Outside the Box

Repost from old blog, 9/26/2006

I just finished a book, The Girl in the Box by Ouida Sebestyen. I suppose it could be considered a teen novel, and from what I understand a lot of teen girls read and were freaked out by it around the time when it was published in 1988. The jacket is beautiful in its way [and the cover displayed above, though similar to the original design, is not the same. The original is an illustration, not a photograph, and is much darker and more expressionistic], perfect in its design, and it would fit comfortably on the shelf next to V.C. Andrew’s Flowers in the Attic and Morton Rue’s The Wave, though I’m not sure I could explain why (something to do with perfect cover designs, explosive subject matter, and nostalgia). It definitely runs laps around both of those books, writing-wise.

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It is written from the point of view of the titular character, who has been kidnapped for reasons and motives she cannot understand, and finds herself in a completely dark, small underground room with a typerwriter and a ream of paper. Thus what we are reading are ostensibly the notes she has written – it’s even done in a typewriter-ish font. I love books like this – books that 1) are told in the first person and 2) are presented as artifacts, or with a guise of realism that plays with the idea of whether it is fictional or not (there’s a word for this that escapes me, though I’m sure I came across the idea while reading about the whole lonelygirl15 saga).

Plus I really like trashy teen novels.

But this is not trashy, not at all, and that’s one of the first things that surprised me about it. Another thing that surprised me was how realistically it dealt with her situation of being held captive and alone in a small room – eating, drinking, shitting, hallucinating, the fear of being sexually violated (basically all the things you wouldn’t expect to find in a teen novel) – are all explored. I should probably quit calling it a teen novel, because even though it is written in a simple and straightforward manner, it could be enjoyed by anybody.

Another thing that surprised me – and this is a minor thing in relation to the novel, but a significant thing to me – was this sentence (she is describing her situation in a “letter” to her best friend and referencing her favorite English teacher):

Didn’t Miss Flannery say someone thought “cellar-door” was the most beautiful word in the English language, or something like that?

Now if you’ve seen Richard Kelly’s film “Donnie Darko” this should be immediately recognizable. In a classroom scene, Drew Barrymore’s teacher writes “cellar door” on the chalkboard and says more or less the same thing. It was one of the more intriguing scenes for me in that movie, mostly because of the mysteriousness of it. “Cellar door” is a very evocative phrase and it worked well in that really evocative movie – it seemed like this random touch of strangeness and beauty, something that really couldn’t be explained, could only be felt.

Adding to this, The Girl in the Box wouldn’t seem out of place in the world of “Donnie Darko,” firstly because the movie is set during the time when The Girl in the Box was written (one of my other favorite details in the film is during the first music tracking shot, when we see Donnie’s mother reading Stephen King’s IT, a perfect period detail that sets a dark, nostalgic mood).

But the themes of The Girl in the Box also fit with “Darko” – both are dark tales about characters who come to terms with the realization that their fate is completely out of their control.

Basically, they’re both coming-of-age stories.

That’s where The Girl in the Box saved its biggest surprised for me – this is a coming-of-age story, a story of enlightenment even, about a girl trapped in an underground cellar. I wasn’t expecting that – just like I wasn’t expecting Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank to be so incredibly life-affirming and beautiful.

The Girl in the Box presents a lot of great philosophy and ideas, and I’m kind of struggling to keep hold of them all, but one thing in particular came up for me tonight when I was sitting at the bus stop park and ride, which is where I go to watch the sunset sometime. I had just been listening to Galaxie 500’s album “On Fire,” which I’ve been doing a lot of lately. I’m listening to it right now in fact.

The album has become something of my autumn soundtrack, there’s a definite autumnal sound to the thing (even though I understand it was recorded in the summer, which is fine fine fine and if I listened to it more in the summer I’m sure it would have always seemed summer-y to me, but whatever). The cover of the album, in fact, looks like just the color of the autumn sunset I was looking at when I was sitting at the bus stop.

I was listening to the music in my head, thinking how much I was enjoying re-creating it in my mind, not like when a song gets stuck in your head, the hook hooking its claws into your skull and driving you crazy.

Now I love pop music, and I love a good hook maybe more than anything. But the fact of the matter is, when I listen to The Killers’s album “Hot Fuss,” I’m stuck with that fucking album in my head for the next two days, until I’m ready to drive a knive thru my skull. Another example: there is this guy Justin Roberts who my boyfriend’s five-year-old daughter enjoys. We just bought a copy of his album, and there’s a song on it that I really dug the first time I heard it, but later in the day I was feeling nauseous, and that song would just not quit – all of us were singing it uncontrollably, and it was driving us nucking futs. It was literally making me ill, when just an hour ago I’d been loving it.

Galaxie 500, on the other hand, took me some time to warm up to. I wondered if I was forcing myself to like it because it was considered good, rather then just liking it immediately as I do with some other, easier music.

But there is a need for music that you don’t immediately “get,” just as there is a need for movies that don’t immediately make sense (and I’m thinking of “Donnie Darko” here, but also of Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls,” but that’s a mental riff for another day), just as there is a need for anything mysterious or in need of exploring. It keeps us going, keeps us interested, keeps us questioning, keeps us alive.

From The Girl in the Box:

All my life, I guess, I’ve been afraid of changes and what they’d take from me. I wanted everything safe and permanent and explained. I tried not to think about things that didn’t have answers. Like dying or anything deep like that. But actually when you look right at it, dying’s not all that earth-shaking. It happens every second, to grass and people and insects and sounds and everything lucky enough to have lived.
So I’m trying not to be scared anymore. I know changes are how we grow. I accept that there are things that can’t be explained by facts and figures. Maybe aren’t even supposed to be.

This, from what I thought was going to be a trashy teen novel! The end took my breath away with its audacity, the whole thing bowled me over with its insight. Highly recommended.