By Madeleine L'Engle
The City, Not Long After (1989) and it still holds up pretty well more than 20 years later. I found The Hunger Games enjoyable yet forgettable and The Uglies disappointingly hackneyed. Though these two books made quick, entertaining reads, they were somehow also unsatisfying, lacking a level of substance that is important in a popular work of YA fiction. Genre books are very similar to pop music. Contemporary pop can be catchy yet highly derivative, and it is usually worthwhile going back to the source. This is not just for authenticity’s sake, but predecessors sometimes just sound better.
With books, I realize there is a whole wealth of dystopian and fantastical YA novels from decades past just waiting for me to explore. Having recently read the NYT article “Fresh Hell” also clinched things for me. I am not delving into any more contemporary YA fiction until I have read some of their (more often than not, superior,) predecessors.
First up is Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time. In my youth, I loved fantasy books and magic realism, but never read this classic story of time travel. Now having finally read it, I realize why I had avoided it in the past. I may have already attempted reading before, but lost interest. This is not a great book. First, the story is not very well written and rather clunky in parts. Second, the theme of good versus evil is rather simplistic and the C.S. Lewis-style religious symbolism trite. Don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful when a YA novel equates fascistic conformity with the forces of evil, but it's ironic that the powers of good are affiliated with God, since religion means conformity in my opinion. Finally, the depiction of the guardian centaurs as little old ladies (Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who and Mrs Which) is too cutesy for my liking. When you begin your story with “It was a dark and stormy night”, you are either being incredibly unimaginative or too clever for your own good. That opening sentence is indicative of what a mixed bag A Wrinkle In Time is.
However, where I would have dismissed this book entirely in my youth, I do recognize its appeal as an adult. There are some really neat ideas in the book, like the fifth dimension of time travel, known as a tesseract. So instead of saying “Let’s go time traveling”, you say “let’s go tessering!”. I like how the siblings, Meg and Charles Wallace, despite their fears and doubts, rescue their scientist father, who is imprisoned on planet Camazotz. Camazotz is like a parallel universe of Earth, except that its human inhabitants are ruled by an ernormous, disembodied brain with fascistic tendencies known as IT. IT is headquartered inside a scary building called CENTRAL Central Intelligence, which I thought was pretty funny.
The most memorable thing about A Wrinkle in Time are the characters. I liked the portrayal of the Murry family as a scientific and intellectual household and how the Murry kids are misfits who don't quite fit in at school. Meg is a geeky, awkward adolescent with an attitude problem and Charles Wallace is a preternaturally gifted five-year-old who acts dumb to avoid notice. Their neighbour, Calvin O’Keefe, is also a closet misfit, despite his appearance as a popular athlete at school, and comes out of his shell upon meeting the Murry family. There is also a good sense of kinship and love, up to a fault, as this is also what undermines the novel with the “love conquers all” ending.
You see, Charles Wallace falls under the hypnotic influence of IT. Even though CW has extraordinary abilities, he is no match for IT. After all, IT is a humungous brain with a whole population under mind-control. But despite all odds, Meg is able to defeat the power of IT by the sheer force of her love for CW.
I was of two minds on this. On the one hand, I admit I did get a little caught up in the emotional drama of Meg's rescue, but at the same time, I was like, really? I could not help but feel disappointed by the author relying on such a copout device.
So yeah, A Wrinkle In Time was a definite letdown. Which ain't a bad thing, since this saves me the need to read the rest of the quintet.