August 02, 2016

Surveying Stories: Unpacking "Unlikeable" in Lindsay Ribar's ROCKS FALL, EVERYONE DIES

Remember the whole discussion about "likeable" characters? As I recall, it sprang from a PW author interview on the unlikable female character in a book. That the author was even asked about the "likability" of her protagonist generated a furor of discussion because the "unlikable" accusation is one which is rarely, if ever, leveled against male characters. As always, when we see a trend in literature in one place, it pops up in six more places - and sure enough, there was a lot of talk about "likability" in YA protagonists, and whether that's something writers should or should not strive for. Occasionally, I observe themes or topics in the zeitgeist, and try to work through these ideas in a talking-out-loud kind of way. This is an occasional series which proposes to study these elements in children and young adult fiction from a writer's perspective.

Let's survey a story!

When the silence between us started to grow uncomfortable, it was me who finally said the obvious: “She’s still depressed.”

Grandma’s eyebrows lifted. “Can you blame her? It’s only been a few months.”

I nodded. I knew that. Hell, I’d even been to the funeral. But it wasn’t like Heather and I had been close or anything. We’d seen each other like once a year. Maybe twice, tops. And yeah, we used to have fun hanging out, and obviously I was sad when she’d died—but was grief really supposed to last this long?

“Heather was her only daughter,” Grandma went on, her voice all soft. “I know you don’t have any idea what it’s like to lose a child—and I hope you never do—but try to give her the space she needs, all right?”

I nodded again, even though I’d barely seen Aunt Holly since my friends and I had arrived. When she wasn’t at her office, she only came out of her room for meals. Sometimes not even then.

I rubbed my neck, which had gone tense at the thought of Heather and the funeral and Aunt Holly. Talking about awkward stuff always did that to me.

“Anyway,” I muttered, basically dying for a change of subject.


nb: Recognizing that this book needs to be experienced and not explained, I'm going to attempt to discuss this story without obvious spoilers. However, reader beware.

I had the gift of not really knowing much about this novel going in, so I read it without preconceived anything. And within the first chapter, I was thrown for a loop. In ROCKS FALL EVERYONE DIES, we meet of Aspen Quick, an Asian American boy who is neck and neck with Holden Caulfield in terms of complete and utter self-absorption, lack of empathy, obliviousness and general awfulness. In a way, Aspen's smug self-satisfaction comes from the fact that his family is a major magical anchor to the very existence of their town; he is Important, capital i. Without the May Day tree and the Ritual, the cliff which hangs over the town of Three Peaks its name would smash everything and every one. Aspen is Necessary and Important, far more than other people, thus reaching inside of people and taking away things which aren't all that important to feed to the cliff - well, it's understandable that he would feel himself more important than others, right? I mean, if he drinks a lot, he can just borrow a little sobriety from someone else -- they're not going to worry with feeling a little tipsy, right? And if you end up missing something bigger, well - that's the cost of living in Three Peaks. Unfortunately, his skill has left Aspen with no boundaries, and the habit of taking from others for any old reason, mainly because he wants to. Readers who shuddered through Holly Black's Curse Workers series will find a familiar shivery horror at the ethical grayness of a magical family living amongst regular humans, and essentially preying off of them. It's almost worse, because what Aspen takes, he's pretty sure you won't miss. I mean, geez, it's harmless. Why are you getting so upset? Cocky, swaggering, confident in his skills, Aspen's happy to lift something from anyone in order to further his goals... leaving something missing in Aspen's basic... humanity.

As it turns out, things aren't as simple as Aspen believes them to be - or, really, as the reader might assume. Aspen's not a monster, which would be the easy thing to conclude. Or, maybe the truth is, he's not just a monster. Things are just more complicated that that, and things get complicated, initially, by Aspen's earnest desire to have his friend Brandy's deeper affections, then later, by Aspen running hard to keep those affections. Willing to do anything to keep the world balanced, just so, he takes from here, takes from there, and finds ...noting is quite going as he expected. To manage all of the memories, desires, expectations of himself, and others is ...irresistible, yet impossible. Suddenly facts aren't straightforward, and the truth is ... a pastiche of what people want, what Aspen needs, and what's best for everyone. The book's structure of flashing from the present back to the past help the reader see the world as it is, not as Aspen believes it to be, and he's soon understood to be an unreliable narrator. The ground of unshakeable righteousness upon which he stood has some very visible fault-lines... and he has to choose, now, where he stands.

While I can't say that I "liked" this book or that there was a character I could "root for," I found that the narrator's likability wasn't the point. What's important here, is that behind the veil of narrative, this is a novel about bigger things; our desires, our beliefs about ourselves, our humanity. At its heart, for me this is a book about narcissism.

Aspen's point of view warps him, as Narcissus' reflection warps him, and tells him not to see what else it shows, to ignore what else is there. Self-obsession becomes ultimately dangerous; fatal to friendships, ruinous to the sincere desire, no matter how twisted, for love. That he is twisted might otherwise be obvious to Aspen, except that as allegedly smart as he is, and as in demand as he is by his family at Three Peaks, he can only see one thing in the mirror - for whatever reason - as most narcissists do: himself. While this is partially an artifact of how he was raised, the question still remains: how much is he willing to reach for what he wants? At what point does he warp out of true, warp out of all humanity, in reaching for his desires? Where is the line between amoral and immoral for Aspen, and is there a way back? Is how we were raised something that's... insurmountable?

For all the reasons that writers might use an unlikable character - to fill the antagonist's slot, to create problems in a plot which need solving, or to have a problematic sidekick who can do all of the things the "good" main character cannot - the best reason of all is to use an unlikable character is to allow them to unpack an immense idea. This novel serves as such an amazing misdirection - while we readers are looking left, some big truths are coming at us from the right. POW, and we're knocked upside the head. What's important in this novel is not just living your truth, it's literally owning your choices. Especially now, in a culture where hundreds are disillusioned because of the perception that they should be special clashes with the reality that they are not, when even political candidates, who are striving for the opportunity to work as public servants somehow mistake the servitude for being what the public does -- now more than ever we need to examine self absorption and personal irresponsibility as a way of life - and start encouraging young adults and everyone, really, to live differently.

Though I love the grabby title of this book, the author chooses not to go down the "easy" path of making it literal. After the rocks fall, dying, as the old saying goes, is easy... it's living that is sometimes kind of a challenge. Aspen is a flawed character down to his DNA, but as the novel ends, he's standing at the crosswalk of a street called "Heading Toward Better." And how he gets up that street will be the same way we all would - by taking one deliberate step at a time.

I received my copy of this book courtesy through the luck of the draw, when I won it from You can read the first chapter of this book online, and you can find ROCKS FALL EVERYONE DIES by Lindsay Ribar at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

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