Protecting “Gadflies” from Us and from Themselves

Dissenters Post_Year of the Gadfly used in collage

Jennifer Miller’s novel, The Year of the Gadfly, has been billed as reminiscent of such classics as John Knowles’ A Separate Peace and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and the author outright references both books by name in the text.* The comparison is apt in that the novel features adolescents and highlights the dark side of human nature, but there are risks to making such a connection. The analogy to iconic books I loved during my childhood may have nudged me toward purchasing Miller’s novel, but it set my expectations too high. I started this novel hoping it would be a future classic, and found myself disappointed by each and every imperfection. It’s possible that my rosy memory of these classic works would not withstand a re-read, but, either way, debut authors need to be careful before drawing parallels between their work and beloved literature.

Miller’s novel, which alternates perspectives, begins with Iris Dupont, a fourteen-year-old aspiring journalist who enters Mariana Academy, “the paragon of New England prep schools,” after suffering a heart-wrenching loss. She idolizes Edward R. Murrow, who is not only a historical figure to her but also an imaginary mentor. I liked Iris, partly because, to borrow a line from her teacher Mr. Kaplan, “I recognized in her my own teenage intensity.” When Iris finds herself caught between Mariana’s ruling Community Council and a vigilante group that challenges the social hierarchy, she must rely on her journalistic skills to unravel the historical mystery at the root of the upheaval.

I loved the first fifth of the book, particularly when Iris Dupont or Jonah Kaplan was at the helm of the narrative, but I read the remaining four-fifths of the novel just to see how it ended.** With the increasing role of Prisom’s Party, a secret society that operates under the radar of Mariana’s administrators, faculty, student body, and the parents, the story became too far-fetched and left too many holes for my liking.

In particular, I didn’t buy the reasons Miller gives for why Jonah Kaplan would return as a teacher to a school that almost expelled him when he was a student, or why the school would ever trust him so much in the first place. I also didn’t understand how Iris’ parents, whom Kaplan described as, “myopically bent on their child’s protection and success,” would have no idea about her activities or would let her hang out and even sleepover someone’s house without having ever met the person! Furthermore, how could Mariana administrators control the day-prep’s PR so tightly in 2012-13, when, presumably, students have access to modern technology and participate in dinner-time conversations with their parents? I also have questions about some of the legal issues  that didn’t quite add up, such as the absurdly halfhearted investigation of what is essentially possession of child pornography (but not recognized by the novel as such) because high school student Matt Sheridan was most likely a minor.***

Despite these flaws, The Year of the Gadfly still manages to be a thought-provoking read about survival in a hostile school environment. It reminds us of the importance of the “gadfly,” those who “no matter how hard… opponents try to swat [them] away… [keep] biting… with difficult questions.” It warns us about how easy it is to succumb to the pernicious influence of the herd mentality even when we think we’re dissenting. Even dissenters should welcome dissent among their ranks.

Individuals who are willing to go against the pack are vital to a thriving democracy. In the United States, the importance of dissent is enshrined in our Constitution through the First Amendment, which protects freedom of expression from government intrusion. We also have a range of other laws, such as whistleblower protection laws, that protect certain classes of employees from retaliation for speaking out about abusive practices in the government or at their workplaces.

However, gaps in these laws often render protection for dissenters ephemeral or non-existent, making it much easier to swat at a gadfly than to be one. The First Amendment, for example, applies unevenly to student and faculty speech in public schools, and doesn’t apply at all to private schools like Mariana Academy (if it were real). See, e.g., Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006)(not a school case, but its holding that statements made by public employees pursuant to their official duties do not receive full constitutional protection under the First Amendment has implications for school employees).

In Mariana’s hostile environment of suppressed speech and collective bullying, it’s heartening to see Iris and Jonah persevere, even if aspects of the plot simply didn’t work for me. I liked the main characters enough to want to know what’s next for them, and I hope that in this fictional universe, newspapers still exist for Iris when she grows up.

*The novel’s fourteen-year-old protagonist would probably chide me for using passive voice.

**With my Kindle, I know I had read exactly 22% of the novel when I stopped loving it.

***(very minor spoiler) According to a conversation Sheridan has when he was “barely eighteen” in November 2012, he had befriended someone online in the fall of 2011, and he sent sexually explicit pictures of himself to that person by the end of the first semester of that year (according to what Mary Ann Rayburn says about the destruction of the Prisom Artifacts). So, he was 17.

****I highly recommend viewing this lighter take on herd mentality from The Mitchell and Webb Look: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uK-kWRAVmRU.

21 thoughts on “Protecting “Gadflies” from Us and from Themselves

  1. Pingback: We Were Liars: Too Unbelievable For Fiction? | The Misfortune Of Knowing

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  3. I like the honesty and candidness of your book review. This post brings back memories of when my son read Lord of the Flies when he was in school. He asked so many questions that I also ended to reading it so that I could discuss it with him.

    1. Thank you! I look forward to when my children are reading books like Lord of the Flies. That’s probably when I’ll re-read many of the books I enjoyed as a kid.

  4. I’ve never heard of this book before – I’m usually willing to forgive plot flaws and issues if a book really makes me think about something, so I’ll probably check this one out. Thanks for the review!

  5. You are such a good and honest reviewer. You made me realize something that never hit me until you said it, “I liked the main characters enough to want to know what’s next for them.” I will think about that next book I read. Do I like the characters, do I really care what happens next? It explains some boredom in reading.

    1. Thanks, Donna! To me, likeability is an important factor, and apparently, a controversial one among writers. A couple of months ago, writers took to social media to debate whether “likable equals bad,” after an author who prizes herself on writing literary fiction got angry because an interviewer asked her what she thought was a sexist question: ““I wouldn’t want to be friends with [a character in your book], would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.” The author accused that interviewer of being unlikely to ask a male author a similar question, and then disparaged every one of us who prefers books with likeable characters by saying, “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.” Well, while I have been known to enjoy books with morally flawed characters, I also enjoy books with likeable characters (written by both men and women), and I don’t think I’m in deep trouble.

      Author Jennifer Weiner wrote a response to the other author’s invective: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2013/05/likable_and_unlikable_characters_in_fiction_claire_messud_and_meg_wolitzer.html

  6. LOVE seeing the legal issues you point out. And I hadn’t thought about some of the inconsistencies you noticed with the parents, either. I really wish that Miller had focused more on Iris dealing with the loss of her friend while adjusting to her new school rather than pulling in all the haphazard plot lines in the second half of the book. There really was quite a bit of potential for a great story.

    1. Yes, there was so much potential here! I agree with what you’ve said about Dalia. I would’ve liked to have seen more with Stephanie Chu, too. Really, what was Chu’s role in this other than to point out the obvious about Hazel and Jonah’s relationship? Some of the characters felt superfluous when they could have been more.

      As for the legal issues, it felt like Miller just gave up at the end to tie the story together. Child porn is taken very, very seriously by law enforcement, and, with allegations like that, checking a computer isn’t usually where the investigation ends. Plus, the way Miller described the issuance of restraining orders was odd, but I didn’t mention it in the post because we got that information from Iris and I wondered whether a fourteen-year-old would describe it inaccurately. At the same time, though, Iris is portrayed as a precocious fourteen-year-old.

      Despite my problems with the story, I think it was an interesting read, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Jennifer Miller does next. I wouldn’t mind seeing Iris and Jonah in a more tightly constructed sequel.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Despite it’s flaws it actually sounds like a fairly interesting book. I guess this is good advice to keep in mind: debut authors need to be careful before drawing parallels between their work and beloved literature.

    1. Yes, this book contains some very interesting ideas. In some ways, though, that makes the sloppy product even worse. There was so much potential here! I wish Miller could re-write the second half (or a little more of it) to make it more believable and consistent with the laws that would most likely apply in that area. Still, despite these flaws, it’s not a bad read if the reader’s expectations aren’t too high.

  8. Tee hee! Love that video, every time. “Are we the baddies?” And I also smiled when reading you were so accurately able to pinpoint exactly when you lost interest in the book. If only I’d read Mockingjay on the Kindle, I could accurately pinpoint where it fell apart for me. 😉

    1. I love Mitchell and Webb! It’s one of my favorite shows. E-readers really do come in handy when trying to remember the little details and how I felt while reading it.

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