If the prolifertion of online opinion has had any result in the world at all, it has been to reduce the value of the written word. I don't mean to say that people are reading less, or even less thoroughly, or feeling weaker civic emotions, I mean that, giving a billion housebound geeks an unconstrained place where people might actually read their horrible manifestos, blogging has reduced the value of individual written words. In online travels, it's positively a delight to find the rare entity who has the power to say more with less. Daveto rarely over-stretches his points (and rarely understretches them, a nice contrast to the gang which speaks in hints as well), and he usually has an entertaining way of getting to them, a little bit like he's tossing out a casual thought, or better: revealing a bare thought without the forty pounds of prosaic folly or muddied rationalization that most of us use. It really drives some people (and mostly the right people) to frothing incoherence, which is one reason I like him. I also take it as a sincere posture, and I actually think he's among the most sincere of my various online acquaintances. Admittedly, this impression is enhanced by the fact that he's brought up daughters, evidently done it well, and he seems to be as bemused about it as I feel most of the time. So why is Slake's Limbo, a book I read to my girls, the choice for daveto? Because it's huge, that's why.
With that introduction, it's an odd thing to put Felice Holman's prose against daveto's. Slake's Limbo is positively turgid with written curlicues and unannounced asides and flashbacks, and utterly shameless about piling on the gusty pathos. "Aremis Slake," the protagonist's name, almost encapsualtes the whole aesthetic. It's an interesting fictional name, but you can feel how hard she tried to get just the right one, one with the precise literary heft, exactly the right combination of dirt and dignity. Slapped with that moniker, the poor boy is destined for verbose melodrama. Slake's Limbo is written for young people, and I don't want to imply that the language is challenging exactly, but the form is a far cry from the approved, formulaic "chapter books" they get assigned from school to beginning readers. It comes from a 1970s school of children's vérité, where edgy urban reality (that is actually pretty well over the top) is presented unflinchingly. The boy is brought up utterly neglected, malnourished, suffering the indignities of bullying by drunk eighth graders, of his retarded companion hit by a bus, and, as we quickly learn, hiding out in a New York subway for four months straight.
It can be tough to tell if my kids enjoy the books I read to them. I think they like the experience more than the books themselves, which is fine. My older girl's tells were a little clearer with this one though, and the source of enthusiasm was, best I can tell, a strong desire to "know what happens to poor Slake." (I offered her a guest spot on the blog if she feels like writing down what she liked or didn't like about it. Stay tuned for that.) It's similar to how she talks about the cats, and Slake as a little lost animal is an appropriate interpretation. His worldview, at 13 years old, is strikingly primitive (for example, he makes a futile stand against the passing seasons, trying to tie leaves onto the trees) he's described in animal terms (his fear is a bird), with animal companions (gee, is that rat significant of the boy?), alarmed by positive human attention, and he's got a burrowing creature's obsessive habits. He can evidently read without trouble though, and he sat through a few years of school and learned stuff. If his weirdness got the attention of his classmates, somehow his autism was invisible to any adult. I think Holman means us to read that Slake is severely stunted in terms of imagination and emotion, and his time in the subway is spent taking those baby steps toward becoming human. I think this is a strong point of entry for young enough readers, for whom that same sort of maturation is close to them.
With a limbo in the title, you can bet that (barring any Jamaican dancing) the metaphysical imagery is going to get laid on pretty thick. Thankfully Holman doesn't detail the spiritual journey explicitly, which is a blessing of sorts, because I didn't care to delve into the religious concepts. It's more Dante and Virgil (or Jonah, or Jesus, or you know, take your pick of mystical underground ordeals that end in ascension) than Adam and Eve (or whoever). Hammering out the time-honored fictional devices is a fine analysis for a term paper, but at the blunt level they're used in this story, I'm happy enough just making the acknowledgement. When the kids get to the point when they're deconstructing catharsis and rebirth and all the associated literary mumbo-jumbo, they can do worse than to remember Aremis Slake.
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