June 9, 2007

Book review: "Little Children," by Tom Perrotta

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Little Children
Tom Perrotta
St. Martin's Press / ISBN: 0-312-31571-6

For better or for worse, there are a small collection of writers out there who can be called "movie authors," for lack of a better term; those who have had multiple novels adapted into films now, because of writing screenplay-friendly books or having an amazing agent or whatever the reason. And as far as the traditional literary world, these writers can be found scattered all the way through the food chain: from those who are highly respected in the academic community (like Michael Cunningham, for example, author of both The Hours and A Home At the End of the World), to those whose books can scarcely be called literature in the first place (like Ira Levin, author of the "screenplay novels" Sliver and Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives and The Boys From Brazil...whew!), to of course all the Stephen Kings and John Grishams and Michael Crichtons of the world, who have an odd mishmash of both mainstream and literary audiences.

And it might surprise some, but I'm actually a fan of several movie authors; I mean, you know, as long as you take them in the right context, and understand that the books are pretty quick reads that lend themselves to simple scripts, there are actually some pretty decent writers out there who happen to have had several manuscripts that have been shipped off to Hollywood. Take Tom Perrotta, for example, author of Election, which was made into a highly successful movie in 1999, and was in fact arguably the film that turned Reese Witherspoon into a bona-fide star; and whose book I just happened to read a number of years ago on one of those dreary Saturdays we have here in Chicago, where you want to do nothing more than read random books for free for eight hours in one of those superstores while lounging around their cafe, thin books that you would never want to actually spend money to read. And Election, to tell you the truth, turned out not only to be a lot better than I was expecting, but so much different than the movie; the original novel is quite the serious drama, as a matter of fact, not the farcical comedy the adapted screenplay turned out to be. I mean, don't get me wrong, both versions are entertaining; just that the book has a gravitas I wasn't expecting, a much darker and more pessimistic outlook towards humanity, that I really respected after thinking it was going to be a goofy Hollywood-friendly comedy.

Little Children, by Tom Perrotta

So when I learned last year that Perrotta was also the author of Little Children, made recently into an Oscar-nominated drama starring Kate Winslet, Jennifer Connelly, Jackie Earle Haley and others, I ended up jotting down the title in the back of my Moleskine notebook, under the perpetual "Books to Someday Get Around to Reading" list; and lo and behold, it showed up on the shelves of my neighborhood library the other day (go Uptown Branch!), so I checked it out and just now got finished with it. And I gotta tell ya, I haven't seen the movie yet, but once again the book was much better than I expected it to be, although it definitely has its flaws, and is also much blacker than I thought could be made into a popular Hollywood movie. So now I'm thinking; did they tinker around with the story yet again when it came to the film? Damnit, now I'm going to have to rent the movie and find out! See how they suck you in?

Little Children, in fact, is no less than an indictment of the entire suburban structure in the United States; not just the surface-level "my God, aren't we all bland and terrible" platitudes of an American Beauty or the like, but in fact an existentially terrifying tale of just what a bleak and soul-crushing environment such a place is from the ground up, a place that runs off failed dreams and dashed hopes much as a car runs off gas. Or to be more specific, it's the story of a series of couples in suburban Boston, most in their early- to mid-thirties, all of whom have children as part of their lives -- there is Sarah, for example, a frumpy bisexual radical feminist back in college who has somehow now found herself the owner of both a kid and a ranch house; her significantly older husband Richard, who left an existing family ostensibly to start a new life, then ended up exactly repeating the one he previously had; Todd, a neighbor, an impossibly good-looking frat-boy stay-at-home dad who all the neighborhood women call "The Prom King;" his wife Kathy, a frustrated documentary filmmaker who wishes to God that Todd would just finally pass the bar and start practicing law; and of course Ronnie, the convicted child molester who's now living back at home with his screeching deluded mother.

Yeah, that's right, the convicted child molester, who Perrotta goes out of his way to show is clearly guilty of the crimes he'd been convicted of; this is but one of many early clues in Little Children of just how dark the story is to eventually get. Because man, I don't know what the suburbs ever did to Perrotta, but he's got it out for them, and no one who ends up voluntarily living there gets off the hook; from page 1 to page 355, nothing but pain and misery and heartache happen to every single character, punctuated with several bouts of false hope just to make things a little more depressing than they were. I love it! Because I don't want there to be any mistake; I believe that a lot of enjoyment can be had from reading an extremely dark story, as long as it's well-written too, and as long as you understand that the enjoyment is a quieter and more contemplative one as well.

Because ultimately Perrotta has some really good points to bring up in the book; about just what kinds of bad decisions people can make when in hopeless situations, and how the situations and decisions then feed off each other in a vicious downward cycle, with your life getting worse with the surroundings and your surroundings getting worse with your life. In fact, this is actually a stumbling block I had at the beginning of the novel, in that some of these people just make some of the stupidest, most immature decisions you've ever seen: how Todd starts secretly blowing off his bar studies to join an evening football team mostly consisting of cops; how Richard starts becoming obsessed with an internet porn star named Slutty Kay; how Ronnie's mother tries setting him up on a blind date through the paper's personal ads. "God, they're acting like such kids!" I'd think to myself while reading these early chapters. All of these hopeless, sad people running around these endless cul-de-sacs, who actually have the answers to their problems staring them right in the face, but who lack the drive or courage or ambition or whatever to do the hard work necessary to see those solutions through. What a bunch of spoiled little children!

And then it occurred to me -- the title of the book isn't referring at all to the fact that children figure prominently in all of their lives; it's that all the adults we encounter in this story are in fact still acting like children themselves, and that it's this soulless suburb they're all in that's helping and encouraging the entire thing. And in that respect, Little Children elevates itself above the usual easy observations and cardboard moralizing that most artistic projects concerning The Bad, Bad Suburbs espouse; in Perrotta's world, weak personalities and bleak landscapes form a symbiotic relationship, with neither being that bad on their own but the combination fatal. He's not saying that everyone who lives in the suburbs is evil, nor that everyone who lacks willpower or a sense of maturity is evil; just that when you bring the two together, it's a volatile mix that can lead to incredibly destructive results. And not only that, but that weak people are naturally drawn to such an environment, like an addict is drawn to an enabler, and there's a very good reason why we see so much of this kind of behavior out in the suburbs to begin with.

Like I said, I'm looking forward to seeing the movie now; because frankly, I can't even imagine an Oscar-nominated, profitable Hollywood film that takes such a literal stance as the book form of Little Children does, and I'm half-convinced at this point that the screenwriters simply must've taken it down a couple of notches when it came to the adaptation. Like I said, it does have its faults, mostly technical ones that relate to it being a Hollywood-friendly book in the first place -- way too much exposition, for example, way too much dialogue, visually striking images placed randomly into the text not for logic's sake but for the eventual filmmaker's. That said, though, it's certainly a much better book than I was expecting, although now that that's two in a row, I won't be keeping my expectations that low about Perrotta anymore. He's definitely more of a Cunningham than a Levin, and I'm looking forward to checking out more of his work when I get the chance.

Out of 10:
Story: 9.0
Characters: 8.5
Style: 7.1
Overall: 8.3

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 8:48 AM, June 9, 2007. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |