Friday, March 18, 2016

The Price of Perfection

I first heard about The Nest back in December, at a workshop I attended in Bangor. I knew it involved winged insects, and it did sound a little creepy, especially after I started imagining swarms of wasps all over the place. I put it on our purchasing list, and it recently came in to be processed and shelved.

It was quiet in the library that day due to a 7th grade reading lock-in, and the unusually quiet environment just allowed my imagination to conjure up vivid images from the narrative I read. And, even if my imagination hadn't been working so well, the illustration by Jon Klassen are haunting and would definitely help in that area.

Of course most people are familiar with Klassen's picture books like I Want My Hat Back and Extra Yarn; his illustrations in this novel still have the same whimsical quality, but a much darker tone.

The story, for being a gothic kind of sci-fi, is surprisingly straight forward. Steve has a new baby brother. The baby was born with many abnormalities, which naturally causes much stress on the parents, and tension in the family. Steve begins having dreams about ethereal beings, which he assumes to be angels, but he later learns are wasps. The wasps speak to him this way, making reassuring promises in soothing tones, affecting him as pheromones would. They ask him if he would like them to fix his brother, and he agrees, thinking that his prayers have been answered.

But it's not that simple. Nothing is ever that simple. Steve comes to learn that by 'fix', they mean replace. They are growing a replacement baby in their nest. The Queen's narrative voice is especially cutting, probably because she doesn't mince words about how selfish humans can be:

"People lie and say they don't want perfect. But really they do. Perfect bodies and minds and comfy chairs and cars and vacations and boyfriends and girlfriends and pets and children. Above all, children. Why do we lie and say we don't? Because we're afraid people will think we're mean or vain or cruel. But we all want it."

And isn't she right? I mean, how easy would our lives be if everything was perfect. If our cars never needed to be repaired. If our pets never got sick. If we never fought with our boyfriends. If we never gained weight around our middles, or our hair never grayed? If our children never got ear infections, or threw temper tantrums in the middle of a store, or never failed a class in school or lied to us, or made us question every single parenting decision we've ever made?

But what does perfect mean, and what does it cost us? Steve begins to find out, and the action that develops is reminiscent of Jonas's realization regarding the fate of babies who are 'released' because of their failure to thrive. 

"Who wouldn't want a perfectly healthy child? And a very, very clever one! The IQ of this one here is going to be off the charts! A baby who won't get sick. And won't be anxious. And won't feel lonely or depressed Someone who's fearless! And courageous! It's what every parent wants. It's what everyone wants."

Imagine if you never had to sit up all night with a sick baby. Never had to wake up, get down on the floor, and lift up the dust ruffle to show your three year old, for the thousandth time, that there are no monsters under the bed. Never had to go to a parent-teacher conference about the math class your middle-schooler is failing. Never had to listen to your teen tell you about the fight she's in with her best friend, or snoop through her room for clues about why she started wearing all black recently.

What are we willing to do in our quest for perfection?

Kenneth Oppel's book brings up relevant questions about diversity and disability, two concepts which make us very, very uncomfortable when we put them into context with historical events such as the Holocaust or Geraldo's expose of the Willowbrook School, and realities which have become so common that we accept them without question, like the barrage of blood tests and sonograms that pregnant women undergo, screening for physical deformities or chromosomal abnormalities that assure us our baby is 'normal."

It's not quite science fiction, but there's definitely a dystopian undertone

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