The me that’s me right now is yours.  Always.”  Here Eleanor shows wisdom beyond her years as she unconsciously quotes Keats, knowing that the figures in the urn can never reach one another, can never touch, but the result is art—timeless and beautiful.  After all, love is a mature experience, and one you rarely get right—or get to savor—the first time around.  Yet your first experience shapes you for life, and that person never truly dies, but remains evergreen in your dreams and ideals.  So, too, with Eleanor and Park, fictional characters in a work of art that feels like Keats’ Urn set in motion. 

Only one other work I can think of captures this sense of teenage awakening and social awareness so accurately—Craig Thompson’s monumental graphic novel, Blankets.  Both works share many of the same themes, characters, and ideas, and both are unafraid to be ugly when pretty is all we expect.  There are many pretty works of art out there, so many to choose from; but when you read a work like Eleanor & Park, you quickly lose your taste for them.  This is the real thing, the kind of work that reminds us why we read in the first place.  No, not for escape or for voyeuristic pleasure, but to find ourselves in the lives of others.  Though I read through the book far too quickly (and I’m sure I’ll read it again soon!), I’ve rarely felt so much a part of the two characters’ lives; I am desperate to know what happens next, yet am relieved that I can never know.  Like the best art, it’s not about the future but the present—it exists right here, in the moment we can hold in our hands as we read the book.  There’s nothing else.

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