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The Completist: A.M. Jenkins

I’m back with another episode of The Completist, in which I read the complete works of a YA novelist and try to make sense of them. This time, I’m taking on AM Jenkins, most famous for her Printz Honor-winning novel Repossessed. Including Repossessed, Jenkins has written seven novels, four of which–Damage (2002), Out of Order (2004), Repossessed (2008), and Night Road (2009)–made it on their year’s Best Books for Young Adults list, with Damage also making 2002’s BBYA Top Ten. I had read Repossessed prior to starting this project, so I knew I liked Jenkins’s work, but since I hadn’t read any others, I decided to read all seven (including Repossessed again) in order of publication.

First of all, let me say that all of her novels (with one exception I’ll get to at the end) were fantastic. Jenkins has an amazing command of language in a surprisingly broad range of genres. And while I don’t by any means think it is the only thing worth pursuing in Jenkins’s work, nor do I expect future Completist posts to focus so narrowly, I found one particular element in her work so fascinating that I’m going to focus most of this post on it.

At first glance, Jenkins’s novels seem to divide neatly in two halves, chronologically: her first three novels are contemporary problem novels, grounded solidly in the realm of realistic fiction. Since Out of Order, though, the rest of her work has delved into various aspects of the supernatural: ghosts (Beating Heart), demons (Repossessed), vampires (Night Road), and fairies (Queen of the Masquerade). But while this division between realistic and supernatural fiction might be helpful for readers’ advisory purposes, I noticed that there were a lot more similarities than differences between these sets of novels, particularly in the realm of structure and ideas. In my post on Laurie Halse Anderson, I focused on character, but as good as Jenkins’s characters are, she is a novelist of ideas. In fact, she even said in her Printz acceptance speech, “When I write a book I’m usually exploring at least one idea.”

I noticed right away that Breaking Boxes has a very unique take on climax and denouement. Breaking Boxes tells the story of Charlie Calmont, whose mother’s death and father’s abandonment have so damaged him that he finds himself unable to make emotional connections with anyone but his brother Trent; the plot revolves around his tentative new friendship with a much more popular kid named Brandon. What makes the structure interesting is that Charlie’s emotional isolation finally comes to a head in a confrontation with Brandon mere pages from the end of the novel, leaving the confrontation’s aftermath — along with multiple plot threads and questions — hanging. In this way, despite its length, it reads more like a short story than a novel.

At first I chalked this up to Jenkins being a first time novelist, but as I kept reading, I realized that this is a structure that she repeats again and again. In her novels, characters only begin to understand their flaws and real needs at the very end of the book. Each novel just gives the barest hint of how each character might begin to change his ways to repair himself and his relationships and make amends for the damage he has caused. In Damage, for instance, Austin Reid, a star football player who finds himself plagued by depression, admits to his best friend that he has been having suicidal thoughts less than a page from the end of the novel, leaving entirely open the question of how Austin and his friend will use this information and whether it will even help Austin to have admitted it.

As I already mentioned, this structure carries over into Jenkins’s supernatural fiction. Beating Heart comes to a climax as Evan almost replays the murder of the (unnamed) ghost by nearly suffocating his girlfriend, again only realizing his own guilt in the matter in the novel’s concluding pages. And Night Road, though it has a separate superstructure of the training of the young vampire, has a clear undercurrent of Cole’s failure to confront his disastrous decisions with a previous protege: again, he makes his choice to face his demons on the second to last page of the novel.

At first Repossessed seems to substantially differ from this structure. Kiriel, the main character, has a much more traditional character arc with a dramatic realization coming near the novel’s midpoint and the rest of the novel developing his responses and eventual fulfillment. But in fact, Jenkins has applied at least three layers of the same narrative pattern as those previous books. Kiriel, our narrator, acts as a cross between reader and novelist: he is acutely aware of the sins of Jason (an almost uncanny recreation of Charlie Calmont) and Reese (a mirror image of Colt), for example, and offers each of them a chance at self-realization, but any fulfillment is left until after Kiriel is gone. In an even more radical case, Kiriel becomes slowly aware of the failings of Shaun (the boy whose body Kiriel is inhabiting), particularly Shaun’s complete apathy towards life (reminiscent of Austin Reid). But in this case, since Kiriel is the narrator, and Shaun cannot experience anything until Kiriel is gone, even the chance of Shaun gaining self-realization is put off until after the novel ends.

In this complicated structure, Repossessed acts as a kind of culmination of all of Jenkins’s previous novels. In her Printz speech, Jenkins made reference to this by calling Repossessed “a companion novel of sorts to Out of Order” (and I would say, a companion to all of her novels).

So what are we to make of this structure? Why does it matter? On the most basic level, it is a challenge to the reader: we can’t rely on simple resolutions, but instead have to imagine all the possibilities that these characters may face. But there is an even more interesting answer, which Jenkins practically states in Repossessed in these words of Kiriel’s (remember that Kiriel is a demon who oversees the punishment of souls in hell):

The only uplifting times are when, usually after millennia of suffering, a single soul suddenly, for no reason that’s apparent to me, decides that it’s had enough, that it’s paid the price for its wrongs, and it sort of twists itself inside out, shedding its misery to go free. It’s a beautiful, memorable, and very rare event. It’s a cool rush, a sweet atom of a moment in an eternity of heavy dark. But even that fine moment has its bitterness. In Hell, nothing is pure joy. There’s sorrow in the moment of release, when the soul realizes that a true sin, once committed, can never be undone, and thus in one respect can never be paid for [p. 11-12, my emphasis]

Here we have the heart of Jenkins’s work, and the rationale behind her unique take on structure. She is interested not in atonement or fulfillment, but in that realization of “true sin.” In fact, this quotation explains another aspect of Jenkins’s work, which is how deeply flawed her characters are. All of her novels feature highly unsympathetic characters, but in the first two, Jenkins loads the protagonists with weighty emotional baggage that ensures our sympathy–Charlie’s dead mother and Austin’s depression. In Out of Order and Beating Heart, she takes away even that: Colt is a completely prototypical high school jock and bully. He is mean to everyone at school, and considers himself entitled to sex with beautiful women, passing grades, and adoration. In Beating Heart, Even is not a jock, but he has most of the same attitudes as Colt, particularly towards women. It is to Jenkins’s amazing credit that we eventually come to root even for Colt, and to a lesser extent Evan. Kiriel, of course, is a demon (though a very engaging one), and Cole a vampire (ditto).

Kiriel’s words and Jenkins’s structuring should make the reason for these characters clear: she does not want to let the reader off the hook. She wants us to understand that moment of “true sin,” and we can only get there with a character who would freely commit such a sin. That’s not to say that her characters are just pawns. I’ve already said how ultimately sympathetic I find most of her protagonists, and I would be remiss if I did not mention in this post one of the most affecting scenes of characterization I have read in years. Throughout Damage, Austin has only one memory of his father, who died of cancer when Austin was young. The memory is of standing in the bathroom while his father shaves: his father puts shaving cream on Austin’s face and lets him “shave” with a toy razor. This is a typical enough memory for many boys, but a crucial one for Austin as it is his one moment of bonding with his father. Near the end of the book, he mentions this memory to his mother, who is skeptical that it ever happened. Austin insists, but as he walks into the bathroom, he realizes that the tiles are a different color from his memory and that the memory is not of his father, but of his best friend’s father, who looked after him while his dad was sick. This is emotionally wrenching on so many levels, and Jenkins plays it beautifully; she clearly cares deeply for her characters. Nevertheless, she tailors them specifically to meet the needs of her themes about sin and to make us, the readers, deeply implicated in those themes.

You may have noticed by now that I haven’t made any mention of Queen of the Masquerade. There are two good reasons for this: one is that it doesn’t fit very well with the overall patterns I’ve been discussing (although elements of Jenkins’s obsessions are evident throughout); the other is that I don’t think much of the novel. It is the fifth book in the Hallowmere series by Tiffany Trent and was written together with Trent. As such, it is difficult to tease out what is part of the pre-existing world of the series, what is unique to Trent’s writing, and what is Jenkins’s contribution. Plus, I just didn’t like it much. If anyone is interested, let me know and I’ll be happy to give you my thoughts on the book, but this post is already much too long, so I will end as I did my last post with a brief ranking of the novels:

Masterpieces

  • Repossessed: It won the Printz Honor for a reason, and as I mentioned, it contains the seeds of most of the rest of her work.
  • Out of Order: I wish I had more room to explore this book. Jenkins went on at great length about it in her Printz speech, so it was clearly dear to her heart, and for good reason.

Must Read

  • Breaking Boxes: An incredible first effort with one of the worst covers you’ve ever seen.
  • Damage: Personally I never like second person narration, but this book almost made me forget it.

For Fans

  • Night Road: Though it treads similar ground to Westerfeld’s Peeps and other literary vampire novels, the heart of this one is Cole’s grinding guilt mentioned above.
  • Beating Heart: I actually quite enjoyed this book. It has a fascinating take on ghost stories, in that the ghost is never actually acknowledged by the living. But it is definitely slight and not up to Jenkins’s best work.

For Hallowmere Fans Only

  • Queen of the Masquerade

— Mark Flowers, currently reading The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

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