Whip-smart dialogue and an inside look at the seedy underbelly of reality TV come together in this critically-acclaimed debut perfect for fans of Unreal, John Green, and Frank Portman.
Witty, sarcastic Ethan and his three best friends are students at Selwyn Arts Academy, which has been hijacked by For Art’s Sake, a sleazy reality-television show. In the tradition of Ezra Pound, the foursome secretly writes and distributes a long poem to protest the show. They’re thrilled to have started a budding rebellion.
But the forces behind the show are craftier than they seem. The web of betrayal stretches farther than Ethan could have ever imagined, and it’s up to him, his friends, and a heroic gerbil named Baconnaise to save Selwyn.
An Excerpt fromThe Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy
O Selwynfolk! In days of old,
Ideals were high and art was bold.
In that primeval solitude,
We sketched and sang, our crafts pursued.
But now, we watch TV. We’re screwed.
After the fiasco that was my introduction to long poems and revisionary mytho--uh, mythowhatchamacallit--I knew I had to pay attention that Friday when BradLee lectured on Ezra Pound again. Despite any stunning reason not to pay attention that may have been sitting across the U of desks, pointing and flexing her feet.
“Pound and the Imagists decided on three principles,” said BradLee. I perked up. I could get behind anybody who knew the importance of threes.
“First, direct treatment of the subject. Second, use of no word that doesn’t contribute. And the third has to do with rhythm. Instead of writing like a metronome”--BradLee beat his desk--“ ‘All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players,’ Pound wanted to use rhythm the way it’s used in a musical phrase. Can anyone explain that?”
Rummica Fitzgerald raised her hand. She would. She plays the flute, and she likes everyone to know that she gets music, she’s one with it, melody is her soul. Rummica said, “There’s still a beat, but there might be four sixteenth-notes or just one quarter note.”
“Excellent,” said BradLee. “So there could be four quick syllables in a beat or one longer one. You guys need any of that repeated?”
Of course we suck at taking notes, so he had to say the whole thing over again.
“Pound later described his method of ‘luminous details,’ ” said BradLee. “Instead of abstractions and adjectives, he selected crucial details. Revealing details. Honed, chiseled images. He didn’t want commentary or philosophy.”
BradLee scrawled luminous details on the board.
“He wanted good art. He wanted beautiful art. ‘Beauty in art reminds one what is worth while,’ he wrote. ‘I mean beauty, not slither. I mean beauty. You don’t argue about an April wind, you feel bucked up when you meet it.’ ”
BradLee flipped on the projector. “Here’s an example of an early Imagist poem. Pound stepped off a train in the Paris Underground, and he saw one beautiful face after another. He worked on this poem for a year, class.” There it was:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Beauty, not slither. Luminous details. I don’t even like poetry and I just stared. Everyone was either spacing out or awestruck, which look basically the same, but I knew Luke was on the awestruck side too.
We’d planned to hang out later at the Appelden, so I went home for a couple hours. “I’m going for a run,” my dad announced.
“Not outside,” said my mom. “The wind chill’s negative six.”
“Treadmill?” said Olivia hopefully.
“Guess so,” said my dad.
“EARTHQUAKE BABY TIME!” the triplets shouted as one.
“Come with us, Ethan,” ordered Tabitha.
I complied. It was Friday afternoon; it wasn’t like I had anything better to do. And Earthquake Baby is a tradition. While my dad moved the ironing off the treadmill, the girls arranged me on the dining-room floor.
“Good morning, baby!” said Olivia.
My dad ratcheted up the speed. The room began to shake.
“EARTHQUAKE!” they shouted.
“You are supposed to cry, baby,” Olivia told me.
“Shut up, baby,” said Tabitha. “I will feed you breakfast. Down the hatch!” I automatically opened up, assuming her spoon would be empty, but then I gagged.
“What the heck? What was that?”
“Babies can’t talk,” said Olivia.
“Okay, but what was in that spoon? Do I need to call the poison hotline?”
“It was Barbie hair,” Lila informed me.
“No, it was breakfast,” said Tabitha.
“And besides, babies can’t talk,” said Olivia.
My dad had reached cruising speed. The floor was really vibrating. “EARTHQUAKE!” they yelled again.
“Mommy!” I wailed. “Want my mommy!”
“We are in charge,” said Olivia.
“Mommy got tilled,” said Lila.
“Was she lying in a field or something?” I shot my dad a look, but he was too busy gasping for air to appreciate my quick wit.
“No, dummy,” said Tabitha. “She was in the house. The ceiling fell on her head. She got tilled.”
“You mean killed.”
“That’s what I said. Tilled.”
I wiped the spittle off my face. “Daddy! Want my daddy!” I cried.
“Daddy got tilled too.”
“Did he drop dead of a heart attack?”
“Not funny, Ethan,” managed my dad between huffs and puffs.
“And before they got tilled,” continued inexorable Olivia, “they said that you had to do everything we say.”
“Maybe we should evacuate.”
“You are a baby. You are not allowed to talk.”
Go ahead and dog-ear this page if you’re the type of person who’ll be like, “Why does Ethan spend all his time with his friends instead of in the bosom of his family?” After enough seismic activity to flatten San Francisco several times over, I struggled to my feet (“BABIES CAN’T WALK, DUMMY!”) and headed to the Appelden.
We were an artists’ colony,
Not some outpost of kTV.
We saw the world through the same lens,
Together scorned all mindless trends,
As tinkers, tailors, soldiers, friends.
I guess you already know that Jackson Appelman is eccentric. He’s also persistent. He makes these resolutions--e.g., on Thursdays, he takes notes in binary code--and then he sticks to them. Even when they turn out to be stupid. Do you know what it takes to write “long poem” in binary code? Here ya go: 011011000110111101101110011001110010000001110000011011110110010101101101.
Both his eccentricity and his perseverance come straight from his parents. Case in point: when they were first married, the Appelmen adopted a beagle named Pickles, and then decided to name all their future pets after condiments. And they like pets a lot. Twenty-five years later, most of the normal names have been used up on dead animals and they’re down to the dregs.
Three pet names that work:
1. Chutney the Angelfish.
2. Wasabi the Ferret.
3. Baconnaise the Gerbil--my suggestion: my favorite condiment for my favorite Appelpet. Baconnaise is the man.
Three pet names that are just unfortunate:
1. Fish Sauce the Cat.
2. Catsup the Other Cat.
3. Honey Mustard the Golden Retriever. Seems like a cute name, right? Well, try yelling “Honey Mustard” every single time you’re trying to get him to go outside or eat his dinner or remove his snout from your crotch. You can’t call him “Honey” and you can’t call him “Mustard,” because those are both among the dear departed who now reside in the necropolis next to the basketball hoop, and all three Appelmen get teary and sentimental if their names are accidentally mentioned. Frigging annoying.
Jackson resents that his dad’s name is Jack (get it?), but I think he should be grateful that he didn’t end up as Pesto, or Watermelon Rind Preserves.
That night in the Appelden, Luke and I sprawled out on the old camelhair couches. I was giving more attention to Baconnaise than to anyone else. He likes to chill on my neck, but if I forget to give him the occasional finger-stroke he’ll make a break for it down my shirt. Luke was petting Honey Mustard, who was purring like a cat.
Jackson sat in front of one of the computer monitors playing Sun Tzu’s Art of War, using one of his lesser avatars so he wouldn’t compromise his uber-powerful guy. (He only plays that guy under conditions of total focus: between midnight and 4 a.m., parents asleep, the only light being that which emits from the screen.)
“Luminous details!” said Luke. “I’m obsessed with luminous details. I don’t know how Ezra Pound exists in the same world as the kTV people.”
“He doesn’t,” said Jackson. “Pound’s been dead for like forty years.”
In my Baconnaise haze, it took me a minute to orient myself in the conversation. Oh, right, English class. Petals on a wet, black bough.
“The sentiment stands,” said Luke. “He cared about art for art’s sake. The kTV people, conversely, name their show For Art’s Sake yet care about nothing but money. It’s immoral.”
Baconnaise, roused by the voices, was now running laps around my neck.
“It’s not supposed to be art,” I said. “It’s entertainment.” There he was, ranting on about For Art’s Sake and Pound again.
“Cat-piss, Ethan. It’s all about the arts. We go to an arts academy. That’s the whole premise of the show, kids trying to make it in the arts. But the kTV people don’t care about art at all.”
“I get it.” I yawned. I couldn’t help it. Baconnaise felt the tautness in my neck and paused, alert. I ran my pinkie down his spine. He’s the smartest gerbil I’ve ever met.
“Elizabeth wants to come over,” said Jackson, looking at his phone.
“So invite her over,” said Luke.
“So why are you telling us?”
“Luke, snap out of it,” I said. “It’s a stupid TV show. They’ll be gone next year.”
“You think they’re going to settle for one season? This is minting money.”
“It’s high time you learned some tricks, buddy,” I told Baconnaise. “Pretend my fingers are a tightrope.” He navigated it no problem.
“Someone should put a stop to it. It’s ruining our school. Selwyn’s becoming a kTV colony. An outpost in the wilderness, for them to observe and profit off. It’s disgusting.”
“Did you ever talk to Wyckham about your article?” Jackson’s fingers were tapping the arrow keys with a pianist’s dexterity. A horde of invading Mongols bit the dust. Duh, I thought. That’s why Luke’s still upset. I felt like an imbecile for forgetting.
Luke sighed. He grabbed a tuft of Honey Mustard’s fur and tugged. “No.”
“Because Wyckham’s a charlatan.”
“Define for the masses.” That was me.
Elizabeth came in, almost blinding me with her highlighter-yellow sweatpants, and fell onto the other couch. “Talking about Wyckham, are we?” she said brightly.
“How’d you guess?”
“It’s the particular blend of revulsion and impatience. Like you’re hungry, but there’s a big old hairy wad of gum on your fork.”
“He’s not trustworthy,” said Luke.
“That’s because he’s Coluber’s pawn,” said Elizabeth.
I tried to exchange a look with Jackson, but he’d turned back to Sun Tzu’s Art of War.
“Exactly!” said Luke.
This was the look I’d wanted to give Jackson: Crap. Elizabeth is going to second all of Luke’s anti-administration, conspiracy-theory, paranoia-sparked thoughts about why his article wasn’t published. We’ll never have a normal conversation around here.
“I mean, half the faculty are his pawns.” Elizabeth flopped onto her back, as gracelessly as a dying fish, and shoved her hands through her hair so her dreads fanned out behind her.
“It seems worse with him.”
“That’s because he’s giving Coluber power over the Selwyn Cantos. Which is--slash would be--the only free expression left for us.”
“Wow, I’m so glad you’re here,” Luke told her. This was why he was so well liked. He thought stuff like that, and then he said it. I imagined telling Maura Heldsman what I was thinking. She’d walk into English. Maura, I’m so glad you’re here. I needed someone to stare at while this strand of drool bridges the gap between my mouth and my notebook. Baconnaise cuddled up in my Adam’s apple and I felt sorry for myself.
“There’s an unspoken rule that any article written by a page editor is published. Plus, this was good.”
“Let me read it,” said Elizabeth.
Luke gave her the printout. Meanwhile, I rummaged in Mr. Appelman’s knitting basket and found a length of yarn. “Baconnator,” I murmured, excavating him from his warm little knoll, “it’s time for circus camp.”
“You’ve got to do something,” said Elizabeth seriously. She folded the article into an airplane and winged it back to Luke. “You’re the only one who sees this situation clearly.”
“Thank you,” said Luke.
Jackson dispatched a sinister cadre with two keystrokes. I tied one end of the yarn to the couch leg, just a few inches above the floor. Baconnaise wavered, but managed a four-inch walk. “Not bad, not bad,” I whispered.
“I’m going to write a long poem,” Luke was telling Elizabeth.
I’d heard this one before. Now Baconnaise could handle eight inches of tightrope without one tremor or false step.
“Long poems are the way for the oppressed to voice their identity, to reclaim their culture. And we are the oppressed.”
Elizabeth was listening intently.
“We’ve been denied our voice. I want to reclaim it. I want to present our culture, our milieu, our Selwyn. I’m going to play up the neglected characters. Those of us who aren’t pretty enough for the show.”
I glanced up from the floor. I’ve already explained about Luke. As for Elizabeth--I mean, usually I think of her as my friend, as Jackson’s utterly asexual cousin, and honestly, I rarely even remember she’s a girl, but, like, objectively speaking, she’s got keen eyes and wild hair and some not insubstantial curves in the chesticular region.
It wasn’t prettiness that kept Luke and Elizabeth from For Art’s Sake.
“I’m going to deflate the ones who’ve sold out.”
“Please deflate Miki Frigging Reagler,” I said. “Pop him like the hot-air balloon he is. If I have to walk into bio one more time and see him practicing his shuffle-ball-change . . .”
“This will be the anti-FAS.”
“Very cool,” said Elizabeth.
“Hey, speaking of FAS.” I motioned to the TV with my head. I couldn’t move my hands because Baconnaise was negotiating a three-foot tightrope.
“Groan,” said Elizabeth. “Friday night. Nine p.m. It’s time for the requisite viewing.”
“Must we?” said Luke, even as he pulled the remote from Honey Mustard’s mouth.
“We’ve bought in,” said Elizabeth. “As has the entire school. You might love it, you might hate it. But you watch it.”
You know the lock scene? The one that made Maura look so sweet, Brandon so romantic? I couldn’t believe what they did to it. I was appalled.
This episode started the same way they all did, with a long zoom onto the three judges, Trisha Meier and Damien Hastings and our principal, Willis Wolfe, sitting at a shiny table on the Selwyn auditorium stage. Trisha made some irritating joke about how cold it was, and Damien jockeyed for airtime with his own dumb joke about moving the school to “Cali.”
They talked up the prizes. They brownnosed their sponsors. “Remember,” said Trisha Meier, “these ten young artistic geniuses are fighting tooth and nail to win an all-expenses-paid trip on Amber Airlines. . . .”
Insert product placement. Trisha misused “literally” twice. Willis Wolfe kept plugging the importance of arts education. Damien shook his gelled head like a pony.
“Besides a guaranteed signing with an agent, the winner receives a trip to LA and a spread in La Teen Mode,” he said. “Also, a scholarship of one hundred thousand dollars, redeemable at any arts institution and provided by Collegiate Assets, the way to help you save for school.”