We read Weightless by Sarah Bannan for my book club this month. Though it has literary authors’ blurbs on the cover (Colum McCann!), this struck me as YA. I do wonder, however, if teen readers would find this too much like an after school special (Message: Bullying is BAD!) to really enjoy it.
Here’s the premise: a gorgeous, mysterious new girl shows up at a high school in an insular town. At first, she is admired, but soon her peers begin to turn on her in terrible ways. The torment is relentless, and it escalates. The girl also has a troubled back story, so it is up to the reader to figure out whether bullying is causing or contributing to the character’s struggle.
Speaking of the reader, this book’s narrator is a “we.” The reader learns that the “we” is comprised is a specific group of girls who are bystanders and witnesses to the bullying. The plural narrator allows the reader to be a part of a group that does not step in to help, the kind of group that participates by being and staying silent. However, this strategy pulled me away from the story. I like to slip into the lives of characters, and the “we” gave me too much distance. I stayed separate from what should have been a very emotional experience.
One of our book club members pointed us to Sticks and Stones by Emily Bazelon, which is a nonfiction exploration of bullying. I didn’t read this whole thing, but I did read the part that featured the real case that inspired Weightless (but don't click the link to the real case if you don't want spoilers for Weightless). Bazelon’s narration of that story focused on the idea of culpability – can bullying be considered the cause of a victim’s behavior (say, if s/he commits an act of violence)? Part of the mystery of bullying is that it’s hard to pin down – what’s the difference between teasing and bullying (bullying is sustained intimidation – but who decides what intimidation is)? And there’s a growing literature about girl bullying (I liked this one), which tends to be less physical than most cases of boy bullying, but also less definable. If you snub someone repeatedly, is that bullying? Is exclusion bullying?
The biggest problem I had with Weightless is that the story was so deeply and obviously a case of teens being cruel and adults turning away from what was happening. Everything was so awful and so blatant and so terrible that there wasn’t really anything to wrestle with or consider. Was everyone responsible for what happened? Yes. Case closed. I would have been more likely to connect with a book that presented a less flashy case with more dimension.
One book club member raised the issue of the existence of grown-up bullies, and that got me thinking about whether and how Mean Adults are portrayed in literature. Do you have any good examples of books about Mean Women or Mean Men?
( This one doesn’t count).