Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Winner's Circle: The View from Saturday, by E.L. Konigsburg (1997)

Fairly or unfairly, I think we often judge a book by a familiar author by different standards than we do one by someone unfamiliar. We may be surprised by greatness or incompetence once, but after that, we come to expect it.

I thought about this a lot as I struggled to figure out exactly how to evaluate The View from Saturday, the 1997 Newbery winner by E.L. Konigsberg. How much of my reaction, I wondered, was based on the knowledge that this was from the hand of the same person who produced From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler?

That was a book that I read and loved for its inventive setting and clever puzzles. The View from Saturday, by comparison, I found a frustrating climb with very few handholds. Where Claudia Kincaid, the protagonist of the earlier novel, was a believable and resourceful heroine, the four children in The View from Saturday seemed like cardboard cutouts. Nadia, in particular, seemed more like a construct than a character, and as a reader, I never felt like the four sections narrated by the children were told in a child's voice, even allowing for the fact that child narrators in literature often need to display a bit more sophistication than is likely. The adults weren't a lot better -- the way that Mr. Singh shows up at the end to provide some deus ex machina insights seemed to me especially grating.

Similarly, the puzzle in From the Mixed-Up Files was fresh and interesting. In The View from Saturday, the novel's structure itself is a puzzle; it starts in media res, then intercuts the action at the Academic Bowl with stories told by the four children, before moving into flashback and then catching up to its beginning. There are reasons to play with narrative structure -- When You Reach Me is a fantastic example of a book that uses its structure to deepen the sense of mystery. But there was nothing in The View from Saturday that required a nonlinear structure, especially since the mystery at its heart -- why did Mrs. Olinski chose these four children for her team? -- never felt all that compelling to me.

Also, for a book set at an Academic Bowl, it has something of a loose grasp of trivia. The climax of the book hinges on the question, "In what work of fiction would we meet the original Humpty Dumpty, and who wrote it?" Mrs. Olinski's team, unlike their opponents, know that it is Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, as opposed to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. However, the first printed reference to Humpty Dumpty is in Gammer Gurton's Garland, an 1810 collection of songs and poems for children, and the character achieved great popularity through George L. Fox's performances in the Humpty Dumpty pantomimes in the 1860s. Carroll's book may possibly have been the first novel to feature H.D., but it seems unfair to give him credit for creating a character that has its own Roud Folk Song Index number. And if this seems like churlish nitpicking on my part, consider that Julian manages to successfully challenge the judges' ruling and assert that the word "tip" (as in gratuity) is an acronym that has entered the English language as a word (it originally standing for to insure promptness) -- despite the fact that no less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary had concluded by 1989 that this was a completely false etymology. (It's actually a word that comes into the standard language via rogues' cant, which is at least as interesting.)

Would any of this have bothered me as much if I wasn't expecting greatness out of Konigsburg? It's hard to say. But I don't think it's a particularly good book, and I certainly wouldn't have given it the Newbery, even in a year that didn't produce many "classic" titles.

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