I apologise if I appear to be giving some import to my own fevered speculations here, but a few weeks ago I wrote that “I absolutely commend the role literature plays in helping people, young or otherwise, make sense of the world around them, but it’s also nice that sometimes a novel about a couple of 11 year-olds solving a murder can just be about a couple of 11 year-olds solving a murder”. I referenced it once already, and now I’m doing it again. Yeesh, my ego.
Those words particularly came back to me in the reading of Feel the Fear (2014) — the fourth book in Lauren Child’s Ruby Redfort series — because I think the key reflection for me from this book is how much protagonists matter. A lot of the time your protagonist is at a disadvantage — possibly socially, possibly emotionally, certainly informationally (the guilty party knows who’s guilty, after all, yet the protagonist doesn’t to begin with) — and the sense they make of the situation (and their eventual triumph over it) is what helps drive the story and give us, the reader, a foothold in that world. The detective archetype carried this as well as any genre going: Poirot’s innate foreigness being a trait he plays up to in order to mislead the unwary, H.M.’s apparent irreverence and capriciousness suddenly being swept aside in moments of terrifying insight, Sister Ursula’s assumed innocence and ignorance being in fact simply a cover for her deep understanding of the innate evil people do — you go in at a disadvantage, never mind as well that everyone knows you’re investigating, and you use that disadvantage to your favour.
Yes, I’m getting a little philosophical.
See, because this book has a couple of problems — at a brobdingnagian 500+ pages it is waaaaay too slow, for one — but the crucial one for me was just how unlikable Ruby Redfort is as a character. Now, sure, it’s a book for kids, so it can’t be held to the same standards, yadda yadda yadda — if anything, that’s the main problem. It’s a book so at pains to shove down your neck hip and cool and disaffected and amazing and awesome its lead character is that it comes across like this weirdly posturing kid under the impression that Attitude = Adult. And so it fails on both counts for me: firstly Ruby is absolutely — boringly so — the master of every single situation she finds herself in, be it social, financial, whatever, and so there’s no tensions as well as a horrible brattish entitlement about everything she does. Secondly it’s a book for kids about being grown-up that treats “being grown-up” as the ultimate aim of anything, and yet has absolutely no idea how to Grown-Up.
I mean, how do I even begin?
Ruby Redfort is (deep breath) a 13 year-old secret agent and code-breaker employed by a top secret organisation to carry out clandestine missions as an “all-action agent”; she is unfailingly popular while also being, like, super casual about it (“She felt no motivation to be popular and, perhaps for this reason, she was. Magnetically so.”), clearly waaay too cool for the likes of you (wearing t-shirts with slogans that ache to be funny or cool and fail at either, buying a secondhand dress at — we’re told several times — a “Vintage” store because “obviously she wasn’t going to wear the dress her mother had picked for her”), fearless (we meet her walking around the outside of the 72nd floor of a skyscraper), physically preternaturally gifted (after being knocked from said height she catches hold of a window-washing gantry with all the casualness most of us unlock a door — though this might also be a result of Lauren Child’s four-paces-removed disinterested tone of writing), comes from an absurdly wealthy family and so has access to everything and of course disdains this because she’s so cool, and on the subject of being cool — and, please, try to get this character off the subject of being cool — she only likes and knows cool old films and talks like a Chicago gangster from some idealised 1920s Dick Tracy never-never land: everyone says “shoulda” and “oughta”, and of course all her cool friend talk in the same hip-cool idiom
“Clancy not here?” whispered Red.
“He had to smile for his dad,” replied Ruby.
“That kid’s gonna dislocate his jaw one of these days.”
“Tell me about it,” said Ruby
I don’t think I’ve ever disliked a protagonist as much as I disliked Ruby Redfort. Yes, fiction is free to tell whatever story it likes, but this aching desperation of over-reaching for cool so hard in every single line is awful. Watching an over-privileged smart-ass float through life because everything is handed to her on a plate and she need never accept any responsibility for her behaviour is a weird platform to sell your book on. Man, even that retro-looking Polaroid camera on the cover of the book irritated me, because of course Ruby Redfort wouldn’t use a traditional camera (though she’ll also have a spy camera that’s far hipper and more fabulous than anything you’ll ever have access to, obviously).
And the most irritating this about this is how consequence-free it is. There’s no larger point made about being an asshole and how that doesn’t pay off; if anything, her apparent fearlessness is addressed in a very back-handed way, and really only goes on to make her even more fabulous. The only time she’s ever called up on her smugness, she has arrived late to a medical appointment to have the cast on her arm removed — she was too busy buying that dress from the Vintage shop, and buying a cool old paperback to sit in the sun and coolly read, and ditches the taxi she takes there without paying having spurned the chauffeur-driven car laid on by her impossibly-wealthy father…gleeps, I hated this kid — and is sarcastic because someone dares not drop at the feet of her obvious hilariousness and brilliance. The medic who removes the cast tells her that she “might want to relax that attitude of yours, it’s not good for your future health”, and Ruby is blithely dismissive and carries on about being a little shit to everyone she encounters.
I think this especially bothers me because I work with the very people who are its target market, and as an aspirational model it’s providing a hideous, undesirable, and unattainable standard on just about every front. Be attractive. Be popular. Be rich. Definitely have access to stuff. Be athletic. Be snarky. Be inconsiderate of the efforts and perspectives of others. Don’t allow for criticism of your decisions or actions. Be right in everything. And definitely be cool. Obviously no-one else’s opinion matters so long as they’re of the opinion that you’re cool. Jeez, Mary-Sue called and even she thinks this is overdoing it.
Because it seems to me that no lesson is learned here. After having the cast removed, Ruby is put through a test by the super-secret organisation she works for and — after making a series of calls that see her go about almost everything in the hardest way, swim through “toxic waste”, and grab hold of and carry round a “bomb” she still refuses to accept that she did anything wrong. And, in all honesty, this is where it really starts to feel that Lauren Child is deliberately trying to mine some sort of zeitgeist of This Is What The Kids Think Is Cool, even to the point where conversations in text suddenly devolve into scripts:
Hitch rolled his eyes. “Good going, kid.”
“OK, OK,” said Ruby, gathering up the pens and plonking them back in their pen pot. “Don’t have a total baby about it, man.”
HITCH: “It’s not me who’s going to have the “baby”. Mr. Barnaby H. Cleethorps is a very particular man.”
RUBY: “What’s he gonna do? Dangle me out of the window by my toes?”
RUBY: “Boy this guy must really like his pens tidy!”
Et cetera, et cetera.
So why, you wonder, did I persevere? Well, there was a promise of a seemingly-impossible disappearance of a valuable movie prop which can be summed up thusly:
RED: “Anyway, somehow someone got the Yellow Shoes out of the locked case and out of the locked room, past the security team, up the stairs, and out of one of the several exits. But what no one can figure out is how that person got into that room in the first place…”