22 July, 2013

'Doll Bones' by Holly Black

Still working on my review of Sarah Pinborough's A Matter of Blood, but I finished Doll Bones this morning and couldn't stop myself from writing about it instantly.

I first learned about LARP on a hot afternoon in August of 2003. It hadn't been a good summer-- my parents had split up the year before, and my father had stuck around just long enough to determine that out of the house wasn't far enough to go to cure his restlessness, packing off to Florida in the middle of July. I wasn't dealing well-- Mom wasn't dealing well, and we'd spent the whole summer fighting because neither of us could stand to acknowledge the emptiness in the house. But bickering or not, we dutifully went to visit my grandparents in New Hampshire a few weeks before school resumed, where in between avoiding Mom and helping Gram weed the garden, I took the opportunity to meet up with a college friend who lived close by. My friend, Nelle, invited me to meet her to hang out with a bunch of her friends from home, and I was so desperate for something to take my mind off myself that I ignored my social anxiety and agreed.

It was toward the end of the afternoon that we went for a walk-- Nelle, me, her boyfriend Brad and their friend Lindsay. Lindsay had impressed me on our first meeting by unironically wearing a top hat and making us take her to see the basement of the haunted dorm on campus. That day she sported a t-shirt with a big graphic of Peter Pan, her sandy hair coming loose from a short ponytail. It's still clear in my mind, the image of her walking the curb like a tightrope, then abruptly scooping up a stick and turning to brandish it at Brad, calling him Hook and admonishing him for some piece of villainy. Unfazed, Brad grabbed a stick of his own, and the two fenced their way up the street in a joyful dance, laughing and shouting, clearly enmeshed in a familiar pattern that I, an outsider, couldn't understand.

"What are they doing?" I asked Nelle, laughing. She smiled, a little embarrassed, and said, "It's called LARP. We've been playing Neverland lately."

I made her explain-- wasn't LARP just people who ran around the woods in fake livery, hitting each other with cardboard swords? Or like those kids I knew in high school who snuck out at night to pretend to be vampires? Nelle smiled indulgently; I clearly had no idea what I was talking about.

My new friends approached it differently. There were no constructs in their LARPs except the ones they made for themselves, no rules except those which served the story. They had endless iterations, the characters they'd created that they usually played, and when one storyline exhausted itself, they sidestepped into a new universe, most often a departure from the previous one that branched off from the eternal question, "What if...?"

To an outsider, it sounds insane-- juvenile, escapist, pointless. What could the function possibly be, what purpose could it serve? To create characters, stories that could never be replicated or even explained to anyone who hadn't participated, to co-opt characters from fiction and enmesh them in worlds of our own creation?

It was magic. It was exactly what I needed. I dove into LARP with a recklessness that surprised even me, finding inexplicable comfort in creating, not just out of my own lonely mind, but in collaboration with a group of people just as fucked up and weird as I felt myself to be. It wasn't that our worlds were free from pain or drama or fear-- far from it. But like all artists, we found catharsis through performance. Putting our characters through grief and angst helped us to better parse our own, gave us context from which to work through the things that plagued us. Divorce, death, coming out, growing up, identity, inadequacy, independence-- compared to monsters, wizards, curses and quests, how could real life really be that scary? But more than a coping mechanism, it was a bonding experience, a way of helping each other figure out who we were. In telling a story together, we created something that was entirely our own, in a time when for most of us, so little else was.

Some of those stories, those characters, will be with me forever. It sounds dramatic to say they changed my life, but I've always had a flair for drama, and anyway, it's true. Most of the people who were my ferrymen into the underworld of LARP have now been my best friends for over a decade, and those stories are the bedrock of our collective friendship consciousness.

You don't need to have a background in LARP to understand the kids in Doll Bones. Anyone who was a kid with an overactive imagination, anyone who created private worlds with their friends and mourned when you outgrew them, anyone who felt a stubborn resistance to the notion of growing up, will probably see themselves mirrored here. Poppy, Zach and Alice have been playing a storytelling game for years, a game that sustains them through the pitfalls of early adolescence, a story that binds them to each other. They're best friends who rely on each other more than they can rely on any of the adults in their lives for understanding and acceptance; for each of them, the friendship is their one sure thing.

It is, therefore, earth-shattering when Zach's father throws out all his action figures, the physical stand-ins for the characters he plays in their game. Without them, he can't play, and his fury at his father for taking the game from him is so intense that he feels he can't even talk about it without breaking down. So he lies to his friends, tells them he doesn't want to play the game anymore, that it's interfering too much with the other parts of his life. They're upset, but with no alternative, they accept his story-- until they appear outside his window one night with a crazy story about the doll that's been the figurehead for their game since its inception, the ghost that haunts her, and the quest they must undertake to lay her to rest.

What follows is an adventure for the three friends not only in pursuit of their quest but as a metaphor for their journey out of childhood. They confront their sudden autonomy, a series of disasters that challenges their problem-solving and requires them to be both brave and daring, and the terrifying shifting of their dynamic that makes them fear for the future of their friendship.

The book is short-- I started reading it just over twelve hours ago, and slept some in the middle-- but it's tight and well-paced. There's nothing extra and nothing missing. The broad strokes of the kids' families are sketched out, just enough to let us understand where they come from, but not enough that they're ever the focus. It's not important that we meet Alice's controlling grandmother; it's enough that we see how intimidated Alice is by her, and perhaps recall our own twelve-year-old panic at the prospect of getting grounded.

The meat of the story comes in the three friends' relationships to each other. Stuck in the tense space where they've all privately acknowledged that things must change, while resenting that fact and resisting voicing it aloud as truth, we get to watch them try to balance their own changing emotional landscapes with the importance they place on each other. It's poignant, nostalgic, and vivid. I've been in Zach's shoes, bewildered by how the people I thought I was closest to could have changed so much without me noticing; I've been Alice, too, frustrated by my own emotions and afraid of what was coming next.

But mostly I related to Poppy, since there have been times in my life when I felt just like her-- terrified of being left out, confused by watching my friends change while I still felt the same, and willing to go to any lengths to preserve the dynamic between me and the people I felt I couldn't live without. That resistance to change was never healthy for me, and it doesn't work out well for Poppy either. I really felt for her, and in a way I don't think I could have done if the story had been narrated from her point of view. She draws the eye, dynamically self-centered, charismatic yet ridiculous, demanding the attention of those around her just by being her. I laughed and winced in equal measure, reading her scenes, bemused by her ability to infuriate her two friends yet claim their loyalty by so unswervingly giving her own. Being Poppy must be a whirlwind, but in Zach's eyes she's a pillar of certainty in an otherwise unstable world.

The jacket copy for Doll Bones calls it spooky, and I admit if I were someone with an established fear of dolls (or actually a middle-schooler), I'd probably agree. I actually enjoyed the uncertainty, the is-it-or-isn't-it question about the doll's supposed haunting, and I enjoyed that it was never definitively answered. That open-endedness is what makes the story here so enjoyable; it's never really been about the doll, as Zach reflects, but about the bond forged between people who undertake a quest together. The doll stands in for the mysteries of adolescence leading into adulthood-- something they can't quite understand but that is rapidly becoming the center of their collective focus.

I already knew Holly Black was great at character creation; even in some of her works where the story isn't as strong, the characters still shine. Some might argue that it's harder to bring the same complexity to bear on younger characters as on adults, who arguably have more conflict or tension in their lives. But really good YA defies that expectation, and Doll Bones certainly did. The emotional landscape of these three kids may not be hard to figure out, but all three are written with intent and focus, bringing them to vivid life. And maybe this book is Black's way of going meta on herself, commenting on why stories and characters are important to us, subtly defending the investment we can place in the characters that really speak to us, especially when they're of our own making.

I've never thought it was a coincidence that my friend Lindsay had adopted the role of Peter Pan that afternoon almost ten years ago. Throughout my reading of Doll Bones I couldn't help but ascribe my friend's face and voice to Poppy, the champion of childhood, who equates outgrowing her friends and their story with dying. Once upon a time we bonded, a lot of us, over reading Stephen King's horror classic It. Besides also taking an icon of playtime and making it terrifying, that book has a lot to say about the strength of childhood friendship and the power of belief. By drawing on those same themes Doll Bones has earned a place beside It and The Egypt Game as a loud defense of imagination, and the power of a story to change the lives of the people that participate in telling it.

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