April 06, 2006

(++++) WHAT IF....

Fly on the Wall. By E. Lockhart. Delacorte Press. $15.95.

     Just about everyone has the fantasy: wouldn’t it be great to be a fly on the wall of the boardroom, the Oval Office, the Supreme Court, the boss’s private office, the neighbors’ bedroom – anyplace where interesting and/or important stuff undoubtedly goes on that you’ll never really know about until it gets filtered through conventions of language and expression?

     This is the adult version of the teenage boy’s fantasy: wouldn’t it be great to be a fly on the wall of the girls’ locker room?  Or, in the case of E. Lockhart’s funny and highly creative new book, the teenage girl’s fantasy about the boys’ locker room.

     The book’s protagonist, Gretchen Yee, thinks she is the only ordinary girl at the Manhattan School for the Arts, where everyone is supposedly special.  There is so much she doesn’t know, so much she wants to know, and so much of it revolves around boys: What are they really like?  What do they talk about among themselves?  Are they as immature and irritating with other boys as they are when interacting with girls – or with Gretchen, anyway?

     One morning, Gretchen wakes up and stretches her legs…and then her other legs.  She’s a fly – never mind how or why.  This is no Kafkaesque metamorphosis, though: it’s something Gretchen has wanted, has wished for, and at last she has the chance to learn all those things about boys that she can’t imagine learning without being a fly on the wall.

     Of course, some of those things are purely physical, and those are intriguing, but only in the short run: “I lose interest in the whole voyeur thing.  I’ve seen it all before.  Me!  Who yesterday morning had never before seen a naked man unrelated to me…has now seen the private equipment of an estimated 110 boys, if you figure I get a decent look at ten guys per class, and eight class periods every day, plus after-school sports and two classes this morning.  I’ve seen them pee, I’ve seen them waggle, I’ve even seen them hanging out with – shall I say – a certain degree of enthusiasm.”  But this isn’t Gretchen’s real interest – or Lockhart’s.  As in her previous book, The Boyfriend List – also a very stylish exploration of teenage worries and uncertainties – Lockhart uses an outlandish situation to help her readers get past the obvious advantages (and disadvantages) of the fly-on-the-wall situation to the meaningfulness underneath.  Gretchen learns through her experience that she is special after all, and by book’s end, re-transformed to her human self, she is comfortable taking the initiative with a boy she likes.  But these rather mundane elements of the book matter less than the highly stylish way Lockhart brings Gretchen to them.  The book is, above all, very well written, bright and bouncy and with a distinctive voice that lies somewhere between titillation and fairy tale.  It’s fun to read and fun to think about after the reading is over – and worth reading a second time, which is a rarity in books of the 12-and-over “young teen” type.  Gretchen is interesting, but you never lose sight of Lockhart pulling the strings that make her interesting.  And that’s a big part of what makes Fly on the Wall an unusually attractive book.

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