Complex, claustrophobic, overwritten ... but right for the extremist?
Jul 22, 2012
Perhaps appropriately for all the layers and subtexts present in this story, I can see two ways to review "The Year of the Gadfly."
On the one hand, this book was overwritten and convoluted. The entire "extremophile" conceit felt like a heavy-handed way to remind us that the kids at Mariana Academy are in a pressure-cooker environment ("pressure-cooker is a cliché," Edward R. Murrow reminds me). The idea of our 14-year-old protagonist being a reporter-to-be devoted to the survival of print journalism seems unlikely in 2012 -- roughly akin to someone the same age being engrossed in typewriter repair or the music of Vaughn Monroe. I also wondered how she settled on Murrow as her inspiration, particularly given that he spent his career as a broadcast journalist. Harrison Salisbury, say, might have made more sense, but he's less romantic. Still, better Murrow than a fraud like Walter Duranty.
Most of all, "Gadfly" reads like the work of a writer who believes the way to make sure her "literary gifts are on virtuoso display," in the words of the back-cover blurber, is by using every outlandish metaphor or overclocked simile she can. My favorite of these may well be the following (and keep in mind this does not come from a 20-something PhD science teacher, one of our central characters, but from a third-person section that is, presumably, the author's own voice): "Throughout junior high she floated on the periphery of the popular clique, and they tolerated her presence like a harmless parasite -- a tooth amoeba that nibbled on whatever the toothbrush missed, or maybe a dust mite that made you sneeze constantly but didn't cause any real damage. When she approached the popular girls at recess, their circle would automatically constrict like a cell warding off a virus," and so on (p. 62). When we're treated to a few lines of the young journalist's own work toward the end of the book, they're as purple as the previous 350 pages, and in exactly the same voice ("the fluorescent lights within have not simply chased the shadows into their corners, but illuminated the corners themselves" [p. 351] -- as lights will do). Read through this lens, I found "Year of the Gadfly" hard to get through. It really could have been 100 or even 150 pages shorter with a little more effort.
On the other hand, "Year of the Gadfly" is a story of experiments within experiments, and of organisms adapting -- or failing to adapt -- to life in extreme conditions. In an otherwise somewhat overlong reenactment of the Milgram experiment on his students, the science teacher mentioned above explains that both the button-presser AND the "victim" simulating pain are subjects of the experiment. Perhaps author Jennifer Miller has not only created an extreme environment in which to observe her characters, but also told the story in an extreme way to measure the adaptability of her audience? I believe another reviewer said something to the effect that this novel is "too offbeat" for the average reader, and I agree that "Gadfly" probably won't take a place on the shelf of traditional coming-of-age ("cliché") books. But for "extremists" of the sort characters in this book believe themselves to be, it may be a welcoming environment indeed.