Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Proxy

Rating: 2.5 stars
Length: Average (379 pages in hardback with largish print)
Publication: June 18, 2013 from Philomel
Premise: Knox is a Patron, born to privilege and protection-- he even has a Proxy to take his punishments. When he steals or vandalizes something, Syd is beaten or given brutal manual labor in punishment. And when Syd thinks he's almost free to have his debt paid off, Knox crashes a car and kills a girl, leaving Syd sentenced to branding and over a decade in prison. Syd tries to run, but he soon finds himself caught between groups with their own shadowy goals.
Warnings: beating of children, branding, non-graphic torture
Recommendation: I'd say to just give this one a miss, but having an incidentally gay POC as one of the main characters sets this one apart from the almost aggressively white-bread vibe that threads through the majority of young adult novels. If you're going to try it, go in for Syd and try not to think too hard about the plot or worldbuilding.

Explaining the identity of the main characters would constitute major and distracting spoilers, so suffice to say that Knox and Syd are joined by an activist girl who hates the whole Patron/Proxy system.

What makes this one just different enough:

Dystopian novels are full of protagonists who live in the poor underclass and have to fight for every moment of joy they can find if they want to make it to adulthood, but Syd's situation is different. He serves as a Proxy whose debt was sold from an orphanage before he could understand himself, let alone the world. The Patron holding his debt is Knox, a careless teenager who lives for girls and drugs and pleasure. Whenever Knox does something illegal or wrong, Syd has to suffer for it in punishments ranging from simple beatings to manual labor away from school, which offers his only hope of adult escape. Syd burns with the knowledge of how unfair this is, taking each breath and realizing that his own body and blood have been bought and sold and there's nothing he can do about it. He stopped crying from the pain years ago and tries not to dwell on what he is, but the anger that drives him feels real-- he's furious about his Patron for consciously allowing him to be hurt, and he rages against the system that forces him to take the punishments he hasn't earned. Syd is also frustrated because even in this future, being gay (here called "Chapter 11" because of some ill-defined nonsense about binary numbers being the same but with no mention of Chapter 11 bankruptcy, but we ignore that) means that he's ostracized when people find out. Despite this, Syd is suffering from the high school woes of people being awful to him about his unattainable crush rather than having his issues center on his orientation, and that distinction opens up all sorts of interesting character dynamics that don't show up in YA fiction all that often.

Knox should be easy to hate, and he is at first-- he's careless and seems incapable of understanding that his actions cause Syd real suffering and that contributing to that is wrong. Alex London manages to blend the generic Disney setup of a dead mother and a distant father with Knox's very real fear of death and being alone to help make Knox's coping mechanisms understandable. That doesn't mean that they're excusable, however, and his journey into regret and understanding makes for a compelling character arc. Even while he's still being terrible or forgetting that it's not okay to laugh about a prank that earned Syd a month of hard labor, Knox has charisma and talent. His first approach to a bad situation is to try to hack his way through the nearest technology with all the grace of a dancer (there's one great scene where he actually hacks and codes to music) and if that doesn't work, he'll to try to flirt his way out of that corner. He winks when he should cower and starts flinging sass around when he should be humbly asking for mercy and forgiveness, and the blend makes it hard to look away from the chapters in his perspective. When he and Syd are comfortable enough to banter a bit, the dialogue snaps with wit even through the resentment.

Although Knox technically holds the power, he and Syd are both trapped-- Knox's father bought the contract, and there doesn't seem to be a way for Patron teenagers to just opt out of the system. Knox's father demands that he bend and behave for the good of his company's reputation rather than trying to help Knox or figure out why he's acting this way. Even at the top of the economic food chain, only a few people have power over the system that creates these divisions in the first place. Underneath contempt and control, however, Knox's father has a certain affection for his son, and that keeps him from allowing his son to die even though it would make literally ever other aspect of his life better. Other people show similar nuance-- the people who want to do the most to change the system are the most casual about the panic and loss of life it would entail, while some of those helping to hold the system together at the top are doing so predominantly to keep their own families safe. Knox ends up helping Syd at first not out of some high-minded respect for life or moral strength, but because he knows that nothing could irritate his father more. Syd just wants to be free, not to attack the system, but circumstances pull him into  fight he doesn't want. The middle of the narrative fights to establish that there are no easy answers or perfect characters, and while that bends to some extent with the conclusion, it's easy to see how people got tangled in every facet of this society without consciously choosing to prop it up.

The red pen:

Proxy's overarching problem lies in having interesting ideas for the world and the characters but in failing to give those concepts and relationships the space to grow naturally. The big sticking point for this novel is the whole Proxy system itself. Saving pampered rich kids from physical pain by having a poor person take the punishment while the rich kid watches the consequences dates back the medieval practice of keeping whipping boys. Unfortunately, the proxy system misses out on several key elements of this system. Whipping boys came about in large part because punishing the king's son was frowned upon or unacceptable unless you were the actual king, and whipping boys were selected from among the young prince's friends or fellow students. Watching a close friend who the prince liked suffer left the prince with the knowledge that this friend would still be around and hurting and potentially angry in a few days or a week, and that (in theory) made the prince less likely to step out of bounds. None of this underlying support seems present in this dystopia.

The Proxy system has poor kids who live dozens or hundreds of miles from their Patrons dragged out at all hours to be punished in front of a camera while the Patron watches. That's the only interaction they ever have. The Patron can't say anything to the Proxy, the Proxy can't look the Patron in the eye and ask why stupid pranks are worth a beating that the Patron doesn't have to take, and they certainly never get to know each other or establish a bond. Unless the Patron is already naturally empathetic, there's no reason to care or make lasting behavior changes to spare a stranger a few moments or days of pain. The Patron has no incentive to change, and the arrangement ends at eighteen, so a Patron could burn through multiple Proxies and still never make the changes necessary to live in society without killing or harming people. The idea is conceptually elegant on paper, but it doesn't solve anything, only make for a pretty narrative puzzle that collapses on close examination. Knox and Syd serve as mouthpieces and representations for their lots in life, but it's hard to see the depth of their friendship as glorious in the way that the narrative tries to present it being once they've been on the run together.

The third character in this trio is a Causegirl, someone devoted to ending the Patron/Proxy system and allowing people to succeed or fail on their own without the crippling prison of debt that glues the whole system together. Her views are complicated by the fact that she herself has a Proxy and wants to be the girl's friend, but she can only glimpse her during punishments, can only glimpse this prisoner of her conscience when she's causing the girl pain for her own misdeeds. This easily could have been one of the most fascinating parts of the book, but we barely glimpse the Proxy and have no real idea how this person arrived at her present views, given her father's wealth. She seems to exist as a mouthpiece for the overthrow of the system, articulating views that Knox doesn't like and Syd doesn't quite understand yet. She is her beliefs, not in the often fascinating sense of living them out, but in sort of an armchair crusader way. The narrative does a good job of explaining what she thinks and how much it matters to her, but there's no window into what she's done to further this cause, or what her actual plans are until she seizes on Syd. What little characterization she has centers on a largely inexplicable attraction to Knox in the pattern of "he hurt me and has despicable morals, but he's attractive and I can't look away," and there's nothing to anchor it, let along make it seem plausible.

It's hard to go into the conclusion without spoilers, but suffice to say that there's nothing about it that really pops. Syd notices a detail of his personal appearance early on, it's clearly going to be a plot point, and then it is. Syd has to give blood to Knox after the car accident, the scene isn't subtle about this being a big deal, and then it's vital later. The plot hands Syd a role to fill, he goes through a flat and compressed arc in dealing with it, and that struggle is subsumed in the almost-explosive ending. I wanted to like the way it all happens, but the elements are either nonsensical or too easy to see coming, and that keeps the ending from being as satisfying as it could be. The conclusion has plenty of drama, but it lacks weight and nuance, and it's hard to care about the character relationships when they've done little more than bicker and angst about whether they care about each other for a few days and then the narrative wants to act as though they have the most profound and meaningful friendship in the world. 

Proxy is full of interesting ideas, but the way that those ideas are executed doesn't really pass the sniff test or make for compelling reading. I might try something in a different series or genre if Alex London writes further, but the writing is just too shallow to carry the weight of the themes that the book wants to explore.

Prospects: There's a sequel called Guardian slated for a 2014 release, but no further details are apparent so far.

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~Icons does a better job of portraying people trapped in the service of a powerful system that allows some to prosper while others starve. It's not excellent, but there are some good nuggets of worldbuilding and difficult choice woven into it.
~Odds are that recommending this is a bit predictable, but try The Hunger Games, which does a much deeper job of exploring the way that individuals are forced to suffer for society, both collectively and as individuals paying the price for crimes they didn't commit.

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