Sunday, August 3, 2014

In the Dystopic Age of Victoriana

Gabrielle Zevin's Birthright trilogy posed an interesting dilemma for me. I listened to all the books on CD, and was prepared to be wowed, as Zevin's Elsewhere and Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac both impressed me. And, actually, I was wowed, though the first novel, with the impossible-to-resist title All These Things I've Done, seemed a bit more steeped in the teenage romance genre than I would have liked. The story of Anya Balanchine (mob-daughter), her siblings, grandmother, and friends, could easily slip into the myriad conventional tropes applicable to YA dystopian fiction, YA romance, YA realism . . . YA, period.

But . . .

Zevin never approaches her subject conventionally. She offers us her world as a pre-conceived idea--we are not in the process of world-building, or world-destroying, or even of world-changing in the more conventional sense of Lois Lowry's The Giver and its sequels, or Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games (and its sequels). Instead, in this trilogy, Zevin offers a love story, a family story, a story of riches to rags and back again. And, yes, the world is changed a bit along the way.

The series opens in 2083, and is set primarily in New York City, though we make significant stops in both Mexico and Japan, and hear a good bit about the Russian mob. I would've liked more dystopic background, as is usually my inclination: What happened? When did it happen? Why did it happen? How are we going to fix it? We ARE going to fix it, aren't we? Instead, Zevin paints a devastating portrait of the New York City that is, with echoes to the New York City that was: buildings stand empty; gangs control Central Park; the Metropolitan Museum of Art (immortalized for a generation as the home-away-from-home of E. L. Konigsberg's Claudia and Jamie Kincaid) houses the equivalent of a gin-joint, a club where underage revelers can indulge in illicit caffeine, and completely licit alcohol. Paper books are rare and considered absurdly old-fashioned. Water is scarce, and "the water problem" is a thread of which readers are always aware, yet never informed. The final book shows us the New York Public Library, recast as Anya's crowning achievement: the legitimization of the family business: chocolate.

While the environmental difficulties are presumably world-wide, the problem of water seems particularly acute in North America; similarly most other countries have not banned chocolate or coffee, as the US has done. Zevin effectively opens questions of the what and the how of Anya's world, and ties them intimately to the issues of the American government's role note in alleviating problems of violence, crime, or water, but in exacerbating them, and in exploiting the nation's limited resources for the use of a privileged few.

I like Anya because she is a strong protagonist: one with drive, ambition, loyalty, a strong sense of duty, a powerful love for family, and a potent self-preservation instinct. In short, she has the flaws and virtues of both traditional genders. Yet her gender is incidental; her primary obstacles to being taken seriously as a business person, or a responsible person generally, are her age and her family. She is 16 when the series opens, and hasn't hit 25 by the time it ends, and is the daughter of the former Balanchine boss and potential heir to the role of family boss. Anya perseveres despite these obstacles, proving herself, again and again, a savvy manager, and a worthy leader of a crime family on the brink of extinction. She also, to my delight, learns to trust others, and to delegate responsibilities (the absolute inability of so many teen protagonists to trust others is an ongoing pet peeve of mine, and Zevin's Anya is proof that a teen can behave maturely in authentic and believable ways in fiction).

The Victoriana I reference in my blog title is primarily a function of tone: the language is formal, the courtesies of the day are also curiously formal, perhaps as a result of the increased and pervasive nature of street crime: young people and women seldom walk anywhere unescorted, particularly after dark, and Anya's first person narration often formally addresses the reader, breaking the fourth wall in tried-and-true Victorian convention: "Dear Reader . . .". The curious juxtaposition of futuristic setting and old-fashioned language, work beautifully, marrying our readerly anxiety about a future that seems all-too-possible with the familiarity of a clear, formal style that demonstrates that, formally, at least, everything is under control.

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