Sunday, December 2, 2012

Review (And Rant): QUARANTINE: THE LONERS by Lex Thomas

It was just another ordinary day at McKinley High—until a massive explosion devastated the school. When loner David Thorpe tried to help his English teacher to safety, the teacher convulsed and died right in front of him. And that was just the beginning.

A year later, McKinley has descended into chaos. All the students are infected with a virus that makes them deadly to adults. The school is under military quarantine. The teachers are gone. Violent gangs have formed based on high school social cliques. Without a gang, you’re as good as dead. And David has no gang. It’s just him and his little brother, Will, against the whole school. 
 
In this frighteningly dark and captivating novel, Lex Thomas locks readers inside a school where kids don’t fight to be popular, they fight to stay alive.
I think Quarantine: The Loners will hold the dubious distinction of being the only book that I read, finished, reviewed, and yet refuse to rate on Goodreads.

Quarantine had me by the throat from the first page. It opens with a Hunger Games-esque scene. David, our hero, is waiting for the food drop. All around him, the gangs of McKinley High are watching the sky. The canopy opens. The pallet drops. Bloody chaos explodes as teenagers battle for survival. It was like being at the Cornucopia all over again, except instead of watching 24 tributes fight in a dystopian Panem, we're watching hundreds of high school students battle ex-friends and old enemies in the courtyard of a suburban high school.

And that's just the beginning! There's something happening on every page of this book. Literally every time you think that nothing else can happen, or that the situation just can't get any worse, or conversely that there's no way so-and-so can escape, BAM! Twist! Careening action! It's intense, I say!

So what was the problem?

To quote myself while ranting to my father, "the normalization of misogyny and depravation!" Big, preachy words. Let me explain.

The same week I read Quarantine, I also read two well-written articles almost back-to-back. One (from Crunchings and Munchings) studies the current trend of gender portrayals in YA dystopians. The other (from CBC Diversity) asks whether YA authors, editors, and the like, while accepting that YA lit has the power to do good, too readily dismiss the idea that it also has the power to do harm.

Let me start out by saying that if you like this book, I do not blame you. I do not look down on you. A lot of times when a reviewer/blogger/snotty adult sounds like he or she looks down on a book, it's very easy for fans to feel defensive. But the questions that I'm about to pose seriously messed with my ability to enjoy Quarantine and therefore, I believe, need to be discussed within the review.

Okay, so, civilization as it pertains to the kids of McKinley High has gone to pot. The kids were infected by an illegally produced virus that makes them deadly on contact to all adults, so the government barricaded them inside the school. Aside from the supply drops, the only other intervention offered is a scanner that will tell each student when the virus is beginning to phase from his or her system. At that point, the student must leave McKinley High or risk imminent death by virus (hallucinations, psychosis, blood spouting from orifices, etc.)

What this means for the students is that McKinley becomes their only world. Like the kids in Lord of the Flies, the school is their island and they are their own authority. All the adults are dead and supplies are scarce. Those with the most power control the food and everything else. The student body quickly devolves into warring factions that distinguish themselves by different color hair dye. (One of the effects of the virus was that it turned everyone's hair snow white, a very clean palette for dye.)

As with all dystopians, the group at the top of the food chain is corrupt through and through. In the case of McKinley, the group with the power is the yellow-haired Varsity (the athletes), followed closely by what can only be called their harem, the similarly dyed Pretty Ones (literally all the pretty girls in school). Led by the sadistic Sam, they have the might to hold all the other groups - the blue-haired Freaks, the black-haired Geeks, Skaters, and Nerds, and the red-haired Sluts, as well as the groupless Scraps - in complete fear and submission.

When I say the situation inside McKinley is bad, I mean it's REALLY bad. There's a fascinating portrayal of economics via the bartering between groups (each group has its own speciality), but otherwise there is zero cooperation between the gangs. Theft, rape, torture, and murder are all common. To some extent, I understand why this is. However, the more we learned about life within McKinley, the more worried I became.

The big turning point in the novel is when the hero, David, saves a former Pretty One named Lucy from being raped by a Varsity member. Each member of the Pretty Ones is assigned a "boyfriend" in Varsity; essentially, every boy gets his own concubine. When Lucy refuses her "boyfriend," she is removed from under the protection of the Pretty Ones, making her fair game for any and all males.

While David saves Lucy, the situation doesn't improve for the females of McKinley High. Women are treated like chattel. From the prettiest Pretty One down to the lowest Scrap, females are valued only from their looks and for sex. In the course of the story, pretty girls are given love interests. Ugly or fat girls are treated as objects of pity or scorn. ALL girls, even Lucy the main love interest, are described in objectifying terms. Are the pretty? Do they have perky "assets"? How are they in the sack? These are the questions that occupy the males in the novel, even the protagonists that we are suppose to admire. Personality qualities like brains, willpower, kindness, etc. might be mentioned once or twice in passing but are otherwise undervalued.

Every female. EVERY female is treated in this manner by EVERY male, both before and after the arrival of the virus. This isn't a flaw brought out in the "evil" characters by the stress of the dysfunctional environment. It's systematic treatment, a mindset, held by all of the characters and depicted as normal.

Guys, I can't believe I even have to say this, but such treatment of women is NOT NORMAL. It's not. Yes, in the book the more extreme examples of the Varsity's ownership of the Pretty Ones are depicted as wrong. That's good. And yes, teenage boys are often gross little creatures when it comes to their descriptions of their female counterparts. But this isn't a matter of boys will be boys. Not all boys are gross little creatures, nor should they be depicted as such.

Even more unsettling is the very real possibility that treating said behavior as normal or "just the way things are" teaches readers - boys and girls alike - that such behavior is okay and that there's no reason to change. I mean, yeah, sure, change when you're older and want to marry, but behave like something other than a barbaric little mouth-breather? So totally lame, dude. (I wish you all could see how hard I'm rolling my eyes right now.)

I get the struggle against censorship, and that's not what I'm suggesting. I also get that for many youth today, prolific obscenities, sex, and crass mindsets regarding females are commonplace. But just because something is status quo, does that mean we should still accept it as harmlessly neutral or even good?

I don't expect a book to preach. When David and another boy make crude remarks, I don't expect a page-long rebuttal on respecting women. When a fourteen-year-old girl routinely has sex with her senior boyfriend (something that's only mentioned in the book but still made me grimace), I don't expect the author to then punish them by making a locker fall on their sleeping bag.

But consequences of some sort would have been nice. Would it have been so terribly hard for David to feel uncomfortable about the words spewing out of his friend's mouth about the girl he admired? Would it really have been so implausible for him to say, "Hey, Lucy's a cool girl. Watch how you talk about her"? Similarly, am I expected to believe that an entire high school filled with hundreds of little rabbit students can support years of unprotected sex and not have any incidents of STDs or pregnancy? Seriously?

Quarantine is well-written. It's paced beautifully and has more breathtaking twists and turns that a roller coaster at Cedar Rapids. It also boasts a great hook and a fantastically realized case study of economics that I adored. Without all the over-the-top and unnecessary nastiness, I would have given it four out of five stars, easily. But I cannot, will not, praise a book that normalizes the attitudes and actions that systematically devalue not only women but the male characters themselves. For ultimately, passing off harmful and juvenile behavior as "boys will be boys" tells males that they are capable of nothing better.

Points Added For: Action, adventure, a really cool economic model.

Points Subtracted For: Everything else.

Good For Fans Of: I'm sorry, I can't recommend this book to anyone for any reason.

Notes For Parents: Language, violence, murder, abuse, domestic violence, underage sex, misogyny, theft, drunkenness, talk of rape (none actually shown).

Alright, your turn. What do YOU think of the issues I've brought up? Do you think I'm overreacting? Underreacting? Right on the money? We all agree YA can do good, but do you think it can also do harm?