One might expect young adult fiction to use simple stories to explain complicated ideas that teens might not easily understand otherwise. But as it turns out, the genre's most successful recent works, including Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games and Lauren Oliver's Delirium trilogy, do just the opposite, creating fantastical parallel worlds with complicated rules and realities in the service of basic universal truths.
Proxy (Penguin), the new novel by Baltimore-born author Alex London, follows the example of those novels-imagining a dark, distant-future America where the disparity between the wealthy and the impoverished has reached epic proportions-as a way to address the potential harms that result from greed and man's inhumanity to man.
The details of this sad new world are fascinating: Debt-laden proxies are punished for their wealthy patrons' crimes. "Patrons owned the debt and proxies took their punishments. A simple contract, a free market. Debts had to be paid." By law, patrons must watch their proxies endure punishments, in hopes that doing so will touch their humanity and serve as a deterrent. But, as you might imagine, it does nothing of the sort.
Knox is a teenage patron who drives fast cars and constantly breaks rules and wreaks havoc, mostly to earn attention from his workaholic father. Syd Carton, named after the selfless hero in A Tale of Two Cities, has served as Knox's proxy since he was very young, enduring frequent punishment-often whacks with an electromagnetic stick.
Knox has to watch every punishment Syd serves for his foolishness, even though Syd has no idea who he is suffering for (patron confidentiality). Within the first year of this setup, Knox has become desensitized and stops crying or even wincing while watching.
London's world takes today's fears-lack of privacy, class inequality, corporate power-to their logical extremes in interesting, if sometimes clumsy, ways: What happens when corporations and advertisers have total access to a person's complete "data"? What happens when people are ruled and bombarded by "advos" that project all around them based on past behavior? What happens to a society when disease can be eradicated for those who have the money, but those who cannot afford healthcare go into debt that they pay off with their bodies and souls?
The poor are completely segregated in a part of the country called "The Valve," where crime is rampant. Orphans like Syd are given names from famous literary characters, though almost no one even recognizes these names. The society as a whole has no relationship with literature at all, or any text beyond advos.
It seems fitting in a novel for a potentially post-label generation that we learn, casually and offhandedly, that Syd is both African-American and gay-he has a crush on Atticus Finch. But homophobia, racism, and sexism persist: Among the slang that London creates is the slur "Chapter 11," meaning "two of the same thing pressed together. The old way of saying it was homo." Syd's brown skin also makes him "different" from those around him and he is racially profiled at one point.
Some elements of this dystopia seem hard to unravel for readers of any age. We only get snippets of information about what happened that destroyed the old world, the reader's world (a combination of war and global warming), and Nigeria is held out as some sort of "promised land." There are other Biblical allusions, as to yovel, the Hebrew word for Jubilee, the mythical day when all debts are cleared.
But amid all the sometimes-sketchy details, readers are left to ponder the nature of humanity, family, sacrifice, and retribution. The language, at times simple and cliche, is perfect for the young adult genre. As a high school teacher, I know that students weaned on Collins' and Oliver's work will love this book, hopefully soaking in the lessons about rampant technology, selfishness, and greed. And there is just enough relationship melodrama to keep them hooked.