Doubleday, 2001, 177 pages, C$22.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-50841-7
Western civilization (if there is such a thing) has a very strange relationship with cynicism. It is, for many people, a defense mechanism. A way to feel above a system in which we are all co-conspirators; a way to show how much better we are than everyone else; a way to assert that we’re better than our neighbors, our parents; our former naive selves. Pushed too far in that direction, cynicism can be over-used to disengage from the world and create a solipsist personal reality from which everything else looks stupid. And yet cynicism is necessary at a time where we’re bombarded with a web of emotional manipulation hiding commercial intent.
Yes, this is a review of John Grisham’s Skipping Christmas.
You see, it begins as our protagonists peek behind the sham that is the Christmas frenzy. Left home alone after their daughter’s departure, the Kranks make a few calculation and discover that they can afford a lavish cruise holiday as long as they refuse to spend the $6000 they usually put aside for the holiday celebrations. It means no tree, no party, no gifts, no charitable donations, no decorations.
The first reaction of most readers will be something like “$6000? That’s your first problem right there!”, but never mind: We’re in American upper-middle-class fantasy-land, here, and sympathizing with idiots is the first requirement of this inconsequential fable.
It helps that the Kranks, as stupid as they may be, aren’t the biggest idiots around: their entire neighborhood is even more moronic, exerting considerable peer pressure to make the Kranks reconsider their worst Christmas-blackout intentions. Their street is obsessed with decoration conformity; various charities are socially mugging them for money; everyone expects a party.
That first asocial section of the novel is enjoyable as long as you manage to identify with a single-income couple blowing $6000 on Christmas holidays and weeping about it. If you happen to read the novel in the maniacal run-up to Christmas Eve, part of it will make you want to cheer and say “Good for you , Kranks!”.
It’s when the plot meets a major contrivance (along a seemingly endless succession of contrivances) that things take a turn in another direction. Forced to dramatically change plans, the Kranks bow frantically to peer pressure, outspend their way into a last-minute celebration and end up saving that elusive spirit of the holidays by bowing down to the golden altar of social conformity. Minor characters provide emotional catharsis. Readers who applauded the novel’s initial cynicism are made to feel like chumps for ignoring the true meaning of Christmas.
That’ll teach you to be cynic.
So who’s the target audience of Skipping Christmas? Everyone and no one. Much like its protagonists, it tries to dismiss Christmas yet can’t help but pay tribute to it. People who love the first half may not be quite so taken by the second one (and vice-versa, although it works better in that direction). To give some credit to Grisham, though, the novel is never less than a joy to read, even if you almost violently disagree with what it’s trying to do: there are a number of good laughs here and there, and as long as you buy into parts of the premise, it’s amusing to see the protagonists flail away from Christmas, then back to it.
If nothing else, this is the kind of flawed novel that is fascinating to discuss with others: Like it or not, it features plenty of things to argue about. After all, what was the last Christmas-themed novels that gets a reviewer going about the nature of cynicism in Western civilization?
(I’ll note in passing that the movie adaptation -which I haven’t seen yet- got excruciating reviews.)