May 17, 2018
(+++) PAY ATTENTION!
Monday’s Not Coming. By Tiffany D. Jackson. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $17.99.
There is something exceptionally annoying about books that insist they are capital-I Important and capital-M Meaningful and lots-of-capitals Not To Be Ignored Because They Deal With Major Issues. A really good writer can get away with this sort of pompous self-puffery by treating issues of the day with style, sensitivity and an awareness that the audience reading the book is likely to be a diverse one that will not necessarily share the author’s viewpoint or sense of societal outrage. And then there are authors such as Tiffany D. Jackson, who basically come forward and try to “guilt” readers into finding a story such as Monday’s Not Coming significant even though the plot creaks, the style is dull, the structure is difficult to follow, and the characters are portrayed in a way that prevents the book from striking a chord with people who are not willing to be “guilted” into empathy.
There is something significant underlying this novel: the plight of the multiply marginalized, of girls who are virtually invisible by reason of their skin color and/or behavior and/or activities and/or family situations and who can therefore disappear without making so much as a ripple in society. In fact, Monday’s Not Coming is loosely based on real-life incidents in Washington, D.C. But what matters is not the realism or lack of realism of the foundational story – what matters is how cogently the author communicates it. And that is where Monday’s Not Coming falls short.
The story is about eighth-grader Claudia Coleman and her best and only friend, Monday Charles – who mysteriously disappears one day. Monday is not there when Claudia returns to school after the summer, and Claudia gets more and more worried as the days pass and Claudia never shows up – and no one seems to have any idea of where she is, or even to care very much. The school removes Monday from its system, her phone does not work anymore, and even Monday’s family seems, if not indifferent, then strangely quiet about Monday’s disappearance, giving different and incomplete explanations at different times. So far, so good from a storytelling standpoint. But Jackson wants to tell the tale in a capital-I Important (or capital-I Intriguing) way, and it does not work. Claudia is part of the problem: she is in her midteens (the book is intended for readers ages 13 and up), but she sounds much of the time like a preteen, and a young one at that. Jackson herself is another part of the problem, because she structures the book in multiple timelines that are very difficult to follow and overly complex. “Before” deals with Claudia finding out that Monday is missing, “After” has to do with the time when Claudia has learned what happened, and then there are chapters such as “One Year Before the Before” and “Two Years Before the Before,” which confuse matters considerably and make it difficult to figure out just what occurred or was learned when. And Jackson is prone to melodrama, as when she reveals that Claudia suffers from PTSD because of Monday’s disappearance and presents other plot twists, including the “reveal” that marks the book’s climax but that is somewhat anticlimactic. The result is a story that often seems overdone and overemphatic.
There is sex and talk of sex in Monday’s Not Coming, and bullying, and drug and alcohol use, and there are issues of abuse and privilege (in the form of gentrification of “culturally rich” but impoverished neighborhoods) and mental health and being downtrodden and so forth. Make no mistake: these are legitimate issues. But loading them onto a book that is also loaded with a creaky, self-consciously “literary” style rather than being told in straightforward fashion with, perhaps, a few flashbacks, simply makes the story less compelling than it could be. This could easily have been a family story – one that would connect with families of all types and colors and income levels – because at its heart, Monday’s Not Coming is about what secret-keeping does to people and how dangerous it is to be silent when you see things that are not supposed to be seen. But by making the book overcomplicated in design and making the protagonist sound much of the time like someone far younger, Jackson vitiates a potentially powerful story.
It has become fashionable in some circles to assert that if you haven’t “been there” yourself, you cannot possibly react “properly” to a story about people who are different from you – because of gender, sexual preference, skin color, ethnicity, religion, or some other characteristic. That is nonsense, and pernicious nonsense at that. Certainly an author who wants to reach only people like herself can write stories about people like herself in language that she believes only similar people will understand. And there is nothing whatsoever wrong with that: some books are self-limited by design. But when an author seeks to reach out beyond those who have “been there,” to show people who have not “been there” what it feels like to “be there,” she has an obligation to present relatable material and relatable characters in such a way as to connect with people who have not personally experienced the living conditions of those characters. Retreating behind a wall of “you’re not like me so you can’t possibly get it and besides you’re a racist/sexist/some-other-epithet” accomplishes exactly nothing if the purpose of a book is to reach out. If its only purpose is to reaffirm what others who have “been there” already believe, that is a different matter. Walling oneself up with one’s imagined “tribe” is a protective maneuver, and sometimes an effective one. But it comes at the expense of genuine connection with members of other “tribes” who may genuinely want to understand matters that go beyond their personal experiences. Monday’s Not Coming is too disjointed, too ill-structured, and ultimately too unconvincing in its narrative to offer more than a “guilt trip” reason for people who are not like these characters to care about what happens to them.