Saturday, October 2, 2010

Uglies Series

One of the first books I read for this project was Uglies by Scott Westerfeld. Set in a dystopian futuristic society of New Pretty Town, the world is separated into the Uglies and the Pretties. Everyone has major, intrusive plastic surgery on their 16th birthday, cementing their status as a Pretty forever. Tally Youngblood is born into this society, and very much buys into the myth that true happiness only comes post-surgery. When a change in events leads Tally on a wild adventure out of civilization to rescue a friend, she is introduced to a brand new world that is unlike anything she has ever experienced before. At the Smoke, the covert society where runaways live a more natural, surgery-free life, Tally meets David and makes some decisions that change her life and set the stage for the second two novels in the trilogy.

I have really come to appreciate the young adult dystopian novel. I think that they make teenagers pause and think about the patriarchy that they almost certainly take for granted as being the only way of life. No matter how foreign the society may seem, reading about young adults making revolutionary choices and succeeding in an atypical life has to be beneficial on some level. These books encourage questioning societal norms and testing beliefs for oneself and those things are really important to understand in the formative years of life.

That being said, the delivery of this series was off in some regards. To begin with, the writing itself bothered me. Pared down and repetitive, at times I wondered if Westerfeld was actually using the simplistic writing as a literary device, as a statement about how such an unhealthy emphasis on the external effects the internal; after reading two of his novels, though, I think this is saying too much. It got to the point where I didn't even find it that enjoyable to read, because the word choice and structure were almost too juvenile. I think that the intended audience can handle a lot more sophisticated writing than what Westerfeld does.

Really, the most alarming part of the story was Tally herself. Her motivation throughout the book is to get beautiful, then she meets David, who turns her world upside down. When he loves her, she can see herself through his eyes and focus less on both of their physical imperfections. In such, she trades her consuming desire for beauty in for a an equally consuming desire for David. After accidentally letting the Special Forces know the Smoke's whereabouts, however, she spends the rest of the novel cleaning up the mess she made. At this point, her motivation is to win David's love and trust back and to help reestablish the renegade society that she had come to appreciate.

Tally grew up fantasizing about the major plastic surgery that she was entitled to at sixteen years old, but when she meets David, she quickly (not immediately, but quite soon after) gives up that possibility to be with him. He was her rock and her source of security in the midst of this change. While I think Tally's obsession with becoming a Pretty does not send a good message to young readers, I think that the book appropriately villainizes the surgery. It is satirized to the point where the reader knows that, even if it is a societal norm, it's a creepy and intrusive government standard. Tally's dependence on David to voice her personality, on the other hand, is far more subversive, and therefore far more concerning. Because the book paints this love story as such a good, romantic, mutually beneficial thing, readers (especially young girls looking for that love story) will be blinded to the fact that Tally changes everything about who she is and what she wants for David. She depends on him for definition in much the same way that she depended on the future surgery to define her future. In a way, David replaces the surgery for her, leaving her with much the same dependence as before.

The error in this lies in a closer reading of the text, the subconscious experience. Relatively speaking, Tally and David's relationship is not that alarming (it certainly does not bear the outwardly terrifying aspects of Edward Cullen and Bella Swan, though the dependence is still an issue). It's the fact that Tally changes everything about herself for a guy she's known for a few weeks and that that is portrayed as a good thing that is not healthy. The book supports this choice, and it further ingrains it in the second book, where Tally does the same thing with a different guy. Not only does she need to change herself and conform her life to fit with a man's once, but twice. From a non-vested viewpoint, it just doesn't seem to be a great image for young, impressionable readers.

That being said, the books raise great questions about the environment, conforming to societal norms, the values and limitations of outward beauty, the importance of genuine friendship. These points save the Uglies series from a long chain of bad books, but they don't do much to raise it above mediocrity.

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