Sunday, March 25, 2012

"The Kingdom of Childhood" by Rebecca Coleman

I don't imagine I'll post too many book reviews, but I just finished reading this novel and wanted to get my thoughts about it down since it whacked my gong with a heavy hammer.

“The Kingdom of Childhood” is brutal and real. A number of times on my trip through the book I had to take a breather and emotionally withdraw from the characters, because with a plotline like this, you know it’s not going to end well—and the more you care, the more it will hurt. The story is simple: 40-something lonely kindergarten teacher (Judy) seduces, or is seduced by, 16-year-old good-looking, likable high school kid (Zach) who happens to be friends with her son; all of this takes place at a K-12 Waldorf school. Then it all goes inevitably wrong, because it’s literary fiction; if it doesn’t, it’s soft-core MILF porn.

So why get invested in a dark and doomed storyline, in characters who are playing out their mistakes to the hilt like a train wreck in slow-mo? The answer is in the writing. This book is masterfully created, from the plot itself down the nitty-gritty of the individual sentences. I never stumbled once on an awkward bit of dialogue, or on a character description that I couldn’t envision. No overuse of adverbs, no stumbling passive tense. The subtleties sucked me in just as much as the overall story arc. There’s a particularly heartbreaking scene that sums up a lot: Zach, while trying to hide his crumbling mental state, eats a cookie at a school fundraising carnival. The cookie turns out to have been made by Judy. Not long after he eats it, he leaves the carnival and throws up in the parking lot behind the dumpster. Judy finds him, apologizes for upsetting him, and gives him a blow job he can’t bring himself to turn down. Who’s to blame here?

The cookie is, of course, a metaphor, as is the kids’ playhouse Zach builds to be raffled off at the school Christmas bazaar: inside it is where the first intimate scene between Zach and Judy takes place. The Kingdom of Childhood, desecrated by lust and mistakes.

Judy makes an error in judgment that most of us are guilty of: She mistakes a thing she wants for a thing she needs. But she carries it too far when she victimizes a person hovering at the line between childhood and young adulthood; she yanks him, half-willing, into the deep end before he quite knows how to swim, and he’s forced to either learn to keep his head above water at the expense of his self-respect, or to sink. She tells him time and again, as abusers do, that the ball is in his court, that he calls the shots. He believes her because he isn’t experienced enough to determine where he’s culpable and where he isn’t, and because he can’t stop himself from taking what she offers—he’s sixteen and flooded with hormones, Judy is there, he can’t turn it down even though he knows how wrong it is and that she doesn’t care about him, only about what he can give her/what she can take from him.

I didn’t care much about Judy. I couldn’t sympathize with her, even after seeing her suffer as a child and knowing what her current life is like: cold husband, distant children, recently dead best friend. Her life is full of holes she can’t plug up. I get that. Zach’s crisis is the one that made the story worth reading. The tug and pull between his developing moral compass and his willingness to do things he hates himself for is the stuff of a good bildungsroman. Where will he end up? You hope for him. You fear for him. You kinda wanna kill Judy.

From Judy:

I should have affirmed that it was [a no]. I knew the full litany of what he did not want to do, and this was where it began. If there had remained any possibility that life could throw a cup of cold water in my face and reverse the course of things, it would have been that moment, that question.

Instead, I climbed into the back of the car [with Zach].

And it was at that moment that I stopped being a woman who had made a series of exceedingly bad judgment calls, and became a child molester.

Later, from Zach:

“My problem is I don’t know how to get myself to stop.” He laughed humorlessly. “I don’t know how to make myself stop wanting to be raped.”

To string up tension like that and run a bow of words over it and make beautiful music that breaks your heart is the work of a gifted artist.

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