Razorbill, 2004, 225 pages, C$25.00 hc, ISBN 1-59514-000-X
At this point, I don’t have to be convinced anymore that Young Adult fiction can be just as enjoyable than adult fiction for older readers, but Scott Westerfeld’s So Yesterday clues me in that there are some issues that are best discussed within the frame of a YA novel.
I’m not necessarily talking about novel about specifically teenage issues. Obviously, YA is a natural choice for discussing first loves, teen angst, coming-of-age narratives or high school odysseys. But there are issues of universal importance that are best tackled by teenage protagonists.
The issue of cool, for instance.
Or, more specifically, the issue of how cool is identified, formalized and marketed to the population at large. How individual quirks can be marketed as counter-cultural icons and end up defining a demographic category. How culture is co-opted for strictly commercial goals, and how the landscape of our identities is shaped by other people. This is the kind of material that is important to all of us, no matter our age, gender or social demographic. But if you’re going to look at cool, what better protagonist than a teenager whose quest for cool occupies a significant chunk of his life?
Meet Hunter Braque, New Yorker. His job is to spot the new trends, and report them back to his employers. If something new walks down the streets of the Big Apple, it’s up to him and his colleagues to pass it along so that marketing directors and ad agency designers make use of it. From New York to the rest of the world is just a matter of data transmission: It’s not a stretch to say that Hunter has the power to alter culture around the globe.
But it’s not his job to worry about such things. He’s just supposed to live in the city and report on the new things that catch his eyes, snapping pictures along the way. Occasionally, he’s asked to comment on ad campaigns or walk around to demonstrate fancy new products. But everything takes a strange turn when his boss is kidnapped and he discovers a well-orchestrated marketing effort whose goals he can’t understand. A lavish launch party turns surreal when the invited jet-set is drugged and provided with party gifts of unexpected capabilities. Who’s calling the shot? And what are they selling?
If you’ve read at least one issue of Adbusters magazine (and you should), you will figure out that Hunter has fallen through the rabbit hole into the plans of a few culture jammers. The mystery soon turns to thriller as Hunter is chased for having discovered too much. Along with a few friends, Hunter is stuck between curiosity and paranoia as he comes to realize how cool is manufactured…
As a YA thriller, So Yesterday isn’t without flaws: There are questions raised about counter-culture financing that the novel never bothers to address, even when the answers would have been even more thematically pernicious. But on a surface level, this is a quick and efficient novel that rushes through a number of good ideas, features compelling characters and has more on its mind than a simple adventure through the streets of New York City.
By its nature as a YA novel, talking to readers whose identities are directly shaped by marketing forces, So Yesterday also manages to tackle its themes in ways that are far more intriguing than any adult novel may have been able to do. That’s quite an achievement, and it’s a good lesson for writers who may be tempted to submit a YA book proposal. In retrospect, the thematic links between So Yesterday and Cory Doctorow’s acclaimed Little Brother (also concerned with teenage cultural sedition) are intriguing, and quite specific to YA. You won’t find quite the same stories in adult fiction; why not see for yourself if what the kids are reading is all right?