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The Tenth Circle

The Tenth Circle - Carol Monda, Jodi Picoult "Women's fiction" and "chick-lit" are not my cup of tea, they are not interesting to me, but no reason why such books shouldn't be given the same consideration as any other genre. I try to avoid genre snobbery (though sometimes it bubbles up with regard to YA fiction and Paranormal Romances) and considering my own tastes range from the highbrow to the very lowbrow, I am not one to cast stones.

Or if I am going to cast stones, I want to know what I am throwing them at. I mean, a lot of people think Jane Austen is "chick-lit" (she totally isn't!), and I loved Austen once I gave her a try.

Jodi Picoult is a fairly big name, and she and Jennifer Weiner (another writer of "women's fiction") were involved in brouhaha concerning the media's adoration of Jonathan Franzen. (To summarize: they didn't claim that they are as good as Jonathan Franzen and should get just as much attention; they claimed that Franzen and other dude-lit authors get big spotlighted reviews and flattering Time Magazine articles while women who write as well and tell the same types of stories get shoved into this little box called "women's fiction."

It's probably a fair point, but I haven't read Jonathan Franzen. On the other hand, none of Picoult or Weiner's books really look interesting to me. And while, again, they were careful not to claim that they thought they personally deserved to have the same status as Jonathan Franzen, it's pretty easy to see the unspoken word "necessarily" inserted into that disclaimer.

So The Tenth Circle happened to be on sale at Audible.com, so I decided to check it out and see just what Ms. Picoult's literary chops are like.

In two words: nothing special. Not terrible, not great, palatable but bland writing with pretensions of being deep and allegorical.

The story was very much a movie-of-the-week sort of story. Daniel and Laura Stone are comfortable suburbanites living in a snuggly affluent neighborhood and they have a teenage daughter named Trixie (no, I could never get past that name, nor why she thought "Trixie" was so much less embarrassing than her real name, Beatrice) who is basically your standard issue American high school freshman. Daniel is a comic book artist, a fairly big name one, like the sort who would be recognized at conventions, and Laura is a college professor.

Into this tranquil pond of domesticity, Picoult drops two stones to ripple the waters. The first is that Laura is banging one of her grad students. The second is that Trixie has a boyfriend, and she's been reading too much Twilight, therefore she doesn't understand why the universe does not end since all life and meaning is erased when he breaks up with her.

(Actually, the book makes no mention of Trixie reading anything.)

So, Trixie is really, really angsty. She will do anything to get Jason back, even go to a rainbow party.


Okay, seriously, Jodi Picoult? I know "rainbow parties" were all the rage back when you wrote this in 2006, which is to say Oprah & co. were freaking out about it all over daytime TV, but... were these ever really a thing? Yes, teenagers have sex and sometimes they have really stupid sex. But when I read about how the author researched teen sexual behavior for this book by talking to actual real live teenagers, all I could think was, "Don't you know that the other thing teenagers do is lie and make shit up? Especially when talking to grown-ups about sex?"

I'm not saying that every teenager who told Picoult about their sex life was lying, or that "rainbow parties" have never, ever happened (though I suspect they're more likely to have happened in a private Manhattan club frequented by Wall Street investment bankers than a suburban basement packed with teenagers). I see what Picoult's intention was (and I'd see it even if I weren't able to infer what an author is saying from context because Picoult spells it out, repeatedly, because she assumes her readers are kind of dim): she's concerned that we are raising a generation of extremely selfish and sexually entitled young men and girls who obligingly cater to their expectations. Which is a valid concern and a worthy message, but Picoult is riding a trendy wave here that was largely based on urban legends and she teeters on the edge of sex-hysteria and "It's 9 p.m. DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOUR DAUGHTER IS?!?!?"

So anyway, at this party, Trixie tries to hook up with Jason, winds up getting drunk and playing strip poker and hitting on his best friend to make him jealous and... yeah. So next thing we know, she comes home and says Jason raped her.

Now, by this point in the story, I could see what Picoult's perspective was and what messages she was trying to convey, so I figured there was approximately a 0% chance that she was going to make Trixie a liar. But, she wants to keep the reader guessing. So Jason gets arrested, and claims it was consensual. We even get a few chapters written from his POV and learn that he actually does believe it was consensual. There's also a subplot about the arresting officer whose own daughter died a few years ago, which serves no purpose other than to slightly flesh out a secondary character who has a minor role in the book and give him some shared man-pain bonding with Trixie's father.

Eventually we learn (surprise) that there are a few secrets Trixie has been hiding, even though much of the book is written from her POV and therefore Picoult is deliberately hiding them from the reader as well. The purpose of which is not to make her not-raped but to drag up a bit more angst about consent issues and teen sexuality and also Trixie starts cutting, and she attempts suicide, and pretty much the whole town (including her best friend) turns against her in a textbook case of victim-blaming.

In other words, Jodi Picoult uses didactic angst the way Chinese restaurants use MSG, and she's manipulative as hell about the way she tries to jerk the reader's emotions around.

We like the bad boys, but only a little bad, and only after they're properly leashed

The other major thread in the book involves Trixie's parents, but really, it's about her father, Daniel. I mentioned that as the book begins, Professor Stone is having an affair with a 20-year-old grad student. Picoult is all totally subversive and role-reversing and shit because it's the young guy who becomes clingy and needy and whiny and begs the older woman not to leave him when she decides she'd rather keep her family after all. It becomes immediately apparent that basically Daniel Stone was once a "bad boy" whose domestication into stable wage-earner, house-husband and driver of mini-vans is what caused his wife to decide she needed a little sexin' from someone half her age to remember what it was like to be young and hot. You know, like middle-aged guys do when they're having mid-life crises, and are promptly and rightfully condemned as being shallow, selfish jerkwads. In fairness, Picoult doesn't exactly let Laura off the hook for this (in fact, she actually punishes Laura to a degree that rivals Jane Austen at her most judgmental), but it still read an awful lot like Laura Stone is a bit of a stand-in/wish-fulfillment figure for Picoult and her similarly-aged female readers: professionally successful, respected, relatively affluent, with a former Bad Boy as a tamed husband, and some action on the side from a young hottie.

Getting back to Daniel -- okay, it's really hard for me to take a comic book artist seriously as a "bad boy," but that's his story. (Picoult did a stint writing Wonder Woman, so she asserts her nerd-cred by littering the book with name-dropping about Ultimate X-Men and Image Comics and Stan Lee and so on.) Actually, his story is that he grew up the only white boy in a Yup'ik village in Alaska. (Picoult also went to a Yup'ik village in Alaska to do research for this book. I'll give her credit for this: at least she doesn't just rely on the Internet for her research.) And he got bullied and picked on and he never fit in so he got in lots of fights, and also they didn't have flush toilets and it was fucking Alaska, so woe, woe, his childhood was really hard and he left as soon as he turned eighteen. When Laura met him, he was this edgy caricature artist. Yeah, seriously. He's a bad boy because he was smoking a cigarette when she met him. And he flirted with her right in front of her boyfriend! And then he invited her to meet him at a bar! Swoon, ladies!

Then he knocks her up, she leaves him because she thinks he won't be a good father, so he goes and puts on a tie and gets a steady gig as a comic book artist to prove he can be a Good Provider, and fast forward to fifteen years later when Laura is kind of missing that Bad Boy who used to smoke and occasionally go to bars.

All of this is backstory so that when Trixie is raped, we're supposed to see Daniel as a seething mass of conflicted manhood. Naturally, like any father whose daughter has been raped, his first reaction is "Hulk smash!" so we get to watch him struggle with what he knows he should do -- stay calm and be supportive of his daughter and not go acting like a crazy person. But the whole thing is so overwrought, Picoult lets him get a little angry and a little rageful and go acting like a little bit of a crazy person, but just enough to reassure the reader that he's not 100% tame, only about 92%.

Metaphor for dummies

Laura Stone knew exactly how to go to Hell.

She could map out its geography on napkins at departmental cocktail parties; she was able to recite all of the passageways and rivers and folds by heart; she was on a first-name basis with its sinners. As one of the top Dante scholars in the country, she taught a course in this very subject; and had done so every year since being tenured at Monroe College. English 364 was also listed in the course handbook as Burn Baby Burn (or: What the Devil is the Inferno?), and was one of the most popular courses on campus in the second trimester even though Dante’s epic poem – the Divine Comedy – wasn’t funny at all.

Like her husband Daniel’s artwork, which was neither comic nor a book, the Inferno covered every genre of pop culture: romance, horror, mystery, crime. And like all of the best stories, it had at its center an ordinary, everyday hero who simply didn’t know how he’d ever become one.

The "Tenth Circle" is the literary conceit threaded through the entire book. Everything is cast as a Dantean allegory. After an introduction to Lucifer and his frozen lake in hell, the frozen/winter imagery runs rampant. Everything takes place in the winter time. Daniel came from a village in Alaska that he thought was hellish before he escaped. Trixie runs away to Alaska to escape from her own hell.

I think Jodi Picoult knows how symbolism is supposed to work, but she uses it the way a middle school student discovering metaphors for the first time uses them in an English paper. Laura Stone teaches Dante's Inferno in college, and Daniel Stone draws a comic book about a superhero who rescues his daughter from hell. As everyone's sins and self-doubts get unearthed, there are of course frequent references to the various circles of hell in which they belong, ending in a climax that brings Daniel, Laura, and Trixie to Alaska.

It is effective, in its way, but it's effective in the way that snapping your fingers in front of someone's face is an effective way to get their attention.

I wanted to be fair-minded in my foray into "women's fiction," and I was really hoping I'd find hidden depths here, but no, The Tenth Circle is just utterly average and overwrought melodrama, suitable for exactly the use to which it was put, a cable TV movie of the week. It's not even a bad book that I can properly pan -- Picoult's writing is okay and the story was structured well and had enough twists that it should have been more interesting. If it was in a genre I liked, I'd probably rate it 3 or 3.5 stars and call it entertaining if unexceptional. But literary it is not, the tinge of moral panic worked against its well-intentioned introductory-level feminism, and I resent any author who tries to lead the reader by the nose. Jodi Picoult did not impress me as someone being unfairly denied Serious Author status because of her sex, but I've certainly read worse, from both sexes.