An adult wrote Eleanor & Park to be read by young adults, as S.E. Hilton wrote The Outsiders and Harper Lee wrote To Kill A Mockingbird. Like those books, its readership quickly expanded to include adults decidedly outside the ambit of its intended audience (that is, if you believe books should have an intended audience). Unlike The Outsiders and To Kill A Mockingbird though, Eleanor & Park provides neither a formative, edifying experience for young readers nor a nostalgic, unexpectedly complex experience for adults. What it does instead is reinforce a mass cultural trend toward the broadest, emptiest generalities, which seems to inspire people to love it all the more. This is what makes it is scary.
To get ad hominem (though can you really be ad hominem after spending 300 pages in a person’s head?), Eleanor & Park is a book written by an author whose central life experience seems to be secondhand experience, the phony, regurgitated not-life of television and movies. Simply put, there is simply nothing there. Not in the characters, not in the setting, and certainly not in the writing. Her depiction of Omaha, Nebraska is so unformed it seems arbitrarily chosen. Replace Park’s Walkman with an iPhone, and the 1980’s time frame is just as pointless. The particularities and quirks of Eleanor & Park’s “romance” are neither particular nor quirky. Everything in this book is nothing, but it’s a recognizable nothing. It is generalness and placeless-ness masquerading as timelessness, a nowhere-place in no-time populated by nobodies where a feeble idea of art imitates a feebler idea of life.
And what feeble ideas they are. Consider once the characters are totally, utterly in love, and Park reflects, “Eleanor was right. She never looked nice. She looked like art, and art wasn’t supposed to look nice; it was supposed to make you feel something.” Like much of its “progressive arguments,” this grossly mishandled critique of superficiality is illustrative of the book’s greater, many failures. From description zero (and countless times thereafter), infinite ado is made of Eleanor’s chubbiness, how she isn’t “superficially” pretty. This description is repeated and reinforced throughout, ad nauseum. Eleanor isn’t pretty, and Park doesn’t want her to be. Which would be a noble message to send the image-weaned youth of a treacherously superficial country, had that indeed been the message sent. Instead, the book focuses on Eleanor’s appearance until it mutates into fetishization. Yes, Eleanor isn’t defined by her beauty like classically beautiful characters have been. However, she is just as incessantly and detrimentally defined by her appearance’s refutation of that beauty. This anti-shallowness argument never becomes a pro-depth argument (pro-depth being an appreciation of the individuated, gradually-revealed beauty of inner character). Discounting the work of celebrated idiot Lena Dunham, attacks on superficiality don’t get more superficial.
The characters of Eleanor & Park are no less shallow than its arguments. Here are comic book nerds whose nerddom terminates at X-Men and Watchmen. Here are alt music outcasts who share headphones (dry heave) and listen to (wet heave) The Smiths and Joy Division. Characters are rarely interested in their interests beyond the point where the opening Wikipedia paragraph ends. And their “complexities” comport with this writerly half-assery. Eleanor’s father is an antagonist whose abusiveness and alcoholism are cribbed from soap opera. Park’s parents are so in love they make out constantly, like The OC‘s Cohens on epimedium. The black girls at school have black skin so they talk like this. Park is half-Asian, so he knows karate. Eleanor has freckles, so she’s different. It’s a world rendered in stark black & white that insists with every word that it’s grey. It isn’t.
Eleanor & Park is composed wholly of secondhand referents, of externally received narrative instead of internally produced narrative. Our doomed, titular lovers share their headphones like the characters in Garden State, so they’re in love. They listen to The Smiths like the characters in (500) Days of Summer, so their love is a complicated one. They speak in broad Notebook meme language like “I think I live for you” and “You’re my favorite person of all time,” because that’s precise language borne of a singular, powerful connection between two people. (Again, it isn’t.) To sell young adults this homogenized, commodified image of human connection seems at best misguided and at worst insidious. Key word there being sell.
Even by the low-bar standards of “young adult” fiction, a genre created not by writers but by the marketing team at Penguin Random W.W. Mifflin & Schuster, Eleanor & Park fails on the sentence level. Park drinks out of carton of milk, “like it was a cup,” as if there’s an alternative or the act needed elaboration. Their alternating close-third narrations are indistinguishable from each other in exposition and dialogue, providing peeks into the hive mind that unsettle and confound. And simple, editorial logic disappoints as much as the writing. Our heroes say things like, “‘You can be Han Solo. And I’ll be Boba Fett. I’ll cross the sky for you.'” But Boba Fett was a bounty hunter, contracted by a inter-species bondage enthusiast, with the express purpose to capture Han Solo and encase him in carbonite. Like this book, actual feeling and romance never factor into the relationship. And so we enter the endgame of quirky romance: the faux-quirky faux-romance, a wasteland as dark and murky as the swamps of Degobah.
In many ways, young adult authors are charged with a societal duty as crucial as that of their “adult” contemporaries. Jonathan Franzen has to tell people who think they know who they are who they actually are; young adult writers have to teach people who have no idea who they are how to think they know who they are. It’s a painstaking and complicated task, equal in difficultly and importance as the craft of “adult” fiction. It’s also a task that’s worlds easier when you begin with specific characters in a specific world. The Outsiders does this. To Kill a Mockingbird does this. Every great book anyone has ever read does this. Eleanor & Park does not. Fiction’s great characters and worlds are as lifelike as portraiture, made manifest in three variegated dimensions despite their black & white two-dimensionality. What Rainbow Rowell has offered her readers are Tumblr tumbls: broadly referential, eminently consumable, and, once you’ve scrolled on, utterly forgettable. So before you read Eleanor & Park, recommend Eleanor & Park, or write a YA novel of your own, please, please, please, think of the children.
Strawberry Verdict: 1 out of 5 Strawberries