Thursday, June 8, 2017

Book 80: Lights Out In The Reptile House

"He turned from the sill, and his father sighed and eased up and down in his chair. He had a hernia, which had been aggravated when he'd been taken into custody. He refused to say how. He had disappeared for three days and then had been returned. He refused to talk about any of it. One of the policemen had jingled coins in his trouser pockets while waiting for him to get dressed. It occurred to Karel, standing there, that his father was always intentionally and unintentionally creating absences or leaving them behind him."

Rating: 4/10

Dates Read: August 20-22, 2016

Growing up, I loved dystopian stories. Nowadays, with the YA boom and the runaway popularity of The Hunger Games, you can't swing a stick without hitting a dystopian story written for teenagers. Back when I was that age, though, I lost myself in books like 1984 and A Brave New World. I still to this day reference 1984 what feels like at least once a month.

For the most part, though, the books I read focused on adults, even if they were on the younger end of adulthood. Childhood in a dystopian-esque environment wasn't really touched on in these classics of the genre, but Jim Shepard's Lights Out In The Reptile House puts young teenagers front and center. Set in an unnamed country, it's less of an active dystopia than a totalitarian state, but there are definite parallels with the world of 1984. There's a single Party that controls everything, there's a love story, there are sudden disappearances, there's a close relationship that springs up between the protagonist and a Party official. The protagonist in question is Karel Roeder, a shy loner who's about 14 or 15 years old. His mother has long since been gone, so he's being raised by his perpetually unemployed father. He works at the local zoo, at the reptile house, and nurses a desperate crush on his neighbor and classmate, Lina.

Karel wants nothing more than to be left alone, outside of politics and the machinations of the real world, to work with lizards and long for Lina. But the world won't let him be: his father disappears, he's there when a neighbor is dragged away by the secret police, both his crush and his boss at the reptile house are involved in the resistance, and then suddenly a mysterious party official, Kehr, takes over Karel's home. From there, it's a battle for Karel's metaphorical soul between Kehr and the resistance forces, and a destructive fire at the zoo pushes Karel towards his fate.

As difficult as I imagine it would be to exist as an adult in a highly-surveilled police state, I don't know that I'd ever thought of what it might be like to grow up like that. To know no other normal but the one where your neighbors or even your own family members vanish and don't return, where you're afraid almost in equal measure to inform or to not inform, knowing that if it were to be known that you didn't inform when you should have, there could be consequences for you and your loved ones. It's not hard to imagine that it would create teenagers like Karel, who keep their heads down and try to escape unnoticed. But it's also understandable that it would create teenagers like Lina, whose natural rebellious instinct and high spirits draw her inexorably towards the resistance movement. And who is right? Is it better to keep to yourself and try to stay safe or to fight back, potentially risking the lives of your loved ones as well as your own?

Despite the interesting thoughts and questions the book raises, though, it ultimately just wasn't anything special in and of itself. The prose and characterizations were adequate but nothing more than that, and the plot moved in fits and starts, with long periods of time waiting for something to happen, and then it would pick up, and then slow back down. This may apply especially for the squeamish, like me, but the graphic depiction of torture, especially at the end, was just stomach-turning. I didn't particularly enjoy the experience of reading it, and although I think it's supposed to be pitched to the YA market, I wouldn't recommend it to a teenager, either. Just not worth the time. Read 1984 instead.

Tell me, blog friends...what's your most-referenced book?

One year ago, I was reading: The Name of the Rose

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