February 06, 2014
(+++) OLD WINE IN NEW BOTTLES
The Office of Mercy. By Ariel Djanikian. Penguin. $16.
The Dumbest Idea Ever! By Jimmy Gownley. Graphix/Scholastic. $11.99.
A novel for people who have never read 1984, Brave New World, Soylent Green, Ender’s Game or any other dystopias in which apparent benevolence is soon unmasked as concealing great evil, Ariel Djanikian’s debut, The Office Of Mercy, telegraphs – starting with its title – that things will not be what they are professed to be. This is the sort of book in which readers immediately know something is amiss when Natasha Wiley, the protagonist, gets instructions that include the phrase, “ensure the cleanliness and efficiency of the Crane sweep.” Words such as “cleanliness and efficiency” are fraught in books like this, and sure enough, it turns out that Natasha’s work with the Office of Mercy – which involves humanely ending the lives of nomads living outside the cloistered safety of an underground survival encampment called America-Five – is really all about perpetuating the absolute power of a shadowy group of ruthless rulers who will stop at nothing to achieve their end of continuing dominance (along the lines of “we had to destroy the world in order to save it”). This is so standard a plot that readers who are familiar with the book’s many, many antecedents risk being turned off by Djanikian’s writing within a very few pages. But giving up on the book too soon would be a mistake, because even though the tropes of modern dystopias pervade the plot, The Office of Mercy is a smartly paced, well-written entry in its field, and one that raises some intriguing (if scarcely original) questions about the price of peace, the value of long life and the meaning of freedom. Getting to those questions, though, involves dealing with some creaky elements. Natasha, who is 24, seems so naïve that her developing doubts about her life and work are difficult to accept. Other aspects of the book are, too, such as the use of tremendous violence in the name of ending suffering and the notion that Earth had 59 billion people (59 billion? How is that possible?) before drastic action was taken to “relieve” the suffering of the vast, vast, vast majority. Perhaps all this is intended as Malthusian, but Djanikian never makes that connection clearly enough for the reader to be sure. In the same way, the America-Five residents’ use of the Wall – a habit that locks one’s emotions away so decisions can be made entirely rationally – is difficult to accept unless one simply takes it as a premise, an axiom underlying the story, rather than as something developed within the context of the world where the tale takes place. The concept of The Office of Mercy is that ethical training produces people who so abhor suffering and are so determined to eliminate it that some are assigned to kill free-roaming bands of humans who live uncontrolled, unmanaged lives and exist in a constant state of hunger, disease and eventually a potentially painful or protracted death. Surely something quick and painless is better. Explained in this bald way, the book seems worse than it is, more superficial and thoughtless. It is in fact better than its flaws indicate – but those flaws are nevertheless real. It is not entirely clear for whom Djanikian is writing: the book is most appropriate as a young-adult novel, but seems to be intended for older readers as well, although it will work far less well for them. The dystopia concept, the notion of an apparently positive society that is rotten at the core – and a world built on what appear to be good intentions that have, to put it mildly, gone seriously awry – remains a very effective and sometimes provocative one, and Djanikian certainly understands how to make it work. There are, however, just a few too many improbabilities, plot holes and unexplained background elements in The Office of Mercy for the book to succeed with readers who are already aware of the many more-tightly-plotted, more-thoughtful and more-original works on whose foundation Djanikian constructs her deeply flawed world.
The world is more everyday and the flaws of character and circumstance more internal than external in Jimmy Gownley’s graphic novel, The Dumbest Idea Ever! But this book too is based on a well-worn premise – several of them, in fact. It is the usual coming-of-age story, and because it is a graphic novel, it uses the common notion of being a graphic story about someone who wants to produce graphic stories – a budding cartoonist, that is. Furthermore, it is autobiographical. Drawn well but not with any particular distinctiveness, the book features the sorts of elements common to many graphic novels: changes in panel size and layout, use of color at times and black-and-white (or sepia tone) at others, and a story that includes the expected angst of a 13-year-old – told in a “flashback” from age 15, using a combination of real-looking scenes and fanciful ones (as when Jimmy, home sick from school, imagines being visited by the Grim Reaper, who tells him he is not dying and needs to stop whining and get on with his life). Jimmy writes and draws comics, has successes and failures in both the classroom and sports, has and loses a girlfriend – all the mundane accomplishments and difficulties of the teenage years, written in a forthright style and drawn attractively enough to keep readers interested and involved. Aimed squarely at teens, the book has enough resonance to be enjoyable for those who are going through or have gone through the usual ups and downs of their age group, whether or not they are interested in creating cartoons – an interest in using them for storytelling and enjoying books that do so is plenty. There really is nothing exceptionally new or unexpected in The Dumbest Idea Ever! But it is a well-made, pleasant book whose idea – the autobiography of a young cartoonist told in graphic form – may be less than unusual, but is certainly not a dumb one, much less the dumbest one possible.