This entertaining story takes place in a future after “the ice melted and the waters rose, after the wars and the fires and the plagues that collapsed the old civilizations.”
The main protagonist is sixteen-year-old orphan Sydney Carton. [The names are a riot; orphans are given monikers taken from a database of “ancient” literature.] Syd is a poor kid who is allowed to abide in the slums, albeit at subsistence level, by taking on the role of “proxy” for one of the rich “patron” kids who live in the luxurious city. Whenever patron kids misbehave, proxy kids pay the price, whether through serving hard labor for a stint, or getting zapped by a taser, or other punishments. This service pays off the “debts” to society of the have-nots for funding their existence.
Orphan kids never had any say in these contracts; nevertheless, they were bound to a patron in theory until the age of 18. [Just the rescue from being an orphan costs ten years of service. Other charges are incurred for foster care, a data tracking system in your bloodstream that is required, schooling, and so on.] The patron kids watch the punishments on video. Therefore Knox, also 16 and Syd’s patron, is very familiar with Syd, even though Syd has no idea who Knox is; he only knows that Knox is spoiled and irresponsible.
[Back to the character names, it is possible they are also meta-proxy-aptronyms. That is, an aptronym is a name that suits the owner’s traits or personality, such as a parsimonious man named Mr. Tightwad or a puritanical girl named Purity or an orthopedist with the moniker of Dr. Bones. The name of Sydney Carton references the character of that name from the Dickens classic A Tale of Two Cities. But it is Knox who is most like that book’s protagonist, not Syd. I can’t imagine that choice wasn’t made without a deliberate sly wink by the author.]
Syd lives in the backroom of an illegal repair shop run by Mr. Baram, who is like a father and mentor to Syd. Syd spends time with his BFF Egan and is generally looking forward to the day he can be free of his contract, when everything changes for the worse. Suddenly, Knox has been declared guilty of theft, trespassing, destruction of property, and homicide, and Syd has to pay the debt, the payment for which he may not survive. Syd has got to get away, and the only person who can help him is, ironically enough, Knox.
What I liked about this book:
I not only liked, but loved the way gender preference was portrayed. The hero, Syd, is gay, but he is also mechanically talented, loyal, softhearted, has brown skin “the color of dark beer” and so on; his sexual orientation is just one of the many aspects of his persona, which confers a normalcy on it that is refreshingly welcome.
There are a lot of references to the Judaism of the Old Testament in this book that are also in the background but add some interesting depth. First of all, there is the primary story arc, the designation of a proxy, or scapegoat, to pay for the sins of others. Although modern stories, such as The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman, have picked up this theme, it is first reported in long, gory passages in Leviticus, in which the laws of “sin offerings” are laid out in great detail. Second, this whole dystopian society is based on a contractual agreement, just as the Jewish faith is based on the contract that Abraham made with God. In Genesis 17, we learn that God is making a covenant not just between Himself and Abraham, but between Himself and all of Abraham’s descendants.
They are bound to this contract from birth, even though they had no say in this deal whatsoever. Essentially, this is the basis by which Jews became the “chosen” people. Similarly, Syd finds himself bound to an agreement made for him that, by “choosing” him, took away any choice of his own.
Moreover, like another one of Abraham’s descendants, Syd is called upon to take on the role of a savior, a role he is not ready to accept. And in yet another referential plot line, the rebel force in this dystopia uses as their rallying cry another concept from Leviticus, that of Yovel, or Jubilee. This refers to the commandment that, as the character Mr. Baram explains, “every fifty years, all debts were to be forgiven, all slaves were to be freed and all property returned.” No wonder this was a compelling rallying cry for the proxies. It is also notable that the rebels are called “bandits.” “Bandit” was the term used for revolutionaries in Judea at the time of Jesus.
There are some very astute political observations in this book, such as:
(1) the way in which the “haves” encourage internecine conflict (via the mechanisms of greed, job scarcity, racism, etc.) among the “have-nots” to keep them from “looking too far up in the direction of the skyscrapers and the private communities.” This age-old tactic which has always been used to great effect in the United States is also used with great success in this future dystopia;
(2) the idea that “truth” is a commodity that can be bought; [even now, the U.S. Supreme Court is the focus of a battle over whether money can be counted as speech, because it has so much effect on what gets broadcast and what doesn’t. (See, for example, this article by U. of Chicaco Law Professor Geoffrey R. Stone on the subject.)]
(3) the insistence that perception can create reality; if you are brutal but wear an expensive suit, you are viewed as an executive at the top of society rather than a street thug at the bottom.
There is some very deft writing, such as this lyrical phrase: “the impossible metaphysics of dreaming.” And this terrific description of friendship:
“They stuck together. They looked after each other and fought with each other and fought for each other. They told each other their plans and their dreams and their secrets. Some of them were even true. They were, in short, best friends.”
There are clever tropes: biological Easter eggs; the unexpected usefulness of a useless antique “ancient plastic pen”; the Woody Allen-esque very funny idea that in the future, all of what we thought was true would be turned upside down. In Allen’s 1973 parody Sleeper, the owner of a health food store is cryogenically frozen in 1973 and defrosted 200 years later in a police state. In one of my favorite scenes, doctors are discussing how weird this man from the past is:
“Dr. Melik: This morning for breakfast he requested something called “wheat germ, organic honey and tiger’s milk.
Dr. Aragon: [chuckling] Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.
Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or… hot fudge?
Dr. Aragon: Those were thought to be unhealthy… precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.
Dr. Melik: Incredible.”
Similarly, in Proxy, Mr. Baram serves an organic berry drink to rich patrons Knox and Marie, and Knox shuddered at the idea of eating anything “organic”:
“The word conjured up disease and poverty, the riot of jungles and the desolation of deserts. City life was designed, organized, clean, and controlled. Knox loved that about it. It was completely human.”
Evaluation: I loved this book. Can’t wait for the sequel!
Published by Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group, 2013