An IM conversation about the 2013 Printz Award winner devolves into a conversation about why Elizabeth Wein’s CODE NAME VERITY is ALL MANNER OF EXCELLENT.
Featuring your humble correspondent, and Jenny of Jenny’s Library.
We are not concerned hereunder with spoilers, so if you haven’t read CNV? We’re going to ruin the ending for you.
Jenny: I kinda want to read In Darkness [by Nick Lake] and compare it to Monster [by Walter Dean Myers]
Because Monster? is about a boy on trial for murder
And we spend much of the book not knowing if he’s guilty or not
(and in the end, it’s still uncertain – it’s debatable)
but on the first page of In Darkness we have the narrator saying “I first shot a man when I was twelve years old.”
So we have one book that’s not just about young men of color and the violence in their lives, but more importantly the extent to which our perceptions of young men of color and violence affects how society treats them, and what kinds of chances they get
And I suspect In Darkness will only be about the first, at best
and also – there’s something about how they are both addressing their audience
(Code Name Verity too)
Despite the very different reasons for Steve and Verity writing, there’s something similar in how they’re addressing their audience
in the extent to which the writers writing these characters allow the personalities of young people to come through
and I’ve only read the first page of In Darkness
but the character here is addressing it’s readers much differently
in a way that’s much more removed and lacking that same kind of personality
which means it’s lacking that closeness and humanity
intimacy I guess is the better word
Liz: Maybe Lake just sucks at voice
Jenny: This is quite possible!
I suspect that the amount of potential for disrespect involved in presuming to tell this story has something to do with it as well
Any decently smart reader can figure out within the first page or two of Monster and Verity
that Wein is using the lowered expectations we have for young women in order to take us by surprise later
while Myers is showing the lowered expectations we have for young men of color in order to ask us to do better
but what is Lake doing?
other than confirming what we already think about young men of color
the main takeaway from Lake’s first page is that he wants us to be shocked and feel sympathetic
but Verity and Monster – while the shock is there, the main points are empathy and respect
I mean, I do not know from Monster
well, and I’m more going from what I remember about the book, than the first page, which I don’t remember precisely
Liz: But in CNV, we are shocked by what is happening to Julie, and only later realise that it isn’t exactly as straightforward as it seems.
There is a layered playing with empathy there.
in both books
Liz: Particularly with respect to Anna Engel and the German officer.
Because both of them are broken by the same system that is breaking Julie, even as they’re complicit in it
Jenny: Monster is a mix of journal entries, and then what’s happening to Steve written out in screenplay – as if he’s detached from his own trial
and it’s an unreliable narrator in ways
except the point is to force us to ask ourselves just why we really don’t trust him, why the people in his life don’t trust him
rather than to use our trust to lie and make us believe it
but the going back and forth from journal and screenplay
it has the same sort of intimacy and detachment that Verity does through her letters, but then spending so much time talking about herself in third person in them
and they both exist in the story for similar and yet very different goals, the characters in the story are doing the detaching thing for the same reason
because they are scared and ashamed
Liz: I do not find shame in Code Name Verity
Not in retrospect
You know how she goes on about what a shameful coward she is? And in retrospect it’s such a goddamn effective misdirect
Jenny: Verity has clarified for me why I like unreliable narrators in young adult novels, but rarely like them in adult novels. because in young adults novels, they are more often about identity, and young adult’s identity is much more in flux, so often lying is just as honest in terms if who they are as telling the truth is.
Let me try to clarify?
Liz: Because she’s terrified but not broken, and that playing with shame, playing on the image of (socially-sanctioned as female) weakness, is a way of convincing her interrogators she is broken
While at the same time?
Doing the exact same thing to the reader.
Jenny: I think maybe more mad at herself is more what I meant?
Liz: And then pulling out the goddamn rug.
Jenny: Because she is mad at herself for getting caught
At least I think she is
Liz: I think that rolls together into angry+terrified at the whole situation to me.
Jenny: Yes, that’s maybe a better way of putting it
Liz: And the distancing effect is a way of… well, it’s a resist-interrogation technique, isn’t it?
Jenny: Yes – which is what Steve is doing too
Liz: Pretending it’s happening to someone else
That’s part of what makes CNV so effective
Liz: Because, well.
EVERYTHING about it?
From Julie’s POV?
Is doing about seven different things at once.
It is dense in terms of effective technique.
Jenny: Fuck yes
Liz: (and affective technique, to boot)
Jenny: which is why I look at In Darkness and just go O.o
because maybe it will surprise me?
but I’ll bet it won’t be a quarter as good at telling the story of the violence in the lives of young men of color as Monster does
and Verity does some of the same things that Monster does but better
it’s much more clever
Another thing I’d like to add:
I haven’t had a favorite book since childhood because once I got to my teen years, so few of them touched me in quite the same way, or stayed with me for as long. I could never pick and “favorite” was always changing
I suspect that CNV will be my favorite for a very long time (relatively speaking)
like, I’m obsessing over this story in a way I haven’t in years
(except for maybe PC Hodgell’s Kencyrath books)
I mean, Bujold was awesome and distracting and all, but I dunno how to describe it
the difference, I mean
Liz: The difference between your response to Wein and to Bujold’s stuff, what do you mean?
Jenny: Well, this sounds slightly silly?
but it feels more life changing
like, I’m very glad I’ve read Bujold’s books
they will always be favorites
they made me think about things in new ways
but…. CNV feels different somehow
Liz: Is it because it doesn’t flinch?
Because that’s what did it for me.
Jenny: that’s definitely part of it
Liz: It takes all your expectations that a book like this is not actually going to go there
Jenny: and it goes places even worse
Liz: And then it goes there. Into that moment that combines perfect horror with unlooked-for grace.
Jenny: Not precisely?
I think it’s more because it redefines what it means to love someone that much
perhaps because I’ve grown up on too much Hollywood?
Liz: “It’s like falling in love, finding your best friend”?
Jenny: Yes, but also… in choosing to shoot Julie, Maddie is choosing to love her friend over loving herself
Maybe that’s not the best way to put it? But Maddie gives up trying to be Julie’s hero
Because it’s more important to her to do what Julie needs than what Maddie wishes she could do (not that Maddie actually wanted to be Julie’s hero, precisely, but you get the idea)
in that moment, Maddie chooses the pain and guilt of having failed her best friend in the world over letting her friend spend even one more moment in pain
and that’s a much bigger sacrifice than risking her life for the chance to save both of them
Liz: Or fail to save either.
Jenny: and…maybe this sounds stupid?
but it feels like a very… female perspective on war and battle
and what it really means
not that this story couldn’t happen – doesn’t happen – among men?
like, the traditional male perspective is that one is risking one’s life for one’s loved ones back home, watching your friends die doing the same
Liz: Mercy, and survival, and the fact that some fates really are worse that death but that the death part doesn’t actually hurt any less because of that?
I think also – the difference between war that you go somewhere else to make, and war that brings itself to you
because while women have always fought! and they fight in far off places – the war that women fight does tend to more often be war where the battlefield is your own home
at least, that’s my impression?
and when it comes to losing loved ones, friends, making sacrifices…
There’s just something about not having the comfort of knowing your family is safe back home that’s different, and that comes through not just in Maddie and Julie’s friendship, but their fears.
It’s more just that… I’ve known that war is different when it isn’t sending troops elsewhere?
but my own country hasn’t lived that in generations and it shows in the shitty choices we make
and this is a perspective we need more of because war is always in someone’s home
and because it’s not a perspective that my country has lived in generations, I may know it, but I don’t know it
It’s a fundamentally NOT White American Male perspective on war<
So, yeah, it actually pisses me off more now that In Darkness got the medal and CNV just got an honor
because based on the sample that I’ve seen I don’t see it challenging that perspective.
That war is Over There.
Further thoughts are invited from all comers.