Author: Kate Hattemer
Genre: Contemporary YA, POC
Publisher: Knopf Books
Publication Date: April 8 2014
Hardcover: 336 Pages
Witty, sarcastic Ethan and his three friends decide to take down the reality TV show, For Art’s Sake, that is being filmed at their high school, the esteemed Selwyn Arts Academy, where each student is more talented than the next. While studying Ezra Pound in English class, the friends are inspired to write a vigilante long poem and distribute it to the student body, detailing the evils of For Art’s Sake. But then Luke—the creative force behind the poem and leader of the anti-show movement—becomes a contestant on the nefarious show. It’s up to Ethan, his two remaining best friends, and a heroic gerbil named Baconnaise to save their school. Along the way, they’ll discover a web of secrets and corruption involving the principal, vice principal, and even their favorite teacher.
Stand alone or series: stand alone
How did I get this book: review copy via Netgalley
Format (e- or p-): eARC
Why did I read this book: I love Contemporary YA and for some reason, the idea of this book really stuck with ever even since I first heard about it a few months ago.
Just like this book, my review too has three beginnings and three endings.
One of the ways I could possibly begin is by saying that The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy is more about friendship and the relationship between Art and Life than about vigilantism or poetry (although those are involved to a large extent too).
Another of the ways I could possibly begin is by talking about the plot. Ostensibly, it all starts when a new reality TV Show, For Art’s Sake begins filming at the prestigious Selwyn Arts Academy. Friends Ethan, Luke, Jackson and Elizabeth are disturbed at not only the disruption to their school caused by the filming of the show but also by the way that their fellow students are being portrayed in the show, after heavy editing from the show producers. Most of all, they become increasingly uneasy about the obvious misrepresentation of art and the censorship regarding any and all criticism about the show. When they start studying Ezra Pound in English class, they are inspired to write a secret (vigilante) long poem, penned by Luke in which they voice their concerns to the student body. But then betrayal comes from within their group as Luke himself is co-opted into participating in the show, becoming a favourite overnight. While the friends try to grasp the treachery, they become aware of other aspects of the show, namely all the conniving and corruption involving the principal and one of their favourite teachers.
The third way I could begin – and this is the real beginning – is to get talking about Ethan, the narrator of this piece. Ethan’s voice is funny, of the self-deprecating type. He is not super talented, he is not charming or cute. He has a crush on one of the competitors in the show, the super talented and beautiful Maura. He puts his best friend Luke on a pedestal and his betrayal hits him like a bomb. His other friends barely register on his radar and he spends a lot of time with a gerbil named Baconnaise.
Ethan’s narrative is very unreliable. Not because he is lying to the reader but mostly because he is lying to himself. It’d be very easy to feel that Ethan’s narrative is no more than that of a privileged white boy who has a good life and complains about it anyway and pines away for the Unattainable Girl. But the fact is that the narrative, the story and other characters go to great lengths to explore the idea that people are much more complex beings than Ethan gives them credit for, challenging his narration of the novel. He constantly talks about Luke’s awesomeness and about Maura’s perfection but that doesn’t mean that he is really seeing them as people, merely as a construct of his own ideal. So Ethan has a really hard time dealing with the fact that both Luke and Maura are not exactly as the image he created in his own mind. I love that it’s Ethan’s other friend Elizabeth who constantly calls him out on this. She tells him that Luke has never been the way Ethan thought him to be and tells him that Ethan himself has made Maura unattainable. A huge part of this narrative concerns itself with Ethan’s growth and a lot of it comes from seeing those he proclaims to love. That’s really interesting too because this evolves with time, with talking to his friends and by studying Ezra Pound (by all means a complex author whose private life could raise eyebrows) and engaging with ideas proposed in his English class. One of the crucial moments in the book is when Ethan realises:
Everyone knows how to love, but not how to love well. The mistake is too easy. You call her a goddess and you think he’s perfect and suddenly they’re not people anymore. You’ve betrayed them. Instead of being in awe of their complexity, you’ve swept it away.
I think it says a lot about the author’s brilliant hold of her story and characters that even though everything we read comes from Ethan’s very flawed, biased narrative, we actually get to see other characters on their own terms. I particularly loved how awesome the female characters – Elizabeth and Maura – were even through the lenses of Ethan’s obvious infatuations. Maura is an incredibly thought-provoking character: very talented, very ambitious who is prepared and willing to even use the sexist expectations placed on her to her own advantage. That the narrative never ever allocated blame on Maura by choosing to follow this path is another positive point. As such, the story raises a lot of ethical questions: should people be prepared to do everything for art? Does compromising means betraying one’s own principles? What about the relationship between art and life? How does one influence the other? Can we really know the other completely?
One of the ways that I could possibly end this thing would be to say that even though the book is very critical of reality TV, it also doesn’t fail to show that people who love reality TV, love it for reasons that often involve the way that contestants are compelling, presenting a beautiful vitality that is very seducing and engaging.
Another of the ways I could possibly end this is to include a caveat for pet fans – the next few lines in this paragraph contain spoilers, look away now if you don’t want to know. One of the most amazing characters in the book is Baconnaise, the pet gerbil. He is always there and Ethan absolutely loves him. In the end, Baconnaise saves the day in an “act of heroism” – the quotation marks are there because Baconnaise obviously doesn’t act out of his volition. It’s Ethan who sends him to his own death in order to save the day. This is as heartbreaking and troubling as it sounds despite the possibly mitigating circumstances (Baconnaise had terminal cancer). But in a way this fits the theme of the novel perfectly: that good people can do terrible things. That it’s possible to be a shitty person and still be a good whatever (teacher, friend, parent). That nobody is perfect. How this will inevitably affect each reader’s reading of the book and of its main character, is I suspect, the intended purpose of this act.
The third way to end this, which will really be the end, is to say that The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy is very funny. It’s very thought-provoking. And it features a love for tricolons.
Rating: 8 – excellent
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