March 11th, 2008
When trying to describe Adam Rex’s novel The True Meaning of Smekday over the past few days, I’ve typically said it’s like Douglas Adams meets Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. (A strange combo, yes, and perhaps even stranger because you will find the book in the children’s section of your local bookstore. Amazon tells me that the book is suitable for ages 9-12. As the novel’s heroine Gratuity Tucci would say, “Whatever.”) Go ahead and throw a little Mark Twain into the mix, too, because this post-apocalyptic road journey has biting social commentary and truly touching moments of bonding between human and alien.
Initially framed as a school essay, the novel begins in the year 2013 with eleven-year-old Gratuity and her cat Pig driving to Florida, where the invading alien race of Boov have forced all Americans to relocate. Of course, there are great parallels here to Manifest Destiny and Indian Removal, and the satire is skillfully delivered. Gratuity (also known as “Tip” to her friends) meets a fugitive Boov named J.Lo, and the three end up journeying together across the southern half of the United States.
One of Rex’s brilliant strokes is to make it hard to pin down who’s Huck and who’s Jim in this 21st-century adventure. Gratuity is human; J.Lo is a member of the conquering alien race. However, J.Lo is also an outcast among his own people—and Gratuity is African American. Gratuity herself has clearly read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and admires Mark Twain, even if she doesn’t approve of his female characters. One of Huck’s most famous lines is worked in subtly and appropriately, without calling attention to itself, but enriching the impact for those who recognize the reference.
Will 9-12-year-olds recognize the reference? Maybe not. I imagine the adventure-story aspects of the book will appeal to older children, but the parts I most enjoyed—bureaucrats who can’t conceive of taking any action if there’s not a proper form for it, UFO-believers still hanging out in Roswell because the recent, real alien invasion didn’t meet their expectations—will resonate more profoundly with the funny-bones of adults. Plus, the theme of alien invasion gets rather intense at times. We know that people and aliens alike get killed, though never exactly “onscreen.”
For older children and adults, though, the way the book addresses the theme of mass suffering may be helpful. I think I’m just going to quote one of my favorite scenes here, occurring just after Tip and J.Lo have survived torrential rain and flooding:
“When I was a little girl,” I said, sitting down, “the wallpaper in my room had pictures of the Noah story.”
“Pictures of forty nights of raining?”
“Well, no,” I said. Now that I thought about it, that wallpaper didn’t show any rain at all. Wasn’t rain the whole point? “No, it had cute pictures of Noah’s ark. His boat. Adorable little zebras and elephants and things. It’s a popular story for little kids, I guess because of the animals.”
“Little people like the animals,” said J.Lo, nodding and folding his hands. “Is true with the Boov as well.”
“You know what’s weird, though? It’s weird that the ark would be such a kids’ story, you know? I mean, it’s . . . really a story about death. Every person who isn’t in Noah’s family? They die. Every animal, apart from the two of each on the boat? They die. They all die in the flood. Billions of creatures. It’s the worst tragedy ever,” I finished, my voice tied off by a knot in my chest. I’d been speaking too fast without breathing, and I sucked down air before speaking again.
“What the hell,” I said, “pardon my language, was that doing on my wallpaper?”
J.Lo understood me well enough by now not to answer. So I looked off to the west in silence, and saw a thousand miles of hopeless wasteland before we reached Arizona . . .
J.Lo’s hand was on my shoulder suddenly, and he said, “Rainbow.”
I looked up. First at him and then at the sky where he was pointing.
. . . It was a perfect, bright, unbroken rainbow stretching over the western horizon like a door. It was so beautiful it looked fake. Above it was another, fainter one in reverse, and I exhaled and thought, of course. Of course there’s a rainbow. ‘Bout time.
Tip’s wallpaper exegesis leads me to believe I would enjoy discussing the Bible with her. I have a lot of respect for someone who is aware of and sensitive to all the horrible things that happen in the Bible and throughout human history and yet still responds to rainbows with expectation of a promise fulfilled (“’Bout time” seems to me like a paraphrase of many of the Psalms.). Incidentally, I thought of this moment from Smekday yesterday when I was in Barnes & Noble and saw religious studies scholar Bart Ehrman’s (or “Barty Crouch,” as he’s known for some reason among our circle of friends) latest book being promoted. Its title, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer, makes me want to laugh and/or snort—because, well, duh, of course the Bible doesn’t completely answer our questions about suffering. If it gave a pat, definitive answer, I don’t think we would have this thing called “the problem of evil” that philosophers and theologians have been arguing for centuries. The Bible seems to give several ways of looking at suffering, but the theme that runs throughout is pretty much what Tip’s experience suggests: it’s a mystery, but, somehow, God is faithful.
Anyway, I don’t mean to suggest that Tip’s commentary always has a theological bent. Sometimes she is quite discerning about elves, for example. When staying with the Roswell-ites, one of whom has a baby named Andromeda, Tip observes that Andromeda is dressed in “both her Legolas onesie and her Keebler booties. Which seemed wrong, you know—mixing two different kinds of elves like that.” Bravo, Tip. Tolkien couldn’t agree more wholeheartedly.
Also, I’ve noted before that post-apocalyptic literature tends to “reveal” or “uncover” the truth about human nature. The True Meaning of Smekday is no exception. As Tip notes, “Most people want to break other people’s things and roll cars over, but won’t unless their planets are invaded by aliens, or their basketball team wins the finals.” Or football team. Whatever.
In short, The True Meaning of Smekday is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Rex, whose previous work has been mainly in illustrating children’s picture books, includes entertaining “snapshot” illustrations, as well as occasional comic-book-style segments. And, as I hope I’ve indicated, Tip’s narrative voice is sharp, witty, and insightful. Find, read, and enjoy.
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