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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Outlaw School, by Rebecca Ore

Review by Kersley Fitzgerald

I just returned from a Pacific Northwest tour that included a reunion with a few childhood friends. We all had stories of the church where we’d met. One couldn’t have a church wedding because she’d already moved in with her fianc√©. She divorced, and is now shacked up with the vulgar son (also divorced) of super-religious church leaders. The oldest in the group spent a decade or so living as a lesbian before marrying a man and having a daughter. One attendee’s entire family was driven out when her mom divorced her dad after thirty years of his drinking. Missing were the once-teenage mom and the more permanently same-sex oriented man. All of us were rejected by the hard-nosed, hard-headed, hard-hearted church of our youth—except for our hostess, the former youth pastor’s daughter with an open heart and an eleven-year-old trained to pour mixed drinks.

So I thought I was fairly qualified to read a book about a girl growing up in a legalistic society.

Turns out the reunion was more interesting.

Jayne lives in a controlled world. In order to prevent the freedom of thought and creativity that would lead to singularity, Americans have been segregated, pigeon-holed, and given only the information and opportunities deemed appropriate for their rank and status. (It took me half the book to figure that much out.)

She is cursed with more curiosity and intelligence than allowed in a middle-manager’s daughter, but a wicked case of dyscalculia that prevents a slide into true genius. Her parents and school counselor put her on “school drugs” to keep her under control. The only legitimate ways to get off them is to lose an eye and become a Judicious Girl or get pregnant. In a moment of uncalculated rebellion, she opts for #2.

It gets her off the drugs, but now she has another choice. One is to sell her baby, go to a special home for pregnant girls, spend tens of thousands of dollars, lose an eye, gain a surgically reconstructed hymen, and become a Judicious Girl. Two is to take a class demotion and marry the guy. Three is to spend thousands of dollars, go to a mental institution, and sell the baby. She chooses the institution.

In the midst of her personal Girl, Interrupted experience, Jayne meets Ocean, an alcoholic agent for a quietly rebellious organization we’re never told anything about. Ocean arranges for Jayne to go to college and take on a life as a super-secret operative whose missions include teaching hookers how to use spreadsheets and tutoring chop-shop mechanics in proper English.

Then, somewhere right before the last chapter, Jayne does something spectacular that we don’t get to read about.

Story-wise, the book was OK. I got through it relatively quickly, so it must not have been boring. Ms Ore has some interesting ideas like the ultra-rigid class control and the “Judicious Girls” who lose an eye and keep their virginity in exchange for the honor of becoming snitches.

But, man, was it hard to follow. Despite the fact the first fifteen pages (!) were back-story on the lead character, I had a difficult time getting a handle on the culture. The world Jayne lives in is revealed in fits and starts and comes across as so depressing I wondered why she was trying to save it.

I doubt Jayne knew, either. The only motivation revealed for her actions is that she didn’t want to be a Judicious Girl, and she wanted to “help people.” She wanders through her life, making a grand total of two deliberate, decisive (although not premeditated) actions. Everything else is haphazard, opportunistic, and apparently based on the fact that while she doesn’t wish to conform, she doesn’t want to get caught, either.

Against the unraveling backdrop of a pale girl living a colorless life scroll stories of far more interesting people doing fascinating things—that still aren’t explained. Ocean is a mystery that could have been revealed further. On the other hand, we read quite a bit about the murdering, psycho, lesbian, dominatrix-hooker who befriends Jayne in Charleston. Although I’m still not sure she adds anything to the main plot beyond context.

In real life, Rebecca Ore is an internet systems administrator. Several scenes delve deeply into a tech world I’m not familiar with, and there’s a sub-plot about open software hidden in the depths. I suspected that I missed a great, over-arching allegory that drew everything together. After nearly three weeks, I think I got it.

I think maybe she meant to equate people with proprietary software, forbidden to be opened up to improvement by outside forces. If that’s the case, maybe she could have dumbed things down, just a bit, so that more than a handful of people (many of whom, I realize, are in this very audience) could get it.

Writing-wise: did I mention she started out with fifteen pages of back-story? Overwhelming, convoluted childhood memories that still didn’t explain anything.

Other than that, her writing reminded me of William Gibson in Neuromancer. Except with more occasions to use the “c” word. And no space-Rastas.

(I will not alight upon the soapbox of reasonableness to rail against the distractions of unnecessary over-usage of swearing, sex, and drugs in modern literature although I will whine for exactly one, admittedly long, sentence.)

There are the standard literary errors ubiquitous in the bookstore, yet forbidden to unpublished authors. The entire book is Jayne’s third-person POV sprinkled with occasional slips. Telling, of course, abounds as in most writing that already has an agent. All of the characters, save perhaps two of the more colorful ones, share the same drab, clipped speech.

I actually wonder if it wouldn’t have been better written in unreliable first person. At least Jayne might have come across as more animated.

There are introspective character-based authors and action-packed plot-based authors. I think Ms Ore is one of the ever-elusive setting-based authors. She seems to have a very clear picture of the world she’s created and its ramifications on her characters’ lives. Sadly, both the character development and the plot are given as little love and attention as Jayne, herself. I’m not asking for less science fiction, just more story.
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