Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

My ten great books #7: The Westing Game

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Of the hundreds of novels that I must have read between the ages of eight and twelve, the three that have stuck with me the most are The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle, and The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. The first two get the lion’s share of love, and not without reason: we like to reward children’s books that leave their youthful readers with valuable lessons. The Phantom Tollbooth, as I’ve written elsewhere, is the best fictional handbook to being alive I’ve ever found, and A Wrinkle in Time contains one of the most moving passages in all of young adult literature, when its protagonist, Meg, realizes that love is the only weapon that will work against IT, the hideous brain that rules the planet of Camazotz. The italics are mine:

If she could give love to IT perhaps it would shrivel up and die, for she was sure that IT could not withstand love. But she, in all her weakness and foolishness and baseness and nothingness, was incapable of loving IT. Perhaps it was not too much to ask of her, but she could not do it.

Compared to such peers, The Westing Game might seem like a trifle, “a puzzle mystery,” as it says right there on its paperback cover. As time goes on, though, it’s the one that impresses me the most. It’s every bit the equal of the other two in terms of invention, and it belongs on any short list of the great mystery novels. (A glance at Raskin’s notes only underlines how much care, thought, and sheer cleverness had to go into it at every stage.) If it had been written in French and translated into English—which is impossible to imagine—we might put it on a shelf with the works of Raymond Queneau or Georges Perec, who founded a movement defined as “the seeking of new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy.”

Instead, The Westing Game was written by Ellen Raskin, a homegrown genius of a particularly American kind. It’s revealing that she began her career as one of our great commercial illustrators, designing the covers for over a thousand books, including the first edition of A Wrinkle in Time. All four of her fantastic novels have a way of talking among themselves, in what Nabokov, another precursor, called “a conspiracy of words signaling to one another, throughout the novel, from one part to another,” and it reflects the sensibility of an artist used to thinking in terms of the relationships of elements on the page. Reading it again recently, I was amazed by how much it accomplishes in fewer than two hundred pages. It invents an ingenious mystery that doubles as an ergodic text for preteens. Unlike most mystery novelists, who give us a series of names that blur together as soon as we put the book down, Raskin creates over a dozen characters whom I remember vividly after the passage of decades. (Every few weeks or so, I seem to mutter to myself, for no particular reason: “Ed Purple-Fruit. Ed Plum.”) The cast is diverse without making a point of it, and everyone is allowed to be smart, foolish, empathetic, obtuse, and funny. Its wit is incredibly sharp and consistent. There are no villains, aside perhaps from Grace Wexler, whose casual racism is skewered so beautifully that it’s easy to undervalue it. Best of all, there’s no implication, as we sometimes get from L’Engle or Juster, that we’re meant to take the story as a moral lesson. The Phantom Tollbooth turns into something like propaganda for curiosity, while The Westing Game achieves much the same goal—it’s impossible to read it without hungering for more puzzles—simply by serving as an example of what a curious mind can create. As a result, it points more emphatically than any other book at the kind of novels I ended up writing and reading as an adult. Unlike the others, it wasn’t trying to change lives. But it sure changed mine.

Written by nevalalee

May 16, 2017 at 9:00 am

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