I’ve been watching videos of the “Les Miserables” musical, which has brought back memories to me. Of course, when I first read that book I was in third grade and my biggest concern was the love story which, in retrospect, isn’t all that great (I mean, ugh, he only falls for her once she grows up and gets all hot and stuff. Shallow, dude!) Sadly, I was too immature to fully appreciate the depth and power of Victor Hugo’s characterization.
And no, that wasn’t sarcastic. I actually do find “Les Miz” to be a great work, for different reasons than I did when I was younger. I guess you could say I enjoyed the ambiguity which is presented to us.
How does this link to YA fiction? (I mean, in spite of all the “Skip Beat!” deconstructions, it’s still a YA blog.) Let’s take your archetypal representative of the genre, “Twilight”. What the story basically boils down to is whether a young woman will leave everything she has ever known to live eternity by her boyfriend’s side, or stay in her own world with a boy that is different, but equally alluring. In itself, that’s not a bad conflict, in fact, it has been used in many stories to a great effect.
But when the reader really thinks about the choice Bella is forced to make, there really isn’t much gray areas about it (no pun intended) (I wonder if we will have to do this every time we invoke that color. Maybe we should use shades of taupe instead) - Bella’s human life is seen as routine, and deeply unfulfilling. She has no hobbies, no friends, and her parents are portrayed as a couple of passive-aggressive jerks. Hell, when Edward leaves her, her life is so mundane and pointless that it’s not worth a single paragraph to describe the passage of time.
While Jacob may pose some valid arguments for Bella to stay human, it’s pretty obvious where her affections lie, and what is the “right” choice to make. Edward basically offers her everything - love, commitment, monetary stability and all the sex she can ask for - and later, the series further hammers in the “rightness” of Bella’s choice by making her the special snowflake who can get over her newborn blood-lust and thus she does not have to give up human company.
This is something which grates me about YA books nowadays - rarely do you have a scenario where you’re not one hundred percent sure what the right choice is (more true about the Paranormal genre, but Contemporary books can share the problem). There is ALWAYS a super-evil conspiracy threatening human kind. There is ALWAYS some villain plotting mass genocide. If one third of your love triangle is also from the evil camp, fear not, he will either know the wrongness of his ways or he will die, thus solving the problem.
Point is - ambiguity is pretty much gone from YA and I want it back!
Going back to “Les Miz”, it’s pretty easy to see where the book gets its title from when you consider the plot. Victor Hugo basically raises his story around the concept of “Life Sucks, Deal With It”, and refuses to give us a single black-and-white instance, even (and especially) when he pits the idealists against the harsh reality of their world.
Here’s the thing: for society to work, our justice system can’t afford to play favorites. It has to be paramount and unforgiving. So far so good, but then what happens to people like Jean Valjean and Fantine, who are pushed into a life of crime by a combination of an unfair fiscal policy and hypocritical social norms?
Or, to bring things closer to the current state of PNR YA, what if the boy you’re in love with doesn’t care for you? What if he would rather be with some rich bitch who just looks hot because she can afford to bathe on a regular basis? Well, good for him, but if he’s going to force you into dangerous situations just to deliver a sappy love letter to her, then a song and a kiss is the least he can fucking do for you.
Though I don’t like the idea that Hugo “made suffering fashionable”, he does write some of the most gut-wrenching stories out there, and the reason why they’re so sad isn’t the originality of his ideas, but how the tragedy is made to feel inevitable. Maybe “Les Miserables” would have turned out differently if this person did that just a little earlier, of this one wasn’t such an asshole, or whatever - but Hugo writes his story in such a way that a plot twist like that comes across as too convenient and unrealistic.
And the thing about real life is that ambiguity is everywhere. You’ll never be sure if this university was the right choice, or if you did the right thing when you stopped talking to this one friend. Your major might not satisfy you, but it will allow you to be independent, or maybe getting married young is the best thing that happened to you, in spite of everything everyone told you.
Truth is, you will rarely face a situation where the “right” answer is one hundred percent clear, outside of a test. So why don’t books reflect that more?
Note: Image via Goodreads.