Dec 23, 2009

Monkey droppings - Amphibian by Carla Gunn: "I don't know what the crap's going on in the world."

The monkey does not like kids.

The monkey does not like books about kids.

The monkey likes this book.

The monkey puzzles, then falls asleep.

by Carla Gunn
Coach House Press, 2009
If I had an eraser of life, I'd start at the top of the morning and work my way down. I have a feeling, though, that whoever drew this day pressed the pencil really hard and even if I rubbed and rubbed and rubbed, little horible bits of it would still be left behind.
Ah, the glory of today's youth. So young. So full of promise. So innocent. So very much in the pathway of crushing, humiliating, eternal soul-destroying reality.

No wonder that children, in much of literature, are often presented as being somehow wiser than their elders, their lack of world experience uncluttering their precious vision, and thus their every statement uttered from their precocious mouths a jewel of clarity in a universe of uncertainty.

What a load. I hate books like that. Children are not wise. They are not avatars for all that is good and wholesome. They are dirty. They are unformed personalities. They are petty, petulant, simpering, spiteful, and sometimes remorseless eating, sleeping, and pooping machines.

My point? I don't have a point, I'm just ranting.

No, there is a point. Despite the inherent unlikability of children, sometimes (just sometimes, mind you) they are right. Confused, yes, but right. And when an author mixes a child's sense of right and wrong with the onrush of maturity, the results can be spectacular (case in point, The Catcher in the Rye, and damn you naysayers, it's still a damned fine novel).

Phineas Walsh is right. He's nine years old, and he's kind of annoying at times, and he's self-righteous, but he is right. He's also a terrific narrator for a novel.

Amphibian, Carla Gunn's debut novel, follows Phin's process from being a wide-eyed processer of information to a more worldly participant in the events that consume his life. In this case, the widespread extinction of animal life from the planet. The New Brunswick author has captured a pivotal point in every child's development, that time when it becomes readily apparent that the world does not adhere to one's innate sense of fair play.

Phin is a born worrier. His journalist parents have seperated, his grandfather has recently passed away, and the animal kingdom loses species every day. It's this last that consumes Phin, eating away at his sanity until he cannot sleep. The expanded cable universe and Internet allows him instant access to any and all information nightmares he cares to obsess about. The loss of animals from the planet is a process he cannot comprehend, and his parents' seeming indifference to the plight of dolphins, lions, elephants, etc. only heightens his mania.
My mother doesn't understand and I don't know why. Actually, I think I do know why: I think it's because she's too busy. She's always hurrying around. I'm not too busy so I know there are almost 400 species in the order Primate and one third of them are vulnerable or endangered or critically endangered on the Red List of Endangered Species. All of the orangutans are endangered or critically endangered. In fact, all the individual remaining primates in the twenty-five most endangered species could fit in one single football field.
Phin's quick erosion of faith in mankind marks him as a loner in school, where he begins to lash out at any and all logical fallacies he comes across in his homework, such as in an assignment to celebrate Earth Day by drawing "the greatest gift humans could give the earth":
I looked at what Kaitlyn had drawn - it was a picture of humans picking up garbage out of ditches. I couldn't figure out how that was a greatest gift because the humans had put the garbage there to begin with. That would be like somebody setting someone else's clothes on fire and then throwing water on that person to put out the flames and then calling the water a gift. It just didn't make any sense.
Phin's dilemma is spot on; how can we make a difference if people only tells us comforting homilies that everything will be all right, when it plainly won't? But Phin is at an awkward stage of his development where shades of grey do not enter into his perceptions; right is right and wrong is wrong, and that's the way it must be. His frustration at the lack of seriousness others take in his beliefs is palpable, and so is his understandable (if childish) manner of reaction; tantrums, screams, and more layers of worry. Phin is on his way to an ulcer before he hits his tweens.

As in any novel written from a child's POV, there is a suspension of disbelief that must occur in order for the plot to function effectively. Phin writes at a level far beyond his years, and there are a few points in the novel where his reactions seem a little forced and unlikely. But far greater are the novel's strengths; a sure sense of self, believable characterizations, a crackling good plot, and a fine understanding of the confused interior monologue that marks a child's growth. Gunn presents Phin as an idealist poised for a great fall, and it would be easy to force Phin into becoming that saintly child who corrects to problems of the world with a few deft words and a dewy-eyed plea for understanding. God bless us, everyone.

Yet Phin is a child through and through, which means that certain aspects of adult relationships will always seem foreign to him, and his reactions will always be extreme. Gunn does not shy away from displaying Phin's bursts of unpleasantness, even though his motives may be sound. The world is a strange and perplexing place at the best of times, and there is no shortage of worries to be found out there.

And in the end, Phin is absolutely right. The world is insane, animals die, and people lie to protect themselves. It is a cruel place to live, and that said, the book's ultimate ending is a tad too upbeat, and a little jarring.

But that's a quibble, and besides, by novel's end, Phin's earned a right to a little happiness. Amphibian is a great debut novel, and Gunn has talent to burn. Her style is deceptively simple, clean but smart, and her way with characters is akin to the healthy humanity Miriam Toews invests in her characters. Amphibian marks a novelist to watch.


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