In June of 2011, the Wall Street Journal published a pearl-clutching jeremiad against the new darkness oozing from the genre of young adult fiction. "A careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty," warned the author, Megan Cox Gurdon, "but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds." God forbid the children of 9/11, endless war, and the worst economic depression since the last one should read about damage, brutality or loss, eh?
In high dudgeon, the first author Gurdon examines is Andrew Smith, whose 2011 novel, The Marbury Lens, told the story of a teenage boy who escapes a brutal kidnapper and finds a pair of glasses that allow him to see an alternate world of constant warfare: a symbolic exploration of the duality that many American children were experiencing at the time, growing up relatively safe in a world that was said to be falling apart / at war / on fire. If the volume on the violence in The Marbury Lens is turned up, that's because everything in adolescence is set to eleven.
And eleven is where Smith's books begin. In Grasshopper Jungle, an Iowa teenager's joyful sexual confusion plays out against an apocalyptic backdrop of man-made super insects that hatch from the bodies of the boys who beat him up. In Smith's new novel, The Alex Crow, a young Syrian refugee finds himself the newly adopted son of a deranged (though well-intentioned) scientist who works on reanimating dead species for the US government to use as living spies. Then the kid goes to summer camp. Smith's books are like that: zany without being whimsical, of-this-world without being limited by its conventions.
At times, Smith's books can be uneven. One of the less developed bits in The Alex Crow follows a "melting man" driving cross country in a U-Haul truck packed with a homemade dirty bomb; the payload of the bomb far outweighs the pay off of the plot line. But female characters are Smith's real Achilles heel: he doesn't have many of them and they tend toward the stereotypical.
Yet despite these real issues, Smith's work shines. In a market oversaturated by trends (Vampires! Zombies! Cancer!), his novels are fresh and exciting. His male characters are allowed to explore sexuality in all of its positive and negative implications, a breadth of experience that goes beyond gay or straight and into something like Freud's idea of the polymorphously perverse. And for all its adolescent humor, his prose is excellent. The Alex Crow features some of the best euphemisms for masturbation I've ever read. (See: "upload some streaming data.")
With The Alex Crow coming out next month, VICE sat down with Smith to talk about the book, his inspiration, and the state of the world today.
VICE: Where did the idea for The Alex Crow come from?
Andrew Smith: I teach a group of high school students, who are non-English speaking, from all over the world. A few years ago I started getting kids coming in from Syria, during probably the worst of the Syrian civil war. The first boy was 15. His family had left everything they owned in Syria, went across the border into Lebanon, into refugee camps, and then to the United States. And within days he was taking high school classes with thousands of Californians.
I wanted to tell a story like that, about somebody who found himself here, and then was confronted with all of the strangeness that is so pervasive here.
Your villains are often big corporations with military ties. Coincidence or anti-capitalist conspiracy?
Definitely not a coincidence. I think we're getting to the point—we're maybe even past the tipping point—where as a species, human beings have chosen to do things with little concern for their long-run effects. I think there are plenty of people out there who sit back passively, shake their heads and say, as is so often said in Grasshopper Jungle, "That's probably not a good idea." And yet we just keep doing those things over and over. So it's a really important element in the things that I write.
You also don't seem afraid to explore the sex lives of teen boys—everything from the confusion of being attracted to your gay best friend to the trauma of sexual assault during war.
There are an awful lot of things that people are, for whatever reason, timid to talk about, and sexuality in adolescence is one. Kids ask me about that all the time. Especially boys. They'll quietly say things like "Wow, you wrote about this. How do you feel about that? How do your kids feel about this stuff?" They're trying to feel out some kind of an answer, because they're curious. I think these are natural experiences during adolescence. So I tell them I'm not afraid of words, of talking about anything that I think is real or pertinent.
On the flip side, it sometimes seems like there isn't much of a way into your books for female readers. Where are all the women in your work?
I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all. I have a daughter now; she's 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life. I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I'm trying to be better though.
A lot of The Alex Crow is really about the failure of male societies. In all of the story threads, there are examples of male-dominated societies that make critical errors, whether it's the army that Ariel falls in with at the beginning, or the refugee camp, or Camp Merrie-Seymour for boys, or the doomed arctic expedition, they're all examples of male societies that think that they're doing some kind of noble mission, and they're failing miserably.