Thursday, April 14, 2005

Portait of the Critic as a Girl

Michiko Kakutani, Second Grade Book Report, excerpted from M. Kakutani, Juvenilia

Judy Blume’s eagerly anticipated third novel, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, has arrived from the Scholastic book order on a wave of hype and controversy.

A bit of signal, it turns out, but lots of noise: Tales is the provocative but ultimately unsatisfying story of a young man’s contentious relationship with his brilliant and self-destructive younger brother, Fudge. Peter Hatcher, the ostensible protagonist of Ms. Blume’s novel and the eponymous nothing of its title, is fixated on the precocious Fudge’s antics—some of which are mere shenanigans while others verge on cries for help—to the point where his own identity begins to come apart at the seams. By the end of Tales, Peter is a walking ghost, and at one level the novel can be read as a study of the devastating power of a sibling rivalry.

At any rate, Tales is both an exemplar, and an exception to, that growing genre of American literature, the dysfunctional family confessional. In Ms. Blume’s Upper West Side milieu, black sheep scions abound, wreaking repressively neurotic havoc. By giving us Peter’s point of view, Ms. Blume has opened the door on the dynamic between two brothers whose respective pathologies may be different in form, but not in magnitude.

Whether some clinical mental illness runs in the Hatcher family—or alternatively, whether Fudge and Peter’s eccentricities are merely the catalysts of a destructive interpersonal chemistry—remains ambiguous. This unanswered question is perhaps the novel’s most frustrating component, and contributes to its ultimate failure. Simply put, subtlety is not Ms. Blume’s strong suit. She is an author who is at her best when she is shocking the sensibilities of youngsters, while engaging the prurient interest of adults. Think of the sordid ejaculation scenes in Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, and the gritty menstruation sequence in Are You There God: It’s Me Margaret. These scenes crackled with electricity. They left no doubt as to where Ms. Blume stood respecting her troubled adolescent characters. In Tales, by contrast, even when Fudge swallows a turtle, we are left to wonder if Peter has simply lost all touch with reality.

None of this is to say that Tales is not an excellent read. Ms. Blume’s irrepressible comic gifts are once again on display. Peter’s slow burn begins innocuously enough. Fudge’s very nickname—whose origin is perhaps the drollest of the book’s sly double-entendres—rankles Peter, and when Fudge destroys a science project that Peter has been working on, the scene is timed and pitched perfectly, and plays like first-rate Grand Guignol slapstick. By the end of the novel, however, when Peter’s grip on his sanity becomes more and more tenuous, Ms. Blume’s prose takes on a quality that was simply absent in her earlier novels: moribundity.

Ms. Blume and her publisher, Scholastic, have announced that Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing is the first book in a trilogy, and it may be wise to reserve judgment on Tales until we see what Ms. Blume has in mind for these characters. My own hope is that Peter and Fudge reemerge in the later books as they appear in the early pages of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. In any event, Ms. Blume is such a copiously gifted author that even where she fails, she never fails to intrigue.