Elliot Allagash — Simon Rich

Poor Seymour Herson, protagonist of Simon Rich’s début novel, Elliot Allagash. Overweight, unpopular, and often bullied, he becomes yet another target when Elliot Allagash shows up as a new student in his school. Not that Elliot bullies Seymour. Instead, Elliot targets Seymour as part of a weird Pygmalionesque experiment to manipulate the social hierarchies of Glendale, the middling Manhattan private school the two attend. Why is billionaire Elliot attending such a low-rent school? Simple: He’s been kicked out of every other school in New York at one point, and Glendale needs his father’s largesse. Elliot, bored evil genius that he is, spies Seymour sitting all alone and quickly singles him out as his chief puppet in a Machiavellian scheme, one that soon pays off for Seymour as well. Under Elliot’s supervision (or manipulation), Seymour sheds his weight, becomes a figurative and literal baller, and soon earns (or, uh finagles) the respect of his peers and teachers. In time though, Elliot’s creation craves autonomy–and turns on him.

Although Elliot repeatedly insists that his work with Seymour is a mere experiment to occupy his interest during his tenure in the hell that is Glendale, it becomes clear that he genuinely craves Seymour’s friendship, and, at times, he even admires aspects of his puppet. “You’re lucky you can still experience pleasure,” he tells Seymour early in their relationship, “I’ve become accustomed to a level of decadence so extreme that to go without luxury for even a minute fills me with a powerful rage.” The line is a great example of Rich at his best in Elliot Allagash–cartoonish comedy that tips into pathos. The roots of Elliot’s decadence are revealed a few pages later when we meet his awful, awful father Terry, a billionaire monster of the Mongomery Burns school. In a scene both funny and painful, Terry explains to an artistic genius that, not only will no one besides Terry ever see the paintings he’s commissioned from the artist, but that those paintings, along with the rest of his “Personal Museum” will be destroyed when he dies. The artist cries and pleads to renege the Faustian bargain he’s struck with his patron; Terry counters with a chilling (and hilarious) story about making a Pulitzer Prize-winning author write a “profoundly beautiful novel . . . in longhand” in front of him. “I read his book in a single sitting and then burned it in my fireplace,” he tells the shocked artist. Talk about decadence. While the scene is both funny and dreadful, the relationship between Terry and his son is downright sad. He attaches a note to a gift that he gives to Seymour when he and Elliot visit Seymour and his parents (they all play Monopoly in a scene of awkward comedy). The note says: “Dear Seymour, Thank you for spending so much time with my strange, strange boy. What is it like? You must remind me to ask you sometime.”

Terry’s note about his son is just one of many instances in this novel that speaks to the alienation that many adolescents feel. These themes match nicely with Rich’s tight, descriptive writing, which moves quickly, propelled by snappy dialogue (and plenty of punchlines, both verbal and visual). I don’t think that Elliot Allagash is being promoted directly as a Young Adult novel, but it will have a ready audience in the same smart crowd who dig funny, bright novels like C.D. Payne’s Youth in Revolt and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Recommended.

Elliot Allagash is available today in hardback from Random House.

A Few Thoughts on (Not Teaching) The Canon

Today I attended the first day of a two-day College Board workshop meant to provide additional training to teachers of Advanced Placement English Language and Composition. I’ve been to a number of these over the years, and College Board’s trainers tend to be better than the average presenters we get in education. The workshops also provide an opportunity to see what teachers at other schools are doing with their students.

Anyway, the only reason I bother to write about this is because of an interesting conversation/confrontation that happened almost immediately at the beginning of the session. As per usual with these things, we were to introduce ourselves–how long we’d been teaching, where we teach, the grade levels we teach, etc. The presenter also asked us to identify the book we most enjoyed “teaching.” That was the verb used–“teaching.” We were in a circle; I was one of the last people to have to introduce myself, and I heard repeatedly “I like to teach Gatsby” or “I like to teach Night” or “I like to teach To Kill a Mockingbird” or “I teach Faulkner.” I was getting a little antsy. Here’s why: 1) I don’t teach books–I don’t even know what it means to teach a book, 2) I rarely have my students read a complete book as part of their curriculum–I abridge almost everything, and 3) I’d been in this same situation more than once, and I knew that saying this was going to rub some of these English teachers the wrong way. And of course it did rub wrong, in particular two musty hags of the old school, one of whom cut me off condescendingly in mid-sentence: “So you’re saying that your kids never read a whole book?”

As pleasantly as possible, I tried to explain that I aim to expose my students to a multiplicity of voices and themes and rhetorical styles and methods, and that I didn’t see my primary job as fostering a love of literature; rather, I believe that the main duty of the English teacher is to facilitate the development of reading, composition, and thinking. I tried to explain that, even in my AP classes, most of my students are not avid readers and most of my students do not read at their grade level, and therefore struggling through 4 or 5 novels or plays over the course of one year didn’t seem as valuable to me as working through over a hundred different writers writing in a variety of styles for a variety of purposes. I tried to explain that reading a selection on slavery from 1789 by Olaudah Equiano in conjunction with a 2005 UN report on human trafficking, and then responding to these text was a far more valuable skill than wading through a dusty “classic” hunting down “universal” themes (whatever those are…).

The response, predictably was: “You mean, your 11th graders don’t read The Scarlet Letter? They don’t read Gatsby? That’s terrible!”

Why? Why should The Scarlett Letter or The Great Gatsby be so reverently “taught” to sixteen and seventeen year olds in this country? I like both of these books–I really do (although I think Gatsby is possibly the most overrated and over-read book ever published, and I’d take Hawthorne’s fabulous short stories any day over dreary Dimsdale and Hester Prynne)–but what purpose is there in making kids read them? Are they truly that relevant, or important?

I should be clear here that I am in no way at all against students reading these books; I wish that they would read these books, in fact. Only, I wish that they would love reading so much that they would be inspired to read books that they’ve heard are great or classic. But here’s the thing: I don’t think that telling a student they must read a book and that that book is a great work of literature and that they should enjoy or be inspired by that book is in any way a fair proposition. It leads only to anxiety, frustration, boredom, and then defeat.

Instead, English teachers should recognize that literature is just one part of reading and writing, and that most of our students are not going to go on to be English teachers or fiction writers. We should focus on a heteroglossic range of voices, styles, and purposes in introducing texts into the classroom. Students should be taught to respond to a variety of texts across a variety of disciplines, not to a few canonical authors. What happens more often than not in English classrooms is something like this: students are forced to read a work too complex for them to comprehend; they rely on the teacher’s interpretation to guide them through the novel (never having been taught a close-reading method that might give them access to the text); the student then writes a meaningless recapitulation of the teacher’s own “universalist” interpretation of the literary work, to the egotistical delight of the teacher who is enthralled that the student has “got it.” What’s lost is the opportunity to engage in relevant, “real-life” writing, writing that enters into an ongoing conversation in a meaningful way.

This is has been a straight-up rant–I’m sorry. I think that the following scene from Freaks and Geeks says it all better than I just did. Kim Kelly (Busy Phillips) critiques On the Road: