With tedious regularity, cultural commentators turn up their noses at Young Adult fiction, grumbling that it allows readers who should know better to indulge in “escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia.”1 These complaints overlook the aesthetic inventiveness and political engagement evident in the work of contemporary YA authors such as Kristin Cashore, Daniel José Older, and Angie Thomas. Another case in point: the generically diverse and formally ambitious works penned by award-winning YA novelist M. T. Anderson.
Far from enabling readers to escape into teen romance or adventure, Anderson’s work urges us to notice how oppressive social regimes sneakily exert their influence though cultural artifacts like books, music, and clothing. In his new novel, Landscape with Invisible Hand, Anderson leavens this grim vision of how our cultural tastes can make us complicit in causing harm to the vulnerable with the cautious hope that art—even, or perhaps especially, YA literature—can expose, disrupt, and rebel against systemic inequalities and injustices.
Anderson first tackled the culture industry in his deeply disturbing 2002 dystopian novel, Feed. This eerily prescient work—written before Facebook, iPhones, and Twitter—is set in a near-future where marketers tap teen brains through an implanted media feed, which inundates narrator Titus with promotions for movies, fashions, clubs, sodas, and video games. When industrial pollution causes an epidemic of skin lesions, the feed persuades teens that these marks are sexy, leading some to covet and acquire artificial festering sores. After a hacker damages Titus’s girlfriend’s feed, her body breaks down completely; she can no longer swallow or control her bowels. Through her illness, Anderson grimly literalizes the metaphor of ingestion embedded in the word “feed.”
Pierre Bourdieu reminds us that aesthetic taste, too, in spite of its claims to lofty abstraction, derives from actual and metaphorical ingestion. The upper classes, Bourdieu argues, fashion themselves after an ideal body, shedding imputations of fleshliness and dirt, while the lower classes register a humiliating contrast between their own physical form and the dream of the body.2 Racism and colonialism likewise depend on the idealization of some bodies and the rejection of others, a dynamic that Anderson dramatizes in his books. In a two-volume work of historical fiction, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, he tells the story of a black boy who flees slavery and joins the British Army during the American Revolution because the British promise him his freedom. In these novels, white people defend reason and art as their exclusive domain and use them as pretexts for exploiting black bodies.
Anderson’s work urges us to notice how oppressive social regimes sneakily exert their influence though cultural artifacts.
In The Astonishing Life’s first volume, Pox Party (2006), a group of scholars raise Octavian in their “college” and train him in music and the classics. They weigh the boy’s food and excrement, recording its quantity and quality. Once old enough, Octavian takes over this chore himself. He is, Octavian later realizes, a “zoological experiment,” one designed to test whether black people are inherently inferior. The college ultimately accepts funding from plantation owners and slave merchants, who have a vested interest in Octavian’s failure. When the faculty kill his mother with a smallpox inoculation and then dissect her body, Octavian realizes that in their view he is “not a man,” he is “nothing.”
In these works, taste serves capitalism, imperialism, and racism, which makes it hard to imagine fighting back through cultural expression. How can aesthetics disrupt political oppression if these regimes are the ones teaching us how to evaluate art? Anderson’s more recent work explores how art might help us survive and resist such regimes through the body and the senses.
In The Astonishing Life’s second volume, The Kingdom on the Waves (2011), Octavian continues to cherish classical music, even after his escape from his captors. The music is “beloved” and “familiar,” a “gratifying” object to his senses. When Octavian performs, he “catch[es] fire and play[s] with joy—motivated no longer by the dictates of necessity and the eye of censure, but rather by delight in [his] new freedom.” This potential to move the body and lift the spirit distinguishes art as a vehicle of personal expression from taste as a system of social assimilation.
In a recent nonfiction book, Anderson chronicles the true story of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony: composed during the war, rescued from near-destruction, and carried halfway across the world to be copied, it was rehearsed and performed by a starving orchestra in a city under siege.3 Stalin only allowed art that supported his brutal regime, and Shostakovich delivered Party-approved statements about his music. Nonetheless, this symphony offered emotional sustenance to the suffering people of Leningrad. It reminded them that the “human animal” might be “a creature with canine teeth for tearing, but with a tongue for speaking, too. A mouth that could devour or sing.”4
Although Landscape with Invisible Hand represents a return to Feed-like dystopian fiction, Anderson treats his material here with a slightly lighter touch, thereby making room for metafictional reflection on the multiple functions of art. In another near-future Earth, aliens called the “vuvv”—baby talk for “love” meets “va-va-voom”?—have taken over the planet. Obsessed with 1950s kitsch and pop romance, the vuvv resemble the “bad” consumers of YA fiction lamented by its detractors. Many of them subscribe to a reality webcast of a teenage couple, Adam and Chloe, who have long since fallen out of love. In fact the teens despise one another, but, desperate for money, they go through the motions.
In addition to his day job acting out this romance, Adam is a visual artist whose work evolves over time. Each chapter shares the title of one of his landscape paintings. Initially, his art is escapist, as when he portrays a virtual reality “Crystal City in a Range of Misty Mountains.” Gradually, though, he begins to paint the world as he sees it, not pixelated playgrounds but the unvarnished reality of “Autumn in a Field near a Discharge Facility,” an abandoned lot strewn with milkweed pods, bracken, and fallen leaves.
In this sense, Landscape with Invisible Hand is a novel of aesthetic awakening as much as it is of dawning economic awareness. Adam’s landscapes record the ecological effects of the “invisible hand,” in that famous phrase used to justify the free market. The “invisible hand,” like the term “taste,” is a dead metaphor that summons up the body only to dispel it in the name of abstract principles. Anderson brings the body back into view, both that of the planet and of this boy.
In the midst of a broadcast, Adam suffers a bout of uncontrollable diarrhea: “Cramps hit. I gasp and grab at my stomach. Shitting it all out would actually feel good—like the disease itself would leave with the watery crap, and for a second, I’d be free of it, because there it would all be, drying on my calves.” Adam has a digestive disorder called Merrick’s Disease that the vuvv treat in their own kind and in the wealthiest humans, but for the hoi polloi living on the planet’s surface—including Adam—no medicine is available without an exorbitant fee. Through this literal immersion in shit, Adam begins to acknowledge the shittiness of the world around him and the fact that he is sinking in it.
Even art that is not overtly political can provide a mouthpiece for personal resistance and speak to its listeners of the unspeakable.
Anderson here targets our geopolitical moment, when access to health care and to disaster relief stratifies classes and races domestically and globally. These conceptual hierarchies—the normal and the disabled, the wealthy and the poor, the white and the brown—bear fatal consequences for actual bodies. As a lower-class human, Adam is disposable. When he attends a vuvv awards dinner to select a representative human artist, Adam tries to tell one of the vuvv that he is dying and needs the cure for his eminently treatable illness. The vuvv “backs away,” whispering that it is “so awkward when [humans] beg.”
Anderson does not emphasize human racial categories in Landscape with Invisible Hand. However, he uses the word “race” to describe the species distinction between the vuvv and the humans. Adam accuses a fellow artist of “selling out the human race,” and one of the vuvv coos: “I just love the human race. You people are so much more spiritual than we are.” This dynamic between the vuvv colonizers and the human natives evokes bell hooks’s famous argument about race and consumer culture in “Eating the Other.” hooks explains that “when race and ethnicity become commodified as resources for pleasure, the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals,” becomes a “playground.”5
The vuvv ultimately give the art award to a human who makes sculptures out of religious icons using a chainsaw. Though the artist’s combinations make little sense—the Virgin Mary cradling infant Ganesh—the vuvv don’t care about inaccuracies or incoherence. They like the idea that humans are a simpler species who believe “powerfully primitive” myths.
But art can speak back to power. At the awards dinner, a human girl plays a piece by Robert Schumann “as if she’s cursing all of us through the keys. It’s a fluttery sort of cataclysm. It sounds like utter collapse.” Her performance rejects, in plain view of the vuvv, the aliens’ political regime. “To be fair,” Adam notes, “I get the sense that the song has parts that would normally sound pretty friendly, perhaps even happy; but this girl plays them like she’s swearing at us all at the top of her lungs.” The vuvv miss the message, “mak[ing] a polite rhythmic sound” to applaud, but Adam does not. Her performance inspires and relieves him: “I know I am not alone anymore.” Even art that is not overtly political, Anderson suggests, can provide a mouthpiece for personal resistance and speak to its listeners of the unspeakable.
Here and elsewhere, Anderson draws what might seem like a snobbish distinction between lowbrow art such as sitcoms and pop songs and more exalted forms such as classical music and landscape painting. In Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste, Carl Wilson asks why people love to hate Celine Dion and other popular artists whose work seems repetitious, simplistic, or cheesy. He points out that the celebration of ambiguity and the condemnation of kitsch often reflect a deep discomfort with emotion and the body.6
Yet in Landscape with Invisible Hand, classical music is not a status symbol or an educational attainment; Adam doesn’t know that “Robert Schumann” is the name of the composer rather than of the performer. Instead, the performance is effective because the girl “clearly feels it.” The music in turn moves Adam, inspiring him to “stand up” in spite of the fact that his “stomach heaves” and he is “reeling, almost falling down, grabbing at a railing” as he “sway[s] in front of her.”
The girl’s performance has made him feel that this is someone who can understand him: “‘My name is Adam Costello,’ I explain in a stage whisper, ‘and I have a fever of a hundred and four, as well as an ongoing syndrome that makes digesting anything living hell.’” Here, art makes what Wilson calls “the humiliation of feeling human” temporarily bearable, but it doesn’t disguise, deny, or rationalize it. Much the same might be said of YA literature as Anderson writes it.
The novel concludes with a rueful, ambiguous reflection on landscape painting as a representation of social and ecological change. Adam’s art teacher tells him about the 19th-century Hudson River School artists who “painted for the great industrialists … to show the beauty of the landscape they were ruining.” There is something elegiac, therefore, in the desire to capture a place in paint, as Adam indicates in the final line of the novel: “We are tiny figures, pointing at wonders, provided for scale, no lives of our own, surveying the landscape that has engulfed us all.”
On the one hand, this passage sounds bleak, a confession of feelings of political helplessness in the face of what Rob Nixon calls “slow violence,” such as environmental degradation and the commodification of health care. On the other hand, as Nixon writes, “in a world permeated by insidious, yet unseen or imperceptible violence, imaginative writing can help make the unapparent appear, making it accessible and tangible by humanizing drawn-out threats inaccessible to the immediate senses.”7 Perhaps it is precisely through showing us our vulnerability, our tininess, and the limits to our purported sovereignty that art can do its most urgent political work.
- Ruth Graham, “Against YA,” Slate, June 5, 2014. ↩
- Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, translated from the French by Richard Nice (1984; Routledge, 2010), p. 204. ↩
- M. T. Anderson, Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad (Candlewick, 2015). ↩
- Ibid., pp. 268, 341. ↩
- bell hooks, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation (South End, 1992), p. 23. ↩
- Carl Wilson, Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste (Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 131. ↩
- Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Harvard University Press, 2011), p. 15. ↩