FALL by Colin McAdam

Book Quote:

“Like most private schools it was part fantasy, part reality, and therefore all reality. (…) We were boys who wore suits, monkeys with manners. We didn’t have parents but were treated like babies. We were left on our own but had hundreds of rules to abide by.”

Book Review:

Review by Vesna McMaster (DEC 13, 2010)

I’d seen Fall described as a “literary whodunit,” and was looking forward to some good sleuthing. It’s not quite like that. Mystery is involved, but plot and intrigue are entirely secondary to the study of adolescent development.

The two main narrative voices are Noel and Julius, both students at St Edbury’s – a Canadian high school for the children of the wealthy. Julius’s narration is an unpunctuated stream of consciousness, immediate and sensory. He’s good-looking, not overly bright and (as the story progresses) increasingly shown to be good-natured.

By contrast Noel’s prose is highly structured – more so than would be possible for the age group. This is excused by the account being written retrospectively from an adult standpoint. Within the novel, it’s only Noel that is examined in detail and whose changes are viewed. Most of the other characters are almost static emotionally. There’s also a nominal contribution from William, Julius’s father’s driver.

The “Fall” of the title is the name of one of the few girls in the predominantly male school, and is short for “Fallon.” Fall is dating Julius: they’re the ideal couple, both popular and attractive. Noel is obsessed with Fall as well, though he never declares it to her, but instead continues to state in the narrative that his turn with her will come later. The plot (such as it is) revolves around the disappearance of Fallon from the campus grounds, with both Julius and Noel being questioned about it.

What the novel is concerned with is the development of Noel from a weedy sixteen year old who won’t retaliate if pushed down in a corridor, to a seemingly self-confident, possibly self-knowing sociopath, prone to explosive violence at rare moments. When he visits his family in Sydney near the outset of the book, he describes himself:

“One day I came out of the pool and saw myself reflected in our sliding door. I was a pale and skinny sixteen-year-old who had forgotten to put sunblock on one of his shoulders. My lazy eye was swollen shut, my face was ugly and drained, my shoulder was livid, and I was still unformed.”

It’s the “unformed” that McAdam is concerned with. The environment the teenagers are put into is portrayed as artificial, unhealthy. Despite being highly supervised, there are effectively no adults in the children’s lives. It’s noticeable that Julius’s mother is dead (she committed suicide), Fallon’s father is absent (her parents are divorced) and Noel’s family is supposedly intact but they’re as far away as they can be, in Australia.

The implication is that growing up in this unnatural environment, the children inevitably miss out on vital components of life. Like plants deprived of isolated nutrients, they’re prone to becoming emotionally stunted – lop-sided, etiolated.  In Sydney, as Noel prepares to leave his parents’ house for school at the end of the holidays, his mother says to him:

“I don’t like seeing how much you’re changing. … I’m missing all your changes.”

When adults don’t keep a watch on the changes children go through, undesirable developments multiply unnoticed. There are key incidents that serve as markers along the road to Noel’s increasingly antisocial tendencies. The first is an incident in 9th grade, mainly described by Chuck, a close associate of Julius and Noel’s. The incident involves Noel (still in his “unformed” state) being bullied by a larger boy, and after a fair period of non-retaliation suddenly turning and biting his tormentor’s arm. Chuck says it wasn’t even the fact that he physically bit a piece out of a fellow student’s arm, but that afterwards Noel was absolutely unaffected by it. “…like it was all normal for him. Like he just forgot about it.” It’s not the incident itself that the stolid Chuck finds disturbing, but the separation from a workaday mentality.

Nuances and hints are brushed in lightly but deliberately. In the corridor of a quiet Friday afternoon when not many other people are about, Noel passes Mr Staples:

“who taught Algebra and Functions, nodded at me and said, ‘Mr Reece.’ His lips were tight and there was a look in his eyes that had developed a few years earlier whenever he saw me. Distrust or caution or just that squint of a half-formed opinion. I never liked him.”

Here Noel is narrating, but he doesn’t refer to the biting incident specifically, but simply as “a few years earlier.” In the lop-sided world of the semi-abandoned school, even the teacher’s opinion is possibly “half-formed.”

There’s also an ambiguous encounter with a girl at the gym in Sydney, where Noel first starts working out. Meg is a no-nonsense girl and is pointedly stronger than Noel at the time, but after an encounter at a midnight beach suddenly stops turning up at the gym. Noel writes her a letter of apology for “frightening” her, but as far as Noel’s own account relates, there has been nothing to justify this apology. One is left to wonder what happened after Noel’s pen stopped writing.

This is the case throughout Noel’s account. How self-aware is he? Although it’s deliberately left unanswered, the fact that he’s writing after (what is obviously) extensive discussion and analysis, as well as brief pointers, suggest that Noel is quite aware of his own nature. When he’s sitting in a café with Fallon, he narrates:

“I’ve often tried to see the world through her eyes. I know that café looked different to her than it did to me.”

This brings us to the issue of lack of empathy. Critics of the book have pointed out that characters are not rounded, they’re cut-outs. Particularly Fall, the prime object of desire. We’re not at all clear  what she looks like, or anything about her other than she’s a reasonably attractive, decent girl with a slightly troubled family background. The point about Fall is, however, not why she is desirable, but that she is. In the two-dimensional mind of an underdeveloped human with an insufficient intake of adult stability, the fact that she is desirable is much more important than what she actually is. As readers, we need know no more. In a world reduced to symbols and arbitrary black-and-white areas, protagonists are unable to function when they collide with real life or emotion – the “grey” areas, within themselves and in the external world.

The premature separation from parents caused by boarding school is juxtaposed with the infantilisation of physically mature boys. The school imposes rules, often ineffectual and seemingly arbitrary. Julius says:

“Chuck’s bed is here and Ant’s bed is there and I’m wondering why I’m eighteen years old and sleeping in a bunk bed.”

These two aspects of the evils inflicted by the school seem to combine to create a small vortex strong enough to suck susceptible minds into an emotional limbo. McAdam himself went to a similar boarding school, and there is without doubt a great deal of catharsis and self-healing within the volume. This does not make it less worthwhile a read.

Once again, on hearing the novel was a “literary whodunit” with the title of Fall, I expected perhaps a detective’s journey into the abyss of a killer’s mind, which drags the detective into a biblical “Fall” in the process. In the first analysis, one might be disappointed going in with these expectations. However, in retrospect, this is precisely what it is – except that the detective is the reader, and McAdam tries his best to share the “fall” in a manner that will be participated in, also by the reader. Here, though, the state before the fall is not some prelapsarian innocence. It’s more mere ignorance, unformedness. The protagonists lurch from being unformed to being malformed, no pause inbetween. It’s perhaps more chilling for this, as for all their two-dimensionality, they are in their own way entirely believable.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 24 readers
PUBLISHER: Riverhead Trade; 1 Reprint edition (June 1, 2010)
REVIEWER: Vesna McMaster
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page for Colin McAdam
EXTRAS: Reading Guide
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December 13, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Canada, Coming-of-Age, Contemporary, Mystery/Suspense, Reading Guide, y Award Winning Author

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