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Book Review: Goodhouse

By (October 1, 2014) No Comment

Goodhousegoodhouse cover
by Peyton Marshall
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014

The undergirding premise of Peyton Marshall’s debut novel Goodhouse is stated fairly plainly by young James, an orphan in the late 21st century who’s been transferred to something called a “goodhouse”:

Goodhouse had come out as an idea – a program meant to map the genetic profile of prison populations. What the researchers found was this: The worst inmates, the most impulsive, the most violent, the least empathetic, all shared certain biometric markers. But these were prisoners. They cost the state millions of dollars to warehouse every year. And they’d been children once. They had not always been beyond help. It was too late for adults, but young boys were different. They could be molded, instructed, taught. If intervention occurred at an early age, they could be salvaged.

This little synopsis takes place within paragraphs of the book’s opening; it’s a fast and no-nonsense table-setting – so fast, indeed, that any reader familiar with YA dystopian fiction will automatically start looking for the hook, the catch, the wrinkle. Surely, they’ll say, it can’t really be that simple?

It’s that simple, and from that premise anyone who’s even remotely familiar with Divergent or The Hunger Games or even The Giver (and dozens of others following the same floorplan) will immediately be able to guess virtually the whole of what Marshall means to show them in Goodhouse. James will possess a hidden iconoclasm; that iconoclasm will bring him to the attention of repressive adult authorities; he and his new friends (one male and less attractive than himself, one female, nervy, vaguely damaged but also potential girlfriend material) will be hounded into heroism, and that heroism will end up shattering the broader social status quo. These novels are invariable carpetbagger science fiction, conceived and written by authors who neither like nor read the genre – and so, they’re invariably borderline-execrable when it comes to what science fiction authors refer to as “world-building.” Case in point: the paragraph quoted above represents just about the long and short of the world-building going on in Goodhouse – that, plus the weather’s bad.

Instead, we get something as predictable and primary-color as a city streetlight pattern. James understands that he’s “part of a lucky percentile”:

… the ones who were given a new life, the ones who could be remade from the inside out. And so I’d grown up reading only Goodhouse-approved books, practicing Goodhouse-approved meditations. I’d watched endless instructional videos showing us the lives we could potentially lead – orderly, right-thinking lives.

He and the other Goodhouse boys are microchipped, and their Proctors “stalk the aisles” armed with “real guns,” and James is “waiting for my real life to start” in a world where “a student’s status level at graduation controlled all his options and freedom. I’d heard rumors of graduates who lived off the grid, who lived in the drought country, in the Midwestern towns that had been deserted by the middle of the twenty-first century.” Again, you read lines like that and promptly start looking for the more that you’re certain must be there. You look for some awareness on Marshall’s part of the staggeringly derivative nature of what she’s writing, or at least the standard contradictions in it (James, a boy who grew up reading only Goodhouse-approved books, is capable of effortlessly non-indoctrinated observations: “We drove to an upscale gated community called Meadowlands,” he tells us at one point. “There were no meadows in sight. Presumably, the development had obliterated its namesake.” Sure sounds like a beaten, brainwashed young man), but there’s no hint of that awareness at any point in Goodhouse, which is just more of the same kind of post-Boomer parental fantasy wish-fulfillment, where all organized hierarchies of learning or social indoctrination are de facto evil and repressive, where the young heroes achieve their destiny not by learning anything or exercising any self-control but rather by focusing on doing exactly what they feel like doing, inherently, thoughtlessly – and where that turns out to be not only entirely right but world-changing. Like so much YA fiction, it’s written not for young adults but for their overbearing lawyer parents who don’t know anything at all about young Lincoln or Kennedy’s favorite music, favorite books, favorite TV shows, or eye color, but who’ll instantly sue any high school teacher who dares to assign them homework and insist that it be done on time and as instructed. Those overbearing young parents read books like Goodhouse (and write them) in order to validate exactly the kind of anti-intellectualism that’s been making the American educational system the laughingstock of the Western world for the last ten or fifteen years.

Goodhouse itself is inoffensive, although the ecstatic blurbs praising it for its brilliant prose are inscrutable. No, the real alarming dystopia exemplified by the book is its larger classification: Farrar, Straus and Giroux isn’t calling it YA fiction even though it manifestly is, and bookstores will be shelving it in the New Release section of adult fiction even though it doesn’t belong there. Perhaps it should be microchipped.