(Revisiting) Revisiting A Wrinkle in Time

[Ed. note: I originally wrote and posted this review in January of 2012. My kids were four and one at the time. This morning, my daughter finished the edition of A Wrinkle in Time I reviewed here, reading the last hundred pages or so in a marathon sitting so we would take her (and her brother) to see Ava DuVernay’s film adaptation today. I’ll try to post some thoughts on the film later today.]


Madeleine L’Engle’s seminal fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time turns 50 this year, and publisher Macmillan is celebrating by releasing a new anniversary edition with oodles of extras, including photos, manuscript pages, and new editorial content. They’ve also initiated a “50 Years, 50 Days,  50 Blogs Celebration Campaign” to promote the new book, and they asked Biblioklept to participate in the first week.

Here is the new cover:

And here is the cover to my beloved, ragged edition:

20120115-162927.jpg

A Wrinkle in Time explores the strange intersections of space and time against a backdrop of adolescent angst. Our intrepid heroine Meg, her child genius brother Charles Wallace, and her would-be beau Calvin O’Keefe, go on a trans-dimensional quest to find her missing physicist father. They are aided (and initiated into) this quest by a trio of immortal women (shades of the Norns); their intergalactic mission finds them encountering angelic centaurs, motherly tentacled beasts, a red-eyed automaton, a disembodied brain, and more more more. Dr. Dad has disappeared while working on a mysterious project involving a tesseract.

Here’s a nifty visualization of the tesseract:

Like a lot of young people, as a child I was deeply fascinated by the concept of “tessering” away to a strange, marvelous, dangerous place, and it was surely this idea that most enthralled me as an early reader of the novel. I was probably ten when I first read the book, which I’m pretty sure was a gift from my aunt who brought it to me while our family was living in New Zealand. I actually wrote my name and our six-digit phone number into the book, which suggests that I loaned it out quite a bit.

20120115-162941.jpg

A Wrinkle in Time gelled with all of the stuff I was reading then: lots of Tolkien, C.S.Lewis, and Douglas Adams, but also plenty of crappy Dr. Who novels and lots of execrable fantasy novels. L’Engle’s novels (of course I read all of them after reading Wrinkle; to this day, Many Waters is probably the one that stands out the most, weird and sexy as it was) were of a piece with Tolkien and Lewis (especially Lewis’s oft-overlooked space trilogy)—but there was something distinctly American about L’Engle’s characters—her writing even—that intrigued me. I had spent my entire childhood expatriated and was constantly looking for avenues of American expression, ways “to be American” (yes, I realize how silly that sounds now).

In retrospect, it’s not the tesseract and its fantastical properties that I so recall from A Wrinkle in Time so much as it is L’Engle’s characters, especially mercurial Meg and her future-husband Calvin. While much of literature emphasizes the clash between individual desires and societal conventions, L’Engle’s particular tone and characterization is keenly sensitive to the difficulties adolescents face navigating this conflict. In a sense, L’Engle is working out the early blueprint for what would become the conventions of Young Adult literature. L’Engle wrote a specific brand of sci-fi/fantasy that, on the surface, sets her apart from S.E. Hinton and Robert Cormier—but what these writers share in common, what makes their work so enduring even as society changes, is the essential emotional reality their characters share with readers.

Wrinkle endures also because of its handling of complex themes of conformity, idealism, faith, and science. It’s a book that challenges a youngish audience to read in new ways. It’s also a frequently challenged book—always the sign of something good—suggesting that it’s not going anywhere soon. In this sense, Wrinkle’s literary legacy externally recapitulates its internal themes of nonconformity.

Of course, characterization and strong themes probably wouldn’t get too far with young readers if Wrinkle didn’t deliver the goods that YA readers demand: a good yarn. Wrinkle is spry and engaging at fifty, and while it’s not as bloody as new kid on the block The Hunger Games (the protagonist of which owes some small debt to Meg Murray) it nevertheless negotiates the dangers of existence (both physical and metaphysical) with greater emotional intensity.

But I’ve veered off course here, invoking a newer, more violent YA star at the end of my riff, when what I really want to do is encourage young people who haven’t read Wrinkle yet to pick it up (okay, especially young people who think that Collins’s trilogy is the bee’s knees). It’s a wise, endearing, and enduring classic, one that deserves attention on its golden anniversary.

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Biblioklept Talks to Daniel Nayeri About Capturing Voice, Being a YA Gatekeeper, and Writing His Novella Quartet on an iPhone

Daniel Nayeri was born in Iran and spent a couple of years as a refugee before immigrating to Oklahoma at age eight with his family. He is the author of Straw House, Wood House, Brick House, Blow, a collection of four novellas; Kirkus called it, “Provocative and deeply satisfying,” Bookpage named it “a delightful amalgam of the high and the low, the silly and the sublime,”and the BCCB mentioned the “breathtakingly vivid word smithery” in its starred review.

In addition to his writing, Daniel is an editor of picture books, novels, and graphic novels at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, an accomplished filmmaker, and a professional pastry chef.

Daniel was kind enough to talk to us about his work via email.

Biblioklept: Your book was composed entirely on an iPhone. Can you tell us a bit about that process? How did you start? How intentional was the process in the beginning? Did you use a specific program? Did you edit on the iPhone at all?

Daniel Nayeri: Several years ago, I was reading an article about the “cell phone novel” phenomenon in Japan. The tone of the article was basically, “check out this super popular thing in Japan that all the literary folks hate.” It described the authors as these quiet teen girls, and early-twenty-something women, who would dash off a few chapters on the subway and email them to a website service. The authors didn’t do themselves any favors by saying they disliked reading “real” books, and the critics didn’t do themselves any favors by flipping out and wondering out loud if this trend meant the “death of the author.”

For me, the fascinating tidbit came from a few comments that noted the possible effects of writing on a cell phone. Every undergrad discusses the interplay of form and content (Dickens’s serialized form, the oral iterations of the Iliad, etc). I got really excited about forcing my imagination to live in an incredibly small space. The Japanese authors discussed that when they moved to computers, their vocabulary became “richer” and their “sentences have also grown longer.” I wanted to see if I could push those boundaries out a little (maybe I’m the crazy person who tries to paint the Mona Lisa on an Etch-a-Sketch).

As for the program I used. I bought the first-gen iPhone, so I was using the notepad app that comes with the phone (without cut and paste). To edit, I got very tired of deleting sentences and retyping them three pages down, so I created a code system. For example, if I wanted to move a paragraph up by two pages, I would bracket off the section I wanted and place a symbol next to it. Then I would go up two pages and just place the same symbol. By the end of my editing, there would be pages of work that were nothing but symbols, connected with various prepositions.

Biblioklept: Did you always have the idea to write a quartet of novellas over different genres? How did the idea come about?

DN: I think in general, novels have gotten fatter. As an editor, my first pass on nearly every manuscript is to ask for major cuts. I’m actually kind of petulant about it. My position is that if a book isn’t going to be as good as Anna Karenina, then it probably shouldn’t be as long.

It’s a reactionary position to take, so I thought I would challenge myself with telling stories and building worlds as large and as complex as I could possibly make them, with the limitation of 35-45 thousand words. Obviously, I sort of cheated by connecting some of my thoughts and themes in a collection of four. Hypocrisy and petulance—that’s the sort of delightful company you’ll get if you find yourself working with me.

(Another reason was that I’m still young, and I’d like to learn a lot more before I start demanding the attention of readers for five hundred pages at a time).

Biblioklept: What challenges did you face when working in the variety of genres you worked in?

DN: Presenting four very different voices (to whatever extent one might think it succeeded) is the aspect of this project I am most proud of, actually. The nicest thing anyone has said about the book so far has been to say it is, “the literary equivalent of a singer with a four-octave range.”

To me, it represents the ability to assimilate—a quality any first-generation immigrant valorizes at one point or another. When I first came to the states, I quickly took up the Texas/Oklahoma speech patterns. I was a voracious cataloguer of idioms. When I moved to New York, I did the same. I picked up “kitchen Spanish” in my years as a pastry chef. I love local parlance. As a kid struggling with English, having a proficient knowledge of colloquial expressions represented mastery over the language.

So to me, genres and forms with heavy use of lingo (sports writing, noir, poetry) were the height literary achievement. It sounds backwards, but if you learned the queen’s English first, then you value Huckleberry Finn’s jargon highest of all.

Biblioklept:  Straw House, Wood House, Brick House, Blow is being marketed as a YA book. There’s been some debate in the past few years about a perceived sense of darkness or violence in YA. What place do dark or violent themes have in YA fiction?

DN: I almost never think about this as a writer. I almost never stop thinking about it in my capacity as an editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. My personal interests keep me PG-13, generally. But geez, people send me some crazy-inappropriate material—even for general consumption. Lots of incest. Lots of racial hang-ups. Lots of creepy.

I believe strongly in an editor’s responsibility to put out well-written work (whether or not it’s politically or ethically aligned with one’s self). The old Voltaire quote -– “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it” –- has difficult implications for “gatekeepers” in any media.

But just because there is an ethical challenge to acquire broadly, doesn’t mean the public can’t resist-—meaning that the marketplace often creates pressure to move material toward the unobjectionable. When minors are involved, however, I would hope there are adults who will curate the material. I think the majority of adults agree that there is such a thing as “age appropriateness.” I think both sides of the argument are often concern-trolling-—one side saying kids shouldn’t hear the f-word, and the other side screaming censorship to the culling of anything short of snuff-porn.

The conversation seems to dance around a rating system (as with the MPAA for films, or the ESA for video games), but that has a ton of complications. I’m not sure what I think of a rating system, personally. I just think the discussion would be more interesting than making fun of people over Twitter.

Biblioklept:  What are you working on next?

DN: Straw House has four very western genres, so I’m working on another set of four stories, but this time in eastern genres. I’m from Iran and immigrated to Oklahoma, so collections about the East West interaction have always fascinated me (Rushdie wrote a great essay collection call East West).

There’s an Ibn Battuta travelogue, a 1001 Nights tale, a parable, etc. I’m about halfway finished.

Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?

DN: I’ve never stolen from a retailer, but when I was in middle school, I volunteered at the local library. When I forgot to return books after a long time, the head librarian would let me go into the database and erase my fine, as well as the book itself. That’s how I got my first copy of The Fellowship of the Ring, a CD of Boston’s greatest hits, and a book on juggling. So basically what I’m saying is that I was pretty hardcore.

Revisiting A Wrinkle in Time

Madeleine L’Engle’s seminal fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time turns 50 this year, and publisher Macmillan is celebrating by releasing a new anniversary edition with oodles of extras, including photos, manuscript pages, and new editorial content. They’ve also initiated a “50 Years, 50 Days,   50 Blogs Celebration Campaign” to promote the new book, and they asked Biblioklept to participate in the first week.

Here is the new cover:

And here is the cover to my beloved, ragged edition:

20120115-162927.jpg

A Wrinkle in Time explores the strange intersections of space and time against a backdrop of adolescent angst. Our intrepid heroine Meg, her child genius brother Charles Wallace, and her would-be beau Calvin O’Keefe, go on a trans-dimensional quest to find her missing physicist father. They are aided (and initiated into) this quest by a trio of immortal women (shades of the Norns); their intergalactic mission finds them encountering angelic centaurs, motherly tentacled beasts, a red-eyed automaton, a disembodied brain, and more more more. Dr. Dad has disappeared while working on a mysterious project involving a tesseract.

Here’s a nifty visualization of the tesseract:

Like a lot of young people, as a child I was deeply fascinated by the concept of “tessering” away to a strange, marvelous, dangerous place, and it was surely this idea that most enthralled me as an early reader of the novel. I was probably ten when I first read the book, which I’m pretty sure was a gift from my aunt who brought it to me while our family was living in New Zealand. I actually wrote my name and our six-digit phone number into the book, which suggests that I loaned it out quite a bit.

20120115-162941.jpg

A Wrinkle in Time gelled with all of the stuff I was reading then: lots of Tolkien, C.S.Lewis, and Douglas Adams, but also plenty of crappy Dr. Who novels and lots of execrable fantasy novels. L’Engle’s novels (of course I read all of them after reading Wrinkle; to this day, Many Waters is probably the one that stands out the most, weird and sexy as it was) were of a piece with Tolkien and Lewis (especially Lewis’s oft-overlooked space trilogy)—but there was something distinctly American about L’Engle’s characters—her writing even—that intrigued me. I had spent my entire childhood expatriated and was constantly looking for avenues of American expression, ways “to be American” (yes, I realize how silly that sounds now).

In retrospect, it’s not the tesseract and its fantastical properties that I so recall from A Wrinkle in Time so much as it is L’Engle’s characters, especially mercurial Meg and her future-husband Calvin. While much of literature emphasizes the clash between individual desires and societal conventions, L’Engle’s particular tone and characterization is keenly sensitive to the difficulties adolescents face navigating this conflict. In a sense, L’Engle is working out the early blueprint for what would become the conventions of Young Adult literature. L’Engle wrote a specific brand of sci-fi/fantasy that, on the surface, sets her apart from S.E. Hinton and Robert Cormier—but what these writers share in common, what makes their work so enduring even as society changes, is the essential emotional reality their characters share with readers.

Wrinkle endures also because of its handling of complex themes of conformity, idealism, faith, and science. It’s a book that challenges a youngish audience to read in new ways. It’s also a frequently challenged book—always the sign of something good—suggesting that it’s not going anywhere soon. In this sense, Wrinkle’s literary legacy externally recapitulates its internal themes of nonconformity.

Of course, characterization and strong themes probably wouldn’t get too far with young readers if Wrinkle didn’t deliver the goods that YA readers demand: a good yarn. Wrinkle is spry and engaging at fifty, and while it’s not as bloody as new kid on the block The Hunger Games (the protagonist of which owes some small debt to Meg Murray) it nevertheless negotiates the dangers of existence (both physical and metaphysical) with greater emotional intensity.

But I’ve veered off course here, invoking a newer, more violent YA star at the end of my riff, when what I really want to do is encourage young people who haven’t read Wrinkle yet to pick it up (okay, especially young people who think that Collins’s trilogy is the bee’s knees). It’s a wise, endearing, and enduring classic, one that deserves attention on its golden anniversary.

James Franco and Michael Cunningham on YA Fiction (and What You Should Never Ask a Writer)

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.