Friday, May 27, 2005

The Korman Invasion, Cont.

Why did Gordon Korman lose his touch?

This question is probably not hugely important to you unless you were a kid in Ontario in the mid-to-late 1980s. But for those of us who answered to that description, Gordon Korman was huge -- the biggest, best name in funny, non-preachy, funny, crazy, and just damn FUNNY novels. When I was in fifth grade, the kids in my English class were given a chance to vote on which authors should be assigned for a reading project; the winners were Gordon Korman and Roald Dahl (the latter choice influenced in part by a teacher who kept reading us "The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar" over and over). In 1988, when Korman came to the Arts Alive festival in Ottawa to promote his new Bruno and Boots book, The Zucchini Warriors, kids were so tightly packed into the room where he was speaking that there was serious talk of seating a few of us on the ceiling. It was the first time I ever lined up to get an autograph, and I was so proud to have a new book signed by my favorite author.

Korman was one of the few kids' writers who knew what kids really liked to read -- in part because he started writing when he was a kid himself. His first novel, This Can't Be Happening at MacDonald Hall, was written for a school creative writing project when he was thirteen years old; Scholastic Books bought it, and the legend of Korman was born. When he appeared at the Arts Alive festival, he'd been writing successful novels for ten years, yet he was still in his early twenties.

Except that was the beginning of the end of the cult of Korman. We didn't know it that day, though perhaps we might have suspected a little something when we actually read The Zucchini Warriors; it was probably Korman's weakest book up to that point, a bunch of only moderately-funny scenes built around a very weak, and very standard, plot. The craziness and sheer fun of the earlier Bruno and Boots books wasn't there. But we thought of it as a little blip on Korman's way up the ladder; he hadn't written a Bruno and Boots book in some years, and the problem with The Zucchini Warriors seemed to be that he had grown beyond the characters who made his name. At that point he was writing books about older characters, for a slightly older audience; his last three books had all been about high school kids, and they were longer and more ambitious than his earlier work.

We figured that as he got older and more mature, he would write better and better novels. His first ten years' worth of novels had their flaws. They were more a series of comedy vignettes than full-fledged stories, they had their moments of awkward prose, and they all contained the same basic characters under different names: Bruno, the wacky schemer (he also became Rudy Miller in I Want to Go Home, Bugs Potter, and Raymond Jardine in A Semester in the Life of a Garbage Bag), and Boots, the wet blanket (Mike in I Want to Go Home, Adam in Who is Bugs Potter, Sean in Garbage Bag). But these were the flaws of youth and inexperience, and they were outweighed by the tremendous imagination and comic energy of his work. It seemed like once he got more experience to go with that imagination and comic energy, he would be unstoppable.

What happened instead was that Korman lost the imagination and comic energy. His next young adult novel, Losing Joe's Place, was pretty drab. He subsequently left the young-adult market and went back to writing books about younger kids, but they, too, seemed drained of the truly mad characters and laugh-out loud invention of his early novels. The prose was a little more polished, but it was supporting stories that seemed mechanical and conventional. At the moment when he should have been getting better, he seemed to have lost his touch. And he never really got it back. He recently returned to young-adult novels, but with unimpressive results; he recently wrote a book called Jake Re-Invented that is a semi-serious retelling of The Great Gatsby set in high school. Apart from the disappointment that the man who gave us Emile Querada is now getting all solemn on us, it's a regression: what is Gatsby but literature's greatest Bruno, and what is Nick but the blandest Boots? So he's back to mining the Bruno-Boots dynamic again, except without the laughs.

I could speculate on all kinds of reasons why Korman lost it, and there would be some truth to all of them. His comic young-adult books didn't sell all that much; the readers who had devoured his work in the '80s grew up and stopped reading him (or as his mother told an interviewer "Gordon didn't abandon you. You abandoned him"); the shrinking of his audience meant that he needed to aim his new books at younger children and tone down some of his more insane ideas. Simultaneously, he probably wanted to move beyond the wacky comedy stuff he'd been writing and get a little more serious. Hence we get Nose Pickers from Outer Space on the one hand, and Jake Re-Invented on the other.

But I also get the impression that as Korman matured, he was no longer giving free rein to his wildest ideas. His early books are so much fun because they are the work of a young writer who never censors his own story ideas, no matter how crazy they may be. These novels abounded in scenes and running gags that were so ridiculous that most "mature" writers would have abandoned them as being too silly.

The most memorable running gag in Son of Interflux is about a painting student who insists on putting a camel in every picture he paints: he creates a perfectly realistic Central Park scene, except there's a hansom cab being pulled by a camel. Finally he agrees not to paint any more camels, and paints a contest entry with no camels at all -- but he's dissatisfied with it; he just can't get the creative spark without camels. So he revises it, replacing everybody and everything in the painting with camels. And wins a special prize for originality.

Korman was just a little over twenty when he wrote that. An older, wiser writer would have looked at this idea rationally and rejected it as being completely nuts, totally implausible, and a very strange character trait for an important character (he's one of the hero's two best friends). Korman, with the confidence of youth, put it in, and it's hilarious. Same with No Coins, Please, written in his teen years, about a mild-mannered kid who signs up for a tour across the United States, and sneaks off at various points to put on a tuxedo and make thousands of dollars selling "Attack Jelly" to New Yorkers or turning an abandoned pretzel factory into a discotheque. (Korman clearly wrote the book in hopes of a movie sale, and there have been fairly constant rumors that somebody's going to turn it into a movie, but it hasn't happened -- in part, I think, because it's just too crazy for today's movie producers, who want everything to make sense.) This stuff is so completely implausible that a "grown-up" writer would hesitate to think it up, let alone write it. Gordon Korman thought it, and he wrote it, but I doubt if the grown-up, sensible Gordon Korman would be able to write something so wild. Korman was a Peter Pan among writers, but unlike Peter Pan, he grew up, and Jake Re-Invented was the sad result.

Some excerpts from Korman novels can be found at the links above. Here's one of my favorites, also from Son of Interflux, which takes place at a private high school for the arts; it's a conversation between the hero, painting student Simon Irving, and his lab partner in chemistry class, music student and rock guitarist Johnny Zull:

"I can't stand the sight of Long Island!" Johnny announced with much emphasis as he and Simon gathered equipment for their first experiment. "What a hole!"

Stunned that Johnny should feel moved to make such a statement, apropos of nothing, Simon could only manage a weak, "Huh?"

Johnny pointed out the window. "Look at that. It makes me sick. A plastic civilization with paper dolls for people. They're all dead out there. They think they're alive, but they're dead. The only thing that's real on Long Island is the boredom. That's it. Nothing else."

"Uh - uh - is there somewhere - better?"

The sheer absurdity of this question caused Johnny to squeeze his eyedropper, spraying vicious red liquid on Simon's shoes. "The city, man! New York! That's what life is about. But not the city they show in the tourist booklets; the real city! Tenement housing -cockroaches - rats! That's real! To freeze all winter and sweat all summer, and write great songs by the light of a bare bulb in an eight-by-eight cold-water walk-up with crumbling plaster and bad plumbing! That's living!"

Simon was sure it wasn't, but said nothing and concentrated on applying the liquid to the leaf on his slide. There was no reaction from the leaf, but his shoes where beginning to steam.

"In the city, if you've got something to say, you go right ahead and say it - in five-foot letters on the subway wall. On Long Island you don't say anything. You sit at home worrying because you didn't buy your kid a personal computer when he was three, so he won't get into the college of his choice, and he'll end up stupid and have to wear plaid shirts forever. In the city, you wake up because they're breaking pavement outside, or because somebody heaved a brick through the front window of the delicatessen you live over. On Long Island, you sleep through the alarm on your fifteen-hundred dollar Piaget watch, but some poor dog half a block away is driven crazy by the sound and smashes his head against a fence until his brains are scrambled. I hate Long Island!"

Simon, weary of the speech, and more then a little nervous about his shoes, said, "If you hate it here so much, why don't you move to the city?"

"Because my mother says if I move out before I graduate, no one's going to feed my fish."

"Oh." It was going to be a long semester.


Pokey said...

I've wondered, as a non-Canadian who as a result this wouldn't mean anything to, (but all of your posts are worthwhile to read nevertheless.) wodnered if Gordon Korman and Harvey Korman are related. Both seem to have been very amusing (as we all know the more famous Korman here in USA, Harvey, is.)

Anonymous said...

I came across this now, two years after you wrote it. I also loved Gordon Korman. I read him when I was a kid, and rediscovered him as a teenager, and my whole family just loved his books. Of course, since I am from the US, no one else knew about him. But how we loved Semester in the life, Son of Interflux, the Twinkie Squad, Bruno and Boots of course... I don't know what inspired him but he made me laugh and laugh. I know he now writes standard series, probably now writing is more a "career" for him, he has to keep doing it to pay his mortgage. I hope someday he'll go back to his youthful craziness, even if it doesn't sell well, and I look forward to sharing his books with my kids when I have them : )

Anonymous said...

I absoulutely love Gordon Korman. I think that his more newer series, such as Everest and Island were fabulous. I think that he is and was doing great and will continue it.

Anonymous said...

I just recently saw Gordan Korman at a workshop; I loved his enchanting and funny personality. He hasn't lost his touch, his series Everest was a really great researched book. I was hooked on the series for days.

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