Wednesday Book Club: Gravity Journal

Wednesday, 8 October 2008 — 11:22pm | Book Club, Literature

This week’s selection: Gravity Journal (2008) by Gail Sidonie Sobat.

In brief: This perspicacious young adult novel about a self-mutilating anorexic teenager would be nothing special were it nothing more than a conventional three-step gambit (bait troubled teens into identifying with a main character who is every bit on their side; hook them with a well-told story of gradual treatment and rediscovered self-esteem; save a life). Instead, it goes a step further to reach out to all readers, offering a ground-level window into what the statistical chatter about BMIs, calories, and negative media images amount to in the human currency of communal responsibilities and individual lives.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Gravity Journal, keep reading below.)

When I first started this project and promised to keep my weekly book selection fresh and diverse, I wasn’t kidding around. If you glance at the book list, you will find that the fiction selection is dominated by recognized classics and award-winning authors. I make no apologies for that—it’s how I select my readings, and books with established reputations make for splendid critical fodder—but this week, I am delighted to present a small-press publication by a local author.

Disclaimer the First: There is a vast crater in my literary knowledge where young-adult fiction is supposed to be. It is a hermit kingdom of the otherworldly and the fantastic, and most of that I didn’t discover until university. I have reason to believe that Gravity Journal may be the first YA novel I have read that in no way involves fairies, parallel worlds, or ambidextrous circus freaks. I’m not even sure I know what YA is: to my knowledge, it is a classification for booksellers and publishers that refers to a whole spectrum of novels with adolescent protagonists, though (for reasons I cannot hope to understand) the category does not include The Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Ergo, I have no perspective on the standards of accomplishment in contemporary YA fiction set in the here and now, and that will not figure into the discussion below.

Disclaimer the Second: The author is a friend of mine. I had no trouble reading Gravity Journal objectively; for that, I credit the prose for exhibiting a voice of genuine conviction. The book speaks for itself. Were I not enthusiastic about it, I would not be recommending it here; I would likely not have written about it at all, apropos of the gentleman-blogger’s code to refrain from public castigations of small-press works. Regardless, I will put on no pretence of total detachment. And out of habit, I may even refer to Gail by her first name. I just did.

Pardon the preamble. Let’s talk about the book.

Gravity Journal‘s heroine is a sixteen-year-old girl named Anise who cuts herself over the sink, privately refers to her upper-middle-class mother and father as “Loathed” and “Witless”, and abuses laxatives and diuretics in search of the 40kg zone. She keeps a journal where she routinely scribbles bullet-point lists, dictionary definitions, and scraps of original poetry. The novel follows the course of Anise’s hospitalization for anorexia nervosa (not her first). The early chapters take ample time to establish Anise as a character and follow her life in the ward, preparing us for a scattered plot organized around the narrative spine of Anise’s personal growth.

Some subplots do emerge—her brother’s descent into drug addiction, a budding romance with a bipolar boy who has a habit of picking locks—but the story is Anise’s through and through, as we witness her piecemeal transfiguration from a force-fed close-watch patient with a vindictive streak into someone who begrudgingly edges her way to her prescribed target weight. There is no specific, singular event that compels Anise to grow as a person, nor is there any predictable certainty to how she will end up by the end of the novel. Rather, it is her combined experiences in the ward that motivate her to think outside herself and attend to the impact individuals have on the other lives with which they intersect.

As she prowls through the dictionary and writes in her journal, Anise searches for a definition of self that amounts to more than her weight and medical condition; she learns to think of her body as a subject, not an object. Her struggle is about more than anorexia, after all: it speaks to a general adolescent crisis of existence that regards adult society as so bleak, it is not worth entering. Gravity Journal remains compelling because it gives us the sense that it isn’t enough for Anise to achieve and maintain an acceptable weight. She must also find a way to belong to the world outside the hospital, and reintegration with the family she so dislikes is, to put it lightly, not the preferred solution.

That is where the journal comes in. As averse as she is to feeding her body, Anise thrives on a diet of words. She assembles them in a private collection, leaving us wondering how she will digest them and pass them back out in the form of public artistic expression. The answer to the flood of Barbie-doll media figures around her, it seems, is for Anise to produce and disseminate her own set of imagery. Overcoming her compulsion to be thin is a corporeal battle in a much larger campaign: to find life through art.

It would be facile, however, for any account of anorexia to pin the blame on the fashion-magazine cult of beauty and take the analysis no further. Not satisfied with this reductive explanation, Gravity Journal implicates a complex web of social causes at the root of not only eating disorders, but the all-too-common mystery of how troubled children can come out of upper-middle-class nuclear families that have every reason to be stable.

To do this, Gail indulges in a bit of caricature that would be disconcertingly simplistic if it were not so believable. Gravity Journal, narrated in the third person though it may be, presents an utterly unsympathetic portrait of Anise’s mother. “Loathed” is less of a person than she is an antagonistic social force. As a believer in the power of self-help, she admonishes Anise for being an self-absorbed drama queen with no sense of personal responsibility—an all-too-easy appraisal of your stereotypical self-cutting teenage poet. As an acolyte of the almighty dollar, she expects the anorexia clinic to operate like a car-repair service: pay to send in your sick kid, and get it back cured.

What the book acknowledges, and what some wealthy suburban families do not, is that you can’t expect to raise model children (note my choice of words) by throwing money at every obstacle to that end. One of the byproducts of a commodity culture is the commodified body: after all, who do you think paid for the Barbie dolls and fashion magazines stuffed in Anise’s closet? While it is initially a surprise that Loathed is as unpleasant a mother as Anise makes her out to be (the default assumption being, she’s a teenage girl, so of course she’d dislike her “parental units”), the family situation in Gravity Journal allows Gail to advance an isolated social critique far more persuasive than the typical prosaic attack on consumerism.

Like all good books aimed at younger readers—the ones I’ve read, anyway, as per Disclaimer the First—Gravity Journal disguises its intellect and its powers of social observation in a cloak of accessible language. It also succeeds as an act of printed-page ventriloquism: here I speak of the authentic flavour of Anise’s teen angst poetry, which progresses from self-hating introspection, borrowed verse forms, and crude pastiches of Shakespearean English as perceived through a high-school filter (“O, creature vexing awesome / I envy thee thy tresses golden”) until it starts to take shape as something more universal in power which Anise can call her own.

At 162 pages, Gail’s novel is as rewarding as it is quick—dare I say thin?

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2 rejoinders to “Wednesday Book Club: Gravity Journal

  1. I adore Gail Sidonie Sobat’s Gravity Journal! It’s by far one of my favorite reads of the year (of course she’s now one of my fave YA authors — and I have a special spot in my heart for YA books… especially since I’ve studied the genre in some depth over the years). Thanks for reviewing it! I still think it has been great meeting Gail Sidonie Sobat the two times that I have and being able to tell her just how I enjoyed her books. It’s odd just how many people I know who know her (and know her well).

    Saturday, 11 October 2008 at 1:11pm

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