Sunday, October 3

oh my goth - Gena Showalter

Though there are many types of Goth ("cemetery... Oriental, diva, dark fairy, Kindergoth, Egyptian... punk... vampire..."), they have their individuality in common, and they scorn the sheep-like mainstream. Jade Leigh dreads conformity more than anything - her friends feel the same way, and external pressure to make them abandon the clothing and ethos they embrace causes them only to cling harder, regardless of whether it's from parents, peers, teachers or school administrators.
Being different certainly comes at a high cost - from the scorn of jock star Bobby, who she crushed on for years, to the uncompromising ill-favour of her teachers, and the disapproval of her widowed father, the only people in Jade's life who accept her for who she really is are her friends. When a clash with her trig teacher sends Jade to the principal's office one time too many, Jade expected consequences, even if Mr Parton's treatment of her was totally unfair. What she didn't expect was that her universe would be turned upside down, nor that the only other person aware that everything was now wrong would be her arch-enemy, Barbie girl and Miss Popularity Mercedes Turner. As Jade battles against her popularity, including the more seductive aspects of unearned approval, Mercedes struggles with her abrupt transition to outsider status and near-universal disapproval from the cohort who were once her more adoring friends.
I liked the concept behind oh my goth, of an alternative universe were being Goth was the norm and all the things that set Jade apart before were now the very things that made her popular. Yet, as I read I found myself feeling increasingly detached from the novel; a little reflection allowed me to recognise that this was due, at least in part, to the expectations I didn't realise I had about where Showalter was going to take the novel. The universe inversion mechanism (induction of a virtual reality by a discredited scientist) was fine, and certainly able to be incorporated into the suspension of disbelief inherent in the premise, and it gave Jade and Mercedes a reason to work together, but I didn't buy that they were able to interact with each other and a third character, nor that the time they spent in the VR world was shorter than in real life, nor that it occurred to neither of them that the drug-enhanced alternate reality would need to be monitored by someone, who would then be well aware of the escape plans they made.
But I could have overlooked that had the novel itself been more substantial. I'd hoped for something that dug into the deeper aspects of popularity, non-conformity and peer pressure, particularly regarding teens. Instead I found oh my goth to be disappointingly superficial, starting with Jade herself, whose first diary entry bemoans appearance-based judgement but on the very same page judges the "Barbies" at school. Her raison d'etre seems to be individuality for the sake of it, but her style is purely reactionary rather than reflective of what she wants, and designed purely to proclaim that she is a non-conformist.
Jade's friends are still outcasts but now dress in preppy and pretty outfits and are branded trouble-makers by adults, while police and other authority figures wear black eyeliner and darken their hair. For me this undermined any actual individualism the Goth characters may have had - Showalter seemed to be saying that unequal power structures with exist in all high schools, with the majority following trends like sheep and picking on the outliers, who in turn bring it on themselves by being different only for the sake of being different.
Jade's mother died in a car accident two years earlier, in the midst of teaching Jade how to drive, with the dying words "... stand up for yourself... Be strong. Be brave. Be you." It wasn't clear in the text if Jade was already Goth, or if her interest in the macabre and in death started then, but it's hammered home through the text that she took this call to individuality to heart. What could have been a powerful event, though, felt to me as though it had been included to add depth to Jade, and failed in the process.
Jade's father, like every character in the novel, is barely two-dimensional - he seems to have no understanding of why Jade is traumatised by the idea of driving, or why she might be preoccupied with death, instead fixated on the way she dresses. He's also, it transpired through the novel, in a relationship with Mercedes' mother, a relationship that apparently pre-dates the death of his wife, and which is part of the reason for Mercedes' intensive dislike of Jade. Yet somehow this significant aspect isn't addressed.
And that's really emblematic of the novel in toto for me - there are opportunities to explore issues in some depth, but instead only the most superficial and hackneyed messaged are conveyed: popular guys can screw you over, Barbie clones can have intellect and insight, judging by appearances doesn't necessarily tell you what's going on with someone, and walking in someone else's shoes can give you an idea about their reality and allow you to transcend the barriers you imposed. Oh, and some discussion about how the different kinds of Goth vary would have been nice - all we got was that cyber goths are lovers "of all things futuristic," which is surely a simplification at best.- Alex

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