Saturday, 2 February 2013

Maggot Moon, by Sally Gardner

This book is undoubtedly one of the most outstanding and real examples of dystopian fiction I have ever read. If not for its recent win of the Costa Children’s Book Award I probably wouldn’t have picked it up as neither the title nor the cover gave much indication of the hidden gem inside - but thank goodness I did.

Maggot Moon is the story of one brave boy - or one unlikely hero - standing up for the truth he believes in. Standish lives in the Motherland, a country with a ruling system reminiscent of a blend of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. It is 1956 and his government is on the verge of sending a man to walk on the moon. Or are they? Standish may be ‘impure’, an orphan, and virtually illiterate, but he sees more than they (the Greenflies, the soldiers, a man in a long leather coat) think he does, and his story gradually reveals both the ways of his world and what could be the greatest conspiracy theory of all time.

This is fiction writing at its absolute best. Sally Gardner’s writing is subtle and detailed yet simple and straightforward, and her characters literally leap off the page. Her language is effortless, switching from the simple to the intense and full of intent, with sentences like “Doubt is a great worm in a crispy red apple.” (pg. 72) There are themes of desolation and the moon, of rockets and space flight, and of other worlds - worlds with Croca Cola and Cadillacs. And the publishers have added an ingenious extra touch in the form of a flip story running across the pages featuring flies and maggots and a rather curious rat - sounds a bit gruesome I know, but it adds a fascinating extra dimension to the reader’s experience - and I know there’s a metaphor in there somewhere, but I haven’t quite put my finger on it yet.

After Standish’s best friend Hector disappears, he begins to wonder how on earth he’s going to get through his day to day life. Hector was both friend and protector - now Standish is exposed again, vulnerable to the bullies who populate his school. But he won’t have to worry for long: a trip to the headmaster’s office sets off a series of events in a tumbling snowball. Or is that where it begins? Perhaps it began when the football went over the garden wall? Or maybe when Hector first arrived next door? What soon becomes apparent is that it’s up to Standish to show the world what’s really going on. Does he have the courage?

Standish’s actions and the quality of his character (despite his not-very-inspiring introduction of himself) have gotten me thinking about what it means to be a hero. At the start of his story, Standish makes himself out to be the kind of person least likely to become a hero. Essentially he is the runt of the litter, the bottom of the pile, but he gradually reveals himself to be entirely different to how others view him, entirely different from the person he at first seems to be. This is why I would describe him as unlikely hero, although when you actually start to dig deeper, he does actually possess - right from the beginning - the makings of a hero. But what actually makes a hero a hero?

My faithful dictionary says a hero is:
1. a man of distinguished bravery and strength; any illustrious person
2. a person who is venerated and idealized
3. in fiction, a play, film, etc: the principal male character or the one whose life is the theme of the story
4. originally a man of superhuman powers; a demigod

Do these apply to Standish? Some yes, others no; in truth, though, this simple definition doesn’t feel like it fully covers the extent of Standish’s bravery or the meaning of what he does. He and his actions are worth so much more and encompass so much more than a dictionary definition can credit. For a more refined idea of the hero, I'm led to Joseph Campbell. In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces he lays out the typical hero’s journey, which seems to get a little closer to Standish’s truth:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Another big theme of Maggot Moon is that of acceptance. Firstly, Gardner’s story got me thinking of the 1990s film Wag the Dog, where a politician recruits a spin-doctor to create a fake war in Albania, thus distracting the media from the politician’s troubles. Its a film that I remember for the way it highlighted the power of the media - creating its own version of events, it showed our willingness to accept what we’re told without question. This idea is perhaps a natural reflection of the dystopian world - you can see it loosely in books like Matched and The Hunger Games - but in Maggot Moon it is really crisp and clear.

“You didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to see who the real idiots were here: Hans Fielder who believed he was destined for greatness, along with his merry gang. They were all bleating sheep, the whole maladjusted lot of them. They never questioned anything.” (pg. 72)

Although marketed for teens Maggot Moon crosses so many boundaries and contains both writing and storytelling of such quality that I would recommend it as enthusiastically to twelve year olds, fifteen year olds, twenty year olds, sixty years olds, and on and on. It is dystopia in its purest form, and stands alongside classics such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World - a good introduction to teen fiction for the younger generation, or a natural stepping stone between The Hunger Games and more adult titles. True class.

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