Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘A Wrinkle in Time

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

Astounding Stories #14: The Heinlein Juveniles

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Have Space Suit—Will Travel

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

“There is a major but very difficult realization that needs to be reached about [Cary] Grant—difficult, that is, for many people who like to think they take the art of film seriously,” David Thomson writes in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. The realization, he says, is that along with being a great movie star and a beloved style icon, Grant was “the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema.” There’s a comparable realization, I’ve decided, that has to be reached about Robert A. Heinlein. As well as being a cult figure, the first science fiction writer to break through to the mainstream, and an object of veneration for countless fans, he was also the best writer the genre ever produced. And believe me, I know how boring this sounds. Frankly, I’d love to come up with a contrarian stance—that Heinlein is interesting primarily for his historical significance, that he’s revered mostly out of nostalgia, or that a handful of masterpieces allow us to overlook the fact that much of what he wrote was routine. But none of this is true. Of all the science fiction writers I’ve read, Heinlein is consistently the most compelling author, the most interesting thinker, and the most versatile artist. He’s the one writer of his era who could seemingly do anything, and who actually did it over an extended period of time for a big popular audience: great ideas, meticulously developed science and technology, worldbuilding, plot, action, character, philosophy, style. Heinlein was given what the sports writer Bill Simmons likes to call the “everything” package at the car wash, and he more than lived up to it. To a very real extent, Heinlein was the golden age of science fiction, and it’s hard to imagine John W. Campbell doing any of it without him.

This doesn’t mean that Heinlein was a perfect writer. For all the smart, tough, attractive women in his fiction, most of them ultimately come across as desirable fantasy objects for a certain kind of man. (The one really likable, compelling female character in his work, aside from Podkayne of Mars and Hazel Stone in The Rolling Stones, is Cynthia Randall in “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag.”) He never entirely lost the didactic streak that undermines his first unpublished novel, For Us, the Living, even if he advanced so rapidly in craft that it didn’t really matter. His late novels are a mixed bag, but they were never anything less than intensely personal, and they could hardly have been written by anyone else. And it goes without saying—or maybe it doesn’t—that merely because Heinlein was the strongest writer, sentence by sentence, in the history of the genre, it doesn’t mean that he was right about everything, or even about most things. As you read his stories, you find yourself nodding in agreement, and it’s only later that you start to raise reasonable objections. A novel like Starship Troopers is so cunningly constructed around its central argument that it can take you a while to realize how completely the author has stacked the deck. Heinlein liked to say that he was only trying to inspire people to ask the right questions, which isn’t untrue, although it seems a little disingenuous. He’s the most interesting case study I know on the difference between artistic mastery and good advice. They aren’t always the same thing, but they aren’t mutually exclusive, either: they coincide some but not all of the time, which is why the reader has to pay close attention.

Tunnel in the Sky

If I wanted to give a new reader a showcase for Heinlein’s talents, I’d probably start with his early, wonderful novella “If This Goes On—,” but I’d also consider recommending a few of his juveniles. These are the twelve books that he wrote for Scribner’s between 1947 and 1958, and although they were originally intended for young adults, they exemplify most of his strengths and almost none of his flaws. Heinlein explicitly conceived them as an updated version of the Horatio Alger books that he had loved growing up, and his pedagogical tendencies are both fully indulged and totally charming. The moral precepts he’s trying to inculcate couldn’t be more straightforward: “Hard work is rewarded.” “Studying hard pays off, in happiness as well as in money.” “Stand on your own feet.” And because he saw a strong technical education as the royal road to the stars, these books amount to the best propaganda imaginable for a career in the sciences. They’re filled with the kind of lectures—how a spaceship works, the physics of zero gravity, the design of a spacesuit—that most writers are rightly discouraged from including, but which many readers like me secretly crave, and Heinlein serves them up with great style. There’s no question that they inspired countless young people to go into science and engineering, which makes me regret the fact that he deliberately excluded half of his potential audience:

I established what has continued to be my rule for writing for youngsters. Never write down to them. Do not simplify the vocabulary nor the intellectual concepts. To this I added subordinate rules: No real love interest and female characters should only be walk-ons.

You could justify this by saying that these books were marketed by the publisher toward boys anyway, and that most of them wouldn’t have patience for girls. But it still feels like a lost opportunity.

Of all the juveniles, my favorite is Tunnel in the Sky, which starts out by anticipating The Hunger Games or even Battle Royale, moves into Lord of the Flies territory, and winds up as something unforgettably strange and moving. But they’re all worth reading, except maybe the aptly titled Between Planets, a transitional book that plays like Asimov at his most indifferent. Rocket Ship Galileo sends Tom Swift to the moon; Space Cadet looks ahead to Starship Troopers, but also Ender’s Game; Red Planet is terrifically exciting, and provides the first instance in which the adults take over the story from the kids; Farmer in the Sky is flawless hard science fiction; Starman Jones and The Rolling Stones come the closest to the ideal of a boy’s book of adventure in space; The Star Beast is uneven, but appealingly peculiar; Time for the Stars is a great time-dilation story; Citizen of the Galaxy has a lot of fun updating Kipling’s Kim for the future; and Have Space Suit—Will Travel begins as a lark, then grows gradually deeper and more resonant, to the point where I’m halfway convinced that it was one of Madeline L’Engle’s primary inspirations for A Wrinkle in Time. Heinlein’s uncanny ability to follow his imagination into odd byways without losing momentum, which is possibly his most impressive trick, is never on greater display than it is here. The best sequences, as in Starship Troopers, often take place in what amounts to basic training, and many of the juveniles fall into the same curious pattern: after a hundred fascinating pages about the hero’s education, there’s a sense of loss when the actual plot kicks in, as when Rocket Ship Galileo settles for a third act about Nazis in space. We’ve seen most of these crises before, and other writers, as well as Heinlein, will give us plenty of space battles and close escapes. But we’ve never been educated this well.

A wrinkle in life

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Madeline L'Engle

Last week, it was announced that the director Ava DuVernay was looking for mixed-race and minority actors to play the children in her adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time. The news delighted me to no end, and not just because I come from a mixed racial background myself—although that’s certainly part of it. It’s the kind of decision that might seem surprising at first, but then comes to feel utterly right: I’ve spent most of the last hour leafing through my battered paperback copy of Madeline L’Engle’s novel, which I’ve owned since I was eight years old, and one line after another seems charged with new life and meaning when I view it through that lens. A few years ago, I wrote of L’Engle: “Her work was my first glimpse of what I’ve since come to think of as the novel of ideas in its most rewarding form: richly imagined, emotional, and dramatic works of fiction whose central subject is the search for meaning in a universe dominated by science and information, which are really forms of protection against the unknown.” And it’s a journey that has been informed by my own multiracial heritage in ways that I haven’t always appreciated. When you’re of mixed race, you often end up searching for meaning on your own, either by arriving at one combination or another of the elements in your family story or by assembling a new value system from first principles. And I suspect that I was so strongly attracted to A Wrinkle in Time in part because it was one of the first books I’d read that was explicitly about that process. 

In my original post about the book, I noted that it’s essentially an episodic and didactic novel, but we don’t tend to notice this—in the way we do with, say, the Alice stories or The Phantom Tollbooth—because it’s so tightly constructed. It also approaches its characters in a vivid, intimate way that conceals how much of it is structured to function as an allegory. I wouldn’t say that Meg, Charles Wallace, or Calvin are more real to me than Alice or Milo, but they’re portrayed with more incidental detail and warmth, so that they come to seem more like real boys and girls whom we could actually meet one day. Unlike their earlier counterparts, who can seem oddly detached in the face of the strange characters they encounter, Meg, in particular, is vibrating with wounded feeling, which isn’t an accident. A Wrinkle in Time, like the other books I mentioned, is ultimately a story about a young person’s education, but it isn’t primarily an intellectual one, but one of emotion. You can even read each of its worlds as a place in which Meg is forced to fully confront a single emotion in its purest form, from joy on Uriel to freezing grief and forgiveness on Ixchel to mindless conformism on Camazotz. She emerges from each chapter with a lesson, but they’re gently conveyed, and they made less of a conscious impression on me at the time than the book’s vision of a life spent among ideas, which flew like sparks from the characters whenever they spoke.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle

But the book’s message is also deeply Christian—more so, perhaps, than even the works of C.S. Lewis, which I admire in more complicated ways. Lewis, an epic fantasist who owed his religious conversion to none other than J.R.R. Tolkien, thought naturally in eschatological terms: Aslan dies on the stone table, but he returns at the head of an army to pounce triumphantly on the White Witch. (This doesn’t even get at The Last Battle, which I read with a kind of horrified fascination as a child, with its literal division of the characters at the end of the world into the sheep and the goats.) A Wrinkle in Time puts its scriptural sources right there in the text: Charles Wallace’s bedtime reading of choice is Genesis, and the song of the winged centaurs of Uriel comes straight from the Book of Isaiah. But I think L’Engle’s religion is more subtle and meaningful. When asked to name the great fighters against the Black Thing, Charles Wallace cries out: “Jesus! Why of course, Jesus!” But they also include Einstein and Buddha and Gandhi. And when Meg is asked to confront IT, the monstrous brain that rules Camazotz, her only weapon is love itself, which leads to the following extraordinary passage:

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.

This is just a few pages from the end of the book, and Meg resolves her dilemma by choosing to love her lost brother Charles Wallace instead. But the line to which I keep returning, and which I’m not sure I even noticed in my first dozen readings, is: “Perhaps it was not too much to ask of her, but she could not do it.” I think that this unheralded sentence is the secret heart of the book. A Wrinkle in Time comes as close as any work of literature I know to sincerely honoring the man of whom one of the few things we can say for sure is that he told us to love our enemies. (We also know that he was a member of an oppressed religious group ruled by an imperial power.) Yet it also understands how difficult this is, and even Meg, at the end of her journey, falls short of that ultimate example. It’s a line that reflects the personality of L’Engle herself, who was refreshingly empathetic and pragmatic in her faith, and whose books were always more about the search than about any answers that they provided. This search is a birthright that belongs to everyone, but to children of mixed or minority backgrounds even more urgently than most. Their construction of a self, of a personal history, and of their understanding of their own parents isn’t something that they confront in adolescence, as many others do, but as early as kindergarten—which turns them all into something like Charles Wallaces. You don’t need to be of mixed race to love this book. But it adds an interesting wrinkle.

Written by nevalalee

May 17, 2016 at 8:38 am

Fifty years later: A Wrinkle in Time

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It’s quite possible that I owe my decision to become a novelist to Madeline L’Engle. When I was growing up, L’Engle was one of my trinity of great young adult authors, back when they were writing what were still called children’s books, along with Ellen Raskin and Zilpha Keatley Snyder. And while Snyder had the greatest impact on the kinds of esoteric subjects that still fascinate me—The Headless Cupid was an early hint of a tendency that would culminate in The Icon Thief—and Raskin set a standard for ingenuity that no author has matched since, L’Engle’s influence may be the most profound. Her work was my first glimpse of what I’ve since come to think of as the novel of ideas in its most rewarding form: richly imagined, emotional, and dramatic works of fiction whose central subject is the search for meaning in a universe dominated by science and information, which are really forms of protection against the unknown. And all these qualities are already there in A Wrinkle in Time, her most famous novel, which was published fifty years ago this month.

When I first encountered A Wrinkle in Time, I was eight years old, and I immediately sensed that this book was something different than the novels I had been reading up to that point. It was an exciting story that gained much of its texture from digressions into science, art, and history, and was accessible to young readers without the slightest trace of condescension. Its characters were both instantly recognizable and marked by the fervor of their excitement about ideas, which flew off like sparks whenever they spoke, and not simply because they were necessary for the plot. Above all else, there was a sense of the personality of the author herself, who wrote about intelligent people because these were the characters she knew the best. I was young enough so that I didn’t entirely grasp how extraordinary this was, or how hard it would be to find more books like this as I grew older. All I knew that this was the sort of thing I wanted to read, and, ultimately, to write.

Looking back at A Wrinkle in Time, it’s astonishing to realize how modestly scaled it is, at least in terms of length: less than two hundred pages long, but packed with enough invention to fuel five ordinary novels. (Compare this to the length of the last few Harry Potter or Twilight novels, and you see how artful L’Engle’s brevity really is.) And it never seems rushed or artificial. One of L’Engle’s great strengths is to take rather precious conceits, like the two-dimensional planet or the Happy Medium, and make them seem less like a series of set pieces—as they do even in such authors as Lewis Carroll or Norton Juster—than an organic sequence of events. A Wrinkle in Time is an episodic novel, but it feels tightly constructed, thanks largely to the strength of the protagonists, who are idiosyncratic, flawed, and heroic. L’Engle melds the tradition of high-concept fantasy with the believable characters of the best children’s literature, to the point where we’re genuinely curious about how their lives will turn out, which we later learn in the novel’s excellent sequels.

It’s hard to imagine a young adult novel being published today with the range of L’Engle’s influences and interests, largely because it’s the kind of book that creates its own readership, rather than appealing to one that already exists. Indeed, even at the time, it was far from a sure thing: its struggles to get into print are legendary, and it was rejected by something like twenty-six publishers. It’s still a strange, unclassifiable novel, with elements of science fiction, fantasy, and even allegory, although none of the allegorical elements stand in the way of the plot. (It’s frustrating to see some readers reduce it to a Christian or anti-Communist allegory, as if there weren’t so much else going on.) And the book’s singularity reflects that of L’Engle itself, who combined a restlessly curious imagination with religious faith and a refreshing dose of clarity and common sense. She’s simply one of the most inventive authors of the past fifty years, and her books are a model of how to write beautifully rendered fiction for readers of any age. If I could have any writer’s career, it might be hers.

Written by nevalalee

March 28, 2012 at 10:31 am

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