They say it’s for your protection. First, it’s the increase in metal detectors. Then, the search and seizures. Random drug tests. Censored books. After the tragedy, you hear that it’s time to begin “the hard work of healing and recovery. Working through our fear and grief. And in the process maybe giving up some of the privileges that we may have taken for granted.” Across the parking lot you see that, “The whole length of the yellow bus was covered with a sign bordered with black and purple and lettered in big black block letters: WE WILL NEVER FORGET.” After the Columbine High School massacre, measures were taken so that public high school students in the United States would never forget.
The constitutional rights of public high school students have always been in limbo, with school authorities wielding enormous influence over the sentencing and punishment of student infractions. The clash between the curmudgeonly principal and the rebellious student—whether Holden or Ferris—has become part of popular mythology. However, the punishments never seemed too severe. Sure, you’ll be thrown in detention, but at least you’ll get to bond with that goth girl you’ve always wanted to talk to. After Columbine, in affluent suburban communities across the United States, the stakes got higher; cutting class is one thing, mass murder is another. With the fear of copycat crimes, public high schools, under the name of security, increased their surveillance. Support groups, security cameras, and searches were added to high school mythology: Ferris never had to randomly piss in a cup. Yet, the effectiveness of these measures was largely unchallenged or unheeded; the rebellion was silenced.
In After, Francine Prose attempts, and largely fails, to capture this dystopic mood. In the novel, Central High School, in small town western Massachusetts, is experiencing the reverberations of the recent school killings executed by two boys and a girl at nearby Pleasant Valley High School: they never thought it would happen here. Immediately after the Pleasant Valley massacre, Central brings in Dr. Willner, a grief and crisis counselor who usurps the role of principal and begins the crackdown on high school civil liberties. Yet, Central High School is, ironically, located in the sort of town—populated by ex-hippies, artists, and academics—filled with enough Concerned Citizens that would object to the increasingly draconian school measures instituted by Dr. Willner. This is only one of the many paradoxes that will occur in this frequently illogical novel.
Unfortunately, we must view the forthcoming events not through the eyes of one of these citizens—a viewpoint that Prose more obviously identifies with—but through the perspective of Tom, a sophomore at Central High School. Tom, a member of the “Smart Jock” clique, is the archetypal good kid: not popular enough to have been one of the targets of the killers, but also popular enough not to be targeted as a killer. He is a member of that apparently growing segment of the teenage population that actually likes their parents. Needless to say, he is no Holden Caulfield: “I liked being in Holden’s brain, hearing his private thoughts. But my life was completely different from his. I had friends, I liked my dad. And I hadn’t really hated school until after Pleasant Valley.” But after being in Tom’s brain, one wishes for Holden’s. Tom’s private thoughts never get any more insightful than this observation: “I’d never seen Brian cry before; I didn’t think he ever did. But I suppose that everyone does. It just takes something sad enough.”
Perhaps some of this patronizing tone can be excused by After’s classification as a Young Adult novel, Prose’s first. It is a genre whose main characteristics appear to be excessively wide line spacing and a tendency towards over-earnestness. However, Prose forgets that in school, young adults learn how to read. I agree with Tom when he says that, “I knew what deleterious and condone meant. It was totally insulting that he thought he had to translate all the big words for an idiot like me.” Unlike in Prose’s earlier Blue Angel, where she was successfully able to satirize the speech and conduct on college campuses, in After, Prose’s attempts at replicating teenage lingo and behavior are strained, to say the least. Tom speaks less like a teenager and more like an adult who thinks he’s hip to what the kids are saying these days. And, according to Prose, they say “dweeb,” “earth to dad,” and “dude” a lot. Of course, their teenage activities are restricted to going to the mall, watching MTV, and playing video games. Yet, the teenager deeply interested in civil liberties would probably rather be reading Noam Chomsky—and would never be caught dead reading a Young Adult novel.
After suffers from the same sort of easy characterization that afflicted Blue Angel, with its caustic deconstructionist, angsty creative writer, and austere gender studies professor. In After, we get, among others, Becca Sawyer, the goody-goody who Tom will fall in love with, and Tom’s pothead friend Silas, with his insightful comments. However, Prose’s too obvious characters extend beyond the teenage realm. This predictable characterization is most blatantly depicted in Dr. Willner. In the novel, Dr. Willner becomes the locus of terror; it seems as if all decisions regarding school security are only his to make. He is the one who outlaws students from wearing the color red and makes certain students mysteriously disappear. Dr. Willner is, in addition, a horrible husband to his mousy wife and reminds Tom of a “demon robot.” In effect, Prose makes Dr. Willner into Dr. Evil. Yet, this caricaturization obscures the systemic nature of the problems and makes the implausible, and dangerous, insinuation that if only Dr. Willner were gone, the good old days would come back. While it would be more complex, and in some ways less fun, to write about the evil school board, the gravity of the situation the novel focuses on calls for more than movie villains.
Prose’s heavy-handedness is again evident in the most substantive portion of the novel: the civil liberties crackdowns. The students first notice the metal detectors that they have to pass through in order to get inside the school. Then the random drug tests, “TV” on buses (which lead Tom to this predictable Orwellian revelation: “Now we stared up at the TV, and I had the strangest feeling. Namely, that it was watching us.”) and disappearing students transpire in rapid succession. The hasty piling on of these measures, however, elides the more insidious methods by which these changes usually occur. Prose favors the sensational and explicit over investigating the potentially even more unsettling effects of the seemingly prosaic; the more outlandish measures in the novel, such as the outlawing of wearing red, make comical a situation that should be taken gravely. The novel, with its too strained realism and too outlandish exaggeration fails, then, to work as an effective dystopic satire.
Instead, the novel functions more as a reminder of Prose’s own liberal sympathies. She folds in tangentially related matters that apply to teenagers such as the sending of students to Operation Turnaround—a place where students spend “fifteen days in the desert with a thermos of water and some crazed, goofy ex-marine barking commando orders at you.” The inclusion of this detail feels, again, more like unsurprising satire. It is easy to laugh at the old squares who say things like, “Music such as this leads to harder music, and no one needs to be reminded of the degree to which rap glorifies handgun use, the murder of innocent policemen, sex, and violence against women,” but Prose’s undemanding handling of these subjects too easily passes over the critical, and often detrimental, influence of these squares; she provokes laughter and nods instead of jolting disorientation and action.
It is less surprising then that even when Tom exclaims that, “I really couldn’t see where any of this was going, except toward some totally fascist system I didn’t even want to imagine,” his subsequent reaction is to become basically inert; the students in this novel neither think globally, nor act locally. Yet, Tom’s own notions of fascism and freedom are a bit limited as well. For Tom, freedom basically meant when “you got your license at seventeen.” His idea of action is to incessantly repeat how the situation reminds him of Invasion of the Body Snatchers; I ended up wishing that Tom watched just a little bit more television so he could at least use another reference.
Perhaps the most damaging effect of these security measures is the way in which they form their own subtle curriculum, working to manipulate students into becoming complicit with questionably effective “utilitarian” policies—an education that apparently continues into adulthood. Tom’s dad ruminates: “`And then what do we do?’… `Have meetings? Form a committee? Take it to the school board and get told to mind our own business? Or maybe bring it all the way to the Supreme Court, hire expensive lawyers and invest tons of money and time?” Yes. But instead, after Tom’s dad finally realizes the severity of the situation, what do they do? Tom, his family, and selected friends take off in their minivan of white flight in order “to find a place where we could live, where we could still be happy.” With their reductive resignation, Tom, and this novel, will not be missed. It is more important what happens after. To the young adults: drop this book and pick up a pen.